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Esther Perel explores the fascinating design of marriage, modern intimacy and relationships—and the complex dynamics of infidelity.

Design Matters From the Archive: Esther Perel

Design Matters From the Archive: Esther Perel

AUTHOR / THERAPIST

2021

Esther Perel / author / infidelity / marriage / relationships / therapy

Transcript


Debbie Millman:

10 years ago, Esther Perel took a big turn in her career. She was a psychotherapist known for her clinical work with intercultural and interfaith couples. She has since turned her attention to relationships and sex. In 2007, she wrote a book titled Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence. In 2013, she did a TED Talk, “The Secret to Desire in a Long-Term Relationship,” which has been viewed more than 10 million times. Two years ago, she gave another popular TED Talk, “Rethinking Infidelity.” That talk led to a new book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity. She joins me today to talk about sex, marriage, cheating, and everything. Esther Perel, welcome to Design Matters.


Esther Perel:

Thank you.


Debbie Millman:

Esther, your parents were survivors of the Nazi concentration camps, and the sole survivors of their respective families, which were quite large. Your father had nine siblings, and your mother had seven. How did your parents survive?


Esther Perel:

I think my dad was in about 14 labor camps; my mother in about nine of them. She spent a year in the woods. He spent six months in Siberia. There were breaks in between, but I think when I asked them the first thing they would typically say was luck, first and foremost. It’s just, “we’re not chosen for the selection that day.” Then the second thing was the ability to stay strong and to continue to hope basically that they would be reunited with their family. That was actually my mother’s thing, and that she was on a mission that she would be the witness, and hopefully that there would be others that she would reconnect with.


Esther Perel:

My father more emphasized that he managed. He in the last year-and-a-half developed a black market in the camps because he was working around the kitchens with a friend of his, and with that black market he was able to feed 60 children, and to make them strong enough to be able to continue to work, but he also ended up feeding the SS, so that they too relied on him to eat more or better. He always talked about his street smart, basically. The way he managed, the way he figured things out in terms of how both of them emphasized decency. Both of them really emphasized that you didn’t survive on the back of others, and love connecting with people, falling in love in the camps.


Debbie Millman:

Is that where they met?


Esther Perel:

No. They actually knew each other from before the war, but they met the day of the liberation on the road.


Debbie Millman:

Was it love at first sight at that point?


Esther Perel:

No. I don’t think so. I don’t think that that was the model in which they came to marriage either. They came from arranged marriage models. No, I think that what it gave them is you were walking on the road, you were free finally, but rather lost not knowing where you’re going, and you basically ask around, “Are there other people that you know from this town, from that city, from this part of Poland?” People said, “Yes, there was such and such. Ah, I know her. I used to know her family. We used to do trading together.” My parents would never have married if it wasn’t for the war, but a lot of the post-war marriages were, “I’m alone, you’re alone. I have nothing. You have nothing. Let’s get married.”


Esther Perel:

That was really the model. They were from different classes. My mother was from an aristocratic Hasidic, educated family, and my father was basically quite illiterate, couldn’t write, couldn’t read much, went three years to school, and would never have been a match, but he looked up. It was like he venerated her, he adored her. They began walking. Then the group grew as you were walking on the roads, and then you would meet these people and then those people would add on.


Esther Perel:

Through Czechoslovakia and through various countries, [they] walked their way to Belgium, which was walking, hitchhiking, hanging on the back of trucks, being on the trains, and then found their way on to Belgium by fluke because my father had helped someone who was Belgian in the camps, [who] said, “Why don’t you come to Belgium?” They had permits to stay for three months then leave; didn’t want to go to the other countries that had permits for the refugees at the time. All very, very current for today, and they decided to stay, and they stayed for another five years as illegal refugees in Belgium.


Debbie Millman:

You’ve said that trauma was woven into the fabric of your family history. How did that influence your childhood?


Esther Perel:

I mean, on some level, you would say you couldn’t see it, and on the other end, you see numbers, you ask it around age 3 or 4 and you say, “Why did all these people have numbers?” Not my parents, but the people around them. Then they tell you without much consideration for child development, Auschwitz, murder, camps, no grandparents, no family, no uncles, why don’t we have anybody, kind of thing. You see a mother basically getting up in the middle of the night, and checking doors, checking stoves. Everything on the surface in my house was very, very normal, but underneath there was a real sense of dread.


Debbie Millman:

How could there not be?


Esther Perel:

Yeah. I mean, I went to a book reading last week of what’s called Feeling Jewish, but it was not about feeling Jewish, it was basically about how feelings that Jews have often had. Today, very appropriate to the reality that we live in.


