The Central Paradox of Love: Esther Perel on Reconciling the Closeness Needed for Intimacy with the Psychological Distance That Fuels Desire
“Love rests on two pillars: surrender and autonomy. Our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness. One does not exist without the other.”
By Maria Popova
“There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly, as love,” the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm wrote in his 1965 classic on mastering the art of loving. One chief reason we flounder in this supreme human aspiration is our unwillingness to accept the paradoxes of love — paradoxes like the necessity of frustration in romantic satisfaction and the seemingly irreconcilable notion that while love longs for closeness, desire thrives on distance.
How to live with those paradoxes, rather than succumbing to the self-defeating urge to treat them as problems to be solved, is what Belgian psychotherapist and writer Esther Perel explores in Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence (public library). Drawing on decades of her own work with couples and a vast body of psychological literature, Perel offers an illuminating and consolatory perspective on intimate relationships and our conflicting needs for security and freedom, warmth and wildness.
Love is at once an affirmation and a transcendence of who we are.
Beginnings are always ripe with possibilities, for they hold the promise of completion. Through love we imagine a new way of being.
In this imaginative act, we project ourselves into a fantasy of who we can be to and with the other. But as the encounter evolves from the fantasy of an idealized romance to the reality of an actual relationship, the projection begins to dim. The trouble for many couples, Perel points out, is in sustaining the desire fueled by the initial fantasy — the fantasy of what Mary Oliver so poetically called the “invisible and powerful and uncontrollable and beautiful and possibly even unsuitable” — while settling into the comfortable intimacy of a real relationship.
If love is an act of imagination, then intimacy is an act of fruition. It waits for the high to subside so it can patiently insert itself into the relationship. The seeds of intimacy are time and repetition. We choose each other again and again, and so create a community of two.
So begins the paradox of intimacy and desire: As a couple grows emotionally intimate through this repetition, which furnishes the building blocks of trust and security, desire begins to diminish. Noting that sex is not a function of emotional intimacy but a separate state of being, Perel counters a misconception central to our cultural narrative:
There is a complex relationship between love and desire, and it is not a cause-and-effect, linear arrangement. A couple’s emotional life together and their physical life together each have their ebbs and flows, their ups and downs, but these don’t always correspond. They intersect, they influence each other, but they’re also distinct.
Echoing Kahlil Gibran’s counsel that the most satisfying relationships are between two people who have made spaces in their togetherness, she adds:
It is too easily assumed that problems with sex are the result of a lack of closeness. But … perhaps the way we construct closeness reduces the sense of freedom and autonomy needed for sexual pleasure. When intimacy collapses into fusion, it is not a lack of closeness but too much closeness that impedes desire.
Love rests on two pillars: surrender and autonomy. Our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness. One does not exist without the other. With too much distance, there can be no connection. But too much merging eradicates the separateness of two distinct individuals. Then there is nothing more to transcend, no bridge to walk on, no one to visit on the other side, no other internal world to enter. When people become fused — when two become one — connection can no longer happen. There is no one to connect with. Thus separateness is a precondition for connection: this is the essential paradox of intimacy and sex.
Drawing on her work with couples, Perel writes:
The intense physical and emotional fusion [new lovers] experience is possible only with someone we don’t yet know. At this early stage merging and surrendering are relatively safe, because the boundaries between the two people are still externally defined. [The lovers] are new to each other. And while they are migrating into each other’s respective worlds, they have not yet taken full residence; they are still two distinct entities. It is all the space between them that allows them to imagine no space at all…
In the beginning you can focus on the connection because the psychological distance is already there; it’s a part of the structure. Otherness is a fact. You don’t need to cultivate separateness in the early stages of falling in love; you still are separate. You aim to overcome that separateness.
But as we bridge the separateness, we shorten and eventually annihilate the distance between two selves that makes one desirable to the other, for the springs of desire are in the very possibility of a leap across the abyss of otherness. As we settle into comfort love — the kind one of Perel’s patients aptly likened to a flannel nightgown — those springs come unwound.
She sketches the common dynamic:
The caring, protective elements that nurture home life can go against the rebellious spirit of carnal love. We often choose a partner who makes us feel cherished; but after the initial romance we find, like Candace, that we can’t sexualize him or her. We long to create closeness in our relationships, to bridge the space between our partner and ourselves, but, ironically, it is this very space between self and other that is the erotic synapse. In order to bring lust home, we need to re-create the distance that we worked so hard to bridge. Erotic intelligence is about creating distance, then bringing that space to life.
Creating psychological distance within the comfort of closeness, Perel argues, is essential for sustaining desire in a loving relationship. She explains:
In her landmark book The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir writes, “Eroticism is a movement toward the Other, this is its essential character.” Yet in our efforts to establish intimacy we often seek to eliminate otherness, thereby precluding the space necessary for desire to flourish. We seek intimacy to protect ourselves from feeling alone; and yet creating the distance essential to eroticism means stepping back from the comfort of our partner and feeling more alone…Our ability to tolerate our separateness — and the fundamental insecurity it engenders — is a precondition for maintaining interest and desire in a relationship. Instead of always striving for closeness … couples may be better off cultivating their separate selves… There is beauty in an image that highlights a connection to oneself, rather than a distance from one’s partner. In our mutual intimacy we make love, we have children, and we share physical space and interests. Indeed, we blend the essential parts of our lives. But “essential” does not mean “all.” Personal intimacy demarcates a private zone, one that requires tolerance and respect. It is a space — physical, emotional, and intellectual — that belongs only to me. Not everything needs to be revealed. Everyone should cultivate a secret garden.
Tending to that secret garden, Perel suggests, is an art of acquired skill. (This, perhaps, is why great artists work like gardeners.) Its acquisition begins in treating love and desire not as a dissonant opposition but as a symphonic composition of counterpoints:
Love enjoys knowing everything about you; desire needs mystery. Love likes to shrink the distance that exists between me and you, while desire is energized by it. If intimacy grows through repetition and familiarity, eroticism is numbed by repetition. It thrives on the mysterious, the novel, and the unexpected. Love is about having; desire is about wanting. An expression of longing, desire requires ongoing elusiveness. It is less concerned with where it has already been than passionate about where it can still go. But too often, as couples settle into the comforts of love, they cease to fan the flame of desire. They forget that fire needs air.
In the remainder of Mating in Captivity — one of the most lucid and liberating perspectives on love written in the past century — Perel goes on to explore how to integrate these paradoxical needs into the wholeness of a fully satisfying love. Complement it with philosopher Alain Badiou on how we fall and stay in love and Stendhal on why we fall out of it, then revisit Leo Tolstoy on love’s paradoxical demands, John O’Donohue on the enchantment of desire, and Kahlil Gibran on the difficult balance of intimacy and independence.