Hint: It's not love.
Esther Perel looks like the New York couples therapist from Central Casting. Married for a zillion years, mother of two, trim as an arrow — if you have to talk to a stranger about your sex life, she’ll do just fine.
And she's got pop credentials: Her book, Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic & The Domestic, got warm reviews. But woe be to couples who bring her their problems without reading her first.
They ask: If novelty is the key to hot sex, doesn't monogamy kill it? Can a Mom who starts her day packing Cheerios in a lunchbox become a vixen at night? Why doesn't intimacy guarantee good sex?
Then comes the surprises, for Perel's approach to couples therapy is light years from Dr. Phil's, so I asked her questions that a new client might.
JK: Bill Maher says that when you're married, you need a cue to have sex.
EP: There is no sex without a cue. People who date have their cues at home before they meet. You think about where to go, what to eat, what to do and say. Sometimes the cue is short — just before we reach the bar — but sex is never just spontaneous. Spontaneity is a myth.
JK: The Daters may not know that. The 'Marrieds' do. And I'm sure a great many of them believe that marital sex is a loop, a movie they've lived before—and they get nostalgic for the yes, yes, yes of dating.
EP: In dating, if you say no, your lover goes on to the next person. In marriage, if you say no, the person stays.
The attraction of dating is that you don't take yes for granted — you're fully engaged, there’s seductiveness, tension.
In committed sex, in marriage, people don't feel the need to seduce or to build anticipation — that's an effort they think they no longer need to do now that they have conquered their partner. If they're in the mood, their partner should be too.
JK: Let's get practical. What’s the way to exciting sex in marriage?
EP: You must elicit the other person’s desire. And not just five minutes before.
You know what happens to sex in marriage? Instead of inviting desire, you monitor it. Especially men: You let her sleep late, you take the kids to the park, and all that time you’re thinking, "Tonight I'll get some." That doesn’t work.
JK: Let's get mental. How does a soccer mom change from a drudge in an apron to a hottie? Drugs? Alcohol?
EP: You take off your apron. You shift identity. The mom doesn't become sexy; the woman does. You have to retrieve the woman from the mother. And she may need to separate to do that: a bath, a walk. She must cordon off an erotic space.
JK: Women are that different from men?
EP: Women — and men — need to understand that a woman's transition is often much longer. The caretaker must leave the place of orientation to the needs of others to the place where she focuses on herself.
That’s why these rituals are important — they redirect her attention. She needs to know that sex does not mean taking care of her husband.
JK: Porn: help or hindrance?
EP: Depends. For her, far less often. To work, it must put her in touch with her own erotic self.
JK: Viagra: help or hindrance?
EP: A help at first, for some. But useless for 60 to 70 percent of men. And if you don't look at context in the relationship—it's of no use.
JK: Is there a magic bullet for couples that cherish monogamy and hot sex?
EP: I don't have one.
JK: Okay, then, what are the elements of good sex?
EP: First, interest in the person — she can't feel like an old sofa. And then it has to be sex worth wanting.
That's sex when you don't know from the beginning how it's going to end, sex that's fun, playful, naughty, rebellious, complicitous — and accepted. That is, sex not focused on results.
There's something very full in knowing that your partner accepts you as is. That's what's different from dating.
JK: But here's an irony. In your book, you say that intimacy can be the enemy of lust.
EP: Acceptance doesn't mean predictability. Sex isn't always for 11 at night — it's also 'meet at a hotel room at noon'. What you feel during dating can exist at home, if you don't suffocate it.
JK: What do you tell patients who ask if monogamy is the only way?
EP: That's for them to decide. It may not be for everyone. And maybe not all the time.
JK: I'm baffled. Unfaithful but committed — can that happen?
EP: Are we talking about sexual exclusivity — or emotional loyalty? People cheat on each other in a hundred different ways: indifference, emotional neglect, contempt, lack of respect, years of refusal of intimacy.
Cheating doesn't begin to describe the ways that people let each other down.
JK: Are you sanctioning affairs?
EP: No. Not that people need me to give them permission; they'll have affairs if they want to. But affairs can be powerful detonators. They can invigorate a marriage that's flat, jolt people out of years of complacency.
Fear of loss rekindles desire, makes people have conversations they haven’t had in years, takes them out of their contrived illusion of safety.
JK: In fact, you have written, we never are safe. We don't "have" our partner. We're all on lease with an option to renew.
EP: On some level, we trade passion for security, that's trading one illusion for another. It's a matter of degree. We can't live in constant fear, but we can't live without any. The fear of loss is essential to love.
JK: My wife — she's not my best friend?
EP: She'd better not be. Friendship has no tension — that's the whole point. In desire, there must be some small amount of tension. And that tension comes with the unknown, the unpredictable.
You can close yourself off at home and say, "Whew, at last, I'm in a place where I don't have to worry," or you can keep yourself open to the mystery and elusiveness of your partner.
JK: Elusiveness? After years of marriage?
EP: You never know your partner as well as you think. Here's an easy way to find this out.
Each of you opens an email account that you use only to email the other. No daily management stuff allowed. Just two adults in conversation, often about sex: fantasies, questions, memories, no holds barred.
JK: Hotmail— literally! How do your patients respond to that idea?
EP: One guy kept asking his wife, during sex, "Tell me what you like." She didn't like the idea of evaluating during sex. She wasn't hostile to the questions, they just had different styles.
I suggested, "Write to him, tell him what sex means to you. Rebellion? Is it where you can be naughty? Do you want a spiritual connection?"
They had a lively correspondence.
JK: What about technique? What about favorite places?
EP: This has nothing to do with where he should put his hand. Sex is about where you can take me, not what you can do to me.