Esther Perel:

That notion of uncertainty, impermanence, lack of security, those were part of the background, but at the same time there was this. … We didn’t survive for nothing. We are going to enjoy life. We’re going to live life at its fullest. We’re going to capture it with a vengeance, and that energy was very much woven into me as well, combined with, I’m not here to have a small life. I mean, there was definitely that sense that I was a symbol of life and a symbol of revival. I was special in the sense of the magical child—not just me, but many of us who were born then, and I knew we’re gonna do something with this. You had a responsibility to all those who didn’t have a chance to live. You need to really do something with this life.


Debbie Millman:

In preparation for today’s show, I found in my research a line that really has stayed with me. You stated that based on your childhood and watching your parents survive and thrive when they could, that you thought there was a world of difference of not being dead and being alive.


Esther Perel:

This is a line that I actually came up with when I was writing Mating in Captivity, and I was speaking with Jack, my husband who had co-created the Center for Victims of Torture and Political Violence at Bellevue. At the time, I was saying, “How do you know when victims of torture come back or people who have been kidnapped, how do they come back to life? What lets you know that?” Gradually, we would talk about how you come back to life when you’re able to once again be creative, when you’re once again able to be playful—because if you’re playful, you’re not being vigilant, you’re not on guard, you’re not watching for the next disaster to hit you.


Esther Perel:

You come back when you’re able to take risks, which means that you’re able to leave the safe harbor to leap into the world and do things, take risks, and you are having an active engagement with the unknown, as Rachel Botsman says about trust. I was listening to Jack describe this whole thing, and I thought, that’s so interesting. That’s when I actually began to shift my interest from sexuality to eroticism, because eroticism is that life force, that aliveness, that vitality. Then I began to apply it to my community.


Esther Perel:

I grew up in Antwerp, in Belgium. … I don’t think it’s unique at all to my background that in my community there were two groups of people. The people who did not die, and the people who came back to life. The people whose houses were morbid—the couches were covered in plastic, the shades were pulled down. They were supposed to be refuge from the danger but they were not supposed to be places where you lived when you thrived, when you laughed, where you made—


Debbie Millman:

Trusted.


Esther Perel:

Trusted, made love, experience pleasure, anything like that. The world was dangerous. You don’t trust anybody except maybe your family, and you suddenly got to experience pleasure and joy because when you’re experiencing pleasure you’re not paying attention to danger. You can’t be in those two moods at the same time. I remember those children, I remember their parents. They went in my class. I would go play at their houses, and it was morbid.


Esther Perel:

They lived very [inaudible] to the ground. Then I looked at this other group of survivors as well, and they were like my parents. They were going to live life. They were going to experience the erotic as an antidote to death. They were going to face adversity, understand that the world may not be safe, live within security, but not let it stop there. Enjoy, party, dance, have … I mean, really experience beauty, travel, curiosity, exploration, discovery. Stay connected to the adventurous side of life. I was very lucky, I really am lucky, I have to say, to have been on that side of this continuum.


Debbie Millman:

What gave them that resilience, because there really are two different paths you can take coming out of trauma? This is the worst possible trauma that you can face. Where does that hope, that sense of trust, actually come from in a person?


Esther Perel:

We talked about it a lot, and I don’t know that there were ever definitive answers. They were snippets that were being described all the time—like my father would say, “The worst was when you were at the hands of a young SS. If he was older, he could have a little bit more compassion.” Probably he remembered his older father. Probably he had a child. He was less ruthless. The young ones were the worst, or he would say, “we would walk with newspaper around our feet in the frozen weather to go to the factories, and every once in a while, there were these women and they were just throwing us a piece of bread.”


Esther Perel:

Somehow he held on to those snippets of humanity really like that. My mother definitely spoke a lot about her premonitions. She was very much driven by this other sense of her that guided her, but I think it has to do with your childhood. I think it has to do … the Holocaust was one of the first times where people really … I mean, there was [inaudible] and there were the various other layers of looking at adults’ trauma, but all the [inaudible] of adults were that the trauma had existed in childhood. The women of [inaudible] were in the mental hospital and people understood that in fact they were not just hysterical, the majority of them [were] victims of sexual abuse.


Esther Perel:

The Holocaust was the first time that people understood adults’ trauma. Then we’ve applied this now. It’s a given. Everybody understands this. This notion that trauma being an event that produces terror in you, and a sense of paralysis in response to the extent of that terror. You cannot do anything against it. I think the extent to which you felt in the camps that you could do something, that you had some sense of agency, that you still had some type of, even on a daily basis, sometimes of minimum control over your destiny and over your life that day, and over how things were gonna go down.


