Esther Perel's Blog
June 30, 2017
“How do I assert myself as a man without coming across as too forceful?” – Carl, Washington DC
This is a critical question at this moment in time. Many men, especially young men come to me with this dilemma — how can I be assertive and confident, without being aggressive and arrogant?
Assertiveness is a dialogue that allows for input from others. Aggression is a debate — exerting power to protect oneself.
Power dynamics and what it means to be in control has changed over time. If power was once hierarchical for your father or grandfather, it now lies in one’s ability to take input from others. Manhood has traditionally been predicated on a sense of autonomy and self reliance. Today, men are embracing a realm of emotions and the benefits of interdependence vs. a forced sense of independence.
So, shift the way you think about compromise and collaboration, and welcome dialogue. Asserting yourself with confidence will come from being open to input. You’ll be surprised by how much power comes from conversation.
Have you struggled to walk this line? I would love to hear your thoughts.
June 28, 2017
“I had to quit my job because of a health issue, and now I’m home taking care of our kids. My wife has become the breadwinner. I know I should be happy that we could make it all work, but I feel like a loser.” – Zach, San Francisco, California
Zach’s dilemma is the dichotomy of the modern male; emotionally evolved and willing able to care give, but pulled toward gender norms ingrained in us all.
The construction of gender identity for men is more fragile than for women. In many cultures, one is born a woman — and one becomes a man. Chip Brown explores wide-ranging rites of passage into manhood from around the world in this National Geographic article.
Often, masculinity is defined as the disavowal of the feminine inside of us. This is complicated for both women and men as we redefine modern gender roles.
Zach, I have worked with many men in your position — lead dads shunned by moms on the playground. Men who feel inadequate because they’re not financially providing for their family (even though they are raising children). For some, pent up frustration even causes angry lash-outs at their children.
While you cannot control what happened to your health, you can control the outcome. To paraphrase Viktor Frankel’s Man’s Search for Meaning, you cannot always control the conditions you find yourself in, but you have the freedom to choose your reaction to them.
You need to feel worthy, useful and socially connected. Seek out other men who are parenting. Look into the possibility of part-time work. Speak to your partner about how you’re feeling, so you can help one another find a balance. When you’re in the eye of the storm, it seems impossible to find a way out. But know that you are not the first to encounter the shifting sands of gender. As you wrestle with this new world, know that you are not alone.
How do gender roles play out in your household? Let me know in the comments below.
June 9, 2017
“When I’m not interested in sex, it makes me feel like I’m not a man. In fact, my wife wants it more than me so I came up with the excuse of chronic back pain. I think it’s easier for her to accept. What’s wrong with me?” – David, Clifton, New Jersey
As we talk about the modern man this month, David’s question strikes me as particularly apropos given the pressures on the man. Let’s start by debunking some of our most dear assumptions about men.
Men are under pressure in life, and in the bedroom, to be untiring, masterful and dominant. It’s assumed men are always up for sex and women’s interest is much less, and subjective. It’s time we stop this oversimplification of men.
For many men, identity and self-esteem are bound up with sexuality. This explains why David is more likely to feel ashamed when he has no desire.
Throughout the month we will talk about the stereotypes surrounding masculinity and the shifting roles of men. But to start, here are some tips that that I hope will help David and many men out there.
Bring your Partner into the Conversation
David, your wife might buy your story about back pain but underneath she is wondering about her lack of desirability. It’s time to talk with your wife. Maybe you are exhausted at the end of each day and find it hard to shift gears. Or you have worries about your performance. Perhaps you are afraid you don’t turn her on. Something is turning you off.
Whatever it is, open the conversation, without blame or defensiveness and reveal how you feel and start talking about what turns you on and what blocks you. My post on Role Play and Fantasy can help to open up conversations about sex.
Check your Mood
Here is a radical revelation: men and women feel the same way about sex. If a person is anxious, depressed, distracted or feels unattractive, regardless of their gender, they are less likely to be turned on. So check your mood. David may find the answer lies there. And as I often say, sex in a long-relationship is something you have to plan for. This may help to shift the pressure of you alone and help you find playful ways to alter your mood.
Stop Thinking about Sex
I would advise David to put himself more into his body and do less ruminating, which takes us out of the experience of pleasure. Forget about “the act” and think about simple starting points to give the other person pleasure, like a shoulder rub. Stop worrying about whether you’re turned on in the moment. And find ways (dancing, exercise, and other physical hobbies that fulfill you) that let you fully inhabit your body.
