Mating in Captivity: A book report

I don’t think Esther Perel’s book, Mating in Captivity would be the first inspirational choice for some.1 But I found myself captivated and excited with every page. The book explores the conflict between intimacy and sexual desire through a series of case studies and insights.

On the face of it, the book covers different aspects of relationships and how they affect a couples ability to sustain both intimacy and desire. Topics include different sexual preferences, the introduction of children, infidelity and 20 years or more of marriage.

What I found fascinating was the way Perel challenges people’s assumptions. How she reframes a problem or breaks down the seemingly insurmountable into manageable steps. I don’t think these techniques are limited to romantic relationships. I think they can be applied to a wide range of situations. Here are some of my highlights.

We choose to enter into relationships with our friends, partners and business associates. And with it a commitment to that relationship. Most case studies in the book assume that both parties are committed to finding a solution. Instead of focusing on whether or not to continue the relationship Perel takes it as a given and looks at ways to transform the current situation. I’ve often wanted to walk away or avoid a difficult relationship because it was the easy thing to do. Coming from a place that both parties are committed means that I focus on solutions to any conflict.

There is always uncertainty in a relationship. A sense of mystery. But we assume too much about others and ourselves and limit our possibilities in doing so. We distil down a person to a well-worn story. By letting go of these assumptions we allow ourselves to be open to another way of interacting in a relationship.

We’re often projecting a version of ourselves that is most compatible with the people around us. This can help in avoiding conflict but it can also mean being out of alignment with our true selves. Taking the time, to be honest with oneself and working towards presenting that version to others can lead to a more rewarding experience for everyone involved.

A lot of couples will say that their problems revolve around a poor sex life without acknowledging that sex is an expression of so many other factors. Perel takes a step back and asks the couples to start with something as simple as touch without the expectation of a final outcome. By removing the focus on a specific outcome and focusing on the simple pleasures it allows people to map a new path to the final result. How often do we focus on a specific result, blinded to other possibilities?

Which brings me to my favourite insight in the book — that we should cultivate playfulness. Play allows us to suspend disbelief. We can “experiment, reinvent ourselves, and take chances.” Because the act of playing has no purpose it has no reliance on an outcome.


  1. This article was originally written as part of the altMBA. Our task was to write a book report on a book that inspired us.