Esther Perel:

My mother always described how she mended her socks. She kept herself prim and proper. She said the day you could see somebody stop grooming themselves, you know they were on their way out. That preservation of the humanity on the inside, very much a lot of the things that Viktor Frankl articulated for us in the Search for Meaning, because that’s where he experienced it too. Our parents were not as articulate about it, but when I listen to everything they put together, it probably came down to that.


Esther Perel:

It’s a combination of your history, your childhood, the experience that you have, how you came out with, they had a rather good connection. My parents, a lot of the survivors, once they were done surviving and rebuilding the basics, looked at each other and said, “What do we have in common? We have nothing. I mean, all we had was the shared trauma.”


Debbie Millman:

Sometimes that’s all you need.


Esther Perel:

No. Many times it wasn’t enough.


Debbie Millman:

No?


Esther Perel:

Many times it wasn’t enough. No, because these people looked at each other and once they were busy, they already had children, they had to rebuild something, they looked at each other and said, “This is not life.”


Debbie Millman:

I see.


Esther Perel:

Surviving is not living. I think my parents lucked out. They had a lot of fun. They enjoyed each other. They enjoyed doing things together. I think my mother probably on occasion thought she could have done better because … But he treated her like a queen. So, most of the people of that generation didn’t divorce either because divorce was another death, so they stuck together, but they were not necessarily always very good couples.


Esther Perel:

I remember something very, very significant. At one point, I must have been maybe 10 years old or something, and there was a wave of men who had passed away. The husbands of my mother’s friend, this whole group. … So my father actually with one of the men remained the only men of this clan of seven, eight women, and I said, “Aren’t they lonely?” My mother looked at me and she said, “They’re so happy. They don’t have to wash his socks anymore. They’re free women finally.”


Esther Perel:

I thought, “Oh my god. I’ve never forgotten this. All the women, no, they don’t all miss their husbands.” Even if they were nice, it’s just that the role that they had to have as wives of these men. I think my parents just didn’t fall into that particular trap, but I think it was really luck. That doesn’t mean they didn’t have their fights in there, but I also came late. I’m 12 years after my brother, and I think my brother may have different answers on a lot of these things than me. I came out when my parents were much more established, had already begun to rebuild. I was already a child of a middle-class family, not a child of illegal refugees.


Debbie Millman:

When did you decide that you wanted to be a therapist?


Esther Perel:

I was a therapist as a teenager to my friends. I mean, I understood I have a knack for this stuff. I was interested in psychology because I didn’t feel good in myself, and so that’s the first place you go to read is, “why do I struggle with all the things?”


Debbie Millman:

As a therapist you have to undergo some therapy, correct?


Esther Perel:

Yes. You don’t have to, but it’s advisable. I think the emperor should have clothes. I was rather young. I was interested in the inner life. I had dreams, I had nightmares. I did leave the whole … you asked me about the trauma of my parents. I mean, I dreamt a lot of trauma stuff and I did experience things viscerally and vicariously as if I was in the camps. That’s very common to a lot of children of survivors. It’s not it wasn’t there, but it was either journalism because I knew I’m very curious, and I love to talk to people and it’s easy for me to speak with people. But I also spoke a language, and they knew I have a talent for languages.


Debbie Millman:

You have nine, right?


Esther Perel:

Yes.


Debbie Millman:

You speak nine languages.


Esther Perel:

Yes. I spoke five from very early on. My mother often said, “You should be an interpreter.”


Debbie Millman:

You are.


Esther Perel:

That’s right. And I said, “Of what?”


Debbie Millman:

You are an interpreter.


Esther Perel:

My real passion was the theater. I actually was into theater from very early on, and always thought I would be performing, but theatrically. There is a saying that a lot of therapists are frustrated artists. Let’s not forget.


Debbie Millman:

I say that about designers too. You said that being a couple’s therapist is probably the hardest type of therapy to be in, and to practice.


Esther Perel:

It’s the best theater in town.


Debbie Millman:

Why is it so difficult?


Esther Perel:

Because it is a system that can get so intense, and so invested with so many expectations and so many dreams, and it starts often out in such an Olympian level, and then it just collapses. The collapse is really with people saying, “I’m doing something wrong.” This illusionment of love is generally blamed on the other, what they’re doing wrong. How they’ve let you down. How they’re not there for you. How they’re making you feel. How they are responsible for how you feel. They used to make me feel glorious, now they make me feel like shit, but it’s they make me.


Esther Perel:

It’s just intense. It’s two histories, and then what they create together, and how they pollute the space in between, and how often it’s so difficult to wanna own what each one is doing and how they can trigger each other. Look, here’s the thing. There’s only two systems that resemble each other. The one you have with your parents and the one you have with your partner. People can tell me I don’t have this with anybody else. No friends, no colleagues. I believe them. The level of intensity, the trigger, the feelings that can rise inside of you that you have with your partner, you have only experienced them one other time, and that’s with the people who raised you.