What pressures do you feel as a man to perform? Let me know in the comments below. And look out for next week’s post on Masculinity and Assertiveness vs. Aggression.
June 2, 2017
“My husband and I started talking about our sexual fantasies the other day and I was shocked and disgusted. What do I do now?” – Stephanie, Milwaukee, MI
Stephanie’s question resonates with many couples because very frequently one person’s turn on is what turns the other off.
One of the great mysteries of fantasy is that we don’t know why certain things are a turn off and others are the opposite. We don’t understand the preferences of others or ourselves. Sure, we can examine the biography of a person but fundamentally we are in the dark.
So let’s say you want to know what your partner’s fantasies are, like Stephanie. But what if they leave you feeling inadequate, disgusted or just plain turned off? Here are some things to consider and try out as you open up the fantasy conversation:
Fantasy is not reality
Children may play-act that they are in jail. But if they were in jail, they wouldn’t be playing as a prisoner. The first thing that I would say to Stephanie is that fantasy is play, it is not reality, and it is not what her husband wants in the cold hard light of day.
Stephanie may also be asking why her husband has these fantasies? My colleague Michael Bader aptly said that a good fantasy states the problem and offers the solution. In other words, whatever cultural obstacles or prohibitions you encounter in life, you are allowed in the realm of your imagination.
The imagination, of course, is not always politically correct. For instance, a rape fantasy is just that: a fantasy of forced seduction. In a rape-fantasy you never experience the dread that accompanies violence, instead you are subverting the idea and transforming the meaning of that experience into a source of pleasure and excitement.
Don’t play to the shame game
Stephanie has asked her husband what his private turn on is. And in turn, he has invited her into his secret garden. If she is openly disgusted, she is effectively slamming the gate and running off into the wilderness. By closing off the conversation or reacting with disgust, we induce shame and guilt in the other.
The erotic mind is very sensitive to censorship and it knows when it needs to go into hiding. Stephanie’s husband may promise never to have these thoughts or voice them again but you can’t eradicate someone’s preferences because you don’t like them.
So, if your partner reveals himself or herself to you, don’t shut them down. By shutting down the conversation, you are in effect saying: “I want you open up but only on my terms”. Which becomes a power dynamic that is far removed from the inner erotic sanctum.
I have a friend who doesn’t understand why people like to eat pickled octopus. Like taste, fantasy can induce the ick factor for others. But instead of turning away with revulsion, and worrying about the implications of a partner’s fantasy, I encourage Stephanie to remain curious.
Stephanie can reopen the conversation and ask her husband: what is it about it your fantasy that is pleasurable? Is it that you get to be passive? Ruthless? Give over power? By remaining curious and open, we are asking the other: who are you? We don’t have to understand them, we can simply find out more about who they are which creates space, acceptance and room for play.
Try something new
A woman once told me her partner’s fantasy of being seduced in a clothes’ store change room by the attendant. His fantasy made her feel inadequate and cuckolded: why did he have to imagine another woman? But when they tried playing out the fantasy at home, with her playing the attendant, she found that there was pleasure to be had in playing out fantasy. She could bring her own imagination to it so that they both owned the game. Taste, like our palette as we grow from children to adults, can evolve and change. Be open to trying new flavors, you may find something you like.
Are you ready to get to know your partner? Let me know what you find out and how these conversations change your relationships. I’d love to read your comments below.
June 1, 2017
“To be engulfed: outburst of annihilation which affects the amorous subject in despair or fulfillment. At its best, when it’s fulfillment, it’s a kind of disappearance at will. An easeful death. Death liberated from dying.” — Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments
May 23, 2017
It’s been an exciting week. I am very proud to announce the launch of my original audio series, Where Should We Begin?. A co-production with Audible Originals, the series is perhaps my most creative project to date.
Too often couples live like isolated islands.
We think what we’re experiencing in our own relationship is unique to us, and we don’t know that our neighbors and friends are experiencing the same longings, laments, deprivations, and disillusionments in their own lives.
There is no school for relationships — no place for us to learn the tools for rebuilding and repair, to learn to straddle the many contradictions that roil in all of us. Where Should We Begin? is a way for me to create meaningful, deep, and open conversations.
As you listen to these intimate, unscripted sessions between real-life couples, I think you will find the language you’ve been looking for to have conversations with the people in your own life.
Listen to the entire series (with new episodes every Friday) for free through mid-July at audible.com/esther.
