The Fluidity of Desire

Esther Perel

A native of Belgian, fluent in nine languages, and a penetrating observer of the social and cultural patterns shaping our relationships, Esther is a practicing psychotherapist and organizational consultant to Fortune 500 companies.

Her 2013 TED talk, “The Secret to Desire in a Long-Term Relationship,” attracted more than a million views in the first month after its release. Her second TED Talk, “Rethinking Infidelity: A talk for Anyone Who Has Ever Loved”, was equally well-received. Combined, her TED talks have received approx. 10 million views.

In today’s episode, Esther and I spoke about:

  • Her definition of desire; the importance of owning desire and how to connect to our own desires
  • Women are socialized for connection and the associated vulnerability of the inability to connect to self
  • Experiencing freedom from perfection without the guilt
  • Imagination complementing reality in relationships
  • What women can hold onto for stability in the ever increasingly gender-fluid era.

 

Here is my ‘juicy’ conversation The Fluidity of Desire with the insightful and practical: Esther Perel.

Subscribe to the Emerging Women podcast on iTunes.

Transcript

Welcome, Esther! I’m so excited to have you here on the show!

Esther Perel: Thank you! It’s a pleasure for me to be with you as well.

CP: And every time you speak, I feel like a tender heart, because my mother, who has passed away, had a much thicker French accent than you have, and I’ve been listening to your audio book, Mating in Captivity, so I feel like you’ve been with me on my walks in the morning and listening to your content. It’s kind of taking me back a bit.

EP: You know, we share, in utero, it’s probably the first sense that we develop. So we are starting out with a very intimate connection. And if you want, I can even make my French accent a little stronger, so that I can channel your mother.

CP: [Laughs] She spoke like zis.

EP: Oh, wow.

CP: Oh, no, it was very thick. But I think that when you have an accent like that, and you’re talking about sensuality and sex and desire—I don’t know what your experience has been, but it seems like you might have carte blanche to say just about anything, right?

EP: Well, you know, the French accent works in both directions, especially in the United States. Sometimes it comes with a kind of bias that says, “Oh, you must know something, the je ne sais quoi that French people have in the realm of the erotics.” But then, on the other side, the opposite way is to start with kind of a warning sentence that says, “No, no, I’m not French, I’m not morally depraved, it’s not like anything goes.” I think there’s an enormous amount of projections in this domain onto the French—onto the Latin people in general, it seems, certainly onto the French—some of which is going to be accurate and some of which is the fantasy of the person who expresses it, or the person that is being designated.

CP: Of course. Well, I think we’re probably going to get into that a lot more [and] in a lot more depth, instead of just talking about the French accent in terms of projections, as we get into your content. So the first thing that I would love to lead with is, you speak a lot about desire. And it seems to me that—especially since our audience is primarily women, we address women, the modern woman, who’s moving it and shaking it in so many different ways—what I’m finding a lot is that women in relationships—and I don’t want to make a generalization with statistics and all that, but anecdotally, I find often women are in relationships where they’ve either lost the desire or the desire has shifted, or they don’t even have juice for desire after working a full day. I’m curious to see—this is such a cornerstone to relationships, and I would love to hear your take on, first of all, what do you mean by desire? And how is that such a foundation for healthy relationships?

EP: So I really like the fact that you start by asking me to define the term that you want, so that really know what we are talking about. Now, we could pick a scientific definition for “desire,” we could pick a behavioral, a hormonal—they’re both ways to enter. I tend to think more of it being an existential term, if you want, and I tend to think about the nature of desire because it is probably one of the most important elements of modern life. Meaning, desire is to own the wanting. Desire is the expression of the sovereign self. Desire points to free will. You can force people to do, you can never force them to desire. It is the ultimate expression of our free identity, if you want.

And in the realm of intimate relationships, sexual desire has become central. Because this is the first time in the history of humankind that we are meant to remain sexually connected to ourselves and our partner. Not because we want multiple children and we’re having sex for procreation, nor, at least in the West, some of us privileged women know that sexuality is just a marital duty for women.