Debbie Millman:

Why do we limit those patterns?


Esther Perel:

It’s the echo chamber because it’s where you learn to love. It’s where you learn the language of love, it’s where you had your first experiences with love or the lack thereof, with protection or the lack thereof, with needs or the lack thereof, with joy or the lack thereof. The foundation of our emotional life and the language that we have for it and the meaning that we ascribe to it comes from our early years with the people who raised us, parents or parental figures. It gets revoked when you choose a partner. You choose a partner and you hope that they will fix the holes of the past.


Debbie Millman:

Are we choosing a partner unconsciously, very specifically to help us repair that pattern?


Esther Perel:

Or repeat that pattern.


Debbie Millman:

Right.


Esther Perel:

Some theories say you choose a person with whom you’re gonna repeat it so that you can finally transcend it. Some say it’s amazing how you think you choose differently only to find yourself in your own backyard. What is clear is that what is initially attractive because it is different becomes the source of conflict later, because it is different.


Debbie Millman:

Now, you said that you have people come to you, and they’re basically telling you they make me feel that way, they make me do that or they cause this. What do you tell people when you are trying to help them to get them out of that blame, to get them to see what their contribution is?


Esther Perel:

The last couple I saw today, I said, “What is it that he does that triggers you?” “He belittles me. When I talk about something and he just rolls his eyes and I feel completely belittled like I have no say.” “Then what happens to you?” So that’s the vulnerability. The vulnerability is I feel small. Then what do you do with that vulnerability? “Well, then I try to assert myself. Then I want to have some power back because I feel powerless. So, now, I attack.” So that’s the survivor strategy. That survivor strategy triggers the other person. When I feel attacked, I then say, “What happens to you when you feel attacked?” “Oh, I feel disrespected, and when I feel disrespected, I wanna stick it to him.”


Debbie Millman:

It’s just a downward spiral of horribleness.


Esther Perel:

This is an escalation as classic as they come. It’s an escalation. I use the vulnerability cycle, which is created by a very dear colleague of mine, Michelle Shenkman, to show you are triggered. It touches a vulnerability, but you respond from the place that defends against this vulnerability, which is called a survivor strategy, with which you then react to the other person, who then gets kicked in their vulnerability, and then they respond from their survivor strategy.


Esther Perel:

The survivor strategy is the strategy that you developed as a child. It was the adoptive strategy to things that you were experiencing back then. Of course I instantly said, “Tell me, this thing about ‘I feel disrespected,’ did you have that ever before? You didn’t learn that just with him. These things are in the suitcases.” It’s part of the luggage overload. Extra charge.


Debbie Millman:

You’ve stated that we’re living in a time where we’ve never expected more from our intimate relationships, and you even mentioned your parents came from a generation where their marriages were supposed to be arranged. But being part of a couple now is essential construct in our social organization as a species all over the planet. But being in love while also being married, a relatively new concept in the same way that being happy or finding purpose in a job, is also a relatively new construct. What was the original concept behind the constructive marriage?


Esther Perel:

Marriage is an institution that has always changed. I think we shouldn’t think it’s been one fixed thing until now, and now it’s suddenly a whole other meaning. But my parents, if you ask them what makes for a good relationship, would have said, my mother actually always said, “It’s hard work and it’s compromises, concessions. You need to want. You need to want for it to work.” They didn’t talk about love. They didn’t mean there was no love, but it was a byproduct. It wasn’t the center organizing system.


Esther Perel:

Relationships were organized around duty and obligation. They were organized around fixed gender roles. Everybody knew what was expected of them and if you do what the gender demands from you, you can expect to be happy because you feel good about having fulfilled your role, et cetera. Romanticism is the greatest energetic engine of the Western psyche. That’s it. It has captivated us like no other.


Debbie Millman:

Is it a myth? It doesn’t really last in the way that it starts, so what is really happening when we’re experiencing romantic love?


Esther Perel:

That’s two different questions. Actually, you’ve asked three questions. The first question is, “What is the difference between a love story, and a life story?” There are a lot of people you can love, but you don’t necessarily make a life with all of them. What has happened is that we try to merge the love story and the life story. We want marriage and love to become one part, and we’ve gone a lot further. I’ve lately really gone over around to describe the short history of marriage, so that we can understand, how did love conquer marriage? It’s actually a title of a book by Stephanie Coontz, which I think is very, very apt. For most of history, marriage was an economic enterprise around duty and obligation.


