Over Christmas vacation, we rented a house in L.A. While the boys were napping one afternoon, I browsed the living-room bookshelf (it’s always fun to see what people read) and pulled out the book The Secrets of Happy Families. As I curled up on the sofa, I skimmed chapters on dinner conversations, fighting fair, family vacations — and then came to a chapter about sex…
The author, Bruce Feiler, had visited Esther Perel, the legendary relationship therapist and author of Mating in Captivity. Here’s what happened:
During our visit, Perel asked me to play a short game. Each of us had to finish the sentence, “I turn myself off when….”
She went first. “I turn myself off when I look at my e-mail before going to bed.”
Me. “I turn myself off when I take forever to brush my teeth, take my medicine, and get ready for bed.”
She. “I turn myself off when I haven’t had time to go to the gym.”
Me. “I turn myself off when I have to take twenty pillows off the bed.”
“As you can see,” Perel said, “ninety percent of the answers have nothing to do with sex per se.”
Perel then asked Feiler to think about what turned him on — whether it was nature, dancing or going to a party.
“The point is,” she continued, “each of us is responsible for our own desire. For being shut down or being turned on. I have asked people in twenty-two countries the same questions, ‘What draws you to your partner?’ And the answers are universal. First, when he’s away, when she comes back, when we are separate and reunite. Second, when I see the other at work, on the stage, surfing, singing; when I see my partner doing something he’s passionate about. And third, when he makes me laugh, when he surprises me, when she dresses differently, when she introduces an element of the unknown.”
I sat there, the California light streaming through the windows. The chapter rang true — if I work late at night, I only want to watch TV and veg afterward; I’m too tense and wound up to relax in bed. But on weekends, when the lazy days stretch out ahead of us, it’s a different story. What a compelling approach to think about what life circumstances turn you both on and off — often you don’t even ask the latter question, and your moods can end up feeling unpredictable and capricious, even to yourself. It’s empowering to take control of them.
And I identify with the part about how people get turned on when their partner feels unfamiliar or separate. When I call Alex’s work line and hear him brusquely answer “Alex Williams,” it gives me a thrill. It’s as if we don’t know each other well; for that second, as far as he knows, I’m a complete stranger.
Really fascinating to think about. Now I want to go back and re-read Esther Perel’s fantastic book!
What about you? What turns you off? And what makes your heart race? I’d love to hear…
(Photo of Anna Karina in Le Petit Soldat)