“The erotic is an antidote to death”

From Esther Perel’s conversation with Krista Tippett:

…where I said, “Many of us, these days, are at least going to have two or three marriages or committed relationships in our lifetime. And some of us will do it with the same person. And those people who do it with the same person — that is erotic intelligence,” because they’re able to reinvent themselves on location and to create a new relational arrangement with each other. And if you cannot do it with each other, you’ll go do it somewhere else.

But you need to do it, because if not, you die. You need to change to continue to stay alive. And it involves novelty, but novelty is not about new positions; that’s why people then end up thinking you’re talking about sexual positions — no. Novelty is new experiences of yourself in the world and of your partner in relationship to you, if you’re talking about a partner. But if not, it’s new experiences of yourself in the world, and that involves taking risks and having an active engagement with the unknown…

And when people do it, there’s a sense of purpose, there’s a sense of aliveness; there’s a sense of joy; there’s a sense of transmission; there’s no age. There is no age in the chronological sense, because you are in touch with life.

I think that what it means to be human — there are many ways to answer it, but what comes up for me immediately is, we all come into this world with a need for connection and protection and with a need for freedom. And from the first moment on, we will be straddling these two needs — what is me, and what is us? The common parlance today is, “I need to first work on myself; I need to first feel good about me; solve me before I can be with somebody else,” and I find that also a strange thought. You know who you are, you discover who you are in the presence of another.

So this constant dance between me and you, between I and thou, is at the core of being human. What right do I have to do for me when it hurts you? How much can I ask for me and not give to you? How much do I give to you until I feel that I have not given enough to myself? How much do I make sure not to lose you but lose me in the process? Or how much do I have to hold onto me but lose you in the process? That tension, that dance, for me, is very much at the core of being human — freedom and responsibility, which probably is kind of the core of existentialist thinking.

Esther Perel’s book “Mating in Captivity” is on my wishlist, as are her 2 TED talks [1] [2].

This idea of transformation within the boundaries of the same relationship, and transcending it, is something I’ve begun idealizing. In the last few months, I’ve had to face my failings when inside a relationship. Part of that is rethinking how to be with another human being, nurturing growth, and being in this “constant dance between me and you.”

One of my conclusions is that we must fight rigidity. I’m only this one dude online, but I think some techniques from agile could benefit romance. Confronted with both routine and change, we tend to either protect the existing interpersonal dynamics or demand too much redesign at once. What if the reshaping could be deliberate, slow, and with conscious buy-in from both parties?

The idea is entirely theoretical, but it stems from my experiences in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I was afraid of the possible metamorphose of my previous relationship, and eventually caused its decline. Given the chance, what I would test is:

  • Sporadic use of the Want/Will/Won’t framework for exploring sexual progress.
  • Periodic retrospectives to discuss what is being done well and not so well. Besides, you’d take some time to appreciate and be grateful for the things the other person has done for you.
  • Frequent planning talks, to talk about small changes to try in 1–2 weeks and make sure partners are in alignment. Examples to discuss are social outings, time together, coming events, and other trivial, non-routine things that might be eclipsed by routine.
  • Keeping a list of shared activities and things to try, from both partners, and both being able to gently nudge the other to make these things happen.

These are notoriously non-original and potentially silly. As a divorcee, what could I possibly know… But they might be worth a try.

More importantly, nurturing and promoting the growth of the Other. As Esther puts it, it is strange to think we first must be in a perfect state, before being able to connect with the Other. We are impermanent, unfinished, and the process of discovery of who you are is also a social and interpersonal exercise. Instead, let us understand when our relationships confine us to bad habits and suppress growth.

This is not to advocate fluid or non-closed relationships, but rather authentic ones. Keep the avenues of communication honest and broad, and rely on the right set of tools to “reinvent… on location and to create a new relational arrangement with each other”. Our lives shouldn’t be static and untested, but rather an expanding function of shared learning and love.

  1. Rethinking infidelity … a talk for anyone who has ever loved ↩︎

  2. The secret to desire in a long-term relationship ↩︎