'They have become the new religion': Esther Perel says we expect too much from relationships
Couples therapist talks about why we fail to connect and how we can do better
The story was originally published on Feb. 15, 2019.
One of Esther Perel's mantras is, "The quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives."
The popular Belgian psychotherapist and relationship expert has made it her mission to help improve how we connect.
Her books have been translated into dozens of languages and her TED talks viewed millions of times. She's also known for her boundary-pushing podcast, Where Should We Begin?, which lets listeners in on intimate therapy sessions, often between couples exploring some of their most vulnerable feelings.
Perel's passion and interest in how we relate to each other is rooted in her family history. Both of her parents were Holocaust survivors ー the sole survivors of their respective families.
Perel on U.S. politics:
"You have all these false messiahs coming out, who are claiming that they have the truth ー just follow them. That polarizes people."
Perel on the #MeToo movement:
"The lives of women will not change until men have the opportunity to rethink their identity, in the way that many women have been able to do for the past 50 years."
Click here to listen to the full interview.
"The loss of relationships — but also the unique moments of connection of people that helped in situations where they thought that no one would help them — all of these major relational dynamics were pretty much part of stories that I heard from the moment I grew up," Perel told Out in the Open host Piya Chattopadhyay.
Perel sat down with Chattopadhyay for a wide-ranging and candid chat about the Western world's approach to relationships, our innate need to make meaningful connections, how we can do better, and how to relate across increasingly polarized social and political lines.
The interview below has been edited and condensed.
What does having a truly meaningful connection with someone look like?
It means you feel that you matter, and they matter. And if you matter, it means that someone cares for you. Someone remembers you. You exist in the memory of others.
It means that you can never hit the ground because you are lifted by these multiple connections who hold you up, literally, physically. They hold you up, as well, psychologically.
You point out what we once got from the village, many people are now expecting one singular human being to provide for them. Talk to me about that.
We want, with the same person, to experience security, adventure, stability, change, dependability and surprise. We want this same person to still be our best friend, and our trusted confidante and our passionate lover.
We really have this idea that one person today will give us what once an entire village used to provide. I can't say more concretely: [there are] such unprecedented expectations for our romantic relationships. They have become the new religion.
Relationships used to be organized around duty and obligation. Today, they are organized around negotiation and conversation.
How does it get in the way of connecting with one another, all of that pressure?
It is the golden question, right? Why is love so difficult? People come with a history around attachment, around trust, around respect, around gender, around their bodies.
People come either having experienced too much attention or too little attention. Each person comes with their relational dowry to their relationships, seriously. Then they have expectations that with you, I am never going to feel that way anymore. I'm never going to feel alone. I'm never going to have to worry about being abandoned. I'm never going to be suffocated. I'm going to be loved as is.
I mean, there is an enormous mythology over this person that's going to basically rid me of all my internal turmoils.
You do not see infidelity as a moral issue, or as one of victim and transgressor. What do you see it as?
I do see it as a transgression. I see it as a relational hurt. I don't necessarily see it in moral terms. I understand that relational betrayal comes in many forms. Sometimes [it comes] in neglect, and indifference, and violence, and contempt, by people who have not cheated. That does not make them morally superior.
I often tell people, 'How many of you find yourself bringing the best of you to work, and the leftovers home?'- Esther Perel
That's what I'm trying to sometimes take on ... as if other people's behaviour, as long as they have not strayed, can remain commendable, and that maybe is a moral hierarchy I don't necessarily agree with. That doesn't mean I justify, condone or encourage cheating or infidelity whatsoever.
But I have studied infidelity for the last 12 years now. Never has it been easier to cheat. Never has it been more difficult to keep a secret. And never have we been more encouraged to stray because we live in the era where we feel entitled to be happy.
I'm sure you get a lot of people saying, "Oh Esther, you got it all figured out. Look at your [more than] 30-year marriage ー it's perfect." But would a younger Esther be susceptible to those unrealistic notions of romantic love that you're describing?
Absolutely, yes. There was this idea of the person you're going to meet, and how he is going to make me feel, as if he was responsible for my well-being. I did not necessarily understand that certain things, I have to take responsibility for ー they're mine. If he can help me, that's nice, but he doesn't owe me. He's not my mother or my father.
You know, there is a beautiful word that we don't hear enough these days. It's called maturity. You know, at some point you learn certain things.
What can us non-therapists take away from your podcast, Where Should We Begin? What skills should I start honing?
If you want to change the other, change yourself.
I often tell people, "How many of you find yourself bringing the best of you to work and the leftovers home?" And generally a vast majority of the people raised their hands. Here is this relationship from which we expect so much, but you invest often so little compared to other areas of your life.
You come home, you take off your nice clothes. You sit in that couch ー you chill. You feel like you've put all the efforts out to be in the world. But then, don't come complaining that you want some fire, that you want intensity, that you want excitement, that you want sex, that you want intimacy. That demands a different kind of relationship, a different kind of investment of presence.
Relationships ー it's at the core of our existence. And so often, we don't really talk about them, in-depth. We brush over them. We trample them. We neglect them.- Esther Perel
You know, what you say... it's common sense. We know this stuff. And yet, for most of us, it's so hard for us to do. Why?
Because you want to feel like you are the greater victim. Because you want to feel like you do more. Because we live with stories, and it's hard for us to give up on those stories, which basically give us a whole identity ー a way of understanding ourselves.
And part of what makes you change the dynamic involves giving up your story. There is history behind it, and the history becomes the story, and the story becomes the pattern, and the pattern becomes rigidity.
What is the takeaway? What do you want to leave us with?
Relationships ー it's at the core of our existence. And so often, we don't really talk about them, in-depth. We brush over them. We trample them. We neglect them.
We put achievement and products ahead of people. Many, many people are in need of having difficult conversations at this moment ー somebody they owe an apology to forever. Really, the fabric of our society is relationships.