So it is all about, “Do I want it? Do I feel like it? Do I want this to be part of my experience?” And we know that part of the real challenges for women in relationships in general is this dialectic of, “How do I connect to you without losing me? And how do I stay connected with me without losing you?” Hence the notion of staying attached to one’s own wanting, to one’s own preferences, desires, is challenging for a woman in relationships throughout.

CP: I love what you’re saying. You own the wanting. Because it’s one thing to recognize it, “Oh, I want this,” but there’s something really proactive in the owning [of] it.

EP: Yes, because it points to agency. What I’m saying that’s very typical for woman is that if the other person wants, she often knows what she wants because the other person has said, “Oh, I wanted to go to this place,” and then she says, “No, I don’t really want [to go to] this place.” Now she has a better sense of what she wants because she’s positioning it in the reaction, in response, in contrast to what the other person wants. It’s like she [can’t] elicit it on her own. And then, once she already knows what she wants, the second challenge is to actually drive it, to stay connected to it, to not lose it in the transaction with another person.

This is true for sexual desire, this is true for one’s overall sense of self, of, “How do I take care of others, be it in my job, be it in my family, my family of origin or my current family, or in my relationships? And how do I not lose touch with my own?” It is a real challenge, and I would say this, as women in business, as women in professional life, as women in other realms of familial obligation, it’s just essential to the challenge of [a woman knowing her] identity. How does she navigate self and other? How does she know what she wants when she sees the wanting of others, the wanting of her friends, of her mother, of her children, of her boss, of her colleagues?

CP: God, this is so deep, I feel it in my own life, too. Do men just have a healthier relationship with desire because it’s more connected to them and not reliant on the other? What do you see as a trend there?

EP: Great question, great question. Let me put it to you in a different language. Traditionally, we would see that women are socialized for connection and men are socialized for autonomy. If women are socialized for connection, then their greatest resource is in their ability to connect to others, but they’re greater vulnerability is about staying connected to themselves. If men are socialized for autonomy, then their resource is their ability to hold on to themselves. They know what they want, they can go and get it. But their vulnerability is in the fear that they would lose their autonomy if they create intimacy.

So these are dialectics. We all struggle with the same two things: we all need connection and separateness. We all need security and freedom. But I would say that, if you look at general socialization, you will find that the vulnerability for men is not how to deal with their autonomy, but how to deal with the fear of the loss of autonomy in the realm of the relationships. For women, the difficulty is not how to connect but how to stay connected with themselves.

CP: Yes. I’m curious to know, once we’ve identified desire and we own it and we have some practices—I know you have an online workshop and an online course that you’re doing around desire that will have more practices in it, so I’m excited to hear more about that. But once we have practices in our lives that are staying connected to desire, how do we—is it possible to rekindle desire? First of all, is it possible for desire to die? And then, can it be rekindled? Because that’s another thing that I’m seeing, that once that goes, it’s like, “Well, you can never get it back.” It’s like a slippery fish, sometimes, this desire.

EP: Right. I would describe it differently. Yes, desire dies. But I wouldn’t say “dies.” Sometimes it dies. Generally, I would say desire is more like the moon. It goes through intermittent [phases]. Desire ebbs and flows. Many of us lose connections, to ourselves, to our sense of excitement, to our arousal, to our playfulness, to our aliveness, to our brightness. We all lose it. The difference is that some of us know what to do to resuscitate it. The ebb and flow is not that—we don’t disconnect from ourselves, but that we know how to reconnect.

A way of asking the question that I find very, very powerful, that I borrow from the work of Gina Ogden, a colleague of mine—who has written wonderful stuff, by the way, on women and sexuality and female desire. She asks the question like this: “I’ve turned myself off by” or “I shut down when.” Broadly, it’s not just sexually. It’s not the same question as, “You turn me off when” and “What turns me off is.”

They basically talk about, “When I stop thinking about myself, when I don’t take care of myself, when I don’t go in nature, when I don’t see my friends, when I stop singing and playing the music I love, when I am disconnected from my partner, when I’m disconnected from my body, when I don’t like my body, when I’m loathing it.” It’s really about [a woman’s] relationship with herself, fundamentally around two areas: the area of self-worth and the area of donation-giving for pleasure.