Esther Perel:

The marriage is between two families, not between two individuals. Love may be there, but it’s not suddenly the thing that organizes it. It doesn’t really matter how good you feel or you don’t feel, the marriage continues because there is no exit and there is primarily no exit for women. The only exit was early death. Seriously. We at the end of the 19th century, with the rise of romanticism, urbanization, the move to the cities, away from the villages, the rise of individualism, all these big industrialization, those big movements begin to bring love to marriage because love has always existed and so has passion, but it existed somewhere else; that marriage had nothing to do with that. In fact, for quite a long time, adultery was the space for love since marriage wasn’t supposed to provide that.


Debbie Millman:

Equally for men and women?


Esther Perel:

Yes. It’s just that men acted on it much more than women because they had the license to do so, but the idea was that the love stories took place on the fringe of the marriage, on the outside of the marriage, not inside the marriage. Then we’re not only delivering love to marriage, but now we bring sex to love, and we for the first time link sexual satisfaction with marital happiness. For that to happen we have to have contraception so that we can liberate sexuality from its sole connection to biology and procreation and we can turn sexuality no more as an economic asset endeavor in order to produce children, but for connection and for pleasure. That’s a whole new definition of the role of sex inside relationships. It never existed before.


Esther Perel:

Now, we’re talking about the desire for everybody with root sexuality, and desire including for women who cared in my mother’s generation back then in Poland about what women liked or didn’t like [inaudible]. It was irrelevant. She did her duty. It was a marital duty. That she want or didn’t want was a separate story. Then we brought happiness down, so now we want to be happy and we want to be happy in our marriage. From happiness in our marriage, we also make intimacy a new concept which is “into me see,” and now it becomes a matter of validation.


Esther Perel:

Then we’re going and we’re starting to look for the soulmate. When have we looked for a soulmate in marriage? A soulmate was with the divine. It was a religious pursuit, not a relational pursuit. Then from there we want to go to the one and only, and that one and only that we need to choose in the midst of the FOMO culture and the swiping culture where we have 10 other choices at every minute. How do I know that this is the one and only, the one that’s gonna make me want to delete my apps?


Debbie Millman:

Do you believe that there is just a one and only?


Esther Perel:

No. Absolutely not. Never. I think there are many people whom with you can make a life, and then there are many people whom you will have had unique experiences, but no, there is not necessarily one person. You may feel that this is the one … but you may at any day know that that person could one day disappear and that you could one day turn your gaze to someone else. I do not hold that notion of the one and only, and I think today that one and only has to give you everything that the traditional village had to give you, so you have to get security and children, and family life and companionship, and economic support, and you have to have the person who inspires you in your career, and they’re intellectually equal, and the best parent, and the best friend, and a trusted confidant, and a passionate lover. This is it. This is the one person for everything, mother, and it’s like it collapses just from the sheer weight of the expectations but we are very, very wedded to it.


Debbie Millman:

Well, we are living at a time where we’ve never been more crushed by the weight of these expectations.


Esther Perel:

I think one of the things that really I began to notice more and more, a lot of it has to do with the dissolution of the traditional institutions. People turn to religion for wholeness, for meaning, for transcendence, for ecstasy. Today, we turn to romantic love for all those needs.


Debbie Millman:

Or brands.


Esther Perel:

Or brands. Exactly. That is a phenomenal thing. It’s like the stability didn’t come from your relationship, especially a romantic marriage that is totally at a mercy of the vagaries of our heart. What stability is that gonna provide us with? It’s an amazing shift, and more and more we turn to the partner to give us that sense of meaning, that sense of belonging, that sense of resilience to a huge existential component of our life. Never was one person responsible for those kind of things, and this is what really fundamentally altered modern romance.


Debbie Millman:

This is something that everybody, or quite a large number of people in our culture, believe is possible—if you work hard enough you will be able to achieve this with your partner.


Esther Perel:

Yes, for 65 years. Absolutely. Love will be enduring, and intimacy also enthralling, and sex also exciting, without a ripple. There is this unit called the couple that has an enormous amount of expectations put on it with a pressure to do well to be happy and to be perfect. On top of it, that unit is rather isolated because most people have no idea what goes in the backstage of a couple. It’s an amazing pressure at this point. Couples have to do so much; they get so little support, they talk to nobody. Single people talk. Couples don’t talk.


Esther Perel:

Sometimes the women will talk a little bit; the men talk to nobody in straight couples, and you just think where exactly are they supposed to learn from? I saw a couple today. I said, “Have you ever been in couples therapy?” They said, “25 years ago.” I said, “What brought you back?” He says, “My coach told me that I don’t renovate my house myself and I don’t fix my car alone myself, so why do I think I can fix my marriage myself?”


