Archive for Esther Perel

Resilience in the Couple Relationship

Couple therapist Esther Perel writes that ‘we each come out of childhood with a greater need for either separateness or togetherness’ and, as a result, managing our adult relationships is a constant challenge. Very often a close couple relationship is one of our principal sources of emotional sustenance, reassurance and intimacy, but a difference in our levels of need can be disconcerting and frightening. Feelings of abandonment from what seems like a lack of concern can create panic. Feeling engulfed by what seems clingy over-dependence can feel smothering. At the start, balancing is not seen as a problem, but major life-events, stresses, and crises can cause ripples in the smooth surface and a once-stable relationship can suddenly feel unsafe. Each partner’s response to a feeling of disconnection will be individually shaped by past experience, but the differences can cause both a worrying confusion and insecurity: ‘I feel I don’t know you anymore!

Disagreement can flare into destructive conflict and anger. Repetitive, stuck behaviour patterns begin to emerge with downward spirals of protest and defensiveness. The couple can feel helpless and lost and come into counselling fearing their relationship is broken. The concept of the relationship as a safe haven has been challenged and they are wary, reluctant to trust. Suspicion has replaced good will.

Counselling, however, can offer a restorative healing experience. If a couple can be ‘brave-hearted’ and engage with the process of discovery and understanding, they can find the motivation needed to turn a stressful experience into an opportunity for growth. Transformational coping-strategies- such as working to change ‘Automatic Negative Thoughts’ (ANTs) into ‘Positive Alternative Thoughts’ (PATs) – allow for a discovery of powerful emotional resilience.

From the brain’s perspective, it is usually safer to stick to what is familiar, deeply ingrained, how we always react (even though we also know it does not serve us well) rather than risk the vulnerability and uncertainty of doing something different. Change is uncomfortable. So, resilience is a quality that needs to be developed – it is not a fixed character trait.

In order to feel the confidence and safety to strike out for change we need to feel buffered against what we pessimistically see as potential disappointment. Counselling, then, gives the opportunity to set events into the required broader perspective. Optimism is not helpful unless it is realistic – and realism is the ability to assess the situation clearly and challenge negative distortions.

For those traumatised by past relationship wounds, trust can be difficult. However, significant gestures of reassurance and ‘turning towards’ make for a relaxation of tension. Renewed closeness has a soothing reparative effect that goes towards healing hurt. Shifts and accommodations are evident and a recognition of a partner’s love, care and concern allows for significant recovery and hope for the future.

Kathy Rees

The Secret to Desire in a Long-Term Relationship

There have been nearly 7 million hits on the Ted Talk by Esther Perel:


She questions, ‘Why does good sex fade – even for couples who continue to love each other as much as ever? And why does good intimacy not guarantee good sex?’

 
She explores the nature of erotic desire and the dilemmas for modern love relationships. She suggests that we live in an age where the expectation of sex is that it should continue over time to be about ‘pleasure and connection rooted in desire’. Yet that expectation can be confounded when there is a struggle to sustain the desire.

 
Perel’s research identifies this as a clash of two ‘fundamental human needs’. We have a human need for the intimacy, closeness and attachment offered by a loving relationship. It creates a feeling of wellbeing and emotional security that nurtures and sustains. However, we also have an urge for excitement, play, mystery – and for change and novelty.

 
These needs can clash and can be hard to reconcile. We want our partner to be a trusted confidant and offer warmth, friendship and understanding. But, from the same person, we want heightened excitement of passion.

 
We want the comfort of familiarity, being known, loved and appreciated. But then, in the sexual relationship, we want variety, surprise and adventure. While technique, toys and sexy lingerie can add spice, it is not about novelty. Perel says sex is not just something you do. It is not just a behaviour but about speaking a language too. Sex is a place you go for a conversation and for that you need a sense of a separate self, autonomy and self-esteem.

 
To challenge expectations, we need a more profound understanding of arousal, desire and unconscious longings and Perel concludes that ‘desire needs space; fire needs air’. For desire we need imagination, curiosity, playfulness and the spark of interest created by a sense of ‘Other’ and ‘Difference’.

 
The contradiction of a long-term relationship is that it offers the closeness, familiarity and sameness that can create ‘a kind of fatal erotic blow’. She suggests that desire is ‘to want’ and is about attraction and enticement. It is about looking with new eyes each time and seeing the other as different and unknown. Desire starts with an idea of separateness and the urge to move towards one another. She suggests the idea of a bridge to cross in order to find each other anew – starting from a point of willingness to play and want and give pleasure.

 
Interdependence, caretaking, parenting, while soothing, reassuring and comforting, can decrease the erotic charge between the couple. Sex makes babies and great joy, and yet babies can spell erotic disaster for the couple. Feeling weighed down by responsibilities, disliking your body, feeling anxious or depressed, stressed at work, can have a similar deadening effect. However, a couple can use the love and connection and emotional warmth to provide a springboard of energy for lovemaking.

 
Sex in a long relationship is premeditated sex as much as it was in the beginning and there is a need to debunk the idea of spontaneity. In a trusting relationship, there can be permission and a willingness to lead, or be led, into an erotic space. Foreplay starts with accepting and allowing the thought of sex to germinate in the mind. It is about encouraging thoughts of sex to keep ‘simmering’. It is about taking responsibility for making gestures and taking opportunities to initiate.

 
The couple understands that passion waxes and wanes but they know how to find the generosity needed to reconnect. It is accepted by both that a definition of their relationship includes ‘This is what we do’.

 

Kathy Rees