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Don’t hold too tight – The paradoxes of monogamy (Part 1)

“Let there be spaces in your togetherness, and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another, but make not a bond of love. Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your soul.” Kahlil Gibran in The Prophet


Here at One:retreat we are big fans of the Belgian Psychotherapist Esther Perel. Her ideas are not always easy, as they challenge much of our perceived wisdom on relationships. At first, they can appear somewhat counter-intuitive. However, based as they are on more than thirty five years as a couples therapist, they are worth serious consideration. This is the first of two blogs introducing some of her central ideas and we would be fascinated to hear what you make of them.



Our fundamental needs


Perel argues that as humans we have some competing fundamental needs that are paradoxical. On the one hand we have the need for togetherness and security, which leads us into committed relationships; but on the other hand we have an equal need for adventure and excitement. She argues that we have to try and reconcile the two opposing desires: the desire for freedom and the desire for commitment. She suggests that this is a paradox that cannot be easily resolved – she describes it as an existential dilemma that has to be managed over the course of our lives.


This leads to one of the challenges of long term monogamy – that we are trying to generate excitement and adventure with the same person to whom we look to for comfort and stability. As she says “the challenge for modern couples lies in reconciling the need for what’s safe and predictable, with the wish to pursue what’s exciting, mysterious, and awe-inspiring”. This means that monogamy itself has at its heart an inherent tension that has to be acknowledged and managed if we are to thrive.


In researching her New York Times bestseller ‘Mating in Captivity’ she sets out to explore some of the following questions – Can we hold on to a sense of aliveness and excitement in our relationships? Is there something in commitment that deadens desire? Can we ever maintain security without succumbing to monotony? Can we have both love and desire in the same relationship over time?

Our basic assumptions around these questions will have a profound impact on the expectations that we have on our relationship.



Rejecting illusions


Perel has observed that in trying to resolve the inherent paradoxes of monogamy couples tend to fall somewhere on a spectrum. On one end are the romantics who value intensity in relationships over stability. On the other end of the spectrum, realists value security over passion. Perel argues that usually both end up disappointed as very few people can live happily at either extreme. For the Romantics they can get caught in an endless cycle of serial monogamy – hoping that they can find the elusive ‘one’ with whom they can maintain a passionate relationship over the long term. Whilst for many of the realists they sacrifice passion for long term stability. Perel suggests that this stability is actually an illusion that she calls the fantasy of permanence:


“We long for constancy, we may labour for it, but it is never guaranteed. When we love we always risk the possibility of loss – by criticism, by rejection, separation, and ultimately death”


She feels that we are best served by letting go of this illusion of certainty. If we recognise that we do not own and we cannot control our partners then our relationship becomes more alive. We are not served well by holding on too tightly to our partners. In fact much of her writing is about encouraging us to let go!



Creating Space


Perel concludes that although it is counterintuitive, in her experience as a therapist, good intimacy doesn’t necessarily lead to a good sexual relationship. She suggests that increased emotional intimacy can sometimes be accompanied by decreased sexual desire. Instead Perel has observed that eroticism requires separateness – it thrives on the space between the self and the other. She refers to this space as the ‘erotic synapse’. This separateness is a precondition for connection. In the early stages of a relationship you don’t need to cultivate separateness because it already exists. Later however, we need to re-create something of the distance that we have worked so hard to bridge.


Perel compares the contrasting demands of love or intimacy with that of eroticism or desire:


“Love enjoys knowing everything about you; desire needs mystery. Love likes to shrink the distance that exists between me and you, while desire is energised by it. If intimacy grows through repetition and familiarity, eroticism is numbed by repetition. It thrives on the mysterious, the novel and the unexpected”


Maintaining a sense of Self


In our efforts to establish intimacy we often try to eliminate or minimise the ‘otherness’ of our partners. Perel argues that this becomes a barrier to desire. Again rather counter-intuitively she suggests that it is actually in nurturing our own sense of self that we are most likely to cultivate desire. To put it another way, it is when we are most authentically ourselves that our partner is most likely to find us attractive – when we have our own lives; when we are living out of the strengths of our personality; where we are in touch with our values and most connected to what makes us most alive. It is then that we become most desirable and most capable of desire.


In my previous blog on attraction I discussed how in long term relationships we can sometimes try to change some of the things that first attracted us to our partners. It is easy for us to try to make our partners conform more to our own image. This has an impact on desire as it is hard to feel attracted to someone who has abandoned their sense of identity and autonomy.


Perel refers to the Buddhist psychoanalyst Mark Epstein who explains that it is our willingness to engage with the mystery of our partner that keeps desire alive. He feels that faced with the irrefutable otherness of our partner we can respond with either fear or with curiosity. We can either try to reduce the other to a knowable entity or we can embrace their persistent mystery. When we resist the urge to control, when we keep ourselves open, we preserve the possibility of discovery.


Keeping the dynamic tension


So we have numerous paradoxes in our relationship – we are separate but together; we are mysterious but we are known; we want security but also adventure; we want intimacy but also passion & desire. When we find ourselves struggling we often tend to attribute it to problems with our partner, with ourselves or with the ‘relationship’. Perel’s work helps us to remember that many of the challenges we face are part of the inherent nature of monogamy and that we have to try to embrace and enjoy the adventure, because there are some dynamic tensions that we have to manage rather than fix!




Some questions to consider with or without your partner:

  • Do you think that you are more of a romantic or a realist? How do you think that this impacts your relationship?
  • How much space do you give each other in your relationship? How do you think that this affects your level of desire?
  • Do you ever find your partner surprising? In what ways? Are you still curious about them?
  • Have you got a strong sense of self? Do you feel that you are usually authentically yourself?
  • When it is that you find your partner most attractive? Tell them!


This is the first of two blogs on the paradoxes of monogamy. The second part will be out on Friday 23rd August.



Richard Elliott

Father, husband, teacher, coach & philanthropist. Richard is a director of Pickwell Manor Ltd and a founder of the Pickwell Foundation - a grant making charitable trust focusing on displaced people and climate change. He has a diploma in Business, Executive and Life Coaching and a background in Post 16 education in which he taught and managed Social Science Subjects. He has a particular interest in how values shape individuals, relationships, families and organisations.

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