“Love vs. Desire”, from Mating In Captivity

5 min read

Mating In Captivity

This week I’ll be chatting with Sarah Peck, about the book Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel. We’ll go over a summary of some of the main points, our favorite takeaways, and our personal experiences applying these lessons to our lives. 

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The feeling after reading this book:

A sense of clarity about the differences between love, desire and monogamy (three words that are often used to refer to the same thing).

The main idea of Mating in Captivity in less than 100 words

In Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel asks the question, “How can you want, what you already have?”

mating in captivity 2Love is about having; desire is about wanting. When you have too much desire you’re insecure and anxious. On the other hand, when you have too much love you’re too comfortable, you have too much security, and you feel trapped.

The thesis of Mating in Captivity is that if you’d like to create passionate, long-lasting relationship you’ll need find a balance between your love and your desire. Perel gives her advice and tactics on how to find this balance.

My Top 5 Learnings

1. One person for all our needs – In modern love, we put one person at the center of our life, and we expect this one person to fill every external role in our life, for this one person to fill all our needs.

Esther Perel writes, “Today, we turn to one person to provide what an entire village once did: a sense of grounding, meaning, and continuity”, and thus we find that, “It’s hard to generate excitement, anticipation, and lust with the same person you look to for comfort and stability.” [xiv]
2. Love vs. Desire
–  Love is about having, desire is about wanting. Love enjoys knowing everything about you; desire needs mystery. [37]

Desire arises when you see your lover out of your gaze. Perel shares an example of this with a story of a wife watching her husband playing the piano. Since the musical act of him playing the piano is a solo act, where he has a relation to the music and that doesn’t fully include her, this distance was able to drive the couple closer.

3. You don’t “have” anyone With marriage we construct a situation that appears like we have ownership over the other person. “Do you take this woman”, the priest will ask. For how long? “For death due us part, forever and ever”. But not even god can make you the property of another, we’re constantly changing, growing, and shifting. No one “has” another person.

So in this instance, when one of one of Pere’s patient’s says, “Perhaps I only want what I can’t have,” she brilliantly responds, “What makes you think you have your husband.” [211]

4. Eroticism is strictly human – In Chapter 11, Perel tells us, “Animals have sex; eroticism is exclusively human. It is sexuality transformed by the imagination.” [217]

This chapter helped me realize how powerful our minds are for creating desire. Animals have sex, but they don’t fantasize about it. Our minds are a powerful force for creating desire, fear, and jealousy.

5. Emotionally monogamous, sexually promiscuous –  In Chapter 10  there’s Perel shares an idea of an emotionally monogamous, yet sexually promiscuous couple.

When I first read this, it was the first time I realized that marriage could be any other way than 100% strictly monogamous.

On the same page, there is a story where Perel asks her patient Arlene if she isn’t threatened by this “emotionally monogamous, sexually promiscuous” relationship, to which Arlene replies “Of course I am. But at this point I think that asking Jenna [her partner] to give up sex entirely would amount to a bigger threat than a few groupies. I can’t imagine saying to her ‘Your body belongs to me whether I want it or not.‘” [196]


mating in captivity

Love – is about having, and security.

Desire – is about wanting, and insecurity.

Romantics – those who value passion over security [3]

Realists – those who value security over passion. [3]

Both realists and romantics are often disappointed, for few people can live happily at either extreme.

Erotic block – feeling anxious by the prospect of honestly expressing your raw fantasies and lust for and with someone else. [116]

Book Notes

Today, we turn to one person to provide what an entire village once did: a sense of grounding, meaning, and continuity. At the same time, we expect our committed relationships to be romantic as well as emotionally and sexually fulfilling. [xiv]

It’s hard to generate excitement, anticipation, and lust with the same person you look to for comfort and stability, but it’s not impossible. [xiv]

“Passion is for teenagersand foreigners” – Marge Simpson

Romantics – value intensity over stability

Realists – value security over passion. [3]

Ever watch a child run away to explore and then run right back to make sure that Mom and Dad are still there? Little Sammy needs to feel secure in order to go into the world and discover; and once he has satisfied his need for exploration, he wants to go back to his safe base to reconnect. [4]

All living things require: alternating periods of growth and equilibrium. [5]

The more you become attached, the more you have to lose. [9]

mating in captivity 3Passion in a relationship is commensurate with the amount of uncertainty you can tolerate. – Antony Robbins [10]

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” – Proust [11]

Desire is fueled by the unknown [18]

But for many of us, renouncing the illusion of safety, and accepting the reality of our fundamental insecurity proves to be a difficult step. [18]

Love seeks closeness, but desire seeks distance. [19]

Increased emotional intimacy is often accompanied by decreased sexual desire [24]

Pleasure demands a degree of selfishness. [29]

It’s hard to feel attracted to someone who has abandoned her sense of autonomy [30]

mating in captivity quote 3

His kindness makes me feel safe, but when I think about who I want to sleep with, safe is not what I look for [32]

Erotic intelligence is about creating distance, then bringing that space to life [32]

In her landmark book The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir writes “Eroticism is a movement toward the Other, this is its essential character”….. [36]

Love enjoys knowing everything about you; desire needs mystery. [37]

Love is about having; desire is about wanting [37]

Where there is nothing left to hide, there is nothing left to seek [46]

[For some] Sex turns out to be a source of anxiety [49]

When he comes on to me forcefully, it makes me feel sexy. It heightens the tension. Like he wants me so much he just can’t help himself. She can’t help herself either. When she gives in, I know I’m irresistible” [57]

Mordechai Gafni, a scholar of Jewish mysticism, explains that fantasies are like mirrors. We hold them in front of us in order to see what is behind. We spot images of ourselves that are otherwise inaccessible. [59]

I had to learn that sex and love aren’t always the same thing, that I didn’t have to want to marry every man I slept with. [66]

Energy and persistence conquer all things – Benjamin Franklin [71]

Lust is metabolically expensive. It’s hard to sustain after the evolutionary payoff: the kids. -Helen Fisher [79]

Desire emerged from a paradox: mutually recognizing the limitations of married life created a bond between them; acknowledging otherness inspired closeness. [81]

Invariably, her unavailability is her single most attractive feature. [83]

The drinking and the sex, of course they go together. They’re both things we know we’re not supposed to be doing. [94]

When our innermost desires are revolted, and are met by our loved one with acceptance and validation the shame dissolves. [105]

Your wife knows you love her. What she wants is to feel desired by you. [119]

For a few moments, we rise above the reality of life, and subsequently, the reality of death. [155]

I guess you could call us emotionally monogamous, sexually promiscuous. [196]

When I ask Arlene if she isn’t threatened by this arrangement, she replies “Of course I am.” But at this point I think that asking Jenna to give up sex entirely would amount to a bigger threat than a few groupies. I can’t imagine saying to her “Your body belongs to me whether I want it or not”. [196]

“In this world there are only two tragedies. One is getting what one wants, and the other is not getting it.” – Oscar Wilde

Animals have sex; eroticism is exclusively human. It is sexuality transformed by the imagination. [217]

We must unpack our ambivalence about pleasure, and challenge our pervasive discomfort with sexuality, particularly in the context of family. Complaining of sexual boredom is easy and conventional. Nurturing eroticism in the home is an act of open defiance. [220]


Title: Mating in Captivity
Author: Esther Perel
Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (October 30, 2007)

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