Book notes: Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel

Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel book summary.

Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic & the Domestic by Esther Perel


“Esther Perel takes on tough questions, grappling with the obstacles and anxieties that arise when our quest for secure love conflicts with our pursuit of passion. She invites us to explore the paradoxical union of domesticity and sexual desire, and explains what it takes to bring lust home.

In this explosively original book, Perel explains that our cultural penchant for equality, togetherness, and absolute candor is antithetical to erotic desire for both men and women. Sexual excitement doesn’t always play by the rules of good citizenship. It is politically incorrect. It thrives on power plays, unfair advantages, and the space between self and other. More exciting, playful, even poetic sex is possible, but first, we must kick egalitarian ideals and emotional housekeeping out of our bedrooms.

Perel’s take on bedroom dynamics promises to liberate, enchant, and provoke. Flinging the doors open on erotic life and domesticity, she invites us to put the “X” back in sex.” -Audible

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Opening thoughts:

I put this book on my Audible Wish List when I was reading The Truth and the author referenced this book when he was trying to work through his ideal relationship style. His whole journey was trying to figure out why he couldn’t stay in a long-term relationship with someone he clearly loved and wanted to develop intimacy with. I think books that discuss the topic of love and relationships usually are very interesting to me. This book had good reviews and it seemed like a good balance to the other books I chose this month.

Key notes:

  • Problem: couples are having less frequent sex even despite professing to love each other. They are either too busy, too stressed, too involved in child rearing, or simply too tired for sex
    • However, the author thinks there’s more to the story
  • We all share a fundamental need for security, which propels us to committed relationships
    • But we have an equally strong need for adventure and excitement
  • It’s hard to generate excitement, anticipation, and lust with the same person you look to for comfort and stability, but it is not impossible
  • Eroticism requires separateness. In other words, eroticism thrives in the space between the self and the other
  • Desire is often accompanied by feelings that don’t resonate with love, such as aggression, jealousy, and discord
    • Domesticated sex makes it fair, equal, and safe, but also produces many bored couples
  • Traditional gender norms of women being creatures of love and men being non-monogamous creatures of sex have been changed and now both types of traits appear in both genders
  • Even though the traditional therapy approach is to improve the relationship in order to improve the sex, she finds this is not true
  • Sexuality and emotional intimacy are two separate languages
  • The very dynamics that are a source of conflict in a relationship, particularly those pertaining to power, control, dependency, and vulnerability, often become desirable when experienced through the body and eroticized
  • These people don’t just miss sex, the act, they miss the feeling of connection, playfulness, and renewal that sex allows them
  • Excitement is interwoven with uncertainty, and with our willingness to embrace the unknown rather than to shield ourselves from it
    • But this leaves us vulnerable, to which she replies there is no such thing as safe sex
    • Though there are people who do not seek passion, but rather prefer calmer waters and a love that is built on patience
  • From Adventure to Captivity: Why the quest for security saps erotic vitality
  • Conversations about this topic tend to polarize instantly of Romantics vs. Realists
    • Both sides do agree that desire fades
      • What they disagree on is just how important the loss is
      • Romantics desire intensity over stability
      • Realists value security over passion
      • But both are often disappointed for a few people can live at either extreme
  • The real question: can we have both love and desire in the same relationship over time? How? What exactly would that kind of relationship be?
    • She believes that love and desire are not mutually exclusive, they just don’t take place at the same time
      • In fact, security and passion are two separate fundamental human needs that spring from different motives and pull us in different directions
  • We seek a steady, reliable anchor in our partner, yet at the same time, we expect love to offer a transcendent experience that will allow us to soar beyond our ordinary lives
    • The challenge for modern couples lies in reconciling the need for what is safe and predictable with the wish to pursue what is exciting, mysterious, and awe-inspiring
  • In truth, we never know our partners as much as we think we do.
    • Even in the dullest marriages, predictability is a mirage
      • We are invested in our partner conforming to an image that is often a creation of our own imagination based on our own sets of needs
  • Eroticism lies in the ambiguous space between anxiety and fascination
    • We remain interested in our partners, they delight us, and we are drawn to them
    • She usually asks couples what drew them together initially, because this is the key to understanding the unfolding story of their relationship
      • We magnify the good qualities of those we love and confer on them almost mystical powers
      • We transform them, and in turn, we are transformed in their presence
  • Being chosen by the one you choose is one of the glories of falling in love
    • It generates a feeling of intense personal importance
  • If love is an act of imagination, intimacy is an act of fruition
    • It waits for the high to subside so it can patiently insert itself into the relationship
    • The seeds of intimacy are time and repetition
      • We choose each other again and again and so create a community of two
  • Perhaps the way we construct closeness reduces the sense of freedom and autonomy needed for sexual pleasure
    • When intimacy collapses into fusion, it is not a lack of closeness but too much closeness that impedes desire
  • Separateness is a precondition for connection
    • This is the essential paradox for intimacy and sex
  • We tend to choose partners whose proclivities match our vulnerabilities
  • Intimacy comes with a growing concern for the well-being of the other person, which includes a fear of hurting them
    • Sexual excitement requires the capacity not to worry and the pursuit of pleasure demands a degree of selfishness
      • Some people cannot allow this selfishness because they are too absorbed with the well-being of the beloved
  • In order to bring lust home, we need to re-create the distance that we worked so hard to bridge
    • Erotic intelligence is about creating distance, then bringing that space to life
  • There is a need to develop intimacy with one’s own self as a counterbalance to a couple
    • Personal intimacy demarcates a private zone, One that requires tolerance and respect
      • It is a space physical, emotional, and intellectual that belongs only to me. Not everything needs to be revealed
      • Everyone should cultivate a “secret garden”
  • Desire is energized by the distance between two people. If intimacy grows through repetition and familiarity, eroticism is numbed by repetition
    • It thrives on the novel, the mysterious, and the unexpected
    • Love is about having, desire is about wanting
    • Desire requires ongoing elusiveness
  • Marriage before used to be a matter of primarily economic sustenance and it was a partnership for life
    • Love could develop over time but it was optional
    • Intimacy has shifted from being a byproduct of a long-term relationship to being a mandate for one
    • In companionate marriage, trust and affection have replaced respect as the relational pillar

