The false premise of Mating in Captivity

I was finally able to get a Kindle - Amazon finally started shipping a good model to a country where I live, though the promise of "3G Works Globally" is a pipe dream. The wireless connectivity doesn't work here in Costa Rica - I have to download content to the Kindle via USB.

My curiosity was recently piqued by someone mentioning Mating in Captivity, so I tried that as my first Kindle purchase. The author, Esther Perel, puts forward the following thesis:

Excessive intimacy kills sexual desire. Desire needs mystery and distance.

The author appears to believe this based on her experience as a therapist. She adheres to this belief despite contradictory evidence: she describes patients of her own where increased intimacy led to increased desire in all their past relationships, except the current one, for which they sought therapy.

For some people, intimacy may kill desire. But this isn't generally true. Perel might be confusing intimacy with self-repression. You do not have to self-repress in order to be intimate; though admittedly, the two concepts are more compatible in non-monogamous relationships, than they are in monogamy. The unrealistic promises asked of the monogamous do make full intimacy without self-repression difficult.

But second, I think the author makes a flawed conclusion for the following reason.

Consider all possible couples. Let's sort them into a matrix based on whether they have problems with sex, problems with intimacy, neither, or both:

.                     Intimacy

               | OK      | Problem |
            OK |   (1)   |   (3)   |
Sex   ---------+---------+---------+
       Problem |   (4)   |   (2)   |

There are couples in each of the above categories. But which category is most likely to have couples who seek treatment?

  1. Couples who are doing great both sexually and intimately do not have problems. They have no reason to seek therapy.
  2. Couples who have problems both in sex, as well as in intimacy, don't get together in the first place. This kind of hookup ends after a disappointing one night stand.
  3. Couples who are doing great sexually, but have no intimate connection, are likely to break up before they have invested enough of their emotions into the relationship to try to save it with therapy. Can't fix an intimacy that was never there.
  4. Finally, there are couples who have problems in sex, but are doing well in intimacy. Guess who has a strong mutual emotional investment, and is likely to try to save their relationship with therapy!

My argument is that Perel's central thesis, while it might be helpful to some people, isn't really something you can count on to fix sexual desire in your relationship. If you're a couple in category 4 - good intimacy but no sex - then chances are, you're either sexually incompatible, or at least one of you is flat out not made for a long term monogamous relationship. If a partner has been self-repressing, giving them breathing room may help, but it's not going to suddenly make you into a couple in category 1.

Is the book useless?

No. It's full of examples of couples with various types of issues that affect their sex lives. The examples are individually interesting to read. However, they don't lend themselves well to a generalization, and the author's contribution to helping individual couples solve their troubles seems... less than remarkable.


My case for non-monogamy

For the past 10 years or so, I've "fought the good battle" in online fora, advocating forms of non-monogamy - whether swinging, open relationships, or polyamory - against hordes of combatants conditioned in monogamous prejudice.

Much of the time, people aren't irked as much by my saying that non-monogamy works for those who choose it, but are bothered by my criticisms of monogamy. Their complaint is that I seem to imply that it's an inferior relationship choice.

That's because I think it is. Here's why.

Most people are sexual hypocrites. Most of us will, at some point, want to experience a relationship, or have sex with more than one person in our lives. However, if we have a partner, we don't want that partner to do the same. We have a double standard, but this double standard makes complete evolutionary sense. I want to be free to have sex with whomever I want because that benefits the reproduction of my genes. I don't want you to do the same because that harms the reproduction of my genes. If I'm male and you're female, then from an ancestral perspective, I risk expending energy raising a child that isn't mine. If I'm female and you're male, I don't want you to have relationships with others, because they will consume energy and resources you might have spent on me and our children.

To reconcile this innate hypocrisy, we have the following choices:
  1. Side with jealousy. The monogamous choice is to declare jealousy more justified than desire. Both partners are expected to agree to suppress any desires they might have for other people, now or in the future.
  2. Side with desire. The non-monogamous choice is to declare desire as more justified than jealousy. Both partners are expected to suppress their jealous tendencies, so that they might be able to enjoy experiences with other people.
  3. Cheat.
So far, so good. Most people don't like others to pick that third choice. But monogamy and consensual non-monogamy both sound valid, right? Yes, kind of. But there are further implications.

