Customer Reviews: Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence
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on September 21, 2006
Everyone knows that familiarity breeds contempt. Especially if familiarity comes with a wedding ring attached. A book about sex in marriage --- now there's a thin book!

But here comes Esther Perel to suggest that we --- men and women alike --- have it wrong. Good sex doesn't have to end when the hormones cool. Lust doesn't have to devolve into companionship. You can be a mom and a sex kitten. And as for "intimacy" the bedroom, a little goes a long way.

Who is this wild woman? A therapist in New York who's been working with couples and families for two decades. Belgian-born, to Holocaust survivors. Married (to her original husband). Two kids. Speaks eight languages --- including common sense.

Not for Perel a how-to book of ridiculous exercises you can practice to rekindle the passion you once knew. If she had her way, you'd never consult a manual again. You might, however, write a dirty letter about all the hot things you'd like to do to your partner --- or that you'd like done to you. Or maybe you should start two e-mail accounts just for the sexual dialogue between you and your mate.

But she's the mother of your child!

But he's the guy who only gets his kicks from online porn!

Perel has heard all that. Many times. She's not fooled --- underneath those smart New York rationalizations are hearts that still want to believe in hot sex with someone you know. The problem, she says, lie in the unspoken assumptions of most marriages.

Like: To love is to merge. Wrong. Merging is what happens when you see the Other as your security. That's death to sex. Good sex requires a spark. A spark requires a gap. Cross the gap, feel the sizzle. No gap? The best you can hope for is a cuddle.

"There is no such thing as 'safe sex,'" she writes. Sex requires mystery, excitement, uncertainty. Which means not knowing everything about your partner. You find that threatening? You'd find it less so if you stopped equating intimacy with sex.

Here's a radical thought: don't do everything together. Cultivate your own set of friends. Create differences, not affinities. "Ruthlessness is a way to achieve closeness" --- ponder that for a while. Monogamy? Great if you can honor it. But it is, statistics show, "a ship sinking faster than anyone can bail it out."

Infidelity is a symptom of deeper problems in the relationship? Many believe that. Perel doesn't. She finds life...complicated. She hates the verb "have" when used in relationships --- for her, no one "has" anyone. Relationships are negotiations, not assumptions. You can get crazy with someone you've lived with and known well --- if your "rules" allow that.

Eroticism, she says, is "sexuality transformed by the imagination." So, start dreaming. There's a big payoff: "Nurturing eroticism in the house is an act of open defiance."

I live in a city of therapists and in a neighborhood where they are at their most dense. I have done couples therapy; socially, I know several sex-and-couples therapists. All women. All buttoned-up --- their sexuality is not just unseen or tamped down, it's under lock-and-key. So it's a great relief to read Esther Perel. No question about it --- she's hot.
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on January 22, 2012
Esther Perel's Mating in Captivity is a book for helping marriages that are going well in every way but sexuality. The author wisely notes that the expectations of modern marriages are such that one's spouse is to fulfill one in every way. She posits that good sex and companionship exist on a continuum of tradeoffs between closeness and distances. The strength of this book is that it is thought-provoking. The challenge of this book is that its ideas are the author's, backed up by her experiences with her clients alone, with a narrow focus on a single topic.

Being a graduate student in sociology, I will admit a bias for the likes of John Gottman's work in part because it's based on social science research. Perel's research is not - its subjects are her clients, and selected accordingly. Another reviewer writes that Perel uses the word "perhaps" very often - she does. This book is full of speculation and opinion. Clinician based research means that her ideas work well for her clients - as far as she knows - but anyone who has sought a therapist knows that it can be very difficult to find a therapist that one works well with. Would she be a good match for you? Maybe, maybe not.

Her writing is good, and there are a couple "aha!" moments in the book. She discusses how sex is viewed in contradictory terms, and that women in particular struggle with the baggage of being "good" and being sexy. She argues that lovers need to rediscover the creativity that led them to pursue their spouses in the first place, and to think of them more as lovers and less like the wife or husband-role with the cultural baggage that comes with this. In the introduction, Perel writes that she uses the word "marriage" to refer to "all long-term emotional commitments". Despite that, it seems that the majority of her cases are married. She also says that she writes of same-sex partnerships, but they have a token presence at best. She does not comment about the race or class of her clients.

The author is European, and writes that "Americans think [something]" or "Americans often [do something]" in order to question taken-for-granted cultural beliefs. This rhetorical device can be useful in encouraging a reader to reconsider something that they know. An example of when this is helpful is when she discusses how motherhood is desexualized in America, or the contradiction between Puritanism and hedonism in chapter six. Occasionally it comes off as off-putting, as she'll insinuate that because other cultures have the better idea. An example of this is her discussion of infidelity in Chapter 10.

