Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic, by Esther Perel. Originally published in 2006. 272 pages.
Chapter 6- Sex is Dirty: Save It for Someone You Love
The subtitle of this chapter is “When Puritanism and Hedonism Collide”, which bugs me because it continues the myth of the Puritans as a repressed people who hated sex and all things sexual. While it’s absolutely true that they shunned and condemned extra-marital sex and fornication) as the illicit acts that they are, the Puritans had a much healthier and robust attitude towards marital relations than most Americans do today, if the studies and interviews that spawned this book are any indication. Boston Magazine debunks Puritan myths in this interesting article.
This chapter is the first since beginning the book where I was nearly completely diametrically opposed to Perel’s positions from its beginning to its end. I say nearly because the chapter’s title takes a very insightful turn at what happens in the minds of many religious wives when it comes to marital intimacy, especially after children arrive, which is covered in chapter eight.
The politics and economics of sex and the diametrically opposed attitudes we witness daily penetrate the American bedroom and insinuate themselves into the creases of our intimacy. The couples I see live at the intersection of this ambivalence, and must negotiate amid these competing value systems. The legacy of Puritanism, which locates family at the center of society, expects marriage to be reasonable, sober, and productive. But alongside this very American notion of individual responsibility and moderation is the equally apple- pie notion of individual freedom. p.90
There’s a layer of truth in that, but the rest of the chapter felt like one long exercise in cognitive dissonance. There was a repeated insinuation (and even insistence) that any external restraints on sexual activity for anyone teenaged or older is repressive. The European standard, along with the dichotomy of their later age of first sex and lower teen preganacy rates, were offered as evidence of their superior sexual attitudes and practices.
That this approach inherently undermines the ability of married couples to fully embrace and engage with one another erotically seems completely lost on Mrs. Perel, but I knew what I’d be getting going into this one.
Chapter 7- Erotic Blueprints: Tell Me How You Were Loved, and I’ll Tell You How You Make Love
This chapter is all about the connection between how people received love, affection, freedom and pleasure in childhood and the way it crosses over into how they navigate their adult relationships; in this context, their marital relationships.
I was slightly concerned that we were heading into Freudian territory but was relieved that this was not the case. There are connections between childhood relationship patterns and adult relationships. I also believe, having lived it, that when partnered with a spouse who makes you feel you can safely be vulnerable, a lot of relational challenges can be overcome. This is particularly so in the area of marital intimacy. To her credit, Perel doesn’t counsel her patients that they are stuck in their patterns.
Those of us who were raised with a strong sense of duty, hard work, and self-deprivation, Perel argues, often have trouble with the duality of marital intimacy. Specifically, she helps her clients see that you can be physically attuned to your mate without completely denying your own desire for satisfaction. Conversely, she asserts that one can be aware of and open to your own desire, acutely so (she used the wording ruthlessly so) without being unloving towards your mate.
We are socialized to control ourselves, to restrain our impulses, to tame the animal within. So as dutiful citizens and spouses we edit ourselves and mask our ravenous appetites and conceal our fleeting need to objectify the one we love. p.122
According to Perel, in a loving marital relationship, the self-absorption inherent in sexual excitement collides with our ideal of emotional intimacy. I believe openness and vulnerability frees us and reconciles that tension. But we’re taught to be invulnerable and look for ourselves because no one else will, so Perel’s patient list and popularity are set to continue to grow unabated.
Chapter 8- Parenthood: When Three Threatens Two
This is a topic that has been discussed, written about, and debated ad nauseum, so I won’t spend a lot of virtual ink telling you what you already know is in the book. That many women absorb themselves into motherhood and have nothing to give their husbands. Also, that some men (albeit significantly fewer) find it hard to connect intimately with their wife once she has become a mother.
Nothing new about that, or even about the advice she gives the couple she uses as the object lesson for most of the chapter, whom she refers to as “Warren” and “Stephanie”.
I did find this bit insightful, worth sharing and pondering, as it speaks to a large part of why so many couples find the bridge between parenting and a return to marital intimacy such a long one:
Her intense focus on her kids is not a mere idiosyncrasy–not simply her own personal style. In fact, this kind of overzealous parenting is a fairly recent trend that has, one hopes, reached the apex of its folly. Childhood is indeed a pivotal stage of life that will inevitably shape the child’s future. But the last few decades have ushered in an emphasis on children’s happiness that would make our grandparents shudder. p. 133
Amen to that, and this was also a good bit of advice to the couple she focused on. It stood out to me not because it was revolutionary. It’s as natural to us as breathing and always has been, but I’d never really stopped to consider what it indicates:
With him and through him, she potentially can begin to disentangle from the bond with the children and redirect some of her energy back to herself and her relationship with Warren. When the father reaches out to the mother, and the mother acknowledges him, redirecting her attention, this serves to rebalance the entire family. Boundaries get drawn, and new zoning regulations are get put into place delineating areas that are adults only. p. 135
That is sound counsel. Kids need to know and understand that Mommy and Daddy have a relationship that is not about them.
Until next time…