Esther Perel
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Esther Perel

Esther Perel

The Secret to desire in a long term relationship

Whenever I ask people, “What do you think of when you hear the word love?” I am met with countless variations on the same theme: warmth, intimacy, kindness, tenderness, support, care, safety, protection, calm, trust. The answers are quite different when I ask about desire: hardness, heat, power, exciment, a sense of being alive, feeling sexy, hungry, sweaty, tingly, full, energized, driven, abandon, free — and these are the attributes missing from the most loving and closest of relationships. Like fire, desire needs air. Many couples fail to leave each other enough air, confusing intimacy with fusion; this is a bad omen for sex.

Love and desire, they relate, but they also conflict. Love flourishes in an atmosphere of reciprocity, mutuality, protection. Desire is more selfish — and we come with a whole list of injunctions against selfishness in love. Sometimes the very elements that nurture love block desire. The familiarity inherent in intimacy, the comfort we so desperately crave, can extinguish the flame of desire. My work with couples is to elicit strivings, longing, and novelty — to make interesting what is sufficiently available.

And so I ask, “When are you most drawn to your partner?” The answers are never without an element of distance:

When I seem him play sports… When she’s unaware I’m watching her… When he is talking with friends… When she’s confidently speaking with a colleague… When she’s standing on the other side of a crowded room, and she smiles just for me… When he’s playing with the kids… When he’s sneaky… When I watch him paint…

These elements we seek, the ones that combined, light the flame of eroticism, exist and thrive in a space I think of as otherness. The best intimacy is the one that respects this otherness. Individuality and difference are accentuated, and you actually see the other person as a separate being. As expressed by the great narrator, Proust, “The true voyage of discovery is not about discovering new landscapes but in seeing with new eyes.” In those moments we stand on opposite ends of this space we see each other with new eyes. Our separateness is what allows for risk, vulnerability, and erotic charge of the unknown.

When we do manage to create space for desire, with it comes an inherent anxiety. In the face of this anxiety we can respond with fear and as a result, close ourselves off from the very thing we crave. We can reduce our partner to a completely knowable entity, and then spend years complaining of boredom.