Of Sex and Marriage

Stop it, you’re killing my libido

Everything good is bad for you. That, in so many words, is the theme of Esther Perel’s little red book on how to achieve sexual bliss in marriage. And the bad news—or the good, depending on your priorities—is that it’s probably true.

Communication? Forget it. Destroys the libido.

Equality? A turnoff.

Monogamy? Puts a girl to sleep.

Kids you cherish? A death sentence.

One might reasonably make the argument that if good sex comes at so high a price, who wants it? Or at least, who can afford it? If it comes at the price of intimacy, honesty, security, harmony, openness, and trust, shouldn’t we just pass? Of course, Esther Perel would claim that I’m distorting her argument. She is, after all, to judge from Mating in Captivity, an extremely upbeat person and backs off constantly from the disturbing nature of her contentions. Where Denis de Rougemont, the author of the mid-twentieth- century classic Love in the Western World, might say, “Passion is a death drive: stay away from it!,” Perel says, “Passion demands you discard all that’s dear to you—so what are you waiting for?” And she smiles.

Even though she was born in Belgium and schooled in Israel, and speaks eight languages, she is fundamentally, deeply American—indeed, announcing that you speak eight languages is a deeply American thing to do. (As I write, I am living in Crete, where half the people who wash floors in hotels speak eight languages and don’t tell you.) Perel is American in both the best sense and the worst in which Europeans use the term: She is American in her can-do conviction that people will live happily ever after. She is American also in her self-promotion (“My husband is the director of the International Trauma Studies Program at Columbia University … My parents were survivors of Nazi concentration camps,” she tells us, as though this bore on her thesis). She is American, finally, in her unquestioning assumption that we should work like hell on our sex lives.

Perel practices couples therapy in New York, and her book’s organizing principle emerges in a series of clinical vignettes. A typical one might go like this: One spunky young couple has it all. They adore each other. They have wonderful times, wonderful families, spectacular careers. But they are in despair over what’s happening to them.” “We are terrified,” they confess. Why? Because their sex together is good, dear reader, but it is not great.

Incalculable woe. Part of us wonders if Perel might best advise such couples to get a life—i.e., care about something more important. Go help the homeless or the victims of war, and let your libido rebound on its own time. But the advice Perel proffers her “distressed” clients is not to help others; it is to destroy themselves. Do you, she asks them, express physical affection? “Do you cuddle? … Do you touch each other?” Yes, they say, in unison. Well, announces the doctor, it’s got to stop.” She gives them an assignment: Stop being nice to each other. Stop kissing. Stop hugging. It is sapping your sexual energy. Treat each other like trash, and you might notice a discreet rise in sexual tension. Or just tension in general, one is tempted to add: “About a month into it,” he says, “I wanted nothing more to do with her.” Dr. Perel considers this plan a success. “I knew I was onto something,” she intones.

It’s easy to make fun of this sort of thing—and it’s important to do so. For the suggestions Perel offers are repellent, as are the assumptions that underlie them—that sex is our only raison d’être, and that it’s great to forfeit emotional contact for an extra erotic tickle. That said, Perel is onto something. The ironies of intimacy she discusses in her book are real. The paradoxes to which she points—that the cozy closeness of marriage does not often promote unruly desire; that children, the fruit of eros, are sometimes simultaneously its end; and that knowing everything about a person domestically or psychologically does not always make one crave that person biblically—are real. And they are worth talking about.

Sexuality is all about bridging distances—but to bridge distances, you must have distances. And for all our sentimental talk of seeking an “other half” (perhaps the only expression to loom as large in Plato’s Symposium as it does in the cursives of Hallmark), most of us do not, in fact, seek “a part of ourselves.” We do not long for our left leg. We do not desire our brother, nor usually even our best friend. Erotic love—for all of its attraction to what it recognizes and identifies with—is drawn at least as strongly to what it does not recognize. In truth, it is drawn toward the distant and dangerous more than it is to the sweet, the solicitous, the familiar.

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Cristina Nehring, a regular Atlantic contributor, is writing a book for HarperCollins about women and love.

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