Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence

By Esther Perel


In dating and relationships, we regularly deal with social and emotional intelligence. After reading Mating in Captivity, I can say that “erotic intelligence” is a term we all need to get better acquainted with. Reinforced by her 20+ years of practice, Ester Perel takes a close look at the demise of committed couples’ eros (sexual desire).

Erotic intelligence is the understanding of what creates desire and attracts a couple to each other, what changes as the relationship matures, how starting a family influences change, and how and why desire dissipates between a couple as they spend more time together. This is not a book on how often, how many times, who gets there first, how long it lasts, or any other specifics on how to be erotic. Instead, this book focuses on understanding how eroticism exists between a couple. It discusses cultivating eroticism, losing it, and what is necessary to maintain it at a high level. Many stereotypes are dispelled as we are enlightened about the complex realities.

How is it that people can now have as much sex as they want but seem to have lost the passion for it?  Explained are a variety of factors that have led to the diminishment, beginning with the sexual revolution. Real-life patient cases are presented to help understand the correlation between cultural changes and the erotic dynamic.

Most importantly, Perel points out the telltale signs of when a relationship’s desire transitions into love, the point where eros is lost. Awareness comes down to managing a group of paradoxes. Love enjoys knowing everything about you; desire needs mystery. Fulfilling our sense of security and certainty in a relationship depletes our passion for the other. Separateness is required for an intimate connection; when two become one, fusion occurs, and there is nothing left to connect to.

A multitude of questions are discussed. When you become a committed couple, can you want what you now already have? Why don’t desire and equality in a sexual relationship play by the same rules? How can the division between romantics (seekers) and realists be bridged? Why do we rationalize sex away in relationships, no matter how steamy it was initially? When first getting together, couples find sex to be a release from the busy workday and stressful life, so why do they later lose interest and passion for sex because they are busy and stressed? When it comes to men, why is romance necessary when it’s now readily available within the relationship?

50 Dates at 50 Take: 

As you read this book, you’ll take stock of many of your past intimate relationship faux pas. What will become apparent as you get towards the end is that committed monogamous couples can have a richly fulfilling, passionate sexual relationship. The trick is understanding the balancing act of the paradoxes.

Perel’s ability to logically explain her points should be enough to convince most men. Getting Gen X or Boomer men to actually pick up this book, entertain her reasoning, and adjust accordingly is an entirely different story. One of the biggest problems facing our age group is a substantial percentage are set in their ways and refuse to participate in personal growth. For this reason, as 50 Daters, we need to be discerning when picking the right person for a relationship.

Books like Mating in Captivity help us refine that process as we work our way into the third and fourth quarters of our lives. Finding someone you can open up to about the topics in this book is extremely important. Settling is not an option. It is better to be alone than to be in lackluster company.

This is a very eye-opening book. By reading and applying what’s in it, you’ll be able to transform existing relationships back to a high level of eros, intensify new relationships, and maintain them. I’ve read many books on relationships, and in my opinion, Perel is on solid ground. Authors of several other publications in the growing review library here at 50 Dates reinforce her analysis. Additionally, sources for her research are well documented in the notes and bibliography.

Why You Need to Read It:

This book is a fascinating read and has many noteworthy points that, upon first glance, are often dismissed or misunderstood due to misinformation on a variety of fronts. As I bring up some of these topics, it’s crucial to note that context is essential. You have to read each chapter thoroughly grasp Perel’s points, and she makes some excellent points. Keep this in mind as you read on.