Debbie Millman:

Smart friend.


Esther Perel:

I thought very good, but I said, “Your car probably has gotten a tune up on a regular basis and you had your last conversation about this topic 25 years ago.”


Debbie Millman:

You describe listening to people’s stories in your practice and have found yourself shocked, judgmental, caring, protective, curious, turned on, turned off, and sometimes all of that in one hour. You describe crying with your patients, feeling hopeful and hopeless, being able to identify with everyone involved. You reveal how you see on a daily basis is there. Not only the devastation infidelity causes, but how inadequate much of the current conversation about the topic is. Is that why you wrote this book?


Esther Perel:

I wrote this book because I believe that the quality of relationships determines the quality of our life. I wrote this book because I think that we learn our best lessons from watching when the worst happens, so from studying when the worst happens. If you’re gonna look at trust, you wanna look at the violation of trust. If you want to look at love, you wanna look at betrayal, and if you wanna look at resilience, you wanna look at crisis. This is one of [the] big shit shows that can take place in a couple, and it was going to lend me a lens to really understand a lot of the things not to do.


Esther Perel:

It’s almost if you read what happens there you get a very good idea of what to do actually to have a strong relationship or a thriving relationship. So that was one. I wrote about infidelity because I had done a book about the dilemmas of desire inside the couple and I thought what happens when desire goes looking elsewhere?


Debbie Millman:

You said that the one chapter you wrote in Mating in Captivity on infidelity was the chapter that you got most of your questions about.


Esther Perel:

Yes. I mean, the Shadow of the Third, it was called in many countries, that’s all they wanted to talk about. I wrote the book because it is a subject that affects probably 80% of us in our life. If you ask a crowd, if you’ve been affected by infidelity in your life, I think about 80% of them will say yes in one form or another, and yet I do believe that the conversation about it is not helpful. Instantly it becomes a for or against rather than what do we know about it and how do we actually help people. I think the conversation at this point isn’t helpful.


Debbie Millman:

Why isn’t it helpful?


Esther Perel:

Because it’s judgmental, because it is polarizing, because it talks about victims and perpetrators, because it fails to look at the dilemmas of modern love, of desire, of passion, of commitment in the context of the lives that we live in today. Here’s the thing. To understand modern infidelity, you have to understand modern marriage. If I have been chosen as the one and only, then betrayal is the shattering of the grand ambition of love because what does it say to me? I’m not the only. Actually, I’m quite replaceable.


Esther Perel:

That becomes a real gutting experience, so now it becomes a crisis of identity. I told her I knew who I was. Now who am I? I thought I knew my life. Now, what is the truth? The whole thing is a fraud. I can’t believe anything anymore. Where is my trust? I thought I trusted you for everything. I trusted you and the way that we chose each other, which we renounced all others. That level of intensity made me say that affairs have always been painful but today they are traumatic. That’s not in the word like that. This is a unique response to the kind of love model that we have. If we choose by virtue of this one and only authentic soulmate kind of thing, then the desire to go looking elsewhere will create a devastation that is new and that is different from what it used to be in traditional relationships.


Debbie Millman:

Do you think that sexual betrayal is the most painful type of betrayal?


Esther Perel:

In that particular model, it often is, or emotional betrayal, but the love gone elsewhere, the desire gone elsewhere, yes, it becomes … Americans think that infidelity is a worse offense than … suicide, than obesity, than lots of things, that it really has become the ultimate betrayal because it betrays the grand ambition of love. It becomes one of the leading causes of divorce. How did that happen? That is a 30-year story.


Esther Perel:

The notion that you could have an infidelity in a good relationship, that it’s not always a response to something bad in a couple, but maybe something … that it’s more for themselves than against the other. I think to understand that relational betrayal and how one heals from it, and how one forgives it or doesn’t forgive it, the choices that we can make afterwards and so forth, is really core to helping couples today navigate the challenges of modern love.


Debbie Millman:

You’ve written that as tempting as it is to reduce affairs to sex and lies, you prefer to use infidelity as a portal into the complex landscape of relationships and the boundaries we draw to bind them. How can infidelity be a portal into learning that kind of insight?


Esther Perel:

I would say it’s two things. For me to really understand infidelity, I have to use a lens that I call the dual perspective. Affairs are about hurt and betrayal, but they are also about longing and loss, and exploration and self-seeking. It’s always what it did to you and what it meant for me. You have to go back and forth. The majority of the people I see are not chronic philanderers. They’re not cheaters. Those who are have other issues of which this is just one part of it.


