I was fortunate to recently attend a workshop by Esther Perel and David Whyte on The Paradox and Poetry of Modern Love. Amidst so much that stood out for me, I want to reflect on what Perel said in her talk about (1) relational conflict and (2) intimacy and sex.
Conflict in relationships
Perel explores the tension between our need for security (love, belonging and closeness) and our need for freedom (erotic desire, adventure and distance) in close relationships. This leitmotif is borne out in what she believes to be the three fundamental issues that underlie all conflict in relationships; namely (1) care and safety, (2) power and control and (3) respect and dignity.
The need for care and safety
In her book Mating in Captivity (2007), Perel states that “we all share a fundamental need for security, which propels us towards committed relationships in the first place” (p xiv), and that “security and passion are two separate, fundamental human needs that spring from different motives and tend to pull us in different directions” (p 4). But because modern life has deprived us from many traditional resources, coupled with the enormous expectations placed on relationships today, a situation has been created where we today turn to one person for protection, safety and emotional connection. This makes us project our hopes and fears onto that person and makes us vulnerable to their whims. Such whims and behaviours are not seen as separate from us but interpreted in a co-dependant way as ‘about us’; which in turn makes us feel insecure and vulnerable, overly sensitive and reactive to what our partners say and do.
Perel believes that eroticism (passion) requires separateness, because to maintain an erotic tension between two people there must be a synapse to cross. She states that “eroticism thrives in the space between self and other” (p xv). This space between ourselves and our partners is, however what makes us feel vulnerable in our love relationships and which brings our unresolved attachment issues to the fore. And that it is why it becomes the space where our insecurities, uncertainties, projections and conflict are played out.
There is nothing more thrilling than to playing hide-and-seek. There is nothing more terrifying than to think they have stopped looking for you.
Power and control
In her talk Perel said “never has a party of two had to uphold such unprecedented expectations. There is no longer a system of rules and obligations – we now get to make our own choices”. In the honeymoon phase of the relationship we are more than willing to compromise and I think we often compromise and give, way beyond what we actually want to give, just to stay close to the person we love. However once the newness, thrill and excitement has worn off it becomes more difficult to compromise and the power struggle begins. The power struggle in relationships is in my experience, about unmatched and unmet needs and expectations (which manifest in all areas of our shared lives)on the one hand, and a clash of personalities on the other hand. Regarding the clash of personalities a well know dictum states that “that which attracts you to a person is also that which later on in the relationship you struggle with the most”. Think about how attractive decisiveness may appear early on in a relationship and how often that is viewed as control a few years into the relationship.
Respect and dignity
Desire is part and parcel of a love relationship, but this is often accompanied by feelings of vulnerability, insecurity, aggression and jealousy. When we love, especially in the early stages of the relationship, or when there is a threat to the relationship, we give some of our power away to our partner and it is then that we need our partners to treat us with respect and dignity. When we muster the courage to bear ourselves to our partner – to literally walk naked in front of them – we need them to respect us and to not point out our imperfections or mock our failings. When our partners become defensive and point these out to us, conflict will inevitably arise and escalate.
Sex and intimacy
Perel stated in her talk that sex today is data driven and is located in the performance industry narrative. In Mating in Captivity (2007) she writes that she is ‘ less inclined towards a statistical approach to sex – whether you’re still having it, how often, how long it lasts, who comes first, and how many orgasms you have” (p xiv). According to her animals have sex.
Intimacy, on the other hand, is about the connection between two people; the tension that exists between partners when there is space between them; and about imagination - which is paramount in a successful sexual relationship. According to Perel imagination allows us to dream, to see our partners through someone else’s eyes and to experience ourselves in different ways. Imaginations allows us to experience something know in a new way because we have taken it to a different place. No wonder they say that the most important sexual organ is the brain.
If you want to find out more about Perel’s thinking you will find her latest book The State of Affairs (2017) and her many YouTube videos interesting.