‘Passion has always existed,” says Esther Perel. “People have known love forever, but it never existed in the context of the same relationship where you have to have a family and obligations. And reconciling security and adventure, or love and desire, or connection and separateness, is not something you solve with Victoria’s Secret. And there is no Victor’s Secret. This is a more complicated existential dilemma. Reconciling the erotic and the domestic is not a problem that you solve. It is a paradox that you manage.”
Ooh, Perel is a great lunch date. All psychotherapists are, in my experience, but she’s particularly interesting. ***, relationships, children; she covers them all in the two hours we spend together. But also collective trauma, migration, otherness, freedom… all the good stuff.
Perel is a practising couples and family therapist who lives in New York. Aside from her clinical work – she counsels around 12 couples or individuals each week – she has two best-selling books: one about maintaining desire in long-term relationships (Mating in Captivity), the other about infidelity (The State of Affairs). She has released two fascinating podcast series, called Where Should We Begin?, where listeners get to listen in on real-life couples having therapy with her. The podcast is where I first came across her – it’s won a British Podcast Award, a Gracie Award in the States and was named as the Number One podcast by GQ.
On top of all this, she hosts workshops and lectures as well as the inevitable TED talks, one of which has been watched more than 5m times. I went to one of her London appearances earlier this year. Alain de Botton was the host and he introduced Perel with quite some hyperbole, calling her “one of the greatest people alive on Earth right now”. (Perel dismissed this afterwards, though she likes de Botton: “He put me on such a platter.”)
The reason for Perel’s popularity is her clear eye on modern relationships. She says, rightly, that we expect much more from our marriages and long-term relationships than we used to. For centuries, marriage was framed within duty, rather than love. But now, love is the bedrock. “We have a service model of relationships,” she says to me. “It’s the quality of the experience that matters.” She has a great turn of phrase: “The survival of the family depends on the happiness of the couple.” “Divorce happens now not because we are unhappy, but because we could be happier.” “We will have many relationships over the course of our lives. Some of us will have them with the same person.”
For a while, Perel wasn’t taken particularly seriously by the therapist community: she tells me that when Mating in Captivity came out in 2006, it was only “the sexologists” that thought it was great. This is because her thinking went against long-established relationship wisdom, namely that if you fix the relationship through talking therapy, then the *** will fix itself. Perel does not agree. She says that, yes, this might work, “but I worked with so many couples that improved dramatically in the kitchen, and it did nothing for the bedroom. But if you fix the ***, the relationship transforms.”
We meet in a boutique hotel in Amsterdam, where Perel orders her food in fluent Dutch. She has a light Belgian accent (she says “boat” for “both”), and she wears some delicate gold jewellery, a bit like the Indian hath panja, on her right hand. (Both of these seem to excite American journalists, along with Perel’s good looks. A relationship therapist who you might fancy, shocker!)
We begin talking about her podcast series. It’s an astonishing listen, partly because you get to earwig other people’s problems (always great) and partly because Esther’s methods are so flexible: in the first series she got one young woman to wear a blindfold while her partner inhabited a more assertive sexual character, which he did by speaking in French. She sometimes sings to her clients; she tells them off quite a lot, especially if they think *** should come naturally: “Who the hell told you that BS?”
Series three, released next month, is slightly different to the last two. This time round Perel very deliberately chooses couples at different stages, because she wants to show an arc of a relationship, all the way to its end. “Also,” she says, “I wanted to bring in the way that relationships exist in a larger, social, cultural, context. That context often gives a script about how one should think about suicide, about gender, about divorce and so forth.” So we hear from a young couple coping with enforced distance in their relationship: one is US-born and the other is Mexican, without a US visa. Another is a mother and her child, who does not identify as either gender. Another couple, with a young child, have divorced, but seem to get along much better now: why?
