Sunday, February 17, 2013

Let's Talk About Sex: Esther Perel's TED Talk on Connecting Sex, Selfishness, Love, and Mystery

"Can we want what we already have?"

This is the question summing up the crisis of desire in modern relationships that Esther Perel talks about on TED.  Perel is a psychotherapist who researches across cultures, coaches and consults organizations and families, holds a private psychotherapy practice in New York, and speaks regularly on erotic intelligence, trauma, conflict resolution and infidelity. She is the author of Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic.  (From Perel's full bio on

In this TED talk, she explores the dichotomy of romance and relationships in our individualistic societies, where we look to one person to fulfill "what an entire village used to provide," and the reconciliation of our need for "home" and our need for adventure.  

"...this is the first time in the history of humankind where we are trying to experience sexuality in the long term, not because we want 14 children, for which we need to have even more because many of them won't make it, and not because it is exclusively a woman's marital duty. This is the first time that we want sex over time about pleasure and connection that is rooted in desire.

"So what sustains desire, and why is it so difficult? And at the heart of sustaining desire in a committed relationship, I think is the reconciliation of two fundamental human needs. ...

"So reconciling our need for security and our need for adventure into one relationship, or what we today like to call a passionate marriage, used to be a contradiction in terms. Marriage was an economic institution in which you were given a partnership for life in terms of children and social status and succession and companionship. But now we want our partner to still give us all these things, but in addition I want you to be my best friend and my trusted confidant and my passionate lover to boot, and we live twice as long. So we come to one person, and we basically are asking them to give us what once an entire village used to provide:

"Give me belonging, give me identity, give me continuity, but give me transcendence and mystery and awe all in one.
Give me comfort, give me edge.
Give me novelty, give me familiarity.
Give me predictability, give me surprise.
And we think it's a given, and toys and lingerie are going to save us with that."

As someone who needs a lot of alone time, I love that she talks about safely going off in the world, finding your own joy and bringing that into the relationship.  Of viewing your partner from a happy distance, where you see your partner "on his or her own, doing something in which they are enveloped. I look at this person and momentarily get a shift in perception, and I stay open to the mysteries that are living right next to me." 

"As Proust says, 'Sometimes mystery is not traveling to new places but looking with new eyes.'"

Watch Perel's TED talk for more of her insights from her research on sex and the intelligent imagination behind erotic love.

The video cuts out just as Perel says "there are a few things I've come to understand erotic couples do..."  (Thanks for the cliffhanger, TED.)  I copied her closing words here, from the transcript on the site, so click on that to read, or come back here.

"So in this dilemma about reconciling these two sets of fundamental needs, there are a few things that I've come to understand erotic couples do. One, they have a lot of sexual privacy. They understand that there is an erotic space that belongs to each of them. They also understand that foreplay is not something you do five minutes before the real thing. Foreplay pretty much starts at the end of the previous orgasm. They also understand that an erotic space isn't about, you being to stroke the other. It's about you create a space where you leave Management Inc., ... and you actually just enter that place where you stop being the good citizen who is taking care of things and being responsible. Responsibility and desire just butt heads. ... Erotic couples also understand that passion waxes and wanes. It's pretty much like the moon. It has intermittent eclipses. But what they know is they know how to resurrect it. They know how to bring it back, and they know how to bring it back because they have demystified one big myth, which is the  myth of spontaneity, which is that it's just going to fall from heaven while you're folding the laundry like a deus ex machine, and in fact they understood that whatever is going to just happen in a long-term relationship already has.

"Committed sex is premeditated sex. It's willful. It's intentional. It's focus and presence."

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