--The following is Kalina Błażejowska's article about couples therapist Esther Perel. The original appeared in Polish in the weekly “Wysokie Obcasy”.
In today’s world, most of us build two or three relationships or marriages in a lifetime. Some of us, with one and the same person. Your first marriage is over -- would you like to build a second one together?
The email promoting her new book called Esther Perel the “couples therapy rock star," and when I read that, I laughed. But then I undertook my own research and the more I learned, the more appropriate this title seemed.
March 2015 -- TED Talk. A petite woman in wedge shoes, skinny black trousers, white blouse and patterned suit jacket is strolling up and down the red carpet. She has an asymmetrical haircut, penciled eyebrows, blue eyes lined with smoky black eyeliner and thin lips finished with a rose lip gloss. She speaks English with a strong French accent and, balancing between humour and seriousness, she holds the audience’s full attention for 20 minutes.
Esther’s TED Talk video has 10 million views.
"Because I believe that some good may come out of the crisis of infidelity, I have often been asked: 'So, would you recommend an affair to a struggling couple? 'My response? I would no more recommend having an affair than I would recommend getting cancer."
A moment later she reveals her usual advice for couples in the aftermath of an affair:
“In today’s world, most of us build two or three relationships or marriages in a lifetime. Some of us with one and the same person. Your first marriage is over. Would you like to create a second one together?” -- she bows and earns a round of applause.
Perel teaches at the Ackerman Institute for the Family in New York. She counsels CEOs of notable companies, organises seminars for married couples, gives lectures at Silicon Valley Investment Conferences and at high-class workshops run by Tony Robbins -- a world authority on life coaching and leadership psychology.
Show business is not news to her either: Perel worked as a consultant on “The Affair” series. The show is the story of a love affair told from different perspectives. Perel’s quotation: “Oftentimes when someone cheats, it’s not because they’ve become unhappy with their partner or spouse. Rather they’ve become unhappy with themselves” ended up on the writer’s room board as the main inspiration for the show.
Esther started her therapy practice in New York 34 years ago. “I was originally trained in psychodynamic psychotherapy, but my real home for many years has been in family systems theory and then in psychodrama, expressive arts therapies, and bioenergetics. And for many years, I worked extensively as a cross-cultural psychologist with couples and families in cultural transition, primarily refugees, internationals, and mixed marriages -- interracial, interreligious, and intercultural couples,” she told The Observer.
“I work towards helping the couple establish both empathy and self-responsibility. It’s like carving a big rock in order to create a sculpture.”
Perel, who holds a master’s degree in expressive arts therapy, is also a licensed marriage and family therapist and a certified sex therapist. She sees patients in her vast, art-filled office on 5th Avenue. Shelves are stocked with all 25 translations of her books: "Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence” published in 2006 and “The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity” from 2017.
Esther’s calendar is bursting at the seams and, as she states on her website, currently she’s not accepting new patients. Instead, she recommends exploring one of her available online courses: “Rekindling Desire: Reignite the Passion in Your Relationship” -- 4 hours of guidance from Esther with at-home exercises for $297.
The course is highly reviewed by its users: “Rekindling Desire is a rare, online workshop experience: intimate, insightful, fast-paced, and with an international perspective. As a 50-year-old lesbian in a long-term committed relationship, I thought my sex life was over. Wrong!” - Kirsten J., Atlanta. There’s also a pretentious quote by a well-known contemporary philosopher -- Alain de Botton: “We are all deeply confused about how to manage love, sex and commitment in the modern world. There is one person on the planet with a particularly compelling diagnosis and set of answers. Esther Perel is a guide and mentor for our times.”
As it turns out, you actually can try therapy with Esther, and for free! Except she’ll be counselling somebody else. Perel is the author of the “Where Should We Begin?” series of podcasts co-produced with Amazon, and available on iTunes and Audible. Each episode consists of a recording of a real, unscripted consultation session, edited down from three hours to forty-five minutes.
