A global pandemic tends to strain interpersonal relationships, and the world’s most famous couples therapist, Esther Perel, has been working to save as many as she can – or at least help us understand why they’re failing.
“We know that disasters and crises often function like relationship accelerators,” she tells me over Zoom, speaking from the office of her New York apartment. “A disaster heightens our sense of mortality, of precariousness, of ‘life is short’. And when life is short, you may say suddenly, ‘Let’s move in together, let’s have a child, let’s get married.’ Like, ‘What am I waiting for?’” But you might also say: “If life is short, I’m not doing this for another 20 years.”
As more and more people get vaccinated, Perel says, “I think people will want to reconnect with what I call a healthy relationship to eros.” She doesn’t use “eros” as a strictly sexual term, she says, but to refer to “a feeling of curiosity, aliveness, exploration – the happenstance, the chance encounter”.
Perel is wearing a blue flowered blouse and earrings; behind her are bookshelves lined with the uniform white and beige spines of French novels. She answers questions thoughtfully and with great precision, speaking rapidly in the accented voice well-known to her millions of TedTalk viewers and podcast listeners. Occasionally, Perel – a psychotherapist of more than 35 years – attempts to gently turn the interrogation back on me. One of her first questions is whether I have ever been “on the other side”, as a psychotherapy patient – I have – which leads to a short aside about The Sopranos’ mainstreaming of therapy.
Perel’s own interest in psychotherapy is personal. Her parents, Belgian Jews, were each the sole Holocaust survivors of their families. She was struck by what she observed among survivors of the camps: some were like living dead; too scarred, too vigilant, to experience life as anything more than base survival. Others, however, had an incredible zest for conversation, music, dancing, love, sex. They understood “the erotic as an antidote to death”. They not only rebuilt their lives but even, after a fashion, thrived.
In her therapist chair, in books, in podcasts, Perel is working to help people rediscover their joie de vivre. Her first book, Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence (2006), explored how couples can love each other yet suffer sexless relationships. She argued that there is a natural conflict between the values we seek in a long-term relationship – stability, trust, intimacy – and the things which excite us erotically – risk, unattainability, the mysterious and unknown.
Her follow-up book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity (2017), proposed a more nuanced understanding of infidelity. It argued that people today expect far more from their marriages, in terms of emotional fulfillment and validation, than was the norm for most of human history. At the same time, sexual taboos are less rigid than ever. Because of this, we tend to regard cheating as one of two extremes: either a mundane event to be shaken off, or the greatest betrayal we can suffer. In reality, she argued, it’s a painful but common occurrence, and one we should try harder to understand.
But Perel is perhaps best-known for her two podcast series. The first, Where Should We Begin?, consists of one-time counseling sessions with anonymous couples in crisis. One memorable episode involves a wife frustrated at her husband’s sexual passivity. The husband has a French-speaking alter-ego named Jean-Claude who is everything he isn’t: confident, cocky, sexually charismatic. Perel has the man speak to his wife in French, as Jean-Claude, while she interprets in real-time.
Her other podcast series – How’s Work?, entering its second season this April – applies a similar lens to a less titillating but often equally intense topic: interpersonal relationships at work. Workplaces have more in common with romantic relationships than most people realize, Perel believes. Both are hubs of meaning – places where people go to fill the existential and psychological needs for which they used to turn to religion and community.
An episode in the forthcoming season of How’s Work? features the newsroom of an unnamed media outlet as it navigates a year of lockdown and emotionally intense pandemic coverage. Seventy-odd journalists participated – including the editor-in-chief, who was hired shortly before lockdown started, and has never met most of his staff in person or physically seen the newsroom.
One of the journalists, who has spent months working from home, expresses the deep despair that many people, especially working mothers, have felt during lockdown. In the absence of boundaries and structure, Perel explains, the woman feels like all her identities have collapsed into one: “I am a mother, I am a wife, I am a lover, I am a friend, I am a daughter, I am the manager, I am the reporter, I am, I am, I am … And it’s all happening in one chair at the same table in the kitchen.”
Thanks to constant video meetings, our bosses are also now, semi-literally, in our bedrooms, Perel says. There’s an element of voyeurism and humiliation – but also resentment and envy, as junior employees in cramped apartments see how their better-paid colleagues live.
