In her book “Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic intelligence” Esther Perel writes about “reconciling the domestic and the erotic.” For some reason, our society has decided that marriage isn’t sexy, and as Perel describes, fantasy sex seems to be waiting at the sidelines of monogamous relationships. The central question I appreciated in her book is about whether or not couples can keep sex exciting as we become more familiar with our partner. Her ideas are thoughtful and insightful, and could be useful for many couples who face challenges in their sexual relationship.

Perel describes the basis of a healthy erotic relationship is balancing needs: stability, continuity permanence, control, security; vs. change, novelty, excitement, strangeness. Seemingly, the two sides of the spectrum are:

distance and maintaing strangeness from your partner

VS.

intimate knowledge and emotional understanding of the other.

 This is a mental process of acknowledging and accepting that your partner is different, that you never fully “have” them or know everything about them, and that you can’t always anticipate their needs; they need to tell you, and you need to show/tell them. Separateness is part of what the initial excitement of hooking up with another person is all about. As Perel puts it, “separateness is a precondition for connection.” However, practicing this awareness and exercising emotional distance requires security with your partner. So couples don’t estrange their partners, I say they should feel emotionally secure with themselves and each other, as I believe emotional distance can also compromise a couple’s erotic experience.

Perel explains that the erotic requires psychological/emotional distance from your partner. This fits with ideas about embracing the difference between yourself and your other. Erotic isn’t just doing what will please your partner; it is getting into it for your own self-interest, and incorporating your own ‘x-factor’ fantasies. Risk looking animal, own what you want, and practice the autonomy of your unique sexuality.

I’ve seen couples compromise their own needs/desires for safe, consistent, tried and true sexual patterns, or even conforming to what they think their partner expects from them. That is, we may go so far as to have the same sex every time as a way of doing “what works.” But to re-introduce the erotic into sex, I suggest you may have to risk trying something that could fail. Ask yourself, how much uncertainty can I tolerate? Your answer to this question may have something to do with your comfort level with novel sex. And although novel or awkward sex might throw you off, the beauty of a committed relationship is, you get to try again.

I also think we may compromise the sex that is possible by refusing to plan it. Perel writes about how sex in committed relationships often requires planning, and couples shouldn’t resent this. I often talk with people about the necessity to create opportunities for sex to happen. Perel identifies the forethought we put into sex “happening,” early in the relationship, by the messages we send the other throughout the day/week before a date. Dinner, theatre, drinks, make-out hill, etc. are all usually planned in advance, regardless of what stage your relationship is in. I would caution people against feeling pressure to perform or even to feel the need to take it “all the way,” but Perel has a point: “great sex generally demands more than fifteen minutes right after the eleven o’clock news.” Becoming comfortable, or worse, complacent in a relationship can compromise the effort we put into making great sex happen. Be courageous, risk planning something where your partner can anticipate romance.

In order for all this to work, however, I recommend couples secure their emotional intimacy needs first. The attachment we form with our intimate partners is the basis on which sexual exploration develops. Don’t strain an already tenuous connection by trying to create some distance, before feeling safe and secure in your emotional attachment with your partner. Stay tuned to my next blog for ideas about how feeling secure with your partner can be the basis for sexual exploration.

Perel’s book is a fresh perspective on many factors that compromise the quality of sex in committed relationships. Other ideas addressed include maintaining sexuality when you become parents, and throughout the various roles we hold in our evolving adult lives. I recommend this book to couples questioning if love can stay erotic, and to those who are willing to try something new.

Read:

Perel (2006). Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence. HarperCollins Publishers. New York, NY.

Photo Credit: Prayitno, www.flickr.com/photos/prayitnophotography/