  • The Myth of Spontaneity – Perel sees many couples in her practice who hold on to the idea that sex must be spontaneous, while family life thrives in an environment of comfort and consistency. Perel makes the case that even at the beginning of a sexual relationship, spontaneity is a myth. What one believes to be “in the moment” is actually the result of much planning and preparation. When you start going out as a couple, you carefully consider many things. What outfit should you wear? What restaurant will you attend, and what music do you put on in the background? What will the conversation topics be?  She explains to couples that they now have to make sex happen. They must continue to plan to create the conditions for it as in the beginning. A proper frame of mind is necessary too. Committed sex is intentional sex. What used to be “I couldn’t resist” has to evolve into “I don’t want to resist.” “We fell into each other’s arms” has to evolve into “Let me take you into my arms.” Many couples associate planning with scheduling, scheduling with work, and work with duties. In this context, it becomes a turn-off. However, the idea is to open space to create an erotic environment.
  • More Intimacy, Less Sex – Many couples confuse a deeper level of intimacy with a higher degree of sexual desire for each other. This is counterintuitive. The deeper the intimacy, the more a couple fuses. Attraction takes place when you are apart, not together. A couple has to spend time apart to maintain a high level of desire for sex with each other. That space and time apart are what creates the erotic bridge to each other. There must be a balance of time together and time apart.
  • Bilingual Intimacy – This is where couples have different love languages, and neither are aware of their differences. Add some baggage of past relationships and cultural upbringing teaching us to be ashamed of our bodies, and you’ve got a couple at a sexual impasse. Perel illustrates that the stereotypical example of this is when the woman thinks the man is a typical sex-obsessed man, demanding his needs be met. The man sees the woman as sexually repressed, repeatedly rejecting him for inexplicable reasons of repulsion and contempt.
  • Democracy Versus Hot Sex – Here it is explained why desire and fairness in a sexual relationship don’t play by the same rules. Some of the great advances America is best known for, democracy and fairness, are at odds in the bedroom. Great care is taken to explain why and how the ideas of sexual conquest/dominance and submission/surrender can’t be reconciled with compromise and equality. It doesn’t matter which partner plays which part. The hotter the sex, the more conquest and surrender there is.
  • The Hookup Culture – Preferred by Gen Y and Millennials, this is an intentional effort to keep the emotions out of sex. Hookups are brief couplings that have no narrative, no ascending plot, no story, no climax, and no closure. It’s about defining good sex as spontaneity and excitement with multiple dream dates. Nothing goes wrong because you say goodbye the next day. You don’t get to know each other long enough to see the other’s flaws. For the girls, it means not sacrificing your goals for a commitment. For the boys, it means getting to have multiple partners and frequent change. In hookups, relationships are about what you lose, not gain. Both genders are equal in their fear of commitment.
  • The Importance of Being Ruthless – This has to do with the paradox of thinking that the closer we feel with someone, the easier it is to discard self-conscious thoughts and be more open. It turns out the opposite is the reality for most couples due to the level of vulnerability they achieve. The more intimate they become, the more the erotic excitement between them dies. Half of desire is what is in the erotic moment for you. Taking a step back and focusing on what you want out of those moments helps achieve separateness and combat Fusion. To be one, you must first be two.
  • A Modern Love Story: The Short Version – Perel’s outline here is pure genius. Even an engineer can understand the story and how it repeats itself. You can easily insert parts into your past relationships and see where things started to go south.
    1. You meet someone through potent alchemy of attraction.
    2. This sweet reaction is always a surprise.
    3. You’re lifted with a sense of possibility, of hope, of escaping the mundane for a world of emotion and enthrallment.
    4. Love grabs you, and you feel powerful.
    5. You cherish the rush, and you want to hold on to the feeling.
    6. You’re also scared.
    7. The more you become attracted, the more you have to lose.
    8. So you set out to make love more secure. You seek to fix it, to make it dependable.
    9. You make your first commitments and happily give up a little bit of freedom in exchange for a little bit of stability.
    10. You create comfort through devices – habit, ritual, pet names – that bring reassurance.
    11. But the excitement was bound to a certain measure of insecurity. Your high resulted from the uncertainty, and now, by seeking to harness it, you wind up draining the intensity out of the relationship.
    12. You enjoy the comfort but complain that you feel constrained.
    13. You miss the spontaneity. In your attempt to control the risks of passion, you have tamed it out of existence.
    14. Marital boredom is born.

A few other points from the book include:

  • While love promises us relief from aloneness, it also heightens our dependence on one person.
  • There’s a powerful tendency in long-term relationships to favor the predictable over the unpredictable. Yet eroticism thrives on the unpredictable.
  • The motivational expert Anthony Robbins puts it succinctly when he explained that “Passion in a relationship is commensurate (in proportion) with the amount of uncertainty you can tolerate.”


Book Title: Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence

Author:  Esther Perel

Year Published:  2009

Amazon Link

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