Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic, by Esther Perel. Originally published in 2006. 272 pages.
This is the last post analyzing the Mating in Captivity since chapter 11 is the last chapter in the book. This trio of chapters also makes it very clear why Esther Perel is something of a lightning rod to those of us who marry fully committed to monogamy. She asks some pretty inflammatory questions and her answers are every bit as controversial. However, most of that is in chapter 10, and we need to touch on chapter 9 first.
Chapter 9: Of Flesh and Fantasy
This is basically a defense of sexual fantasy. The entire chapter is an exposition of various patients, most married, but not all, and one homosexual patient. There’s not a lot here worth delving into, so I’ll simply offer the chapter’s main idea, which is also its last paragraph:
Giving voice to our fantasies can liberate us from the many personal and social obstacles that stand in the way of pleasure. Understanding what our fantasies do for us will help us understand what it is we’re seeking, sexually and emotionally. In our erotic daydreams, we find the energy that keeps us passionately awake to our own sexuality p.174
The only other thing I will add about this chapter is that it underscored to me how a dangerous idea was suddenly very prevalent in this book. It was always there as a subtext, but it stood out more here, and the idea is that there is an inherent disconnect between sexual excitement and emotional intimacy and comfort. The overwhelming assertion seems to be that if a couple embraces and understands that these two seasons alternate back and forth while rarely overlapping, they can find a healthy sexual balance.
I vehemently disagree with this assertion, not only based on personal experience, but based on my understanding of marriage. Furthermore, accepting this premise as true undeniably sets the stage for what comes in chapter 10.
Chapter 10: The Shadow of the Third: Rethinking Fidelity
If I had to offer a one line synopsis it might be, You Americans might be able to save more of your families if you weren’t so dogmatic about fidelity.
Despite a 50 percent divorce rate for first marriages and 65 percent the second time around; despite the fact that monogamy is a ship sinking faster than anyone can bail it out, we continue to cling to its wreckage with absolute faith in its structural soundness. p.178
And this section, more than almost any other, flies in the face of the ideals of Christian marriage:
Fidelity, as a mainstay of patriarchal society, was about lineage and property; it had nothing to do with love. p.178
This may have some truth historically and biologically, but love is very much at the center of a Christian marriage, cementing everything from the mundane daily tasks to the sexual relationship. Our Bible makes it clear; we can be both sexually connected and spiritually connected. Perel propagates the idea that the two are different things, and again there may some truth to that but when you start from that premise, it’s a short leap from there to “rethinking fidelity”.
One thing that is crystal clear here is that Perel sees the strict adherence to fidelity as a condition of continuing the marriage as a uniquely American phenomena, including the notion that the only way forward is for the offending spouse to come clean:
In other cultures, respect is more likely to be expressed with gentle untruths that aim at preserving the partner’s honor. A protective opacity is preferable to telling truths that might result in humiliation. Hence concealment not only maintains marital harmony but is also a mark of respect. In formed by my own cultural influences, I defer to Doug’s decision to remain silent, and at the same time I encourage him to pursue other ways to reconnect with his wife. p.186
Perel tries to make the case that she isn’t promoting infidelity, rather attacking the ideal that marriage means the death of the individual self. However, the non-judgemental stand comes off as if she is an adultery apologist. She makes the case that we have set up a culture which is, in effect, disastrous to monogamy. There is a bit of wisdom tucked into all of this:
This isn’t a justification of infidelity, or an endorsement. Temptation has existed since Eve bit the apple, but so, too, have injunctions against it. The Catholic Church is expert at not only avoiding temptation but also meting out penance for those we couldn’t resist. What’s different today is not the desires themselves but the fact that we feel obligated to pursue them- at least until we tie the knot, when we’re suddenly expected to renounce all we’ve been encouraged to want. Monogamy, like the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike, trying to hold back a flood of unbridled licentiousness.
There is again, a grain of truth here, but the answer to the dilemma is the exact opposite of what she has promoted in several other chapters. Rather than release and indulge our erotic imaginations, we should harness, restrain and control them, saving them for monogamy where they can be explored within a legitimate context. Of course, we are living in a culture awash in the flood of unbridled licentiousness.
Chapter 11: Putting the X Back in Sex- Bringing the Erotic Home
This final chapter of the book is one with which I agree in part, and disagree in part. The overarching thesis is that people indulge in all kinds of sexual imagination and shenanigans pre-marriage and extra-marital (pornography, cybersex, affairs, etc), while being tamed and “puritanical” in their intimate relationship with their spouse.
She is in no way condemning any of the stuff I outlined above; the cybersex, pornography, or feverish daydreams. I would, but she’s not. She is saying they should indulge these things in the context of their marriages to keep the home fires burning, so to speak.
Because, she asserts, passion is destined to be short-lived, couples have to open to one another and be more experimental and honest about what they want. She distinguishes eroticism from sex, asserting that fun, playful, erotic intimacy leaves most marriages “after the housewarming”. I’ll leave her to her assumptions, being the expert and all, but the very idea of almost worshiping a vaguely described idea of eroticism -one which includes perversion- leaves me cold.
The sum total of this book was informative, and the case studies in the form of patient stories was interesting. There were even a few philosophical gems tucked here and there. Overall, however, I don’t think help the average Joe and Jane do anything other than play act at eroticism, entertain infidelity, and believe they are doomed to enter a sexual desert unless they take her advice to heart, and not all of it is good advice.
For informational purposes and the ability to hold my attention, I’ll give it:
3 out of 5 stars