Entering into Valentine’s Week, it seemed only appropriate to do a little dedication to a woman who I feel is a true therapeutic master in the world of sex and intimacy with couples therapy, Esther Perel. You have likely already heard of her one way or another, her TED Talks, podcasts and books have become widely known and desperately clung to in a world where sexual intimacy and satisfaction seems to be waning at a rapid pace. I enjoy her writing not only for the therapeutic skills and philosophical musings but for her way with language which tackles complex psychological themes with true poetic aplomb.
Her first book has a very simple thesis behind the declining rates of stated satisfaction in long-term partnerships, “…today, we turn to one person to provide what an entire village once did: a sense of grounding, meaning and continuity.” This is perhaps the first flaw in our modern culture, the wide tangle of expectations heaped onto one single individual. The second fatal flaw occurs, “in the course of establishing security, many couples confuse love with merging.” Perel expounds on the value of separation (meaning lack of enmeshment more than literal space) between the individuals in a romantic partnership, the need for distance in order to maintain space for sexual and romantic drawing back to occur. If this sounds easier said than done, you’re not alone. The book examines real couples and their varying challenges navigating toward a more satisfying dynamic with Perel’s expert eye witness observations along the way. I think many readers will find themselves among peers in these pages and that alone can offer great relief.
In the multitude of writings on the subject, I find Perel’s words to be rare in their ability to normalize and carve out clear space for hope where other outlooks would likely begin encouraging couples towards surrender and separation. She calls out the flaw in these more common fatalistic perspectives on love, intimacy and partnership and locates their varying flawed roots. One of them being the glossy fairy tale belief in one singular perfect partner as a static entity. Perel alludes to this flawed but all too common belief structure in referencing psychologist Eric Fromm, saying, “we think it’s easy to love, but hard to find the right person. Once we’ve found “the one,” we will need no one else.” This more fluid look on love and intimacy as something effortfully co-created, fostered and resurrected, is one that brings relief to the majority of my couples therapy sessions where folks have come in sadly assuming the lack of pulse between them means things are too late.
Perel invites us to get more familiar with the constructs quietly informing our insurmountable romantic expectations and offers us beautifully illustrated logic to defend against them and their ensnaring limitations. If cramming this book in before Valentine’s Day seems lofty, I’d suggest starting with her TED Talk which is a wonderful sampling of these themes.