Readers note: I’ve always heard of this before (marriage being more about economics) but it is very interesting thinking of marriage as a “partnership” instead of a romantic relationship. Similar to a business partnership where you have specific roles and duties. The cornerstone of this relationship would be respect, not love or intimacy. So thought provoking 🤔

  • Sometimes too much communication, openness, and vulnerability can strain the relationship
    • She believes is not necessary talk about and say everything to the other person
    • The mandate of intimacy when taking too far can resemble coercion
    • Couples should not demand entry into the private thoughts of their loved ones
      • At that point, intimacy becomes intrusion rather than closeness
  • Of course the loss of control in real life scary. But the point of fantasy is that it allows you to transcend the moral and psychological constraints of your everyday life
  • If commitment requires a trade-off of freedom for security, then eroticism is the gateway back to freedom
    • Being able to play with roles goes some way towards indicating that you are no longer controlled by them
    • Play has the potential to disrupt the very notion of gender categorization
  • Love is almost always accompanied by hate. Those we hate the most can also flip our switch really quickly
    • The capacity to contain aggression is a precondition for the capacity to love
      • We must integrate our aggression rather than eradicate it
    • Aggression as a human emotion cannot be purged from human interactions, especially not among those who love each other
      • Aggression is the shadow side of love. It is also an intrinsic component of sexuality and it can never be entirely excised from sexual relationships

Readers note: right now we are on a section about a couple she had helped where they were both feeling trapped in the relationship and their passion decreased. They both finally admitted they needed more psychological freedom and that made them closer and more attracted to one another because they re-asserted their separateness. Maybe this is what people mean when they say someone is scared of commitment. Maybe what they’re really scared of is the idea of losing their freedom and therefore their passion and desire.

