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Esther Perel on Sex, Love, and Monogamy

Perhaps today’s foremost expert on what makes a relationship last, Esther Perel isn’t afraid to be honest. The therapist, author, speaker and host of groundbreaking podcast Where Should We Begin (in which listeners get to eavesdrop on real-life couples in counseling sessions) explores tensions in human relationships and healthy ways to get needs met. We were lucky enough to sit down with the internationally sought-after advisor over an intimate outdoor dinner for an exclusive interview on sex, love, and how to measure the success of your relationship. Plus, look out for season 3 of Where Should We Begin this fall on Apple Podcasts and Spotify!
Rip & Tan: How has technology changed the way we find and stay in relationships? What are the advantages and the disadvantages of these changes?
Esther Perel: Technology influences our relationships at every stage. First is how we court—it has utterly morphed, especially through apps. In the beginning, it was through writing, and that actually offered a beautiful opportunity that was much more like Cyrano De Bergerac: you could write to someone and totally charm them without having to show your face. So it actually opened up possibilities for people, but it has evolved. Now the apps have literally multiplied your options, and we have become rather unimaginative. That doesn’t mean that some people don’t meet on an app and from there meet in person and have a lovely time and make a life.

I think that one of the things you get through technology is a kind of situation where people can be in ‘semi relationships’, they can ‘hover’—you can text just enough to have a certain kind of contact that allows you to not feel alone, but not too much contact that allows you to feel too committed. At the same time, you have an ability to have an entire relationship online in which you send love messages and texts and sweet nothings in synchronous time. You don’t even have to wait in asynchrony where I write you a letter and you wait by the mailbox and answer—it’s constant, and it’s intense. So it’s an intensification, it’s a multiplication, it’s also a fragmentation…it touches you, in the best and in the worst ways.

How technology affects the relationship in terms of my work is about what happens when people discover secrets: they don’t just discover a little bit of lipstick on a collar, or a message somewhere, they discover an entire digital archive of erotic twists and turns, and it’s just a completely gutting experience.

In my time, if I broke up with somebody, I never saw them again. But now I can go back to find them: “Where is this person that I haven’t seen in 20 years, with whom I can have this whole exchange that is this perfect blend between just enough novelty and still quite a bit of familiarity?” I don’t have to deal with or fear the creepiness of the unknown. We could have broken up 15 years ago, and we can see what would happen if we actually finished the story differently. When did you ever have a chance to create another ending?
Rip & Tan: It’s no secret that the way we were raised and the models we have as children greatly inform the way we behave in relationships as adults. How can we use this as an advantage to move forward instead of something holding us back?
Esther Perel: I think people carry certain vulnerabilities: they are both good and bad at the same time. I met a woman yesterday who grew up with a very chaotic, painful background, but her ability to intuit what people need comes from that very same place as the place where she had to detect danger at all times, or changing moods, or predict if her mother was going to be nice or evil. So it’s not, “How do we leave the bad and turn it into the good?” it’s that the places of pain and the sources of our strength are often one and the same.

When you look at your strongest relational resources, they often come not just from wonderful experiences, they also come from painful experiences. And it’s the ability to see that that changes the meaning of what you think was holding you back. If you actually see that it is also the source of the things that make you very special, and the strengths that you have, then you no longer just see that baggage—you see that there’s all kinds of luggage.
Rip & Tan: To what do you attribute the stereotype of men always wanting sex and women turning it down? How do we as women avoid a self-fulfilling prophecy on this topic, while still feeling comfortable stating if and when we aren’t in the mood?
Esther Perel: I don’t think men always want sex: I think men want a lot of things, and the only way they know how to get it is through sex. Men want attention. Men want connection. Men want tenderness. Men want to be touched, men want to be accepted. Men want to be adored. Men want to feel appreciated, they want a lot of things. But for most of these things, they don’t have any other language to ask for other than sex. So it looks like all he wants is to get laid. And men don’t have the permission to simply say, “I want to be held.” So basically, sex takes care of all of the forbidden needs of men.