The episodes feature couples in heterosexual, homosexual and transsexual relationships, short and long-term. They are culturally and religiously diverse, as well as with kids and childless. All the patients are anonymous, even though their voices are never masked. They talk about impotence, infertility, terminal diseases, problems with children, and above all -- infidelity.
Perel’s frequent and direct interventions do not resemble conventional sessions. Those would usually involve occasional questions from the counsellor, a reluctance to jump to conclusions and therapy’s slow, gradual progression. But who would want to listen to that?
“Where Should We Begin?” is not therapy, it’s pop-therapy. The 18 couples who were chosen from 1,500 online applications are not Perel’s regular patients from New York’s social elite, but people desperate enough to sacrifice their privacy in exchange for one complimentary session. It’s not exactly an unknown series -- according to The Financial Times, the podcast has already reached 10 million listeners.
Esther believes that the show not only helps its participants, who apparently often inform her about the “miraculous effects” of their sessions, but also inspires the listeners by providing them with “vocabulary for conversations they may wish to have with their partners.” It has surely helped her career. Perel became “the couple whisperer”, “the supernova in the field of psychotherapy” and the “therapist of the nation”. Journalists eagerly quoted Esther’s “fluency in nine languages” as stated in her online bio and glorified her exotic accent: “her French-sounding accent seems to bolster her authority in psychoanalysis and eroticism,” according to The New Yorker.
For Americans, Perel has become the living embodiment of their fantasies about French sophistication. But she is not French! Esther is the daughter of Polish Jews and she was born in Belgium. “My parents: Sala Ferlegier and Icek Perel were survivors of the Nazi concentration camps, and the sole survivors of their respective families.” she writes on her website. “My father had nine siblings, and my mother, seven. For four years, my parents stood face to face with death. Trauma was woven into the fabric of my family history (and would inspire my work for years to come)”.
She often emphasizes that while growing up in a community of Holocaust survivors in Antwerp, Belgium, she learned to distinguish between the two groups: “Those who didn't die, and those who came back to life”. Those who didn't die lived in constant fear and distrust. The ones who came back to life were filled with joy and energy.
“In my work with couples coming through betrayal, there is the question: 'How do you rebuild trust?' Neither of my parents were betrayed by a partner, but rather they were betrayed by humanity. They had to learn how to love again and to enjoy life. I use what they went through as an inner resource for my belief in resilience,” she told The Observer.
Esther doesn’t like to share her family history but we can find some details in the book “Collective Trauma, Collective Healing” written by her husband, Jack Saul, who heads the International Trauma Studies Program at Columbia University. We read that Perel’s parents, Icek and Sala, were taken from their homes in 1939. Her father spent 5 years in 14 different camps and her mother in 9 different ones. Her mother also managed to escape from the ghetto and spent 12 months hiding in the woods.
The pair had been neighbours before the war and as soon as they were released and reunited, they married. The couple moved to Belgium where they opened a clothing store and had two kids. Perel’s parents talked openly about what they endured in the camps, turning traumatic events into fascinating and heart-warming stories of defeating death. In 1991, they decided to travel to Poland together with their kids. They managed to convince their children that Poland was not only a place of tragedy and doom but also a place of life.
After high school, Perel moved to Israel to study educational psychology and French linguistics and literature at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. After graduation, she went to US as a part of an annual scholarship. She met her husband and decided to stay in the country. For the first 20 years of her career, she was particularly interested in the cultural transition of Jewish identity in mixed-race relationships. When Esther turned 40, inspired by the divorce debate after the Clinton and Lewinsky scandal, she changed her subject of studies.
Perel prefers to leave her marriage out of stories about her work. While avoiding intimate details, she does have some thoughts on how she and her husband have strengthened their relationship over the decades: “The first is that over 35 years, we have recalibrated our expectations -- what is realistic for us, what we can expect from each other at this stage of our lives versus that stage. The second is that we have a diverse social network that nurtures each of us, together and separate. The third is about having new experiences together, taking risks, and maintaining a sense of curiosity and discovery over new things,” she points out.