  • It’s the act of choosing, the freedom involved in choosing, that keeps a relationship alive
  • When breathing you need to inhale and exhale, similar to intimacy and passion
    • The tension between security and adventure is a paradox to manage, not a problem to solve. It is a puzzle
    • Can you hold the awareness of each polarity? You need each at different times, but you can’t have both at the same time. Can you accept that? It’s not either/or situation, but you get the benefits and limits of each
  •  Sex is Dirty: save it for someone you love
    • Sex is not a problem. Being irresponsible about sex is
  • What’s missing is a sexuality that is integratedin which pleasure flourishes in the context of relatedness
    • Not just deep love, but basic care and appreciation for another person
  • The author admits that in college age, coupling (or at least the dream of romance) seemed to her as something that enlarges us, and is about what you can discover with someone
  • How you were loved as a kid is usually how you show love as an adult
    • Understanding the past can help change the present
  • Erotic intimacy is the adult version of hide and seek
    • The thrill of hiding is followed by the relief being found
    • The stronger the connection, the braver we are about stretching it, having a security of knowing you will be found
      • We know our beloved will be waiting for our return, will not punish our selfish pursuits and may even applaud them
    • Being with an unavailable partner provides a protective limit
      • If you can’t get too close to a person, you need not fear entrapment or loss of self

Reader’s Note: This idea of hooking up as a way to protect onesself from getting too close for fear of entrapment or loss reminds me of almost every rom-com out there. The protagonist is a broken person but eventually finds love through being vulnerable and not fearing intimacy.

  • Cultivating a sense of ruthlessness in our intimate relationships is an intriguing solution to the problems of desire
  • Adding children to the relationship will complicate things and add layers of complexity and dynamics
    • We literally fall in love with our babies and we know this is an all-consuming affair that pushes everything else aside
    • The making of a family calls for a redistribution of resources, and for a while, there seems to be less for the couple
      • Less time, communication, sleep, money, freedom, touch, intimacy, privacy
  • Read any parenting book on infants and toddlers and what you’ll find over and over is an emphasis on routine, predictability, and regularity
    • For children to feel confident enough to go out into the world and explore on their own they need a secure base
    • Parenthood demands that we become steady, dependable, and responsible

Reader’s Note: This also reminds me of movies where these irresponsible adults have to learn how to become dependable and responsible after being tasked with being a parent. First example that comes to mind is the awesome movie Big Daddy with Adam Sandler. Man, I love that movie, haha.