And when you ask the question in reverse: “I turn myself on when,” “I unleash my desires when,” “I awaken myself how, by,” rather than, “You turn me on when,” or “What turns me on is. They will tell you the same thing in reverse. “I awaken my desire when I think of myself, when I take care of myself, when I pamper myself, when I give myself time to go and do the things that I enjoy, that make me feel alive, that make me feel worthy, that make me feel good.” From that place of aliveness, of [connecting] with the erotic self, flows the desire.

CP: And what about in relationship? Now you have two people. It’s one thing to stay connected to your own desire and to realize the ebbs and flows—which I love, by the way, because it just gives us permission to be human, and to have that ebb and flow is a wonderful analogy. But what about in relationship? You’ve got two people, two desires, right?

EP: Yes, yes, yes. The first thing that jumps to me—I haven’t even let you finish the question, so maybe I should actually listen to you.

CP: No! Jump in! It’s a conversation, let me hear it! Cut me off, I love it.

EP: What jumps out immediately, of course, is that in relationships, one of the things that [you will] notice with women, in line with what I described before, is that she knows more of what she wants when it’s in a position of what the other person wants. Because when she wants what the other one wants, she often wonders, “Is this really what I want? Or am I just trying to please the other?” She doesn’t know how to know what she wants when the other one wants the same and still feel like it’s hers.

So as a result, she is often much more vocal about what she doesn’t like. With desire, you can’t desire not something. You always desire something. You cannot form your desire as a negation. “I desire not to feel something,” no. “I desire to feel that other thing.” And that is where it really is a challenge in life. So often, with a partner, she finds herself articulating her dislikes, her criticisms, the shortcomings, rather than what she would like instead.

Now, any criticism is a wish in disguise. But it is also much [harder] to actually articulate our wish or our desire than to articulate our frustrations about the lack thereof. And yet, we women, in that sense, we are masters. So that’s one of the things that she needs to learn if she wants to stay connected to the other person. Why? Because if she just becomes critical and negative, the other person stops listening to her wish and only [makes] a defensive stance toward her criticism and her frustration. So that’s when you get a classic disconnect.

The second thing is that sometimes she needs to learn to create boundaries, to give herself that time, to give herself the things that are just privacy with herself, if you want, or what I like to call “intimacy with herself,” so that she can also have an intimacy with the partner. And then the next thing is that sometimes she need to challenge what I think is one of the great problems of modern intimacy, which is that she often turns to one person to give her everything. That in itself becomes a source of frustration. So it’s not that she can’t express her desires, it’s that she comes with all her desires to one person, and basically would like this one man or woman to satisfy what normally an entire community needs to be built for.

So what I often find myself doing is asking her, “Who else is in your world? Who populates your inner world? Who do you reach out to? Who do you communicate [with] about what? And can we dismantle this big, romantic ideal that there will be one person who will basically become an extension of you?” Because when that happens, that in itself becomes the death of the erotic in the most unanticipated way.

A lot of it is about integrating rather than fragmenting, but at the same time, not integrating to a point of it being so intimate that she has not sense of boundaries. Now, a basic example, a typical, daily example, is, at what point did she stop cleaning, organizing, fixing, doing, being instrumental, and just say, “I’m sitting down now and just doing nothing, or reading, or listening to music,” whatever, just enjoying. At what point did she say, “Enough work, now me,” rather than, “I have to be perfect. Once I have been perfect, then I have earned my desire. Now I’m allowed to want, because I’ve done everything that other people expect.”

Many women in this age of perfection have to really learn to just say, “It’s enough for today. And now me,” rather than, “Wait!” She’s exasperated or frustrated or something beyond, and then she doesn’t know how to experience desire because then she experiences deserving. Now she’s in the realm of resentment and now she doesn’t just say “I want,” she says, “I deserve,” right? “Deserving” is wanting for [a] prize. It’s the people who don’t really feel that they are allowed to want so they have to be [at the end] to finally say, “Now me!” But then they say it with such violence and with such an aggression that they can shake up the whole house.

That’s what happens to her many times in relationships. She doesn’t say it earlier when it’s just, “Hey, I feel like it, I want to,” she screams it, “I deserve! I’ve had it, I’ve had enough!” And then she blames him or her or whoever else is around her for not being allowed to say this sooner. No, no. She just doesn’t feel like she can because she first needs to be perfect, have it all done, and then she feels that desire is a reward rather than desire is basically part of her human right.

