Discovering Esther Perel
I first encountered Esther Perel through her TED talk, “The secret to desire in a long-term relationship.” I was in what I hoped would be a long-term relationship, and I was cooking dinner. My speaker’s volume maxed out as I strained to hear her every word over the kitchen fume hood.
Even after many more of her talks on love and relationships, I wanted to hear more from her, so I bought her two books:
- Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic (2006)
- The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity (2017)
Usually, I just go to the library for books, but I knew I would want to keep these around for future reference. A couple years ago, I bought Relationship Rescue by Dr. Phil McGraw for a similar reason. But since then, I’d still searched — and didn’t know how desperate I was — for a woman’s voice on the topic. Esther Perel hit the mark, right on, and right on time.
I didn’t even need to read any of the reviews because I’d already made up my mind about the quality of her work and the value of her expertise.
What I love about books that encapsulate an expert’s learnings and teachings is that you know what to expect from them, and they deliver. Through her books, Esther Perel has become the relationship therapist of my dreams. Here are three reasons why, with notes on how I’ve already vicariously benefitted from other people’s therapy sessions with her.
1. She identifies the underlying problems
The baggage has been real in my relationships. Esther Perel knows how to unpack it all. By reading about how she unpacked other people’s baggage, I began to be able to unpack my own.
My baggage started out as a little tiny wallet that holds my identity, and now it’s about the size of a hiking backpack, filled with sweaters and scents that remind me of someone, letters they wrote to me, feelings I stowed away in my journals, memories, fantasies. My significant others, in turn, have their own.
Together, we are packed for a road trip. Only this trip is about unpacking our problems. We spread the items out in our little love cave: attachment issues, lack of trust, faithlessness, abuse, jealousy, insecurity. I’m not even a therapist but I’ve had to deal with these relationship issues. I’m guessing you have too.
It takes a strong couple to take it all in stride, and get to the end of the road stronger. I wonder how big my bag will be by the time I find that strength with another. I wonder what the break-even point will be, strength versus weight.
That’s why I’d want Esther Perel as a therapist, when it comes time to unpack our bags. She’d have individual sessions for each of us, then a couples session. We’d work through our personal issues and partnership issues separately then together. So, future partner, I hope you also love Esther Perel, and vibe with her books.
I’d want her to give us an initial reading: ok, here’s my history, here’s my partner’s. Tell us, what problems are we going to face down the line of our partnership? Maybe this is why people are so into astrology, human design, and personality tests, because they promise to give you answers and help you search for the one you seek.
From what I’ve read, Esther Perel has a knack for identifying underlying issues in each couples’ relationship. To give you the gist with examples:
- The surface issue: a couple’s sex life has been amazing up until they become parents. The underlying issue: the guy grew up defending his mother from an abusive father, and helping his mother raise his other siblings. This makes it hard for him to sexualize the mother of his own children.
- The surface issue: a wife has had an affair, and her husband wants her to ‘reclaim her erotic self with him.’ The problem: mating in captivity. An approach: if her affair was not an ‘exit strategy’ — that is, if she still wants the marriage to work out — she’ll need to find a way to be different with the same person she has been with for so long.
“Reconciling the erotic and the domestic is not a problem to solve; it is a paradox to manage.” — Esther Perel in State of Affairs, Chapter 10: An Antidote to Deadness
She goes deeper in a bunch of other cases, including homosexual, interracial, and polyamorous partnerships, always managing to get to the bottom of the relational baggage before moving forward with advice.
2. She articulates her insights beautifully
I love the way Esther Perel says things like: “We expect one person to give us what once an entire village used to provide.” I heard it first in her TED talk, and I don’t mind the way she repeats and revamps the concept in her books.
Also, I love the village metaphors; they make me want to go live in a village.
Here are some more memorable, profound, and impactful quotes, many of which can be found on Goodreads.
On marital expectations:
“The human imagination has conjured up a new Olympus: that love will remain unconditional, intimacy enthralling, and sex oh-so-exciting, for the long haul, with one person. And the long haul keeps getting longer. It’s no surprise that this utopian vision is gathering a growing army of the disenchanted in its wake.” — Esther Perel in The State of Affairs, Chapter 3: Affairs Are Not What They Used to Be
All the better for the business of couples therapy, isn’t that right?