  • What eroticism thrives on, family life defends against
    • If we think as eroticism as not sex per se, but as a vibrant creative energy, sometimes someone’s erotic pulse could be alive just re-directed towards the family
  • Couples need to cordon off erotic territory for themselves
  • Sometimes you have to break the pattern when the partner is no longer seen as your lover but the caretaker of your children
    • Safe objectification can help the eroticism
  • Culturally, we are afraid that our adult sexuality will somehow damage our kids, that it’s inappropriate or dangerous
    • By censoring our sexuality, curbing our desires, or renouncing them all together, we hand our inhibitions intact to the next generation
  • It is not children who extinguish the flame of desire, it is adults who fail to keep the spark alive
  • To her thinking, sexual fantasy includes any mental activity that generates desire and intensifies enthusiasm
    • These thoughts need not be graphic or well defined. They are often inarticulate, more feeling than images, more sensuous than sexual
    • The connection between regular fantasies and what someone really wants is straightforward and uncomplicated
    • Sexual fantasies, on the other hand, don’t reflect reality in the same way
      • Is a point in sexual fantasies is that it involves pretending; it is a simulation, a performance, not the real thing
      • And not necessarily a desire for the real thing
      • They are complex psychic creations who’s symbolic content must not be translated into literal intent
        • Think poetry, not prose
  • Characters in fantasies and pornography are drastically simplified without the emotions and opinions and personalities
    • This simplifies it and gets to the point of what the person watching or imagining wants or what turns them on
    • Fantasies can cover up and circumvent sexual vulnerabilities
  • Inviting someone into the recesses of our erotic mind is risky
    • When the fantasy is poorly received, it can be devastating
    • But when it’s received in a way that makes us feel recognized and accepted, it can’t be richly affirming
  • Understanding what our fantasies do for us will help us understand what it is we are seeking, sexually and emotionally
    • In our erotic daydreams, we find the energy that keeps us passionately awake to our own sexuality
  • Question: are there any secrets to long-lasting relationships?
    • Answer: Infidelity. Not the act its self but the threat of it
      • An injection of jealousy is the only thing capable of restoring a relationship ruined by habit
  • Fidelity as a mainstay of patriarchal society was about lineage and property. It had nothing to do with love
    • Today, particularly in the west, it has everything to do with love
    • When marriage shifted from a contractual arrangement to a matter of the heart, faithfulness became a mutual expression of love and commitment
  • The focus is always on the object of love, not on our capacity to love
    • 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”
  • Some affairs are acts of resistance. Others happen when we offer no resistance at all
    • Straying can sound an alarm for the marriage signaling an urgent need to pay attention, or it can be the end of the relationship
  • Affairs are motivated by myriad forces, not all of them are directly related to flows in the marriage. Plenty of adulterers are reasonably contented in their marriage
    • The man who had an affair realized that the other woman was a missing piece, but his wife was the rest of the puzzle
      • What he really wanted was that passion, risk, and danger that the affair brought him, but also everything else that his life at home gives him
    • In some cultures, lying and concealment means disrespect
    • In other cultures, respect is more likely to be expressed with gentle untruths that aim at preserving the partner’s honor
      • A protective opacity is preferable to truths that may results and humiliation. Hence, concealment not only maintains marital harmony but is also a mark of respect
  • Marriage is imperfect. We start with a desire for oneness, and then we discover our differences. Our fears are aroused by the prospect of all the things we are never going to have
    • We fight, we withdraw, we blame our partners for failing to make us whole. We look elsewhere
  • Real or imagined, embodied or not, The Third is a fulcrum on which the couple balances
    • The third is a manifestation of our desire for what lies outside the fence. It is the forbidden
    • The couple is the resistance to the intrusion of the third. But in order for it to last, it is indispensable to have enemies
      • This is why the monogamous can’t live without them. When we are two, we are together. In order to form a couple, we need to be three

Reader’s note: This is really interesting. In order for “us” to exist, there needs to be a “third” outside of us to create the dynamic. In order to have a TEAM, you need an OPPONENT.