Esther Perel:

I see a lot of people who have actually been faithful and monogamous and loyal for a long time, for years, and then one day, they cross the line and they cross the lines that they themselves … erected. Then you wonder why. Why would they risk losing everything they’ve built, for what?


Debbie Millman:

For what?


Esther Perel:

For what.


Debbie Millman:

Why do people do that?


Esther Perel:

Aliveness is the essential word that you will hear all over the world.


Debbie Millman:

Why does aliveness dissipate over the course of a relationship? Is it that we metabolize our passion?


Esther Perel:

No. I think that there’s a lot of reasons. First of all, their hardships in life and we are coping. We are busy coping and making sure we make ends meet and we can deal with the illness and the disabilities and the losses and God knows what, the tsunamis. Aliveness wanes because we get constrained by roles. That is the narrative of women all the time, but I don’t think it would be that different by men. They can be in straight or same-sex relationships.


Esther Perel:

The role of the wife, the role of the caretaker, the role of the husband, the role of the provider, roles that are about being responsible, settling down, being accountable, building, protecting. And those are the antidotes of the opposite side of what is the erotic, if you want. I wrote one line in Mating where I said everything that the erotic thrives on—the unknown, the mystery, the surprise, the imagination, the playfulness—is what family life defends against.


Esther Perel:

Family life needs consistency, routine, rituals, repetition. We know that it’s what kids need in order to … they need that solid base. They don’t need this unstructured free flow. They need boundaries. They need limits. They need … within that, they can begin to explore. It’s two forces. It’s the force of stability, and predictability and continuity battling the other equally strong force of exploration, discovery, adventure, risk-taking, and all of that. We find it difficult to do both in the same place.


Debbie Millman:

In Mating in Captivity, it seems impossible to do in the same place.


Esther Perel:

It’s challenging. I don’t know that it’s impossible. I think that there are relationships where people do. They are able to navigate both. No, they’re not always stifled but it is an existential dilemma. It isn’t solved with sex toys. Let’s put it like that. It’s not a matter of technique. It really needs to be understood as a fundamental challenge that what makes you feel stable is not the same as what makes you feel adventurous. What gives you a sense of belonging is not the same as what gives you the sense of freedom. What gives you comfort isn’t the same as what gives you edge.


Esther Perel:

We want the same person to give us both things these days, and vice versa. I think that aliveness, when people describe it, they’re not talking about sex. What they’re talking about is “I did something for me. I did something that wasn’t about being responsible just for others the whole time. I broke the rules, and breaking the rules often gives you a sense of ownership and autonomy and freedom, and agency. I did what I wanted and not just what’s expected of me.


Esther Perel:

“I’m not compliant, I’m defiant. I’m going outside of the norms in which I have become locked in.” That force, that I think is why people say “I feel alive, I feel vibrant, I feel like I’m doing things I didn’t know I was capable of doing,” even when they are deeply disturbing at the same time.


Debbie Millman:

Esther, what’s so interesting about this notion of—


Esther Perel:

It’s transgression. It’s really the word. It’s less about infidelity and more about the power of transgression.


Debbie Millman:

But I kept reading over and over and over again in The State of Affairs about this desire for feeling alive, and wanting to experience that, and that is ultimately what tempts people outside of their marriage to feel this aliveness again. But what’s so interesting if we think about what we’re talking about earlier in our interview about going to a therapist and saying, “He does that to me, or she does that to me, or he makes me feel that way or she makes me feel that way,” that’s the same thing that we’re doing at the beginning if that person is making you feel alive. What happens over the course of time to go from feeling alive to feeling dead by the same person?


Esther Perel:

Because what you often actually explain when you work on the affairs, you say, the aliveness doesn’t just come from the other person, the aliveness comes from the action that you just took. The aliveness comes from the disruption, the interruption, transgression that you just committed. The aliveness comes from the risk that you just took, but the thing is we don’t always want to take that risk in the same place where we also want our security.


Esther Perel:

The reason we transgress and cheat, if you want, in part is because I want to leave my security for a bit but I sure don’t wanna lose it. I want it to be there when I come back, but I don’t know how to do it in the same place. Because we have the model that wants it all in one place, by definition we end up hurting one place to go and experience the other. That’s the way that we’ve set it up. We haven’t set up marriage for adventure. We have set up marriage for stability, for family, for raising children, for building homes, for the security aspect of our life.


Esther Perel:

I think that when people today tell me, “I want a person who has these qualities and these traits,” and they go down the whole inventory, and the whole thing, I always say the experience of love is not what the other person is, it’s how you experience yourself in the presence of the other.