CP: Oh my God, does this sound familiar! I mean, I feel this way too, that perfection. I never linked it with desire. It’s so interesting because I think that when we’re living in that loop of perfection, then that criticism can’t help but spill out. Because we’re putting so much on ourselves, we bring those standards to our relationships, and then it’s nothing but lack and criticism and not good enough on the inside and on the outside.

EP: Correct. But it’s really kind of an epidemic at this point, yes? I mean, you’ve got the most confident, successful, powerful group of women in history walking around constantly with an inner voice of “flawed, and critical, and not enough.” It’s just tragic. And, I should add, resentful, because, “How can you sit down when there is so much to do? Don’t you see?” But why don’t you just sit down? Does it really matter? Is that going to be written on your epitaph? “You cleaned when,” or “You organized and labeled when,” or whatever? Or, “You deprived yourself nicely”?

It’s a very interesting thing to help women allow themselves the permission to experience pleasure, which is really where desire resides. To experience freedom, to experience autonomy, and all of that, we [end] up instantly feeling selfish and guilty.

CP: Well, what’s interesting about what you’re saying is that because we’re kind of hardwired to touch into our desire through the other, it’s hard to get in touch with that. It’s like a muscle we have to flex to find the source of our desire within. Because I think a lot of us are like, “All right, my partner—man or woman, whoever we’re in relationship with—OK, make me desire you,” or we’re waiting for something to spark. “Oh, you’re not attractive. I don’t desire him anymore. He just sits on the couch.” You know? But if there’s a way we can rekindle the desire without ourselves, without that other, I think that’s kind of the thought.

EP: So here’s the trick of this. This is so essential, that sentence you just mentioned. “Make me want,” she says to him. “Make me want.” But you can’t. You can’t make someone want. You can make all kinds of things happen, and then you can elicit a condition for which her wanting will emerge. But you can’t make someone want. Woman abdicate that. Now, interestingly, and you can really see it in the realm of the erotic and sex, but it is so clearly [that] he can want as much he wants if she does not. If she’s not into it, if she doesn’t like herself, there will be zero response. The shop is closed.

There’s a beautiful term, it’s complicated, but it says it all. It’s called “final janaya.” My colleague Marta Meana, who’s the greatest researcher on women and sexuality [says] if she doesn’t like herself, she does not understand why anybody else would want to touch her, except if you forgot to put on your glasses.

CP: Oh God! Right.

EP: Right? So she has to like herself first. It’s very interesting. She has to like herself first. We rarely talk about women’s narcissism, but in fact, in the realm of sexuality, it is probably one of the most important facts. In heterosexual couples, I hear plenty of men say, “Nothing turns me on more than to see her turned on.” I have yet to hear a woman say that. No, she doesn’t get turned on because he’s turned on. She’s gets turned on because she is the turn on. That’s a very different premise. And she can only allow herself to feel that when she feels good enough about herself, otherwise she blocks it. On the kind of dual track of the erotic and of desire, which is the excitation track and the inhibition track, she will really shut it down and inhibit it.

So how does she develop a better liking of herself which then allows her to welcome the attraction, the desire, of another person? And it’s not through the relationship—it’s through the self-liking. It’s the opposites. It’s like, because women are socialized so much to be relational, to actually be able to let go and be freer sexually, they have to not be as relational as much as they have to be in relationship with themselves. It’s the opposite.

And it’s the same opposite in sex for men. As much as men are socialized—for me, hardwired is cultural. I’m not really talking here about evolutional or biological [terms] as much as I think of it in cultural terms. But he seems socialized to be able to more autonomous and fearless and competitive and self-sufficient and self-sustaining. The difficulty is on the connection scale.

Sexually, you will find that men are often very much thinking about her in order to feel good about himself, whereas she needs to feel good about herself in order to be able to think about him. It’s the flip side. What works in our relational life is turned upside-down in order to liberate our erotic life.

