This article by Anna Johnson was published in The Guardian on Saturday 6 January 2007
One can gauge the heat of an issue by the level of discomfort it generates at a dinner party. Asking if there is sex after marriage is about as bad as asking if there is life after death. I broached the question of conjugal passion after reading Mating in Captivity, the unnerving book written by the Belgian New Yorker Esther Perel, and published here this month.
I may as well have thrown a grenade on the table: “Sex!” an older gentleman almost vomited the word. “I mean sexy sex is the stuff of affairs, NOT marriage.” His wife, bejewelled, beautifully dressed, intelligent, sat opposite him, unblinking. “Frilly black knickers!” he bellowed, “They’re just not going to cut it after you’ve been ringside for the C-section.”
My husband shifted in his chair. Married for just four years and now host to a 17-month-old baby, we felt the chill wind of marital mortality gust through the room. Was this our future?
“Adultery!” the veteran cynic exploded. “That’s your only chance at erotic bliss, preferably in the rain, in the back seat of a car.” His voice trailed off like an ambulance siren while we held hands under the table. Horrified.
The spectre of infidelity haunts most couples like the hairline crack in the Golden Bowl. The mistress system is what made middle-class marriage (possibly all marriage) work for centuries across different cultures. Work for men, that is. But, not wanting to live in a Fellini movie where some strumpet gets to wear all the high heels, I turned my mind to the 21st-century alternative: sex inside marriage, or what Americans call “hot monogamy”.
On paper it looks very good. In her book, Perel’s main point is that a happy marriage is a sexy one. To keep the heat up, Perel proposes an unlikely ruse – not more gooey closeness but a little more distance. Space between husband and wife, space between mother and child and, most challenging of all, space between a kitchen table covered in bills and a steaming hot boudoir.
Perel claims that the closer a couple bind together in emotional, verbal and domestic intimacy (compounded by the stress of parenting), the less chance they have of remaining lovers.
“There’s a powerful tendency,” she writes in her introduction, “in long-term relationships to favour the predictable over the unpredictable. Yet without an element of uncertainty there is no longing, no anticipation, no frisson.”
Frisson. What a juicy word and how remote it seems from the clockwork function of a household with small children. Just the idea of reinventing the basic rules of the game in any marriage make the brain pound with heavy questions. How does one become more mysterious to the man who has seen you in labour, on the loo? And how can a husband feel like Colin Firth in a cashmere coat when he looks like Ray Winstone in trackpants? And when is the right time when there’s not time? Do I run out and buy the handcuffs before or after I have marinated the lamb?
Applying Perel’s ideas was a challenge I set myself for six weeks. Defiant, perhaps faintly desperate, I was determined to unearth and indulge my sensuality, excavating its shattered remains under the accumulated layers of 17 months of sleep deprivation, three years of petty domestic squabbles and 20 pounds of baby weight. The first step was meeting the author herself.
Esther Perel isn’t like most mothers or wives I know, unless they stepped out of a French film. From her kitten heels to her highlights she is cooly seductive. A 47-year-old married mother of two sons, she realised early on that pleasure in her marriage (as well as complicity, privacy and a dash of pursuit) would ensure its survival.
As a New York sex therapist, the question she seems to prod her clients (and readers) with most is “Why not?” “Why not stop breast-feeding?” she asked me over tea. “The hormones pumping through your body are flat-lining your libido.” I choked on my baguette. “Why not have a night away from your son, or several nights?”
Perel knows babies get in the way of desire and her own solution to this most delicate of rifts was brutally pragmatic. Once a year, she takes a 10-day holiday with her husband. Just the two of them. She has been doing so since each baby was a year old. Her marriage is still steaming after 20 years.
Far from being smug, Perel’s position on the matter is almost survivalist. If you are in any doubt about the impact of long stretches of celibacy on a marriage, Perel will quickly share some sobering, and rather bullying, statistics with you. With wide, clear eyes she explains: “In Britain, 50% of couples within the first three years of marriage and in the first year of their child’s life divorce. A lack of pleasure kills love.” Despite these numbers, all I can feel is compassion for the women who choose sleep over sex, their mojo in deep coma.
Perel herself revs along on four hours a night, yet she does have empathy, tinged with impatience, for erotic sloths: “I understand exhaustion and (as a mother) I am the last one to trivialise this. I was tired too, but I also know that two lovers at the beginning of an affair are able to stay up all night. I think desire in marriage is about getting over the hump and knowing it will feel good, that it will be good for us.”
The “hump” that Perel refers to with a tilt of her determined chin can look more like a mountain to most women. Too tired, too busy, too angry – the three main excuses that converge into one bloody-minded block, especially where domestic chores are concerned.
“When Felix leaves a mess in the kitchen I punish him with coldness,” says one of my girlfriends. “I feel as sexy as the house is ordered,” grumbles another, equating freedom from drudgery with the liberty to feel desire. Husbands who are as incompetent as children are hardly hot stuff. In fact they make sex feel like an extension of the housework. Perel doesn’t talk a lot about housework. Like most affluent New Yorkers, she suggests getting a cleaner to ease the burden. But she does see the banality of marriage as mitigating against the forces of attraction.
Perel’s book in hand, I resolve to get out of the nursery and back into bed.
Week 1: Diapers v desire
In Perel’s view, many mothers have lost a sense of proportion over their children, giving them the lion’s share of sensuality, humour, affection and even designer clothing, while dad subsists on “a few brief pecks on the cheek”.
Perel refutes the now fashionable child-centred model of family life, arguing: “The happiness of the parents dictates the stability of the whole family.” Clearly she’s not wrong, yet of all of the concepts in the book this is perhaps the hardest one to swallow. Babies create their own utterly absorbing physical rapture. It’s a bliss beyond sex.
High on oxytocin (the love hormone of lactation), I stagger back to bed after a midnight feed feeling both ravaged and strangely sated. Perel pulls no punches about mothers like me who claim they are “touched out” by the end of a day.
“You say there is nothing more you can give at the end of the day with your baby,” she interjects, “but perhaps, sensually and emotionally, there is nothing more that you need!”
Is she right? Am I in a selfish love-lock with my son? Probably. The tickle of his tiny fingers down my bare waist is more delicate than a slap on the rump with a flat hand.
Striking a compromise I begin to night wean, creating a block of time when infant cries won’t cut through adult moans. I draw the line at installing a door between our rooms or scuttling away for the night.
Week 2: Sexy old Mummy
Standing before the mirror I lift two handfuls of limp hair on top of my head and twist them like a croissant. “What would Esther do?” I muse while scraping scrambled eggs off a pan.
I splash some Opium behind both knees, serve dinner in an Issa dress and wait for him to sense the frisson. Noticing that we are eating breakfast for dinner he frowns at my cleavage – “You look odd, are you having an affair?” Not bad. Perel counsels to explain less and feel more, building mystery along with anticipation.
I desist from describing the mechanical details of my day and begin a slow dance to Sister Morphine around the kitchen. Seduction in the home is inherently comical. I make a mental note to buy more candles.
Week 3: Leopard-skin knickers
In ongoing pursuit of passion I propose a trip to the seaside with another couple and their baby. On the first night the children wake each other like car alarms. On the second night the husbands drink too much Chilean red. On the third night I go swimming in the moonlight in a pair of leopard-print knickers. In the water I feel free for the first time since I gave birth. Emerging from the foam I feel the primal force Perel describes as “ruthless, selfish” desire. Finally we share a pleasure that is not measured, or thoughtful, or planned, but genuinely hungry.
Mating in Captivity begins with a poem by DH Lawrence that says wild things once caged cannot breed. The same goes for urban married couples. Out of sync with the tides, the moon and the elements, is it any wonder?
Perel doesn’t mention nature as a sexual healer, perhaps because the bulk of her clientele live in a metropolis. Or perhaps it’s just a matter of taste. I drag home clumps of seaweed and pockets full of shells to scatter about the bedroom. Candles are not enough.
Week 4: It’s all right for Anaïs Nin
In America fidelity is sacrosanct and divorce is common. In old Europe the opposite was true. Perel’s counsel on what she calls “the shadow of the third” is that extramarital flirting is healthy, and an affair can be survived – indeed, in some cases it can benefit a marriage.
In a bold experiment I invite an ex-lover to dinner. I am seven years older than when we last met and his new girlfriend is 15 years younger. I am at pains not to wear too much lipstick or laugh too loudly.
Afterwards, we do not have a frenzied union fuelled by the tension. Instead I simply wish I had stuck to the internet, where married people go to flirt. Perel’s proposal to play with the danger of a third person is one of those elegant ideas that proves the gap between a sophisticated mind and a primal heart. Jealousy is more suffocating than housework.
Week 5: Is anyone else out there doing it?
In the playground I scan the faces of mothers I know, looking for signs of erotic electricity. Touseled hair, kiss-bitten lips. The idea of married sex becoming a source of pressure rather than pleasure is common among mothers with full-time jobs. They are being asked to perform on three very different fronts, and they are overwhelmed.
“I remember,” one lawyer mum told me, “when sex became a THING. That was the point where we literally had to bang away at it till the tension left us. Even mediocre sex can be relaxing.”
“Conception sex,” groaned another, “that’s the thing that glues most couples together after the first baby. The joy of making the second one drowns out the reality of the fallow months ahead!”
In Perel’s pursuit of the erotic she pushes women to explore what they want in bed, in their fantasies and in their lives. But most women I know are so busy treading water that any sex feels like a victory. Eroticism, to me, seems very much like the tattered risotto recipe in the bottom of my handbag. It requires time and special ingredients. I resolve to seize both. Next week.
Week 6: Love in the afternoon
After much mulling over my erotic core, I realise that I want to simply play dress-ups and run away. To make love in a room that has no scent of cooking or crayons. I need the sneaky obsessive stealth of a mistress. Just waiting for the mood to strike isn’t happening and Perel knows why: “I urge my patients not to be spontaneous about sex.
“Spontaneity is a fabulous idea, but in an ongoing relationship whatever is going to ‘just happen’ already has. Now they have to make it happen. Committed sex is intentional sex.”
This notion of planning, she says, is just what new lovers do: the mood, the motel, the bottle of Moët.
Unable to afford a room at the Carlyle, I attack our bedroom like a set-dresser for a silent film. Heavy blood-coloured drapes, a faintly Bedouin bedspread. Sandlewood incense, black eyeliner and a plate of strawberries.
It’s 3pm and our son is at the library. We don’t have much time. I drape a silk scarf around my husband’s throat and imagine he is Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik.
Kidnapped Princess. It’s the sort of game my mother played in the 1950s. A child’s game of exoticism and secrets. Pleasure is never very far from play and most mothers save their sense of fancy for the children. On this afternoon Perel’s little red book, full of so many contradictory, difficult and good ideas, is finally cast aside.
My husband and I play hide and seek and listen for a key in the door.
Mating in Captivity Esther Perel
The following correction to this article was printed in the Guardian’s Corrections and clarifications column, Friday March 9 2007. In the article below we quoted a therapist and author, Esther Perel, as saying that “in Britain 50% of couples within the first three years of marriage and in the first year of their child’s life divorce”. In fact Ms Perel was referring not to Britain but to the US.