On page 186, she says, "To the American way of thinking, respect is bound up with honesty, and honesty is essential to personal responsibility. Hiding, dissimulation, and other forms of deception amount to disrespect. You lie only to those beneath you-children, constituents, employees. [paragraph break] In other cultures, respect is more likely to be expressed with gentle untruths that aim at preserving the partner's honor. ... Hence concealment not only maintains marital harmony, but also is a mark of respect." She then argues "informed by my own cultural influences, I defer to [client]'s decision to remain silent..."

The logical problem with this is that her client's partner is American, and informed by the American ideal of respect. This is downplayed, as the author seems to be reaching for a universal truth rather than meeting her clients in their cultural context. This is a case where opinion is valued over empirical truth - there is no data to support one or the other.

To encourage the erotic to reappear in relationships, Perel thinks couples should introduce insecurity and distance. This may be great for sex, but whether it is good for other parts of relationships is unexplored and remained an unanswered question for the rest of the book. Consequently, the advice she gives to her clients may not be useful to her readers. One example is that she encourages one woman to flirt with other men. It seems that her idea that distance will reignite eroticism is given exclusively in a context of relationships that are functioning with the exception of being sexually unfulfilled.

Mating in Captivity is worth reading, albeit with a grain of salt.
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on October 9, 2008
I like having my viewpoints challenged and this provocative book did that. Her point about intimacy needing closeness but desire needing distance was an interesting point to chew on. Her discussion on sexual fantasies vs everyday fantasies was also interesting, too.

However, I strongly disagree with her belief that confessing to an affair is disrespectful. The real disrespect is betraying a partner's trust via an affair. You show respect by allowing your partner to make an informed decision to either leave you or stay - and if they stay, their trust is earned back on their terms rather than yours. Withhold that truth, though, and you keep your partner bound to you through controlling and manipulative means, which the author tries to reframe to sound positive. It's a surprising argument, too, coming from an author who earlier argued against possessiveness.
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on March 18, 2013
I bought this book for myself and my mate of 45 years, after hearing the author on NPR. She sounded innovative and interesting in the interview. Sadly, the book is the opposite. This is a writer with one essential idea: intimacy and desire are at cross purposes with each other. In case you think this is a new idea, you have only to remember age-old quotes like "familiarity breeds contempt" to recall that this is a very OLD idea.

The author makes this one point over an over again, starting with the introduction, and then repeating herself, in slightly different words (or sometimes even the same words) throughout the book.

She makes a very spare number of specific recommendations to address the dilemma of intimacy and desire: (1) Don't assume you know everything about your partner, and cultivate a certain amount of mystery; (2) Don't expect desire to be "spontaneous" - it can be kindled just as well (or better) through forethought, scheduling and careful planning - just like a great meal or a long-ago date; (3) Sexual fantasy is ok; and (4) imaginary or real third parties add spice to relationships - a little jealousy is a good thing, and don't take your partner for granted.

OK. That's the book. If you want to read a lot of her chatty case studies, or hear her repeat herself over and over again, buy the book. The writer is in dire need of an editor. But then again, if she eliminated the repetition, the book could be reduced to one page, or even one paragraph, and there is no money in that kind of efficiency!
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on August 2, 2010
NY psychologist writes book on sex to gain attention for herself and her practice. No quantitative scientific research. Consists of some quotes from some books she's read, plus some anecdotes drawn from people she's talked to, plus a lot of speculation. Her favorite word seems to be "perhaps," as in "perhaps we are convinced that lustfulness conflicts with maternal duty."

There is nothing in this book that would really help a married couple whose sex life has faded. She suggests role play, like pretending the wife is a prostitute. Yawn. She also suggests pornography. In his book "In the Shadows of the Net," Patrick Carnes, with 25 years of experience in the field, warns that many people get so hooked on porn that they lose interest in their mates. Fantasy and porn not exciting enough? Perel suggests the discrete affair, open marriage, swingers clubs. No mention of the risk of herpes, hepatitis, AIDS, etc. And for every anecdote that she has on extra-marital sex helping a marriage, I dare say I have heard ten about its having the opposite effect. Not that I have any actual numbers, but then I'm not writing a book. Dr. Perel doesn't back up her pronouncements with any hard data.

On 9-24-10 at the annual conference of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, plenary speaker John Gottman, mentioning Esther Perel by name, said that her idea that emotional distance makes for better marital sex is contradictory to his findings. Now at the University of Washington, he has been doing research with married couples since 1980.

On 5-20-11 at the annual conference of the Massachusetts Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, I asked Terry Real whether too much intimacy could be boring, whether it was important to keep mystery in a marriage. He recognized that as Perel's idea and said that while he likes her as a person, he totally disagrees with that idea. He says intimacy is the great turn on, the pearl of great price.

