About a year ago, while catching up with a friend, she asked if I had heard about the Esther Perel podcasts, as they were in her words, “life-changing.” I had no clue what she was talking about but promised I would check them out.
Curious about this Esther Perel woman, I looked her up and realized my friend was far from her only fan. Psychotherapist and New York Times bestselling author Esther Perel (@EstherPerelOfficial) is recognized as one of today’s most insightful and original voices on modern relationships. Fluent in nine languages, Perel is a Belgian native and a practicing psychotherapist whose innovative models for building strong and lasting relationships have won acclaim across five continents. She helms a therapy practice in New York City and serves as an organizational consultant for Fortune 500 companies worldwide. Esther is an acclaimed TED speaker and the host of the hit podcasts Where Should We Begin? and How’s Work?.
After one podcast, I, too, was hooked. Like the millions of people who follow Perel, I quickly appreciated her ability to speak the truth in a way that cuts you to the core and makes you feel safe exploring topics usually not talked about. But the podcast’s real power is in how it draws you into the stories, inevitably shaking up your perspective on your own behavior and relationships.
Perel’s podcast “Where Should We Begin?” allows listeners to play a fly on the wall as she conducts actual couples’ therapy sessions so that we may, in her words, “learn, explore, and experience alongside the couples who have been gracious enough to let us in.” Each episode, the clients change, but their sessions revolve around a common theme: seemingly inescapable ruts, problems that sit like unwieldy roadblocks in their paths.
After more than 30 years as a therapist, Perel is incredibly skilled at understanding people and delivering razor-sharp insight; it’s fascinating to witness. In the middle of troubling discussions on grief, betrayal, and regret, she always manages to make her clients laugh. No matter how tense the room or heartbreaking the problem, she’ll find the perfect thing to say — something kind, wise, true, and funny. Then the couple, from the depths of frustration and despair, will laugh. Just like that, the tone will shift from hopeless to hopeful.
Every episode, I’m in awe by her ability to reframe a problem and find a way forward. I’ve learned so much from listening. Below are some of the most memorable lessons.
1. Listen Closely.
One of the most obvious but profound lessons has been to listen closely to what people say. From the first episode, I was blown away by Perel’s detective– her ability to pick out keywords and spot clues that hint at underlying issues. But often, when we talk to our friends, we’re too busy preparing what we’re going to say next actually to bother to hear the words they’re saying. Thanks to Where Should We Begin? I have started making an effort to slow down and listen when someone I love talks to me. It has made me more connected to their lives, and hopefully, a better partner, mother, and friend as a result.
2. We can’t date an entire village.
Too much is expected of modern relationships — your partner is supposed to be your best friend, lover, psychotherapist, child care, and well, everything. And the pandemic has only magnified the degree to which we’re forced to rely on our partners. As Esther Perel clearly explains, repeatedly, throughout the series, those roles were historically used to be spread out within communal structures. She stresses instead of raising our expectations towards our partners, we need to examine what is missing from our social lives closely. Do we have other people to rely on? How is our relationship with ourselves? Perel explains to her clients that people need community, and they need other friends. They need other people to talk to. They need other people to share activities that their partner isn’t interested in. To ask one person to do all of that is not healthy or sustainable for anyone.
3. There are two kinds of growing apart.
There’s either bickering or chronic conflict, or there are disengagement and indifference, and separateness. You can either have too much or too little of the thing that actually makes people grow apart. That’s really the choreography of growing apart. It’s constant fighting, or it’s so far apart that you don’t even notice if the other one is there or not.
4. A secure relationship is a balancing act.
To be able to come back to the harbor, to anchor yourself, to feel rooted, and then to get up to leave and go and play without having to worry. You don’t have to worry about the fact that while you go, you’re leaving somebody there who is suddenly bewildered and anxious and depressed and angry, but somebody who is totally at ease letting you go. When I come back, you’ll be there, and so I experience freedom and connection at the same time. That is security in a relationship for adults and children.
5. Behind every criticism is a wish.
If I say “I wish,” for example, “we spent more time together.” It means I want something, and I can be refused. I can be rejected. By phrasing what you want as a wish, gives your partner an out. And in a relationship that is not secure. Instead of saying what you want directly (to spend more time together), you are saying what your partner didn’t do (make time for you). That’s the criticism. To share what they didn’t do and what’s wrong somehow can feel safer than to be straightforward about your feeling and wants, but it ends up being toxic to the relationship, especially over time.
6. Sex is not something we do; it’s a place we go.
What happens to people’s sex life is it becomes the last thing on the list that you should do at the end of a long day, as if it’s one more chore. You can do it, but doing it is not the same as the quality of the experience that comes with it. In Esther’s words, “Tell me about your sexuality, and I see the person you are.” She shares that those who live life like a passionate love affair seem to focus more on playing than achieving and embrace the excitement of the journey—both in bed and otherwise.
7. Monogamy is highly misunderstood.
“For most of history, we married, and we had sex for the first time. Today we marry, and we stop having sex with others,” offers Perel. She explains that most of us will have at least two to three marriages or committed relationships during our lives – and some of us will have it with the same person. She explains you need to reinvent yourself and the relationship you live in over and over again. “You can have the same relationship with a thousand people, or you can have a thousand different relationships with a single person. It’s up to you to decide. The ones who maintain a vibrant, fulfilling relationship are those who understand how to reinvent themselves and actively create and build their relationships, and so they keep the energy alive.”
8. There is always something we can learn from love, even when things go wrong.
There is endless advice out there on how to fall in love. But there is little on how to rebuild and repair relationships when things go awry. I’ve genuinely found Ester Perel’s podcasts helpful as I’ve identified with many of the couples’ problems, her advice is simple to follow and seemingly beneficial to everyone. Above all, Esther Perel’s podcast has taught me that there is always something we can learn from love – even, and perhaps, especially when things go wrong.
To continue this conversation about relationships, have a look at our soulmates piece here.