“Once we strayed because marriage was not supposed to deliver love and passion. Today we stray because marriage fails to deliver the love, passion, and undivided attention it promised.” — Esther Perel in The State of Affairs, Chapter 3: Affairs Are Not What They Used to Be
On erotic intelligence:
“When a couple comes to me in the aftermath of an affair, I often tell them this: Your first marriage is over. Would you like to create a second one together?” — Esther Perel in The State of Affairs, Chapter 1: A New Conversation About Marriage and Infidelity
“Many of us, these days, are at least going to have two or three marriages or committed relationships in our lifetime. And some of us will do it with the same person. Those of us who do it with the same person — that is erotic intelligence.” — Esther Perel in Mating in Captivity
3. She openly examines infidelity and polyamory
When I first came across Esther Perel, I was looking for ways to make my then-relationship a long-lasting one. By the time I read her books a few months later, I was looking for ways to console myself that I did the right thing in breaking it off. In both cases, I think I found the help I needed.
Esther Perel is adept at navigating each unique situation that her clients bring. I paid special attention to each case in The State of Affairs when I felt like I was on the brink of having an affair at the end of my relationship. She kept asking incisive questions to the unfaithful, and I asked myself in turn:
“Why did you do it? [I didn’t, but why would I?] Why him? Why her? Why now? Was this the first time? Did you try to resist? How did it feel? Were you looking for something? What did you find?” — Esther Perel in State of Affairs, Chapter 9: Even Happy People Cheat
Some affairs are exit strategies, to end a relationship. Other affairs are a form of self-discovery for the ‘seeker.’ And still others are a wake-up call for the couple to reignite their own flame.
Of course, Perel hears the opposition:
“I can hear people exclaiming. ‘Self-discovery, my ass! Cheating is cheating, whatever fancy new labels you put on it. It’s cruel, it’s selfish, it’s dishonest, and it’s abusive.’ Indeed, to the one who was betrayed, it can be all of these things. But what did it mean to the other?” — Esther Perel in State of Affairs, Chapter 9: Even Happy People Cheat
She considers all perspectives, another necessary characteristic for my dream therapist.
“Once the initial crisis subsides, it’s important to make space for exploring the subjective experience of affairs alongside the pain they inflict.” — Esther Perel in State of Affairs, Chapter 9: Even Happy People Cheat
Perel’s book, Mating in Captivity talked me through the need to strike a balance between familiarity and adventure, in order to keep the eros alive in my existing relationship.
“Until now monogamy has been the default setting, and it sits on the premise (however unrealistic) that if you truly love, you should no longer be attracted to others.” — Esther Perel in State of Affairs, Chapter 14: Monogamy and its Discontents
At one point, I even contemplated the concept of polyamory. What would it be like to build a polyamorous relationship? At once it seemed very possible and very impossible in my situation. We were living together, on friendly terms. Ultimately, I did not want to sacrifice an existing relationship, ruin a friendship, or test cultural bounds, so it remained a hypothetical musing.
“Eroticism is such that the kiss we only imagine giving can be as powerful and exciting as hours of actual lovemaking.” — Esther Perel in State of Affairs, Chapter 2: Defining Infidelity
Someone once approached me with the proposition of a polyamorous relationship with an existing partner. I didn’t like the idea of being a secondary partner. Ironically, when I was in the position to approach multiple people, I liked the idea better. Still, I didn’t pursue it.
So it is with fantasies: liking an idea or getting turned on by it does not mean you actually want it to happen or would enjoy it in real life.
“Today, as a matter of course, I ask every couple: What is your monogamy agreement? Marriage without virginity was once inconceivable. So, too, sex without marriage. We are touching the new frontier, where sex outside can live within a marriage. Is it the end of monogamy? Or is it just one more step in its long history of redefinitions?” — Esther Perel in State of Affairs, Chapter 14: Monogamy and Its Discontents
To build a life together is to write a love story
In sum, here’s why Esther Perel is my dream relationship therapist (and how she already helped me through her books):
- She’s a master at identifying the underlying problems
- She articulates her insights beautifully and memorably
- She openly examines infidelity and polyamory, and considers all sides to navigate each case appropriately
Above all, Esther Perel deeply understands and communicates that our relational health is inextricably connected with our mental, physical, and societal health.
“When you pick a partner, you pick a story. So what kind of story are you going to write? You are the editors of your life stories. Write well and edit often. And remember … a life story is not a love story. You can love a lot more people than you can make a life with.” — Esther Perel