Esther Perel Discusses Erotic Desire and "Traditional Marriage"

In her recent Big Think interview, Perel explains that sexuality and marriage have experienced a radical shift over the past few generations. What was once considered a dutiful bond now serves our more individualistic culture driven by love and desire. Where these two feelings meet and diverge is at the core of eroticism.

Psychologist Esther Perel is fascinated by the complicated relationship between love and desire. In her best-selling book Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, Perel associates the two with entrapment and freedom, respectively. The key to sustaining a committed relationship, she says, is to achieve a steady balance that promotes affection yet also maintains degrees of autonomy and distance.


In her recent Big Think interview, Perel explains that sexuality and marriage have experienced a radical shift over the past few generations. What was once considered a dutiful bond now serves our more individualistic culture driven by love and desire. Where these two feelings meet and diverge is at the core of eroticism.

Perel begins her discussion of erotic desire by first dispelling a few myths about transgression -- namely, that it's nothing new. People have been cheating since the dawn of relationships. Rather, what's new is the context in which we perceive transgression and the situations from which it occurs. People stray, Perel explains, for multiple reasons: discontent, boredom, loneliness, disconnect, a lack of adventure, etc. The core theme within all those reasons is that the transgressor acts in line with the prevailing message of our culture: we deserve happiness. This eternal search for affirmation exists in conflict with established expectations for a committed relationship:

"In the name of being happier we find that we deserve to go and explore. To often look, not necessarily for another partner, certainly in the context of happy couples or couples who are relatively content and who also experience affairs and infidelity, but a search for the other self; a search for the person that is not the one that we have become over the many years; a search for gratification; a search for sexual expressiveness, loads of reason that unfortunately are not often part of the negotiations, certainly not with interested sexual couples. So they become part of the most traditional model that coupledom has ever known, which is proclaimed monogamy and clandestine adultery."

This leads Perel into a discussion about "traditional marriage," a buzzy phrase often tossed around in socio-political discourse. What most folks mean when they refer to traditional marriage is an institution that came to prevalence in the 20th century. Before then, marriage was a whole different animal:

"It was for companionship, for family life, for social status and for economic reasons, land, expansion and so forth. And we brought love to marriage. Then we brought sexuality to love. Then we brought a connection between marital happiness and sexual satisfaction, all courtesy of the democratization of contraception, the women's movement and the gay movement. What we may call traditional marriage to me is that form of marriage, in which by the way the adulterous space for most of history was the space for love because love was not a building block nor a foundation nor a motive for being married."

Basically, for the longest time marriage was a pragmatic institution. At some point during the past 70 years, love was injected into the equation, placing a heightened focus on marital intimacy. This includes not just sexual intimacy, but intimacy of life and spirit as well. Where getting married was once like bringing on a business partner, choosing a husband or wife today comes with the expectation of a spiritual -- and sexual -- connection.

This, Perel says, is "new marriage:"

"I'm going to have this communicative experience with you where I'm going to share my most valuable assets, which is not my land but my internal life, my feelings, my worries, my dreams, my aspirations and you're going to reflect back on me and you're going to validate me. And in our relationship I'm going to transcend my existential aloneness because the couple has become the bulwark, the safe haven against all the insecurities away from a much larger community in which people had their needs met by a large network and the couple was one interaction but not the central interaction, the organizing principle of our mythic and practical life. That today is the new marriage I would say."

For more on erotic desire and the evolution of the committed relationship, watch the following clip from Esther Perel's Big Think interview.

Esther Perel is the best-selling author of Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence. She will be offering a special digital workshop beginning this October. For more information, visit www.estherperelclasses.com

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.