  • Many of our inquiries hover at the border between intimacy and intrusion
    • We want to know, but we don’t want to be too obvious. We say that we ask because we care, but often it’s because we are afraid. So we set up rules and hope our partner will comply
      • And in this way, we preemptively secure faithfulness by keeping a tight leash
      • Desire is insubordinate. Actions are susceptible to reason and so are easier to control
  • When we validate one another’s freedom within the relationship, we’re less inclined to search for it elsewhere
    • In this sense, inviting the third goes some way towards containing its volatility, not to mention its appeal
      • When we can tell the truth safely, we’re less inclined to keep secrets
  • Recognizing the third has a tendency to add spice because it reminds us that we do not own our partners
    • We should not take them for granted
    • In uncertainty lies the seed of wanting
  • In addition, when we establish psychological distance, we too can peek at our partner with the admiring eyes of a stranger, noticing what habit has prevented us from seeing
    • Finally, renouncing others reaffirms our choice
      • We admit our roving desires yet push them back
  • Acknowledging the third has to do with validating the erotic separateness of our partner.
    • It follows that our partner’s sexuality does not belong to us
    • The more we choke each other‘s freedom, the harder it is for desire to breed in a committed relationship
  • The hormonal cocktail of romance, dopamine, norepinephrine, and PEA, is known to last no more than a few years at best
  • Oxytocin, the cuddling hormone, outlasts them all
    • The fruits of this ripening love, companionship, deep respect, mutuality and care, are considered by many to be a fair trade for erotic heat
    • If attraction and desire were the central actors in your courtship, now they retreat backstage to make way for the main act
  • Domestic eroticism is wrapped in a veil of appropriateness
  • Any experience of love holds a dimension of dependence
    • In fact, dependence is an essential ingredient of connection
    • But it’s a producer of terrific anxiety because it implies that the one we love wields power over us
      • This is the power to love us but also abandon us
    • Fear of judgment, rejection, and loss is embedded in romantic love
      • Sexual rejection at the hands of the one we love is particularly hurtful
        • We are there for less inclined to be erotically adventurous with the person we depend on for so much and whose opinion is paramount
    •  It is no surprise that some of us can freely engage in the perils and adventures of sex only when the emotional stakes are lower. We are less afraid to lose love
  • It’s not that romance necessarily fades over time, but it does become riskier
  • When our desires are not fulfilled, we are disappointed. But fulfilled desire carries its own brand of loss
    • Getting what we want undermines the thrill of wanting it, the deliciousness of yearning, the elaborate strategies of pursuit, the charged fantasies
  • It’s remarkable how a sudden threat to the status quo, an affair, an infatuation, a prolonged absence, or even a really good fight, can suddenly ignite desire
    • There’s nothing like the fear of loss to make those old shoes look new again
  • Spontaneity is a myth. You have to own your desire and passion
    • Committed sex is intentional sex
    • Planning creates anticipation, and anticipation implies we are looking forward to something. It is an important ingredient in desire
    • Planning for sex helps to generate desire
    • Longing, waiting, and yearning are fundamental elements of desire that can be generated with forethought, even in long-term relationships
  • Animals have sex. Eroticism is exclusively human. It is sexuality transformed by the imagination
    • In fact, you don’t even need the act of sex to have a full erotic experience
    • Eroticism is the cultivation of excitement, a purposeful quest for pleasure
      • Eroticism intertwined with imagination is another form of play
      • Play is an alternative reality midway between the actual and the fictitious, a safe space where we experiment, reinvent ourselves, take chances
        • Play by definition is carefree and unself-conscious
  • For the couples who seem to have figured it out, playfulness is central to their relationship, and eroticism extends beyond the sexual act
  • Eroticism in the home requires active engagement and willful intent
    • It is an ongoing resistance to the message that “marriage is serious, more work than play, and that passion is for teenagers and the immature

Closing thoughts:

This is one of those rare books where I had to pause between sections and just reflect and digest the different ideas that came up. It felt like I was taking notes at so many different sections in the book. Needless to say, this book was extremely insightful to me.

I think this book is applicable to anyone in a romantic relationship or planning to be in one. This is especially applicable to anyone who wants to be in a long-term relationship. We all know that marriage is tough, but we hardly hear advice on how to keep passion and desire high. We mostly hear about intimacy and the depth of a long, committed relationship.

I really appreciate the author’s counter-cultural insights on how to keep desire and eroticism alive based on her extensive experience working with many couples of varying backgrounds and dynamics. I found myself constantly evaluating my own relationships, past and present, through the new lens presented in the book.

Warning: This book talks a lot about sex and sexuality. And while I do agree with the author that it shouldn’t be something to hide (as its one of the most natural things for us humans), it is a touchy subject for many who want to keep matters private due to upbringing, culture, and society.

Again, highly recommend this book for anyone currently in or planning to be in a long, committed relationship and doesn’t want it to end in divorce.


Why eroticism fades in a relationship while intimacy grows over time, and how to be proactive in keeping the passion alive.



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