CP: Well, I mean, I feel like the implications—here we are, we’re in an age, a new feminism, so to speak. There’s definitely a rise in the demand for feminine leadership, and yet I think a lot of what holds us back as women is this lack of ownership on that individual level of our own desire, and also lack of self-acceptance. We’re working on freeing ourselves from this perfection and actually kind of falling in love with ourselves so that we are a turn on, not just in terms of our relationships, but that we can have that juice and charisma and energy, frankly, to lead in a way that’s empowerful and impactful.

EP: But then we will need to learn that our appreciation of ourselves doesn’t become perfect, but more like [how] Brené Brown talks about it, because we welcome the gift of imperfection. If we actually are more compassionate with ourselves, we accept our imperfections, we’re not agreeing to sell everything, and we seem like ourselves and can even get a good laugh at it, then we will be in a much better place.

I think what happens—you know, in the Boomer generation, the first wave of feminism, something in particular happened here. Here I’m going to bring a cultural observation, because it’s very different from Belgium, where I’m from. From a European model, American feminism really emphasized sameness. We are the same, and therefore, we should earn the same, we should have the same ability to climb the ladder, we should have the same access. Whereas the European model actually really said, “Look, we are different. Therefore, create institutions, social support, maternity care, family leave, child care, that allows us to then go out and do what the men are doing so that we can work as well. But first, you have to provide institutional support, otherwise we cannot be equal.”

So in order to be equal, we have to acknowledge our difference versus the model here, which was, “We are the same, therefore we are equal.” And from that point on, I think there has been a divide inside American women between the feminine and the powerful, or the feminine and the professional, if you want. It’s that you can’t really integrate those two, you are either smart and powerful and this and that, or you are feminine, and they are separated, they are segregated from each other. And if you’re going to do the feminine, it’s not because you’re really experienced in that integrated way, it’s more because you’re performing femininity, you’re performing seduction. You’re putting on the clothes, you’re putting on the makeup, but it’s like a costume. It’s not really an extension of who you are, and it goes with you in every place, because you’ve decided to put it on for the occasion, for the role, for the gig, for the job, for the deal.

It’s really crippling, I think, to many women to have to constantly decide, because then, if I’m going to work with the other one, to then go to work with the powerful one, and that powerful one is a neutered one—right? It’s neutered. But of course, it also is more masculine. I come home, and it’s very difficult to put the other one back on. It’s not like it’s just a matter of taking off the clothes. It’s a shifting.

There used to be a period where you have all these women in suits and sneakers on the subways in New York. It’s like, they wear the sneakers and then they wear the high heels shoes that you put on, but it’s like, no! Pick one that is comfortable that you can go everywhere that is who you are! Why this state? This is the racing shoe for the race, literally the race, the professional race, and then the other shoe for the connection. It doesn’t work this way, in my experience. It’s really created a much bigger split that is much more difficult afterwards to reconnect with, and so people lose it, and they lose it and two, three, five, ten years later, they suddenly say, “Where has that part of me gone? I’ve been in the other world and I’ve numbed it.”

So from there, I begin to think, “OK.” That’s the question you had for me before: how do we rekindle desire? We rekindle desire by rekindling, first of all, the permission to think about oneself and not in the productive, instrumental way. The erotic is totally unproductive. You accomplish nothing. It’s just a state of aliveness and of vitality and of sensuality. It’s that, and you help women to really give themselves the permission for that.

And then, without feeling that they are selfish, nonproductive, all of that, that they’re wasting their time and this whole shtick, then you give them permission for pleasure. And pleasure, you know, it’s for its own sake. You don’t accomplish much—without having the Puritanical model of pleasure, that’s it good for the senses and good for the body and good for the skin. It’s fun! It’s nice, it feels good, it doesn’t have to be good for anything. It just has to feel good.

It’s a very different concept of pleasure. Pleasing oneself, the idea of pleasing herself, and to do it in an embodied fashion that includes her sensuality, not just that she pleases herself by stuffing herself, or she pleases herself when she takes four days away once a year with her girlfriends in this “escape from my life” kind of version. Nothing wrong with that, but something needs to come home with her, too.

And then you being [to] also talk about sexuality. Because we are sexual beings, and sexuality isn’t how often she has sex and how long the sex lasts and how many orgasms she has. It’s basically a connection with her erotic self. It’s a much broader definition of sexuality, one where we talk about reaching desire, and that’s the progression that she needs to go through.