Working from home doesn’t just mean a complete loss of boundaries, she notes; it means a loss of the routines that used to define our lives. Pre-pandemic, “I get dressed to go to work. I walk to work. I stop to see my barista, I order my coffee. I enter the office. I greet the doorman. I say hello to so-and-so and go to see if someone has arrived. I put my stuff in the fridge …” These are ritualized behaviors that connote that we have entered the workplace and a different part of our identity is coming out. Our pre-Covid working lives came with norms, rules and obligations, and we’ve lost those demarcations. “That loss is part of why we are so exhausted and burned out.”
Perel has spent much of the pandemic at a house in upstate New York with her husband, Jack Saul, a psychologist who specializes in trauma. She has cultivated some lockdown hobbies – cooking, running, tennis, online yoga – but most of her week is booked solid, just as it was before the pandemic. In addition to podcast recordings, corporate speaking events and the like, she does about 13 hours of private clinical practice a week; she has been seeing some patients for decades.
I ask Perel about her experience doing virtual counseling during the pandemic, and what she thinks about the rise of tele-mental health. She points out that the success of her podcasts – which allow listeners to enjoy, second-hand, the benefits of therapy, without actually participating – seems to indicate that people can get a lot out of non-traditional counseling, especially when they lack access to therapy.
“Is it the same for you to listen to a session as it is to be in my office?” she says. “No. But do you learn a ton by being in my office in this imaginative way, especially if you have no access to therapy, or no access to my office, or no access to even the culture of psychotherapy? Absolutely. I am always amazed by the corners of the world where people are listening. It’s not just New York people; it’s people for whom this is a complete challenge to the status quo in which they live the realities of their life” – people in conservative societies with more rigid understandings of gender roles and sex. By listening, “they get the sense that there is another world out there with different norms in relationships, communication, power dynamics”.
What about therapy chatbots, I wonder. Could a robot ever replace a human therapist?
Perel believes that the question of whether artificial intelligence could ever be “smart” enough to do therapy is partly a red herring; the hardest aspect of therapy to replicate virtually – whether by robots, or by normal human therapists talking by phone or video call – is intimacy.
She compares it to my interviewing her by Zoom. “We see each other, and we’re talking to each other, and we’re in dialogue,” she says. “But I’m not making eye contact with you. And my body is not registering. I’m not able to lean toward you; I’m not able to move away from you. The entire embodied experience that you have in person is absent here. We can have a conversation, and it may become a very deep, rich, meaningful conversation,” but there are elements of body language that can only be noticed when two people are physically present in a room – “an eyelid that just went up, a shiver”, the many physical tells that indicate “a difference between what you said and what you were really feeling”.
She says: “All of that, that nuance of the empathic connection, I don’t think that we have reached a place yet where tele-mental health can do that. But that’s not what every therapy is about either. The essence of therapy is the relationship between the person and the therapist” – the idea that the patient has a “witness to their life. And I think that a big chunk of that we can do. There are people who won’t come outside their houses; to have a medium to talk where they do not have to show up in person gives them an option to be in the process. Human beings, wherever they are, are searching to connect with someone who’s going to help them feel less alone in their experience.”
Some scholars have predicted that the post-Covid era will be a second “Roaring 20s” of decadence and hedonism. Perel believes it will be slightly more complicated. After a year of viewing spontaneous connection as dangerous and threatening – as a vector of literal contamination – people will be desperate for surprise and spontaneity, but they’ll also have to learn to trust again. Every person will have different levels of risk tolerance; every person will have been psychologically changed by Covid in different ways.
But sooner than later, she says, “parties will resume, concerts will happen again, people will go back to the theater as they have after every war and after every other pandemic”.
Perel grew up speaking five languages and now speaks nine; one of her particular areas of interest is intercultural marriages and the ways that identity and culture affect relationships. In a 2003 essay which became the germ of her first book, Perel describes feeling somewhat perplexed by Anglo-American mores, particularly Americans’ tendency to assume that a couple’s sex problems are symptoms of a larger relationship dysfunction. She believes it is often the other way around.
“Ironically, some of America’s best features – the belief in equality, consensus-building, fairness and tolerance – can, in the bedroom, result in very boring sex,” Perel wrote. “Sexual excitement is often politically incorrect; it often thrives on power plays, role reversals, imperious demands and seductive manipulations.” American therapists “are often challenged by these contradictions”.
Does she still feel like an outsider?
Perel smiled. The US “has a notion of effort, of optimism. You roll up your sleeves, you get to work, every problem has a solution. I think my work is American because of how accessible I aim for it to be. It is non-American in that it doesn’t offer a solution. It tells you that the problems of desire in modern love are a paradox that you manage, and not a problem that you solve; it doesn’t think that every existential dilemma has an answer; it says that sometimes you will have to tolerate the ambiguity.”