On a personal note, I am incredibly grateful for the overwhelming support of our community. It takes a village. There are so many people behind the scenes helping to make this happen. We wanted to create this show to give people a language to understand themselves and their relationships, and it’s humbling to see people responding positively.
The series is currently #4 on iTunes. You can read more about the behind the scenes of the series in this interview with Vogue. Or a clinical perspective on how listening to other couples’ sessions can help your own relationship on Psychology Today.
For additional listening, enjoy my wide-ranging conversation with the one and only Tim Ferriss about sex, love, and commitment on The Tim Ferriss Show. And lastly, check out This American Life episode #617 where host Ira Glass listens to two people trying to break through what’s going wrong in their marriage.
May 12, 2017
“What is sexual fantasy?” – Dylan, Columbus, OH
People sometimes confess to me that they don’t have sexual fantasies. They assume they have no imagination. I want to tell you that everyone has the capacity for fantasy.
But what is fantasy? The idea of it has been coopted so that we view it through a narrow lens. It has come to mean costumes, porn-star poses, elaborate accouterments and role-play. You can certainly introduce role-play into your relationship and here’s how.
But here is the radical but simple definition of fantasy: sexual fantasy is simply anything that enhances excitement or pleasure. Whether it’s the time of day, the way the breeze drifts across a field or a story you create about the way someone looks at you. Let’s continue to unpack the idea of fantasy.
Fantasy is a story
This story – our fantasy realm – is what allows us to distinguish between sexuality and eroticism. Sexuality is instinct or biology. Eroticism is sexuality that is transformed by the human imagination.
We all have these imaginative resources that allow us to play and be curious, to go beyond our lived experience. The wonder of fantasy is that it allows us to bypass reality; we can let go of the constraints of age, physical limits, material realities, health conditions and religious restrictions.
What a relief to know that the central agent of the erotic act is our imagination rather than the toned abs we can’t ever quite seem to achieve. Fantasy is our very human ability to come back to something and forever change or relive it. Fantasy has the power to connect us to hope, playfulness, and mystery. I believe, if we didn’t have fantasy, we couldn’t live.
Fantasy is a gift
It can transform the traits that irk you – your shyness for instance – into something that you imagine turns someone else on. Or you can become all-powerful and confident – fearless and bold – in your fantasies.
Fantasy allows us to bifurcate our inner blocks. The fears, anxieties and inhibitions that roil inside you can dissolve so that you can experience the joy of sexuality. The pitfalls of your relationship can be sidestepped in the moment of fantasy.
Fantasy is an imagined place
Does that mean that the fantasies that you have are what you really want to happen? Not necessarily. As we’ll discuss in detail next week, a fantasy is a game, an imagined place. Fantasies are different from what we want in the cold, harsh light of our daily reality.
If you know how you want to experience sexual pleasure, even if it’s simply the way someone strokes your hair, you are already in the realm of sexual fantasy. Embrace it.
Let me know your thoughts about the definition of sexual fantasy. And look out for an upcoming post on how to deal with your partner’s unsexy fantasies.
May 6, 2017
“Why does gender still play such a defining role in our society?” – Nicolas, Copenhagen, Denmark
One of the oldest origin stories in our culture lays the ground for our binary system of gender: Adam and Eve. The Old Testament set up this duality of man and woman. And old stories are deeply rooted in us.
From the very moment a woman is pregnant, we ask: is it a boy or a girl? We create two categories with very little room for anything outside of these prescribed definitions.
My colleague Jean Malpas who studies transgender children, and will speak about his work on the TED stage in May, explains that gender is one of the fundamental ways we humanize each other. By assigning gender we turn something abstract (a fetus) into a concrete concept that will accompany us throughout our entire life. Gender is story. The story that culture has bestowed upon us – a legacy that comes laden with expectations. Expectations of how a man and a woman must be, must think, must act.
You and I know these stories well. For instance: men are described as rabid biological creatures always looking for a sexual outlet. But for women, it is expected that sexuality is more subjective, that desire is complicated and conditional. These are just a few of the narratives we have learnt. But if you look closely at yourself and the people you know, you will find these narratives are riddled with contradictions and that individuals are far more nuanced.
So what happens if you don’t meet the cultural narrative of your gender? If you are a woman who doesn’t like clothes shopping, for instance, or don’t use “feminine” gestures. What if you are a man who hates sports? You may feel in conflict. You may feel deficient, insufficient and incomplete.