Monogamy encourages dishonesty; non-monogamy encourages communication.

Monogamy requires the partners to suppress desire, while encouraging mate-guarding behavior. Neither partner is motivated to be honest if they do experience desire. This hinders communication, and seeds the relationship with dishonesty; both partners are now motivated to be vigilant and suspicious of one another.

A non-monogamous relationship requires the partners to manage jealousy, while permitting desire. Jealousy is easiest to manage for partners who know each other very well, and learn about each other through communication. Non-monogamy encourages communication, and presents no reason for either partner to be dishonest about experiencing desire.

Monogamy is unstable; non-monogamy is self-stabilizing.

When one of the monogamous partners violates the spirit of the relationship, and performs an act with an outside person which is prohibited by the other, the outcome is frequently catastrophic. A partner who has suppressed their desires, only to find that their partner has not, will tend to explode with jealousy, frequently causing the relationship to end, or even a worse outcome. Monogamous relationships tend to break up over what, to non-monogamous people, would appear to be harmless expressions of desire.

When one of the non-monogamous partners violates the spirit of the relationship, this is generally by being more jealous and controlling than the partners intended. A lapse in managing one's jealousy is not catastrophic; the other partner simply reduces their non-monogamous behavior until the partner experiencing jealousy can bring their emotions into control. The two partners communicate, and identify the reason one of them felt neglected, or insecure. The relationship is strengthened, rather than ended.

Monogamy is coercion; non-monogamy is freedom.

The social compliance tools of monogamy consist of shaming, chastising, and punishment. Those who are passionate about monogamy attempt to coerce everyone into compliance by shaming and chastising people for being sexually open, and by calling for "cheaters" to be punished.

The social tools of non-monogamy are to encourage communication, responsibility, respect, and understanding of self and others. If someone hasn't yet been able to manage their jealousy, it means they need help and practice, not punishment.

The fear of STDs is overblown.

Most people will not blame their partner if he or she returns from work, or from a social visit, or from school, and brings home the flu. They will sympathize with the partner's misfortune, even though it may mean they will get the flu themselves, and suffer for a week before they improve.

At the same time, most people would consider it completely outrageous if their partner brings home gonorrhea. This is even though gonorrhea is cured with a single dose of antibiotics, and has symptoms in no way comparable to the flu.

There are other STDs besides gonorrhea, of course. But they tend to be either of minor consequence, or rare, or can be mitigated or avoided. The total risks we face from STDs are not enough to deprive ourselves from a whole spectrum of human experience.

Strict monogamy used to make sense when we did not have STD testing, cheap and reliable condoms, and modern medicine. Now that we have these advances, bearing the disadvantages of strict monogamy makes a lot less sense, and it is worthwhile to consider less strict relationship options.

Non-monogamy is a better default relationship option.

Millions upon millions of people would find themselves better served by a more open relationship style, but are shamed and coerced into monogamy from a young age, because that's the only relationship type that's widely considered "respectable". This represents oppression of a large group of people who aren't naturally monogamous, and would not have chosen that relationship type, if they thought they genuinely had a choice. After feeling like they were deprived this choice, millions of people resort to cheating.

People should instead be taught about the reality of human desire, and guided into some form of almost-but-not-quite-monogamous relationship, where you might not go around having sex with everyone, but you recognize the possibility that you and your partner may at some point develop feelings and desires for other people. When that happens, the partners should expect to help each other understand and experience those emotions, hopefully emerging with a stronger and richer relationship. This prospect may seem difficult to people raised with monogamous expectations, but would be much easier if social pressure for monogamy was not embedded into every part of our social fabric.

You don't have to jump into it right now.

Non-monogamy is something I would like the general social climate to become friendlier with, in the long term. It's something I would recommend exploring for people who are currently single, not necessarily for people who are perfectly happy in their relationships. If it works, why fix it?

But if at some point the traditional choice does not work so well, then awareness that these concepts even exist, and work for others, might help.