Perel finds her podcast therapees via her Facebook page: they apply in their thousands. Her podcast producers sift through, using guidelines that Perel suggests them: this time round she knew she wanted to cover infertility and also suicide. Then there’s a lengthy pre-recording interview process where it’s explained to the couples that, yes, this really is going on air and, yes, they might be recognised (from their voices; they’re anonymous otherwise). “Are you OK in understanding that your story will become a collective story? You will be giving so much to others, as well. It’s not just for you, actually.” And then they have a one-off session with Perel for three to four hours, edited down to around 45 minutes for the podcast.
She loves the format. “The intimacy of it, the private listening of it, the fact that you don’t see them, thus you see yourself. You hear them but you see you. It reflects you in the mirror.” But also, surely, it’s quite exposing for you? “Oh yes. People can come and hear me give a talk, but they’ve never seen me do the work… and you can’t talk about what you do. But when you write a book, that is the first part of exposure. Then comes TED and the podcast. If you ask, ‘What does Perel do?’ My colleagues know how I do.”
Perel is 60 now; I wondered how she found being a relationship therapist when she was younger, in her 20s. Weren’t clients put off by her youth? “Actually, I’ve always found that the age of the clients goes up with me,” she says. “It mirrors. I don’t know why.” She doesn’t think lived experience is necessary, though sometimes she wonders how she had the chutzpah to counsel parents before she became one herself (now she has two grown-up sons; she’s still married to their dad, Jack Saul, who is a professor and an expert in psychosocial trauma). “But then I have worked a lot with addiction, and I’m not an addict.”
Interestingly, she came to therapy via drama. Drama and collective trauma. She was the second child of Polish Jews who came to Belgium as Holocaust survivors (Perel’s first passport was a stateless passport of the UN). In Belgium, they became part of a community of 15,000 Jewish refugees.
“Loss, trauma, dismantlement of the community, immigration, refugees… All these themes that I observe in the world today, were basically mother’s milk to me,” she says. “Everybody had an accent, a good number of people had the number on their arms. There were no grandparents around, there were no uncles. It’s all I knew. It’s different than if it was just your parents. It’s every home I went to.” One of Perel’s earliest memories is of card games where her parents would talk of a friend, and someone would say, casually, “Ah, he was gassed, he didn’t make it.”
Perel’s parents had her older brother in 1946, then she came along 12 years later. This was not uncommon. “When people came out of the camps, the first thing they did to prove that they were still human was to have a child. They waited to get their periods back, and then they had a child.” But then there was a gap of 8, 10, 12 years before they had another. Perel thinks this was because the parents needed to establish themselves in society. Hers ran a clothes shop in Antwerp. The family lived above the shop. They spoke five languages: Polish, Yiddish, German, French and Flemish. Every evening they watched the news in German, French and Flemish, to get a good all-round view.
As a teenager, she was interested in psychology, mostly because she hated the strictness of school. She read Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child-Rearing, about a British school run like a democracy, and from there she moved to Freud. “I was interested in understanding myself better and in people around me. People dynamics. I was quite melancholic and I was often wondering, ‘How does one live better? How do you talk to your mother so she understands you better?’ I’d say the primary ingredient I had was curiosity. I was a massively curious person – I still am.” She was also a good listener – a confidante for her friends. I tell her she would have made a great journalist, and she agrees: “That would have been my other career.”
After school she went to study in Jerusalem, a university course that combined French linguistics and literature. More importantly, she developed her interest in theatre, which had begun in early adolescence. I assumed she was an actor, but she’s talking of improv and street theatre, with puppets, of all things. “Big ones, you hold them on two long high sticks, or I did hand puppets.” She liked the immediate contact with people and gradually, she found herself merging these skills with her studies, doing theatre with gangs,with street girls,with Druze,with foreign students. At one point she went to Paris to study under Augusto Boal, who created the Theatre of the Oppressed. He would stage fake crises in everyday situations: actors pretending to have a physical row on the Metro, for instance. Perel found it interesting to see which passers-by would get involved and which would turn away.