I think that women have also bought into the idea that to want sex is to be instantly interested and hot and excited before it has even started. This notion of the spontaneous desire isn’t realistic…you’re not always in the mood. It’s like: “I’m not hungry, but you cooked, and it smells good. So I sit next to you, I taste it, and it’s nice. Then I take another bite, then I suddenly find myself with a small plate. And I still wasn’t necessarily in the mood.” Women have the notion that sex has to be something that is a spontaneous, unprompted desire, and don’t often understand that for many women desire is responsive. And it doesn’t always start from desire. Sometimes it starts from willingness. Is everybody in the mood before they go to the gym? But, has anybody ever regretted coming back from the gym when they have a good workout?
Rip & Tan: Can you identify a few key pillars that would indicate a long lasting partnership between two people?
Esther Perel: First of all, I tend to not think about lasting, because I’ve seen a lot of couples that lasted and were miserable. So I think we really need to start to think about thriving relationships not only in terms of longevity. We want relationships today that are fulfilling, on an emotional level. We’ve gone up the Maslow ladder of needs, we first got together because we needed refuge and shelter and food, then to have children. And then we got together because we wanted belonging and romanticism. And now we get together because we want self fulfillment. So we’ve literally gone up the ladder, and the people that go up and get to the top have a beautiful view. But the air is thinner. So not everybody can climb there.

The new view is, “You’re going to help me become the best version of who I am;” it’s a capstone relationship. Do you know the concept of a capstone vs. a cornerstone relationship? [A capstone relationship is one where marriage is considered the capstone you put on top of your already built life, where a cornerstone model is one where the marriage is treated as something you build a life around together.] It’s like: I’ve already developed myself, I am not meeting you at 22, I’m meeting you at 29 or 32. In terms of the ingredients of a thriving relationship, I think it’s a sense that people are writing a story with a partner, and that they’re going to write that story of life together, as best they can.

It’s a relationship in which there is a certain ease of communication, even about difficult topics. And when people remain curious about each other, and don’t think that they’ve already gone around the block and that their partner is like the inside of their pockets: that they think they know everything about them until the day they find out they cheated on them, and only then do they realize. It’s a relationship where people know how to be accountable. “I made a mistake. I fucked up, I said something wrong. I’m sorry.”

They can take responsibility for their contributions, and they know how to repair it when they have a big blowout. They know to ride the cycle of harmony and disharmony and repair. It’s a relationship that feels alive. I think that in life this is an essential component. It means that people experience a sense of energy of vitality, of joy. Not happiness, but joy, which is a different idea. It’s a relationship that straddles the polarity between security and adventure, between separateness and togetherness.
Rip & Tan: What about red flags? What do you see where you say, “This is never going to work?”
Esther Perel: Blame and shame. Attack defense: accusing the other of the very thing you do yourself. Constant threats, you know, where every problem is: “I’m breaking up with you” or constantly ‘living at the door.’ Relationships that are fundamentally unsafe, where it’s just really not safe to ever stick your foot out, because you will be bitten. Where if you say anything personal it will come back flying at you. Basically abusive systems—those are red flags to me. Also, relationships that are filled with neglect: where people bring the best of themselves everywhere else (to work, to their friends, to their hobbies), and bring the least amount home.
Rip & Tan: Do you think there’s a type of person that can or should try non monogamy? How can someone know if they should try, and whether it’ll work for them or not?
Esther Perel: I think that you don’t always know. I think that it has to do, first of all, with how important it is as a part of your identity and who you are. Is sexuality a central part of your sense of self, and your expression, and your form of freedom? That’s not for everybody. Not everybody cares in the same way—appreciates it, likes it, needs it. I think if you experience a greater sense of insecure attachment, if knowing that you have somebody that’s there for you is more than you ever had in your life, then respect that. It’s absolutely not for everybody. I think the most important thing about marriage and the situation today is to know that there is no one size fits all. It’s not that this model is a better model than that model. It’s that we need a proliferation of models.

We created many models for family life, we have single parent families, gay families, blended families, commuter families. But we have not evolved in terms of the conception of the couple. If it doesn’t fit that old mold, you can divorce, that’s about the only option you have. You can’t rethink creatively based on the stage of life that you’re in, based on the needs, based on how you’ve changed. So I don’t know that it’s always personality. I think at 22, you have a different personality than at 52, because you have not yet experienced life in the same way. So not every 22 year old wants to experience plurality of love. They want the ‘big love.’ But at 52, you’ve had the big love sometimes, and you say, “There are other experiences I would like to have and they mean something very different.” You can compartmentalize certain things. But I think if you have experienced trauma, if you have experienced real violations of trust, and of stability and reliability from people that you needed to take care of you, it is often more difficult.

"People in relationships are constantly filling roles. It's not necessarily who they are, and they could be somebody very different with someone else. They often were very different in the beginning, for that matter. I think that when you are in a relationship, it's very tempting to think that the source of the problem is the other. I've never heard many people come to couples therapy and say, “I came to fix myself.”

Photos by Melissa Gidney