“Oh, and we should never forget about the intimate connection that involves touch. You can live without sex, but not without touch,” Perel adds.
Her books are neither academic pieces of work nor guidebooks. They could be described as advisory essays, containing stories of Perel’s patients, famous citations and results of various studies not conducted by the therapist, herself.
Her first bestseller was dedicated to the subject of sex in long-term relationships. It revealed some simple truths: “You can’t desire what you already have” or “Human nature is driven by many conflicting desires: the need for stability and eroticism, security and risk, routine and novelty.”
It also explained that people who love each other don’t always know how to be good lovers. “In order to improve our sex life, we need to open our heads and our relationships. We should bring back the line dividing “me” and “you”, start paying attention to our own needs and give our partner some space.”
And last but not least, abandon our sexual correctness: “I’d like to suggest that our sex could become more exciting and pleasurable if we were not so tightly restrained by our cultural obsession with democracy in bedroom”.
In “The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity” Perel focuses on the condemnation of infidelity, especially common and severe in the western countries.
She calls for reflection and discussion on the subject; instead of restricting ourselves to rigid moral categorization, we should consider the mechanisms of unfaithfulness; start noticing not only the victim of adultery but also the unfaithful partner and their personal motivations. And perhaps, we could try to appreciate the lover’s role in the situation.
The book is advertised as an “Intellectual Masterpiece” and “Fresh Look at Modern Relationships and Age-Old Taboos“. This is not entirely accurate, Perel not only goes through the well established theories but also tends to repeat herself. She expands on the ideas from her first publication and recalls topics from her famous lectures.
On nearly every page there’s a fragment I’d like to highlight. So I will:
On the paradox of American puritanism: “As a culture, we’ve become remarkably open sexually but when it comes to sexual fidelity, even the most liberal minds remain stubborn.”
On stagnation in a relationship: “One of the oftenly muffled truths about being in a relationship is the fact that for many couples only infidelity is fierce enough to draw a partner’s attention and give a shake to a dry and stale attachment.”
On different dimensions of infidelity: “We all know that self-restraint can be as erotic as sexual intercourse. Desire originates in absence, in longing for an emotional connection.”
On transition of the institution of marriage: “First we added love to marriage. Then we added sex to love. And finally we combined marital happiness with sexual satisfaction. Procreative sex became recreational sex.”
On inflated marital expectations: “We have an endless list of requirements but we also want to be happy. Before, happiness was in the afterlife, today we don’t even pursue it, we demand it. And we expect one person to satisfy needs that used to be handled by a whole village. Not too mention that our life expectancy has more than doubled!”
On the commonness of divorces: “Today, we don’t divorce because we’re unhappy, we divorce because we could be happier.”
On social stigma: “Our culture does not believe in no-fault affairs. So when we can’t blame the relationship, we tend to blame the individual instead. The clinical literature is rife with typologies for cheaters –- as if character always trumps circumstances. Psychological jargon has replaced religious cant, and sin has been eclipsed by pathology. We are no longer sinners; we are sick. Ironically it was much easier to cleanse ourselves of our sins than it is to get rid of a diagnosis.”
On sex with our ex: “A fling with a former partner gives us a unique combination of an already established trust, a risk and a danger of getting hurt.”
I have a lot of questions for Esther Perel: What nine languages can she speak? What did her parents teach her about sex and love? Did her parents’ traumatic experience affect her? Does she attend psychotherapy supervisions? Does she consider sharing patients’ stories in books and podcasts to be ethically correct? How much is one private session in her practice in Manhattan?
I sent my list to Perel’s literary agent and her press bureau. The only response I got was an automatically generated email saying: “Your application has been received -- index number: 12309”.
Esther Perel is unreachable. Like a true rock star.
--translated from the Polish by Martyna Kardach