Esther Perel: Are We Asking Too Much Of Our Spouses? How can couples sustain desire? Psychotherapist Esther Perel argues a good and committed relationship draws on the conflicting needs of security and surprise.

Esther Perel: Are We Asking Too Much Of Our Spouses?

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Do you think that love is, like, a construct, or do you think it's a fact?

ESTHER PEREL: It's an experience. It's an experience that is mental, emotional, physical, sensual, sensory. It's all-encompassing. That's part of why it's so grand is because it leaves any part of us - it doesn't leave any part of us untouched.

RAZ: Oh, can you introduce yourself, please?

PEREL: I'm Esther Perel. I'm a couples therapist, and I'm the author of the book "Mating in Captivity" as well as a sex therapist.

RAZ: When people meet you and you say I'm Esther Perel, I wrote this book, you might have heard of it, "Mating in Captivity," what's the - like, the most common question you get from people?

PEREL: Well, the first reaction is usually to the title, "Mating in Captivity." Some people know exactly what I mean, and they understand immediately that we don't necessarily like to mate in captivity. And so then the next question is, so can desire be sustained in the long haul? Can you reconcile the domestic and the erotic in one relationship? Can you reconcile intimacy and sexuality with the same person for the long haul?

RAZ: And those questions, they're at the heart of what Esther Perel's been studying for 30 years, questions she explores on the TED stage.


PEREL: So why does good sex so often fade even for couples who continue to love each other as much as ever? And why does good intimacy not guarantee good sex contrary to popular belief? Or the next question would be, can we want what we already have? That's the million dollar question, right? And why is the forbidden so erotic? What is it about transgression that makes desire so potent? And why does sex make babies, and babies spell erotic disaster in couples?


PEREL: It's kind of the fatal erotic blow, isn't it? And when you love, how does it feel? And when you desire, how is it different? These are some of the questions that are at the center of my exploration on the nature of erotic desire and its concomitant dilemmas in modern love. So I travel the globe, and what I'm noticing is that everywhere where romanticism has entered, there seems to be a crisis of desire - a crisis of desire as in owning the wanting, desire as an expression of our individuality, of our free choice, of our preferences, of our identity, desire that has become a central concept as part of modern love and individualistic societies.

Desire was never the organizing principle of sexuality, for sure, in marriage. You know, we had sex because we needed lots of children, and we had sex because it was a woman's marital duty. So desire is very much a concept of our society, of our culture today. We have a consumer society. We have a society that has the 'I' in the center. And this 'I' knows who she is and knows what he wants, and is constantly urged to define it and to want more.

RAZ: And so what does that do? What's the result?

PEREL: We crumble under the weight of expectations. You know, we've never invested more in love, and we've never divorced more in the name of love. We're not having very nice results. That doesn't mean that when we had less expectations, marriages were happier occasions. But people had different expectations of life. You know, one of the most important things we've done around marriage is that we've brought happiness down from the heaven and made it first a possibility. And today, it's a mandate.

So, you know, am I happy in my marriage? When was that ever such an important question? This idea that my marriage is supposed to give me something, that I'm supposed to get something from my partner and that my partner owes me that because somehow it was implicit in our agreement, in our joining together that we were going to give each other things, like, I'll never feel alone again. I'll never worry about abandonment. I'll never feel disconnected. I'll never feel unnoticed. It's just - it's...

RAZ: Thing is - I mean, the thing is, is that, like - I mean, marriage is great. Like, it - you know, I'm speaking for myself here of course. But, I mean, it is that person. It is that person that is, you know - that person is your best friend. And that's our expectation. And I guess...

PEREL: In America. But I can tell you, I go to many parts of the world where I don't ever hear people say my partner is my best friend. They have best friends, and that's not their partner. Their partner is their partner. That's a different thing. And frankly, many people treat their partners in ways that they would never treat their best friends and allow themselves to say and do things that no best friend whatever accept. Friendship does not operate along the same lines.


PEREL: 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. On the one hand, our need for security, for predictability, for safety, for dependability, for reliability, for permanence - all these anchoring, grounding experiences of our lives that we call home.

But we also have an equally strong need - men and women - for adventure, for novelty, for mystery, for risk, for danger, for the unknown, for the unexpected, surprise - you get the gist - for journey, for travel. 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.


PEREL: 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 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.


RAZ: I mean, so if marriage has, like - if marriage has evolved under this thing that's, like, so - I don't know - like, fraught with potential problems and pitfalls and obstacles, like, how do we save it and improve it?

PEREL: Oh, yes, I get that question all the time. And I have a different answer every day.

RAZ: Yeah. What do you say?

PEREL: Oh, it ranges from, you know - the secret to a happy relationship - I don't think in those terms actually is the first thing. It's, like, not my language.

RAZ: (Laughter).

PEREL: I don't think about secrets, nor keys to, nor seven ways to, nor, you know, 10 steps.

RAZ: You don't have the answer for us - just, like, the...


RAZ: ...Bumper-sticker answer?

PEREL: No. But I do have a sense, in the American context, it's often a can-do question. You know, this is a society who thinks that every problem has a solution. And then one of my answers is that this dilemma between our need for security and our need for adventure and how we're trying to bring them together under one roof is maybe more a paradox that we manage and less a problem that we solve.

RAZ: Esther Perel's book on modern marriage and the tension between love and desire is called "Mating in Captivity." Her full talk is at On the show today - ideas around how we love. After the break, mom, dad, brother, sister - why we love them, even when they make us crazy. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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