She moved to New York to do her Masters. She specialised in identity and immigration – “How is the experience of the migrant different if it is voluntary migration or forced migration?” – and in how minority communities relate to each other. She led workshops for what were then called mixed couples: interracial, intercultural, interreligious. “I knew the cultural issues. I knew how to run a group. I don’t think I knew much about couples dynamics.”
Around that time her husband, who is a few years older than her, suggested she might enjoy systemic family therapy. I ask what this is. “For a long time when people looked at a problem, they thought the problem is located within the person,” says Perel. “But systemic family therapy thinks that a family, or a relationship, is made up of interdependent parts. What is the interactive dynamic that preserves this thing, that makes this child not go to bed? That makes this man never get a job? That makes this son be such a nincompoop? How is the family system organised around it? You need two to create a pattern, or three or four or five.”
It’s interesting how therapy has trends, I say, and how those trends manifest themselves in actual life. “Couples therapy goes in parallel to the cultural changes and the expectations in a culture,” says Perel. During the 1980s her married clients didn’t come to her because their *** life was bad, they came because of domestic violence or alcoholism, “not because we don’t talk any more”. Back then, the shame was to get divorced at all, even if one half cheated; now it’s not to get divorced if one half cheats. She saw clients having problems with infertility, the changing role of women and daughters, the Aids crisis. In the 90s, single mothers, blended families, *** couples with kids. Today’s problems, she says, are often centred around people marrying later, after a “sexually nomadic” youth. Also, modern fatherhood – dads wanting to be more involved in childcare – and monogamy versus polyamory. “Straight couples are becoming more ***, *** couples more straight.”
The obvious question, of course, which she has been asked many times, is how Perel’s own relationship works. She doesn’t like to give too many details, but what she does say is that she and Saul give each other a lot of freedom – “If you’ve had an interesting life, you have more to bring back, something that energises the couple” – and that they renegotiate their relationship as it changes. At the moment her husband is entering what she calls a “third stage”, and he wants to paint more. This means he will be away from New York a lot, while she is usually in New York or travelling herself. “We need to, once again, come up with a new rhythm of how we create separateness and togetherness. It’s a fundamental task.”
She wants others not to copy her own relationship, but to use her work as a way to better their own relationship for themselves. And plenty do. Just the other week a young woman came up to her and asked for a selfie. “She said, ‘My boyfriend listens to you all the time, and he comes home and he says, “Have you listened to this episode, we need to talk?”’ The podcast is a transitional object, a bridge for conversation. Like a teddy bear that you hold and you say: ‘It’s OK, don’t be worried.’”
Like when couples talk through their dog, I say.
“Yes,” she says. “There is such disarray and such hunger about getting help on how we manage our relationships today, on navigating the challenges… For the first time we have the freedom of being able to design our relationships in a way that we were never capable of doing before, or allowed to do before. So, I don’t give the details of my relationship. Instead I will give you the tools to come up with your own thing.”
Season 3 of Esther Perel’s Where Should We Begin is available exclusively on Audible from 5 October
Try this at home
Three ways to change the way you think about your partner at home
Pay attention to what is important to the other What happens in a couple is that we often give to the other what we want them to give to us. If somebody is upset, you don’t talk to them, because when you are upset you like to be left alone. It isn’t necessarily what they need.
Roles are often patterns rather than habits If you really want the other person to take out the rubbish, you have to be able to spend two weeks not doing it. You don’t say anything. You just wait until the other person finally notices it. When you’re not there, the other person sorts the bin. They can do it. It’s just that when you’re there they’d prefer not to.
Women are not less interested in *** than men, they’re less interested in the *** they can have What makes women lose that interest? Domesticity. Motherhood. The mother thinks about others the whole time. The mother is not busy focusing on herself. In order to be turned on you have to be focused on yourself in the most basic way. The same woman who’s numb in the house gets turned on when she leaves. She doesn’t need hormones. Change the story.