CP: What about—I mean, you just totally articulated a trend that has been happening, but I think that we, through these conversations, through your work, through a lot that’s happening out in the world, women are starting to protest, because it’s actually just inhumane to live eight hours, nine hours, ten hours out of your day as a subhuman being with only half a body. I mean, when you cut out your femininity, and you’re a woman—or as a man, too—you live with just one polarity. It’s just not living in the full human experience.

But when we do that, I guess my question here is, what’s the male implication of that? Because what we’re seeing is, as women are stepping more and more into leadership and taking on these roles, that there’s just not—because they’re doing that, it’s really hard to come home, and then there’s two men at the house, or there’s too much masculine. Both men and women running on an access of masculine and coming home and trying to have a juicy experience, both intimately and just in day-to-day relationship. It’s not happening. So you just described, on the women’s side, how to work on that. What about the men? What’s happening there that you’re seeing that they could flip?

EP: I think the first thing that is happening on the men’s side, which is to the advantage of many, is that [for] the younger men, the Millennial men, it’s very different from his Boomer father. Often, for that matter, 50 percent of Millennial men grew up in single-parent households of women. So they have already been at the table with a woman their entire life who helped [them] develop a much more emotionally fluent language. My experience in working with Millennial men is they can talk and they have access to their inner life in ways that Boomer men just could never access. Oh, not never, but much less. That’s one.

But in any case, your question is a key question because the lives of women will never change until the men change. And that means their life has to change, too. So I think that, traditionally, everything was divided around gender. And it was a rather dualistic model and there were only two kinds, and it’s male and female. And there were very few models for what men can be like, and just a few more models about what females can [be] like.

And we are definitely entering a queer spectrum, which is a word that some people are very familiar with and others less. But it is a spectrum that is much more fluid, and [many of] the decisions and roles and responsibilities are going to be created not by gender but by competence. There are relationships where the women are way better at going out there, taking the money, building the companies, or getting the positions, and the men are actually much more competent at being home. They are more patient, they are more empathic, they are much more connected to the [needs] of the child. And women will need to be able to accept that and not think that they should do both, that it’s OK. They can be [a] wonder woman by taking on the parts of you that are more competent about, resourceful about.

So that is going to be a whole new division. I think we’re seeing more and more of it, but I think it’s very difficult for men and women to let go of their traditional bastions of power. It is as hard for men to see women break the ceiling as it is for women seeing men become better at the domestic and at the child rearing than they ever thought they were. They want his help, but they can’t accept that maybe he’s actually better at it. And maybe that’s not their natural inclination, and that motherhood is not an instinct, it is learned. Some women are better at learning to run companies than to take care of diapers and babies and children and schools and all of that. So that’s the first thing. We really need to develop much greater fluidity and flexibility around gender role and organizations.

The second thing is that every company these days is talking about emotional intelligence. Soft power. Empathy. There was a time when it was all about competition, ambition, fearlessness, pushing through. And there are many, many reason why we need empathy to enter into the training of staff, but it’s really interesting, isn’t it, that this traditionally female attribute is now on the program of any—you know, as a speaker in many companies, I can tell you I’ve been brought in to talk about emotional intelligence, and to talk about relational intelligence, because everybody understood that soft power isn’t soft. It’s soft because it operates differently, but it is “power” that is the key word here.

So what we’re seeing is the masculine is entering the domestic but the feminine is also entering the professional world of all sorts. And then there is going to be how is [it working]. How does the man, who is more the stay-at-home dad or who is the person who owns less money or who is the one who has a more flexible a job and therefore is the one who does the shopping and all of that, remain connected to his masculinity? And how is the woman, who is making decisions the whole day, remaining connected to her sexuality? There’s a reason 45 million women read 50 Shades, isn’t there? And let’s put it like this: the women who are submissive and subjugated in their life probably did not get turned on by it. It’s the women who are in positions of power and decision-making who love fantasies of surrender.

