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.


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