Lori Brotto, a psychologist in Canada, is doing serious research on lack of desire, and is getting good results with treatments based on mindfulness, one thing in the moment. She has published articles, but no book yet.
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on October 16, 2011
I can basically summarize her book: you need to look at your significant other as someone erotic and not the father or mother of your child. You must find ways to turn yourself on within the relationship and not see it as a mundane stagnant relationship. Basically, she advocates a balance between intimacy, love, respect, tenderness, closeness AND raw passion, erotic, whatever you can do to turn each other on (ie, porn, role play, flirting with each other). I knew this was her perspective, I thought the book would offer more practical advice. honestly, after the first few chapters, I felt she was saying the same stuff over and over and I kept waiting for the "solutions" or the "treatment" but she just went on about the same ideas expressed early within her book. I think it is an interesting read. In summary, the first few chapters I thought "wow, this is great", and then I felt disappointed with the rest of the book as it did not offer anything more but instead just said the same thing.
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on September 17, 2006
As a guide for "mating in captivity", this book transcends its title. Written for the mainstream in an easy, flowing style, Ms. Perel tackles complex issues concerning sex, passion, and eroticism within long term relationships. She presents a narrative that exposes various aspects of case histories in her therapy practice that encompasses cultural, gender, and age differences. Offering diverse measures that creatively tackle the problems presented, she assists her patients in discovering their own erotic needs as well as their partners'. This is not a manual, it is more a playful treatise on eroticism in which Ms. Perel examines its complexity and the role it plays in maintaining sexual passion alive. Thankfully, she does not provide therapy that encourages only closeness/intimacy as the answer to a fuller sexual experience. Her book offers a creative approach to discovering the renewal of sexual, physical, passion that can parallel the intimacy that might already be established within the relationship. She presents `the erotic' as being central to the whole person rather than it being only a component of sex---and that finding the key to it within ourselves will ultimately unlock the sexual stalemate that oftentimes occurs within longstanding committed relationships. Her book proposes a fresh view that taps into the erotic energy that feeds our creative selves and permeates our life. For those that that want to re-vamp or re-claim sex within their committed relationships and to all that want to participate in a full and passionate life, this book is for you.
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on March 4, 2015
I totally disagree with the idea that closeness makes relationships non-eritic, and emotional distance is necessary for hot sex. Playfulness requires safety, and the evidence is that close friendship is an important part of great sex. In the book The Normal Bar surveying 24 countries, couples who kiss passionately on an everyday basis also cuddle together and have satisfying sex often. So the recommendations of this book do not fit empirical science.
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on September 5, 2006
I've skimmed a number of popular books published in the last few years on the problem of sexless marriage, and this is by far most interesting contribution to date. First, there is no recommendations for drug therapy anywhere in the book. Second, the author frequently brings into the discussion a European-influenced view of some particularly American style predilictions and assumptions reguarding sex, parenthood, gender politics, and relationship expectations.

Her fundamental premise is that eroticisim requires seprateness, and in the course of building and sustaining security, we can frequently lose the "me" and "you" in us. But even more important, she sees the very contemporary marital impulse toward an egalitarian union -- while great for chores and child care -- can be a neutralizer in the bedroom.

You may or may not find strands of your own dilemma in her case histories, but you will not walk away from them empty handed, either.

There are many aspects of the book which are highly nuanced, and won't survive well in the O'Reilly world of broadcast media interviews. I can just hear some producer-fed talking head asking something like, "You advocate couples go to Vegas for swinging? Why?" (She doesn't). So don't pay attention to that noise. This is an intellegent, respectful, contemplative work of original thinking that confronts a subject too often approached with superlatives and pabulum.

Buy one for yourself and one for your best friend -- more than likely, they're suffering, too.
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on August 7, 2013
For those reviewers who liked reading this book, one can assume it was helpful because of searching for anything that would help rekindle passion in a relationship. To that end, it would have value. But if you know ANYTHING about intimacy, touching, physical and emotional communication, and desire, this book falls short of providing anything fresh or specific. For example, comments are made that are relevant such as on page 82, "what makes sustaining desire over time so difficult is reconciling two opposing forces: freedom and commitment." This is a wonderful arena to explore, but the author bails out and goes to something else. That statement begs for interpretation and bearings.

The book title is very creative, but the content is superficial, at best. The anecdotes, of which there are many, focus on the "what happened" rather than on DEEP INSIGHTS into "how" to make it better. The lack of depth of material is what disappointed me most. Surely, Perel learned more from her patients on coping than she reveals. There are much better books on intimacy and "bringing it back in action." I wish you well in your journey.
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