Esther Perel seeks the erotic life

It’s hard to read “The Richard Burton Diaries” without feeling just a tad envious. 

His love with Liz, as Dwight Garner wrote recently in The New York Times, was “so robust you could nearly warm your hands on its flames.”

Although the legendary couple was hardly a paragon of marital virtue (they married twice and divorced twice, drank recklessly and fought fiendishly), they did form a beguiling blueprint for marital bliss. 

On their first honeymoon, Burton cautioned himself:  “Have to be careful. I might become idolatrous.” Years later, when they had been apart for a mere three days, he whined, “I miss her like food.”

For Burton, a vaunted actor with a literate mind who could buy jets and rubies on an exultant whim, Elizabeth Taylor was “the greatest luck” in an otherwise inordinately lucky life. Sure, their relationship was characterized by erratic behavior and emotional tumult, but Burton knew its merits outweighed its deficiencies: “She has turned me into a moral man,” he wrote in 1968. “[S]he is a wildly exciting lover-mistress … she is a brilliant actress, she is beautiful beyond the dreams of pornography … and she loves me!”

Oh, love. 

But such rapturous romance can be confounding for anyone who believes marriage should be about safety and stability. Never one-note, their relationship proved that sometimes the deepest love can come in a most chaotic package.

“Marriage doesn’t have to be a partnership of equals,” writer Ada Calhoun observed after reading the aptly titled Liz and Dick biography “Furious Love,” on which the upcoming Lifetime movie “Liz & Dick” is based. “It can be a bodice-ripping, booze-soaked, jewel-bedecked brawl that survives even death.” 

It is the je ne sais quoi quality of the Taylor-Burton romance that author and speaker Esther Perel describes as eroticism. In her nearly three decades as a marriage-and-couples therapist, the Belgian-born Perel has learned a thing or two about how to sustain Liz-and-Dick desire over time. A self-professed sexuality expert, the Hebrew University and Oxford-educated guru is also the author of the internationally acclaimed book “Mating in Captivity,” which has been translated into 24 languages and seeks to answer the rub: “Why does great sex so often fade for couples who claim to love each other as much as ever?”

This is what Perel calls the crisis of modern love.

“How do you ask the same relationship to give you excitement and edge, novelty, adventure and risk, and, at the same time, give you security and predictability?” Perel said during an interview last week. (She will appear in conversation with me following Sinai Temple’s Friday Night Live service on Nov. 9.) “Whatever eroticism thrives on,” she added, “is what family life defends against.”  

It isn’t exactly shocking that the need for secure love and the pursuit of passion can be antithetical: Love seeks comfort and familiarity; desire is about mystery and distance. Love is reliable; desire is unpredictable. Love prizes safety; desire thrives in danger. We yearn for what we imagine, not what we see.

“Emotional and erotic needs are quite different,” Perel explained, but when combined add up to “the ultimate adult relationship.”

For the first time in human history, couples are asking their monogamous relationships to satisfy not only biological and security needs, but also primal pleasure needs: the hungers, and longings, and yearnings that stir in their souls. This existential and philosophical challenge was unthinkable before women’s liberation, which granted sexual freedom; contraception, which liberated sex from the sole realm of biology; and the gay rights movement, which enabled the notion of sexuality as an identity. 

But soul-shattering sex is not enough to end ennui. There are great marriages devoid of sex, and sex-filled marriages that are not erotic. “Eroticism is not about sex,” Perel said, though it demands that; rather, it is a sensibility, a worldview, that engages “our entire human drama.” 

“It is the ultimate invitation of an other to be allowed to meet in those places of your being that go beyond words, beyond the civilized polished parts of ourselves. It is a level of intimacy that is unique. It is about maintaining a relationship that makes you feel alive.”

Somewhat surprisingly, Perel alighted on her theory as a consequence of growing up the daughter of Holocaust survivors. “When you’re the child of survivors, you never fully believe in security,” she said. “You live with the fear that everything can change from one minute to the next, that you can lose everything. And in response to that, some of us shut down.”

She wondered what would restore the desolate to life. 

“What the body can express is way beyond what words can only hint at,” she said. It seems like an ironic comment from someone who counts reading Tolstoy as an erotic experience, but then, it is erotic in the way a nature-lover sees sublimity in a sunset. “A great writer creates through words an experience in our bodies,” she said.

True passion is a passion for the whole of life. It is lust for the fullness of the human experience. Even Burton admitted, “I am as thrilled by the English language as I am by a lovely woman or dreams.”

Burton teaches that passion begins in a single soul. It is the sacred and inviolable mystery of the human heart, a question seeking an answer. Burton found in Liz a partner in his quest. Their destination, always unknown.

“Passion comes with an amount of uncertainty that you can tolerate,” Perel said. “Can you live without it? Yes. But once you have known it, and it is absent from your life, do you long to go back there?