So women are going to see that the erotic imagination is going to complement, it’s going to bring out, the scripts and the experiences that we wish to have in our life that we don’t have, necessarily, at work or at home. So we got very good, to our erotic minds, at complementing the missing pieces. And that’s what is going to take place, I think, over the next two decades.

CP: And by that you mean that we will be developing more faculty of the imagination and being focused on that, bringing desire, and that will craft a little bit more or have more of a play in how we relate?

EP: We’re going to play with power, the same way that you play with power in business, and at work, you play with power. Every relationship is an interplay of power exchange. Every relationship, from a child to a parent, from two partners. There is no relationship without power dynamics, and there is no sexual relationship without power dynamics. And when you constantly do yin yang, when one person is too much in a decision-making role, then we complement it with a more soft surrender role. When one person is in a more empathic role, then they can complement it with a more decision-making role. You’re going to see this, and it’s going to happen in the erotic and in the relational and in the professional. On all three levels.

CP: Right. What were you saying about the imagination having a hand in that?

EP: Because one the ways that you complement the missing parts of your life is through your imagination. I mean, it’s our fantasy life, our imagination, our inner world, that creates the realities that are not necessarily available, right? If I’m young, I fantasize [about] being older. If I’m older, I think about being younger. These are products of our imagination. If I fear death, I connect to my aliveness, because I’m imaging the forces of life inside of me. If I’m masculine, I will fantasize experiences that draw out the feminine. If I’m more feminine, I will fantasize experiences that emphasize the masculine in me.

The erotic mind has amazing ways of doing that. If I am constantly making decisions, I will fantasize experiences where other people decide for me, and for once I don’t have to say anything. If I am constantly in the situation where other people tell me what to do, I will fantasize moments where I get to decide exactly what I want and everybody says, “Amen, yes.” [Laughs]

We have a way, through our erotic mind, to create experiences that bifurcate the pixels of the roles we’re in. If I’m a shy person, I rarely fantasize [about] being shy. If I’m a shy person, I will fantasize being bold and daring. If I’m very power and I have responsibility over a lot of people, I will fantasize situations where other people seem responsible for me and I don’t have to think about anyone. If I’m constantly thinking about others, I will want a place where others think of me or I think of me. It’s not an either/or, it’s really about a dance, where we create with our mind the experiences [that] we don’t have enough [of] in our reality.

CP: Yes. Oh, it’s just lovely, I love that use of imagination. It’s real. What you’re talking about is real. I mean, I know it’s imaginative and it’s compensating, but at the same time, it’s actually providing a very real purpose in our lives.

EP: It’s not compensating, it’s complementing.

CP: Complementing, yes.

EP: It’s complementing. Anyone here who has ever been in the presence of children knows that the child cannot live in their reality without augmenting and complementing their reality through play, and play is every fantasy situation that is not the one that they live in reality. It’s no different for adults, we just don’t think about it like that, and many of us lose it.

CP: Or we discard that whole part of our lives as daydreaming or not worthwhile.

EP: Childish, you have to be the adult, you need to grow up, all of that. And then we become busy worker bees, lamenting the loss of our sense of aliveness.

CP: I really feel like we could go on and on. You are an amazing woman in this field. It’s just an honor to talk to you, and you have so much content, it’s super inspiring. I would say one more question here: what you’re basically saying—and you were talking about this, we’re entering into a queer, sort of genderless era, and I agree with you on that. And there’s a lot of things in your work where a lot of the boundaries that have held us together, almost, in a society, albeit in an unhealthy way, are breaking down. And there’s a groundlessness, I feel, coming and that we’re in, with regards to our relationships and also who [we are] as beings, as gender beings, as women, as men.

What do you recommend for women, especially, to grab onto in this era of, “chaos” is kind of a strong word, but an era of new? Everything’s new, everything’s being re-created, and we’re rethinking things, especially with your perspective here. What’s something solid that we can hold onto that we can fall back on and know that it’s always going to be there?

EP: People. People. Community. That’s the only thing we have in this world. We don’t have the traditional pillars, we don’t have the models. What we have is conversation, which is really what your gathering is about, creating real-life, embodied experiences where people come together and discuss all the dilemmas of love and living.

