The Profile Dossier: Esther Perel, the Relationship Guru
“The erotic is about cultivating pleasure for its own sake."
Eroticism is an antidote to death.
That’s the biggest lesson psychotherapist and renowned couples therapist Esther Perel learned from her parents who were concentration camp survivors. They were both the sole survivors of their entire families.
As a child, Perel grew up in a community in Antwerp, Belgium, in which the majority of the residents were Holocaust survivors. “In this community, I always saw two groups of people — those who did not die and those who came back to life,” she says.
The people she refers to as the group “who did not die” lived life distrustful of others, saw the world as a dangerous place, and felt guilt about experiencing pleasure. The group who “came back to life,” she says, were those who understood “eroticism as a life force.”
Today, the word “erotic” is typically used in the context of sexual desire, but Perel offers a more nuanced definition. She views “the erotic” as an energy, a vitality, and an aliveness that couples exude even after undergoing a traumatic event. Perel credits her parents for showing her how to live with purpose, playfulness, and connection to herself and others.
Now, she has devoted her life to coaching couples through all the intricacies of intimacy and connection. In today’s modern and ultra-connected world, we’re experiencing higher levels of uncertainty, crippling self-doubt, and relational anxiety. So what makes a successful relationship? It demands active creativity, she says.
“Everyone understands the difference between putting some food on the table for sustenance versus enjoying a lavish, beautiful, thoughtful, creative meal for pleasure,” she says. “The erotic is about cultivating pleasure for its own sake. It’s about the quality of the experience and the journey you go on with your partner. And that, over time, is a real piece of art.”
(Photo credit: Ernesto Urdaneta)
On balancing romance and power: Perel has a secret about relationships: The form often precedes the content. In other words, we tend to follow a pretty strict formula regardless of what we’re arguing about. “Every conversation will look alike,” she says. “One of you starts to raise your voice; the other rolls their eyes. One goes up a notch; the other walks away. It’s a dance, and often organized by the vulnerability cycle.” Romance, she says, is not the only driver of a relationship. Power is just as important and just as complicated. This is a good one. Read.
“We are created by the relationship as much as we create the relationship.”
On asking the uncomfortable questions: Perel is an expert at solving problems having to do with love, sex, marriage, infidelity, and just real-life stuff we face on a daily basis. Her secret? She goes right for the questions people are scared to ask their partners. This profile reveals some of the techniques she uses in her consultation sessions, and how she helps couples have the tough conversations they’ve been avoiding for years. Read.
“You’re right, but you’re wrong, too. Welcome to life as a couple.”
On rekindling passion: Perel’s book Mating In Captivity is touted as one of the most insightful books on personal and professional relationships. In the book, she explores the paradoxical union of domesticity and sexual desire. Can you have the security of long-lasting love while also having a fiery, passionate relationship? Read.
“Love enjoys knowing everything about you; desire needs mystery.”
On mending your work relationships: Perel may specialize in couples therapy, but now, she’s carving out a new niche as an executive coach. Startup founders and corporate executives are calling her for help about the relationships … inside their companies. In this story, she discusses her second podcast, “How’s Work?” and explains that business partnerships are more similar to marriages than we realize. Read.
“We treat it more like a marriage than a transactional partnership.”
On reigniting desire: In this incredible Knowledge Project episode, Esther reveals practical strategies for reigniting romance in a busy or “autopilot” relationship, overcoming common triggers, and inviting more imagination and play into our partnerships. Listen.
“If you trade passion for stability, you’re trading one fiction for another.”
On managing our overlapping roles in lockdown: In the wake of COVID-19, we’re all experiencing our many life roles — CEO, partner, child, friend, teacher — all in the same place (at home). Perel explains how couples around the world are grappling with uncertainty, mortality, and grief. “Couples divide between those who emphasize routine and those who emphasize emergency,” she says. She explains how we can adapt to our new “normal” in a way that’s constructive for our relationships. Listen. (For a more biographical episode, check out this one from 2017.)
“The silver lining is that this epidemic gives people the opportunity to connect in the midst of constraint.”
On confronting the uncomfortable: If you ever thought your relationship problems were unique, just wait till you listen to this. Perel’s podcast Where Should We Begin? features real, raw recordings from her therapy consultation sessions. You listen in on couples dealing with infidelity, betrayal, loss, and so much more. Listen.
“The facts don’t change but the experience of it does.”
On defining infidelity: Perel’s TED Talk has been viewed more than 15 million times (!). She starts off with the heavy question of: “Why do happy people cheat?” Perel defines infidelity in much more nuanced terms than society has provided. She explains why affairs are so traumatic, and why the transgression is ultimately an expression of longing and loss. Watch.
“Most of us are going to have two or three relationships or marriages, and some of us are going to do it with the same person.”
On a strong sense of self-esteem: A lot of people’s sexuality and relationships will improve, Perel says, when their sense of self-worth improves. But the problem is that people often mistake confidence with arrogance. We live in a society that values performance and condemns true vulnerability. Perel says this idea can wreak havoc in our relationships. “Self-esteem is the idea to see ourselves as flawed individuals and still hold ourselves in high regard. It’s anything but perfection. So welcome your flaws, people.” Watch.
“For me, success is about accountability. Begin to own things in your relationships.”
TECHNIQUES TO TRY TODAY.
Avoid absolutes: Absolute statements can cause damage in our personal relationships. Saying, “you always” or “you never” should be eliminated from your vocabulary, Perel says. This “all or nothing thinking” puts your partner on the defensive, and it only escalates the conflict. “It leaves the other person with no option but to refute what you just said about him, to stonewall you, or to attack you for your offenses,” she says. Perel recommends substituting, “You never do the dishes,” with “I’d love for you to do them more.”
Reflect, don’t react: This is an interesting tip to help you argue more constructively. As the conflict begins, before you disagree, try telling the person you’re speaking with what you heard them say. According to research, people tend to listen for only about 10 seconds before they tune out and mentally begin forming their rebuttal. After your partner is done talking, state exactly what they say in the structure of, “What I’m hearing you say is that when I do X in situation Y, you feel Z. Is that correct?”
Ask for what you want: Perel calls constant bickering “chronic low-intensity warfare,” in which a partner is critical the majority of the time. Behind every criticism is a veiled wish, she says. Rather than saying, “I’d like a cup of water,” you say, “Why did you take a cup for yourself and not me?” And that’s how arguments escalate until you’re fighting about something much bigger than a cup of water. The solution is vulnerability — the willingness to ask for something and accept the possibility that you might not get it.
De-escalate conflict: For many people, anger is easier to express than hurt. “Yet the more we communicate through anger, the more anger we get in return, creating a negative cycle of escalations,” she says. Instead, Perel points to yoga. If you’ve ever done a breathing exercise, you’ll know there’s a small pause between each inhale and exhale. When in an argument, rather than shifting into instantaneous blame, use the moment to reflect about why you’re angry, what you want, and how you will communicate it. The way to de-escalate a conflict is to start taking responsibility.
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
“You’re right, but you’re wrong, too. Welcome to life as a couple.”
“When you pick a partner, you pick a story, and then you find yourself in a play you never auditioned for. And that is when the narratives clash.”
“Love rests on two pillars: surrender and autonomy. Our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness.”
“Too often, as couples settle into the comforts of love, they cease to fan the flame of desire. They forget that fire needs air.”
“Love is a vessel that contains both security and adventure, and commitment offers one of the great luxuries of life: time. Marriage is not the end of romance, it is the beginning.”
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