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Notes from the Esther Perel Seminar

By Ellie Muska, LCSW, Faculty Member, New Jersey Couples Therapy Training Program and the Center for Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis of New Jersey

On December 6, 2009, the New Jersey Couples Training Program and the Center for Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis in New Jersey invited Esther Perel, the author of Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic, to speak about Attachment, Long-term Relationships and Erotic Life.

Ms. Perel set the tone for the day by inviting the audience to be in conversation with her about her thoughts on the nature of erotic desire in long term relationships. She was a dynamic speaker, riveting at times, and kept the discussion lively and real.

Ms. Perel defines herself as a clinician and cross cultural psychologist. She was born and raised in Belgium and although she currently practices in New York City, she conducts therapy in five different languages. She began her career with a keen interest in the subject of cultural transition, especially pertaining to refugees, internationals and mixed couples. She was interested in what it means for child rearing and couple relations for these groups. She specifically asked questions such as, who owns the sexuality of women and children; how were gender roles affected; and, what place did the role of the body have in times of cultural transitions?

The nature of desire in long term relationships, according to Ms. Perel, constitutes the need to manage tension and paradox. In monogamous relationships, partners look to one another for security, stability, nurturing and predictability. However, in the sexual relationship, partners need to be able to enter into the realm of adventure, spontaneity and novelty. In the former there is great security in knowing who my partner is and what to expect from him/her. In the latter, one needs to toss aside the predictable and embrace the mysterious and unknown in the partner in order to stoke the flames of sexual passion. This can be quite a paradox. She poses the question, “Can you want what you already have?”

Ms. Perel defines eroticism as “sexuality transformed by imagination.” She asserted that you don’t even need the act of sex in the erotic experience. Sex is limited by what takes place, yet, eroticism is infinite in that it is anything that drives the experience of pleasure for its own sake. It is totally unproductive and always involves a relationship with another. It is plural in the sense that it can involve a solitary person with his/her own internal objects or engage other adults. Ultimately, eroticism is the socialization of sex.

She notes that most of the theoretical and clinical theories about sex take the approach that the sexual relationship be seen as a metaphor for the relationship in general. She sees the sexual relationship not as a metaphor for the emotional relationship, but as a separate narrative. The emotional plot and the sexual plot within a relationship are not one and the same. In the emotional, we need to understand words; whereas, in the sexual we need to understand how our bodies speak; hence they speak with different languages.

Many people assume that passion is something that fades away over time and is replaced by something more enduring. She sees passion as something that is enduring in itself. It is a loss of control, a tremendous force which involves, to some extent, a fearless encounter in the dance of intimacy. This makes romance riskier with the person you depend upon. So, intimacy does not necessarily beget sexuality. The challenge for modern couples is the need to negotiate predictability and surprise; to keep both elements alive within the monogamous relationship.

In order to explain how the erotic has come to be in conflict with the domestic in modern relationships, she turned to a socio-historical perspective. Before the Industrial Revolution we lived in communities and there was not a sense of the individual. We were defined by belonging, where the entire tribe was involved in feeding its members; hence, the availability of a large network of emotional and social resources for all tribal members. There really was no need for a sense of self or individual choice. Eventually, as a result of the Industrial Revolution, we began to move into cities, which were much more isolating and eventually birthed the nuclear family with the rise of individualism and the concept of self. Relatedness became communicative and discursive. Couples began to look to their partners in order to reveal their inner lives and define their selves, while needing to trust the other with this type of vulnerability. There developed an expectation of shared empathy for this type of sharing. Relatedness became a vehicle to resolve existential anxiety by giving each partner the confidence that he/she mattered and was significant. It is here that intimacy becomes enshrined and inadvertently creates a problem with desire. One person is now expected to meet all the needs that were once provided by an entire village. Ms. Perel believes we are being crushed by this demand, which has resulted in a greater valence given to the erotic relationship.

Ms. Perel’s objective in her therapy with couples complaining of low sexual desire is to work with them to connect to and understand the narrative of their erotic selves, a much different process than focusing on techniques. She says that the erotic can be the receptacle for fears, wishes, desires, motivations and delights arising early in life and it is this that gets translated into the erotic language. She says, “Tell me how you were loved and I will tell you how you make love.

She uses a developmental, attachment framework to illustrate the development of this narrative. She refers to what I think of as both Bowlby’s observation of attachment and Mahler’s definition of the Rapproachment stage. Here, the toddler needs a secure base before he can explore the world at large. If the toddler feels that Mother is there for him, then he can move away from her and explore, periodically returning to refuel and re-establish the bond. If Mother remains a safe, unambiguous base, then the toddler will be able to move into the world without conflict. If the Mother is not comfortable with letting her toddler separate, then he will hesitate to move away, either by clinging to Mother or always looking over his shoulder as he moves away. The need to separate and connect becomes fraught with many possible layers of tension and conflict. Ms. Perel takes this developmental need and shows how it gets translated into the erotic life of the adult. In exploring the adult erotic mind, giving it words and expression within the therapeutic setting, these experiences get illuminated and the needs of each partner get expressed in a caring and accepting manner. Her goal is for each partner to come to know the erotic mind of the other, not in order to fix something (conflict, trauma) but in order to experience the mystery and adventure of the erotic life within the couple.

She sees the emotional history of each partner as translated into the physicality. Fantasy, according to Ms. Perel, is “the transposition of emotional needs into sexual activity.” She does not look for answers or to solve a problem, but encourages an on-going dialogue, with words in the therapy, and with the body in the privacy of the bedroom. She looks to free the partners to be able to find expression in a safe but risky manner so that desire may flourish.

There were some questions from the audience about the traumatic getting replayed within the erotic life of the couple, especially when the fantasy being explored is an expression of one or both partners’ trauma experience. Ms. Perel shared that she felt when one takes a traumatic event and acts it out as a sexual fantasy, it is not necessarily a repetition compulsion, but could actually be a turning of “tragedy into triumph.” She went on to say that we can only ask for certain things through sex because it becomes a way to have our needs met without threatening a regression. I think what she means is that if a regression was triggered in the acting out of the sexual fantasy, then it would be a retraumatization. But if someone’s sexual fantasy involved elements of the abuse he/she suffered and the couple could safely incorporate that into their sex life without a regression, then there could be pleasure for the couple and perhaps even some healing. This would have a positive impact on the trust in the relationship; and, I believe, has the potential to impact the couple positively in their overall experience of connection.