And in those conversations, bit by bit, we dismantle and we challenge the old hierarchy. It’s time for women to be angry without being considered bitches or aggressive or masculine. It’s time for them to not constantly worry about being liked. It’s time that they think that they can ask for the same amount that the men are asking. It’s time that she feel that she can be seductive without thinking that she’s a slut. It’s time that she can integrate femininity and power as part of her success and her activation story.

It’s all these divisions, basically, dismantling the patriarchy, if you want to put a name on it. But what will replace it isn’t a matriarchy and it’s not genderless, it’s gender-fluid. It’s different. We are just living way too long these days to just abide by one model. And they understand it in the professional world, in the business world, the tech world. Everything is about multiplicity. When it comes to gender identity and relationships, we are left with very little monolithic, narrowly thought out models that don’t serve us anymore. They just don’t serve us.

So what happens is that people get blamed for not succeeding, right? You get blamed because you’re divorced, but nobody ever questions if the model of marriage is so sound. Why do we think marriage is a sound arrangement? And the people who don’t succeed, they’re the failures? And [it’s the same] for everything else. If you can succeed with children, it’s not because there’s a lack of childcare and a lack of good schools and a lack of this and that. It’s because you [know how] to juggle your schedule.

And so we are privatizing social problems and making the individual responsible for it. And I think that if women come together, the biggest challenge is not to think that it’s just a matter of each woman on their own, coming up with societal solutions to society’s problems. They need to be connective solutions for connective problems, in which she is a piece of the voice, that she’s not responsible on her own to deal with the lack of support that the system should provide her. To me, that is going to be the biggest shift that women can offer these days. [It’s] actually a challenge to the excesses of individualism.

CP: Well, thank you so much for your time.

EP: Is that too abstract? [Laughs]

CP: No! Are you kidding? You have a way of bringing the abstract into the visceral. I don’t know how else to explain it, but it feels very practical, and yet very grounded in a mental lineage. I don’t know how else you want to say that, but you’ve done a lot of research, and it feels very accessible. I so appreciate that. Thank you so much.

EP: Thank you. I was thinking as I was saying it, I can’t even tell you, just [from] this week, with the amount of women I met, how often my eyes fill up. I’m thinking, “You carry [a load], don’t you, and you actually think you should. And you still think that you’re not carrying it well enough.” I’m thinking, “My God, can we stop personalizing difficulties that are systemic, as if they’re your personal challenge?” It’s just a matter of management and organization. It’s not like that, it’s really bigger than you, and we have to remember that it’s bigger than you, and then all come together and address it and make those changes. And then our lives will be better and so will the [lives] of the people around us, because we will be less upset. And rather than thinking we’re upset because we can’t do it all, we will be upset because we are thinking that we should do it all.

CP: Amen, sister. May it be so.

EP: [Laughs]

CP: Like I said, there could be more here, but [I’m] so much looking forward to spending more time with you at Emerging Women Live in San Francisco in October. Until then, take good care, and we’ll see you very soon. Thank you so much!

EP: Thank you very much. I look forward to being there as well.

CP: OK, bye-bye, Esther.

3 thoughts on “Esther Perel – The Fluidity of Desire

  1. I’ve been following Ester for awhile and this talk is some of her best concise advice for women of our age I have heard.

  2. As always, Esther beautifully articulates the “what and why” about desire, the lack of it and most importantly, what women are so challenged by-claiming themselves, their autonomy and their worth in the face of a culture which teaches them to focus on the needs of others and not their own. It’s my belief that in it’s most simple form, if a woman can give herself permission not to want, without guilt or obligation, she is most likely to free herself to become autonomous and discover she does want, after all. Often it is an internal struggle and challenge to have that exchange with herself, but necessary to free her from the ties that bind which can eliminate the possibility of desire. Thank you both for this interview.

  3. Esther,
    Your direction leaves me smiling.
    Lighter, freer, questioning the load rather than doubting our strength.
    Systemic considerations rather than self doubt.
    Together examining possibility to create what is life giving, rather than losing energy to
    a system that is not sustainable.
    Having our energy to recreate that which brings connection and pleasure.
    Gender fluid…..Ahhhhhhhhhh
    The freedom to trust life’s ever evolving flow…..
    Thank you for your amazing insights!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *