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1-Page Book Summary of Mating in Captivity

According to most people and sources, modern couples are having less sex even though they have more sexual freedom than any generation that’s come before them. Now that it’s socially acceptable to have sex outside of marriage and we can do so without the threat of pregnancy, apparently, we’re not interested. It could be that we’re busy, stressed, tired, or overwhelmed by parenthood.

Or, it could be that modern domesticity and sexuality are an either/or situation—can we actually have both? Modern domesticity is associated with things like security, intimacy, and egalitarianism, while desire is concerned with things like play, aggression, jealousy, and risk. Even though domesticity and desire seem to be made up of contradictory ingredients, the author of Mating in Captivity, experienced couples therapist Esther Perel, believes it's possible to retain desire in a committed relationship.

Individual Desire

First, let’s look at what shapes our desire. While desire is made up of the same general ingredients for everyone, everyone’s individual desire is different, as it’s influenced by our upbringing and personalities.

Family

From the moment we’re born, we start learning about relationships from our families. We learn how to show affection, express ourselves, and interact with others, and we carry what we’ve learned into adulthood.

The first major element we carry forward is our relationship with dependence and independence. We depend on our parents and we do everything we can to stay close to them, but we also need our independence. We’ll experience this same tension with our partners later in life, and we’ll react to it the same way we learned in our childhoods.

  • Example #1⁠—Unhealthy Response: When Dylan’s mother died, he learned he couldn’t turn to his father for emotional support⁠—he was on his own. As an adult, Dylan pursues anonymous, unemotional sex because he learned that relying on others was shameful.
  • Example #2—Healthy Response: Makena’s mother and father locked themselves in their bedroom for a couple hours every Saturday afternoon. If Makena wanted a snack on a Saturday afternoon, she had to wait or get it herself. As an adult, Makena can emotionally connect with her partner during sex, but she’s also comfortable temporarily focusing on herself and her own pleasure.

The second major element is our views about sexuality. If our parents were open about sex, we’ll likely also be open. If our families thought sex was shameful, we’ll pick up this connotation too.

The last major element is how our gender tempers our expression of our sexuality. We’re exposed to gender stereotypes and expectations from the moment we’re born. When girls grow up into women, they sometimes have trouble owning their sexuality and base it on whether or not others desire them. When boys grow up into men, their desire debatably falls into two categories⁠—those who want their partner to initiate to confirm their own desirability, and those who are uncomfortable with their partner initiating because it makes them feel passive, and therefore unmanly.

Fantasy

A fantasy is no more or no less than a mental exercise in creating desire. In spite of the negative reputation fantasies once had with the church and psychology, science now acknowledges that fantasies are a healthy part of adult sexuality. They help us figure out what we want—but not in the way you think.

Unlike daydreams or other fantasies, sexual fantasies are metaphorical rather than literal. If you’re daydreaming about cake, you probably do want cake. If you fantasize about being a high-priced prostitute, you may not literally want to be a high-priced prostitute. Instead, what this fantasy might reveal about you is that you want to be desired. If people are willing to pay a lot of money to sleep with you, you know you’re wanted and valued.

You can share your fantasies or you can keep them to yourself. Either way, remembering that fantasies are a non-literal expression of self can help you learn about your sexuality without shame.

Desire within Our Relationships

Next, let’s consider desire for our partners specifically. It’s normal for desire to fade, or wax and wane, in a committed relationship. Balancing love and eroticism isn’t something we can do perfectly all the time, and a committed relationship gives us time to practice and play.

When we’ve decided it’s time to bring back desire, there are two ways to approach this: quantitatively and qualitatively. American culture tends to be big on the quantitative approach, which includes measuring the frequency and duration of sex, and medical intervention such as Viagra if necessary. However, the can-do attitude and emphasis on hard work that works well in other arenas don’t necessarily lend themselves to the subjectiveness of desire.

Mating in Captivity defines eroticism, or desire, as sex with imagination, and looks at the qualitative aspects of desire rather than stats. Imagination is made up...

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Mating in Captivity Summary Part 1: Individual Desire | What Is Desire/Eroticism?

Mating in Captivity defines eroticism, or desire, as sex with imagination. Imaginative sex is a quest for pleasure through play⁠—creative, curious, unselfconscious, goalless play.

Eroticism, sex, and love are all interrelated, but they’re not interchangeable⁠—they’re not even related in a predictable and linear way, and sometimes, they’re contradictory. Eroticism can be present or absent in both love or sex, and sex can be more or less than an extension of an emotional relationship. For example, for some people, a loving, committed relationship makes them feel free to experiment with sex and eroticism. Other people can have sex with someone regardless of whether or not they love or desire them. And finally, you actually don’t even need the act of sex to have an erotic...

Mating in Captivity Summary Chapter 1: Family

Factors such as media, schooling, religion, and where we grow up affect our sexuality, but our family is our first introduction to relationships and the greatest influence on our sexuality. From our families, we learn about our bodies, dependence, independence, our gender, and what emotions to attach to sexuality. We also learn how to love, trust, and experience pleasure (or learn the opposite, depending on the people in our families).

What we experience in childhood we carry forward into our adult relationships, and some of what we learned we may not even be aware of. The body as well as the mind stores memories, both good and bad, and intimate sex is so physical it can draw these out.

Example #1: Steven’s father left his mother. Steven admires and respects his mother and doesn’t want to be anything like his father. He married Rita and six years later finds it hard to have sex with her. Because of his relationship with his mom (love and respect), he learned that emotional security requires caution and selflessness. Caution and selflessness are the opposite of desire-driving emotions such as passion and longing.

Example #2: Dylan’s mother died when he was twelve and...

Shortform Exercise: How Do You Balance Dependence and Independence?

We learn about dependence and independence during our childhood, and we carry what we’ve learned into our adult relationships.


As a child, in what areas did you depend on your parents?

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Mating in Captivity Summary Chapter 2: Fantasies

In addition to childhood experiences, another factor that influences our individual sense of desire is our fantasies. Sexual fantasies are imaginings that create desire and excitement. Historically, Christianity viewed sexual fantasy as a sin, and psychology viewed it as a perversion. Today, though, psychologists consider fantasies as natural, healthy parts of adult sexuality. Eroticism thrives on imagination and creative freedom. Fantasy fits naturally into eroticism, whether the fantasy is unique to the individual or shared by the couple.

When most people think of fantasies, they tend to think of cowboys, kilts, or threesomes. However, fantasies aren’t always scripted, articulate, or wildly different from real life—they’re simply fictions that create desire. Women tend to have more trouble owning their sexual thoughts, so they may think they don’t fantasize even if they do.

Example #1: Lucas spent his adolescence pretending to be straight, going so far as to sleep with a cheerleader because he thought it would be suspicious if he turned her down. Once he grew up, he moved away and came out. He knows that many gay guys fantasize about turning straight men, so he does...

Mating in Captivity Summary Part 2: Desire Within Relationships | Chapter 5: Approaches for Rekindling Desire

In Part 1, we looked at the factors that contribute to our individual sense of desire. In Part 2, we’ll look at the factors that influence our desire for our partners.

There are at least two ways to approach a bad, boring, or non-existent erotic life: quantitatively and qualitatively. The quantitative approach has merit in certain situations, but because eroticism is abstract, looking at it qualitatively will nearly always be more revealing.

The Quantitative Approach

Many people approach desire problems using the same methods they would to approach any problem in their life: break the problem into small steps, create a concrete plan, and work hard. **However,...

Mating in Captivity Summary Part 2A: Inherent Tensions | Chapter 3: Commitment vs. Desire

There are several forces that make it difficult to maintain desire within domesticity. Three of the forces are inherent tensions between desire and the modern values of long-term relationships: commitment vs. desire, intimacy vs. desire, and egalitarianism vs. desire. We’ll address the first tension in this chapter and the next two in subsequent chapters.

Commitment vs. Desire

Are commitment and desire mutually exclusive? Commitment is based in predictability, certainty, and security, while desire thrives on mystery, uncertainty, and risk. Commitment and desire seem to be polar opposites, and according to most people, passion fades over time in long-term relationships. Even biochemistry agrees⁠—the romance hormones (PEA, dopamine, and norepinephrine) don’t last more than a few years, while oxytocin, the hormone released by cuddling, lasts far longer.

Most people think you have to choose between commitment and desire, and different types of people choose one or the other:

  • Romantics prioritize passion. They’re always searching for a person they’ll permanently desire. When desire inevitably fades, they decide they’ve fallen out of love and end the...

Mating in Captivity Summary Chapter 4: Intimacy vs. Desire

Like security, intimacy is another modern-relationship-intangible that conflicts with desire. Intimacy is based in familiarity, closeness, compassion, and comfort, potentially polar opposites of the fundamental ingredients of desire: novelty, distance, and selfishness.

Establishing intimacy necessitates eliminating otherness and shrinking the distance between two people. Intimacy makes you care about the well-being of the other person and makes you afraid to hurt them. However, sexual excitement requires a lack of worry, and pleasure needs to be a little selfish. When you care about another person, it can be hard to focus on your own needs.

However, like commitment vs. desire, the author believes it’s possible to create desire in a relationship that’s also intimate. Intimacy isn’t consistent, and even in the strongest long-term relationships, its strength differs at different times.

Stamping Out Distance

When you first meet someone, you don’t know them. That’s why budding relationships are so intense, both physically and emotionally. You don’t know what kind of connection you have yet, so you’re working with imagination and potential⁠—ingredients for desire....

Mating in Captivity Summary Chapter 5: Egalitarianism vs. Desire

Like security and intimacy, there are inherent conflicts between egalitarianism and desire. Egalitarianism is based in fairness, respect, and compromise, while desire fundamentally thrives on obsession, aggression, objectification, and power plays. However, unlike security and intimacy, egalitarianism in the bedroom is primarily cultural. Also unlike security and desire, or intimacy and desire, egalitarianism and desire don’t have to be a balancing act. As long as everything is consensual, you can dispense with egalitarianism in the bedroom in the pursuit of desire.

Stamping Out Power Imbalances

There are plenty of good reasons to try to neutralize power imbalances⁠—crimes based in sex trafficking, violence, and child pornography being some of the most compelling examples. There was also the sexist social culture that the women’s movement took a crack at equalizing. Some of their achievements include:

  • Debunking the myth that gender differences are biological norms. Gender differences are only social constructions, which can be changed. While boys are taught to express power directly, and girls indirectly, neither are biologically hard-wired to act that...

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Shortform Exercise: Who Are You?

Some people want to take on different roles in their sex lives than in their day-to-day lives.


What kind of person are you in your day-to-day life? Do you like to be in charge? Are you shy? Do you start things, or react to them?

Mating in Captivity Summary Part 2B: External Tensions | Chapter 6: Communication Methods

In addition to the inherent tensions between desire and the modern definition of love, there are a few external forces that make it challenging to enliven desire in modern times: talking as the sole language of intimacy, mixed messages about sexuality in American culture, parenthood, and infidelity. We’ll address talk intimacy in this chapter and the other factors in subsequent chapters.

The Two Languages of Intimacy

In modern times, our concept of intimacy has become more precise⁠—we consider it to be achieved mainly through verbal communication. Modern relationships demand self-disclosure, sharing our feelings, and being good listeners (non-judgemental, validating, and so on). We want to feel known and expect our partners to share as much as we do. However, talking isn’t the only (or even best) way to develop intimacy. There are two methods of communicating intimacy, verbal and physical.

Verbal Communication: Women’s Arena

Women tend to be good at verbal communication because, throughout history, they haven’t had access to power. Instead, they became experts at building relationships. Even today, girls are taught to develop relational skills.

The...

Shortform Exercise: How Do You and Partner Communicate?

There are two ways to communicate, verbally and physically.


Do you prefer to communicate verbally or physically? How do you know?

Mating in Captivity Summary Chapter 7: Mixed Messages

The second outside factor that affects desire is culture. American culture has mixed feelings about sex, and when this culture pervades our relationships, it can impair our desire. American culture tends to look at sex from two extreme points of view, hedonism and Puritanism⁠—sometimes even at the same time.

Hedonism

Sex has never been more public. It’s used in advertising, it’s a regular subject on TV, and porn’s all over the internet. Sexual freedom fits nicely with the American values of individualism and personal freedom. However, the media focuses on single sex, not domesticated sex. With all this potential for single, freely available, idiosyncratic sex, can a monogamous modern relationship compete? The author doesn’t know.

Puritanism

This hedonism or “openness” toward sex isn’t indicative of liberal sexual attitudes. It’s more about economics than enlightenment. Even though we see sexy images used for marketing all the time, the foundational beliefs about sex⁠—that it’s dirty⁠—hasn’t changed.

The idea of sex as something dirty stems from Puritanism. **The Puritan approach to sex is conservative⁠—if sex isn’t for reproductive purposes within a...

Mating in Captivity Summary Chapter 8: Parenting

A third outside force that affects desire is parenthood. For many couples, once they have a child, almost everything about their lives changes: their relationships with themselves and the people they know, their bodies, roles, and amount of resources (finances, time, energy, and so on). Many of these changes affect the erotic life as well, usually in a suppressive way.

It can take years to adjust from couple life to family life, but once we get into a routine (for example, starting to sleep through the night again, visiting our adult friends, and so on), for some couples, eroticism starts to return.

For others, it doesn't. That’s not necessarily a problem⁠—it’s perfectly possible to have a good relationship without sex, as long as both people agree to forgo it. If one person misses sex and the other’s not interested though, there’s a problem. The person who wants sex has three options: find sex outside of the relationship, leave (sometimes not until the children are grown), or stay, but be so miserable, resentful, and bitter their partner wishes they'd just leave instead.

Why Does Parenthood Sometimes Kill Sex?

There are many reasons why parenthood can have...

Mating in Captivity Summary Chapter 9: Infidelity

The final outside factor that affects desire is infidelity. All relationships have the possibility for infidelity and the author calls this possibility the “third.” The third is a manifestation of desire for someone, real or imaginary, outside of the relationship. They can be an ex or a fantasy. The third is intrinsic to all relationships, because fidelity wouldn’t be meaningful if it was the only option.

Fidelity is so entrenched a lot of people don’t even want to talk about it⁠—the act of bringing it up suggests it’s open for negotiation. If it’s breached, the whole relationship can blow up, not only the erotic aspect. However, ignoring the third can be just as detrimental. In this chapter, we’ll explore why we value monogamy, why people in monogamous relationships cheat, and how to handle the third that exists in every relationship.

What Is Monogamy and Why Do We Value It?

Traditionally, monogamy was defined as having only one sexual partner over the course of your entire life. It was used to control women’s reproduction. Fidelity kept things simple⁠—if your wife only ever sleeps with you, you know who’s next in line for your cows when you die. Monogamy...

Shortform Exercise: How Do You Approach the Third?

There are three ways to approach the threat of infidelity: try to control it, acknowledge it, or invite it into your relationship.


Who or what is your third? Remember that the third can be a real person, a fantasy, or the life you might have had if you’d chosen to be with someone other than your partner.