5 Things I Learned From Sex Therapist Esther Perel
She taught me the real way to bring lust back into the bedroom.
Back in the 1980s, Ruth Westheimer, M.D., became a household name. From her radio show to her television appearances and numerous books, Dr. Ruth was a cultural icon and leading authority on sex and sexuality.
Forty years later, the torch — or perhaps more appropriately, the golden vibrator — has been passed to Esther Perel, a New York City-based therapist, author, speaker and sex expert. Perel rose to fame after writing an article titled “In Search of Erotic Intelligence,” inspired by her perspective on the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair.
In 2006, Belgian-born Perel published her first book, Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence. Publisher HarperCollins summarizes the book by saying it examines “the paradoxical relationship between domesticity and sexual desire and it explains what it takes to bring lust home.” It became an international best seller.
Perel’s philosophy summed up in a sentence is, “The quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives,” which makes a lot of sense to me. While we have all heard the adage “happy wife, happy life,” I do think that it’s only true if the hubby is happy, too (even if that doesn’t quite rhyme as well).
As a woman who will be celebrating her 30th wedding anniversary in a few months, I wondered what, if anything, Perel and her friends could teach me about keeping my own home fires burning after three decades with the same partner. So, I decided to attend her NYC live session “In Search of Eros” — virtually, of course — to see what I could learn.
Here are my five takeaways:
A sex problem may not signal a relationship problem
Sometimes we think that if we are not having sex or our sex isn’t great, it is because our relationship is on the fritz. Not necessarily. Sometimes long-term couples are very happy, but time has led them to become complacent. Instead of being innovated, they stick with what works — from going (in safer times) to the same restaurants for dinner or places on vacation to relying on the same positions in the bedroom. Ian Kerner, a sex therapist, said, “Love is about having, and desire is about wanting. Too often, couples settle into the comforts of love, and they cease to fan the flames of desire.”
So how do you fan those flames? Perel encourages couples to bring their creativity, whimsy and a sense of adventure when it comes to sex and sexuality. Don’t be afraid to tell your partner that you want to do something new or suggest taking some risks together. Break out of the rut together.
Navigating vs. wayfinding
Perel discusses that when she was younger, she and her father would go on bike rides and deliberately get lost so they could find their way home a new way. She says not having a set destination made them more aware of their surroundings and made the ride itself more enjoyable. She equates this metaphor with sex. Forget about navigating your way to the finish line. Instead, focus on the way there, on the exploration and enjoying the ride.
Erotic is a quality of experience
“Eroticism, you can’t quantify it. It just cannot exist under the tyranny of quantification or measurements,” Perel stated. Too often, partners — especially those in long-term relationships — worry about the data associated with their sex life. How often should we be doing it? How long should our lovemaking last? Are we doing it is as much as other couples our age? Let go of the data and focus on the quality of the experience. If the sex is terrific and both partners are satisfied, don’t worry about anything else.
Finding the elixir of your life
Jack Morin, author of The Erotic Mind, said, “We are most intensely excited when we are a little off-balance, uncertain, poised on the perilous edge between ecstasy and disaster.” Anxiety, ambivalence, guilt and fear can all be ingredients to intense pleasure, in the right amount. For example, if you have sex someplace you might get caught, it can add to the excitement. But if you are guaranteed to get caught (and possibly arrested for indecent exposure), then it’s probably too much. It’s about finding the right balance — similar to when making an elixir. Use the ingredients that work for you and your partner to mix your ideal sexual cocktail.
It’s OK to fantasize
Kerner discussed a study that stated 75 percent of women fantasize during sex (the number for men was substantially less). He explained, “Fantasy is a vital way of turning off to get turned on — or rather, we turn off and lose ourselves and surrender.” In other words, if you are making love to your hubby but thinking about Orlando Bloom, don’t feel guilty. You are in good company.