So how do we approach gender today? One of the greatest challenges is that we have seen gender as being consistent with the body and the sex that we were assigned as a baby. But we are finally beginning to understand that gender is not an assignation, that biology is not destiny. Or as transgender man Sawyer DeVuyst aptly describes it: “Gender is who you go to bed as and sexuality is who you go to bed with.”
As I talked about in my Language of Gender piece, the gender revolution has arrived. We have a whole new lexicon to choose from. And with it, freedom for self-expression. So, let’s turn the page and create a new story for ourselves.
What stories about gender have you learnt that have accompanied you throughout life? In what ways have they shaped, helped or hindered you? I would love to know your thoughts. Please comment below.
May 1, 2017
“Sexual attraction and beauty was always there but today is is a highly conscious and reflected part of mate selection. Historically, sex was not a legitimate way to choose a partner, today attractiveness and viewing the person as sexy, often trumps values like good character or intelligent. This profoundly changes the rules of the romantic mating market. And market it has become.” — Eva Illouz, Why Love Hurts
April 28, 2017
Go Back to Basics
First and foremost: role-play and fantasy do not have to include elaborate costumes, props and rehearsed scenarios. Forget shopping online for hours to find the perfect replica of an 18th-century Victorian maid’s outfit with elaborate silk ruffles and free yourself from the shackles of whips and chains (although, by all means, use them later if you want). The definition of fantasy is simply anything that intensifies the sexual experience. The weather, the time of day, the location or the pacing are some simple elements that may enhance the sexual experience between you and your partner. So let go of any expectations about elaborate role-play that may intimidate you or stymie you from beginning.
Start from a Place of Reassurance
Talking about sex can be tricky – especially when you’ve never done it before. Frequently, there is the fear that if we speak our desires aloud, our partner will shame us or they will feel like they have failed to satisfy us in the past. Insecurity and vulnerabilities swirl around our sexual selves. Start by reassuring your partner that you enjoy what you do have. Ask them if they’re comfortable talking about fantasy. Start slowly, ease into these conversations. Here are some suggestions to open the dialogue:
“You know what, we’ve never talked about this and I’m really nervous…”
“I’ve been doing this course, please don’t make fun of me – I would love to talk to you about it.”
“Are you open to talking about what turns you on?”
“I’m really curious about what you like…”
Alternately, write a note. Or speak on the phone – which allows an intimate distance. Of course, the earlier you open up this dialogue in a relationship, the easier it is but nevertheless, start from today, because that is where you are now.
Talk More and Try More…
The door is now open to dialogue and for you to share your fantasies. Conversation about fantasy is about play, curiosity, transcending the limits of reality and moving beyond your usual boundaries. You can test out fantasies through talking (“Is there something you’ve always wanted to try?”) but you can also test through action. We act, we see and we wait for a response, then we try again. For instance if you start kissing your partner on the couch, but they are pulling you towards the bedroom, they are showing you what they are comfortable with – this can also raise an opportunity to express your desire to have sex in the living room. Through a combination of action and words, allow yourself to be playful and open. Get past shame by trying: knock on the door and say, “Hello, room service is here.” As children well know, you need a playmate to play. If you are shamed or rejected when you start to play a game, you retreat into yourself. So willingness is key. But so is the ability to try again if the door is not opened the first time.
Bring in a Third… No, not that Kind of Third
I often suggest to couples that they use a third item – a transitional object – such as a book, a movie or an overheard conversation to allow for fantasy and play to enter their sexual experiences. Reading to each other, for instance, can be a way to create desire.
The book Behind Closed Doors offers fantasies from women and men’s point-of- view that can be read aloud. The lens of a movie or book allows for you to ask questions like: “Is that something you’d be interested in trying?” or “Does that turn you on?”
Do it Yourself
In the sanctuary of your erotic mind, you can be anything or anybody you want. So as well as cultivating mutual experiences, you can step into a different body or role inside your own mind – you are free to fantasize when you’re with your partner. You can imagine you are taller, younger, skinnier, more powerful, less powerful and on it goes. You can go beyond the limits of your own conscience, body type or abilities, particularly when you have a partner you feel safe with.
How do you incorporate fantasy and how does that impact your relationships with yourself and your partner?
If you found this post helpful and crave a deeper dive into your erotic self, take a look at my new course on MindBodyGreen, The Essential Guide to Sparking Your Erotic Intelligence — over two hours of guidance to help you connect to your desires and improve sexual communication.
The post How To Introduce Role Play and Fantasy Into Your Relationship appeared first on Esther Perel.