Debbie Millman:

Yes, you’re right. Sometimes when we see the gaze of another, it isn’t our partner we are turning away from but the person we have become. We’re not looking for another lover so much as another version of ourselves, and you go on in writing this, to quote Mexican essayist Octavio Paz, who describes eroticism as thirst for otherness. Are you saying that it’s possible that the most intoxicating other that people discover in an affair is not a new partner, it’s in yourself?


Esther Perel:

A new version of oneself. Yes. A new version of oneself.


Debbie Millman:

Isn’t that what happens when we fall in love to begin with.


Esther Perel:

A lot of infidelities are also love stories, except we don’t call it like that in psychology. You have to go to novels, and to opera, to say that we’re going to see a movie about love. We say it’s a movie about affairs. Not all infidelities are love stories, but a lot of them are. Sometimes you don’t fall in love with the other person as much as you fall in love with that other version of yourself because when you make a choice, when you choose a partner, you choose a story. That story becomes the story that you’re going to enact. That’s the character you’re gonna play.


Esther Perel:

Sometimes you begin to say, “what else is there about me? Who else can I be?” That’s why I say affairs are about longing and loss. It’s the lost parts of ourselves that I wonder where they went. That’s why that very new affair of today, the return to the ex that … I used to know in college 10 years ago, becomes such a compelling plot, because it’s like what would my life have been? I can actually go and try it out this time, which I could never do before.


Esther Perel:

I do think when you enter a relationship, you often become one version and the relationships that thrive are the relationships that know how to reinvent and resuscitate themselves so that you can have different versions of yourself exist there in the course of the years, which led me to always say, we’re gonna have two or three marriages or committed relationships these days, most of us in the West. Some of us are gonna do it with the person. What does that mean? It means that in the context of me and you, I’m gonna be able to be another me.


Esther Perel:

If I can be another me, I don’t have to go choose another person, I can do it with the same person. If I can’t do it with the same person, I go look for it with another person either by ending my relationship with you, either by stepping outside and segmenting my relationship with you. This doesn’t justify it, this just explores it and tries to understand it. I think it’s very important when we talk about infidelity because it’s such an incendiary subject that the understanding of it doesn’t mean that it’s a justification of it or a condoning of it. It really is what is it that people are doing, what are they looking for, and what does it mean to them, and if they continue with it where will they go, and then let’s do many affairs if they were not discovered and they were left alone, they would die a natural death.


Debbie Millman:

Because the mystery was solved?


Esther Perel:

That’s right, because they were not meant to be anything else besides an affair. That was their reason. That was his own death. It was meant to be a fiction, a love story, and love stories run their course. It’s like a novel. It ends. A life story is a different story. It’s a different narrative but when people confuse the metaphors, they tell me … “I met this guy at a conference this week,” and he’s like, “I met this new woman, and this is incredible. The sex is phenomenal, and there was such passion.” I just kept saying to him, “Just do yourself a favor. Don’t confuse the metaphors. She hasn’t met your kids yet.”


Debbie Millman:

Your mother.


Esther Perel:

She hasn’t met your ex yet.


Debbie Millman:

Right.


Esther Perel:

At this point, you’re in a bubble. Don’t mix things up. Leave the bubble. Don’t think that the bubble means the next 20 years. You have no idea at this moment if that bubble can transform. Some bubbles should just stay bubbles, and they will be beautiful as bubbles and you will carry it inside of you afterwards like a sweet memory.


Debbie Millman:

I want to talk to you a little bit about something that I’ve been reading about a lot more than I ever have before: polyamory. Polyamory seems to be the new It word in sexual dynamics. Why is that something that has popped up in our culture as this major new step that people are taking in their relationships and in life?


Esther Perel:

If I was to say to you that for most of history, monogamy was one person for life, and today monogamy is one person at a time. And that people comfortably tell you that they are monogamous in their relationships.


Debbie Millman:

Well, yeah.


Esther Perel:

Right?


Debbie Millman:

Exactly. That makes perfect sense.


Esther Perel:

Today, we consider premarital sex rather a norm in the West. That was a major change of sexual boundaries. From premarital sex, we didn’t began to want a different kind of sexual fulfillment inside the relationship. We don’t just want procreative sex. We don’t want routine. We don’t want pity sex. We don’t want service. We don’t want just the job done. We want a connection. We want pleasure. From there, we began to talk not just about the freedom before, but also the freedom within and now the freedom outside. This is just a natural progression of the sexual boundaries that monogamy and the discussion about monogamy, which is a discussion of polyamory is the next frontier.


Debbie Millman:

Are ethical non-monogamy and polyamory the same thing?


Esther Perel:

Yes and no. They are connected. Monogamy is often an emphasis on the sexual boundaries and polyamory really looks at the co-living, the co-existence of different love relationships. It’s less about the emphasis on the sexuality and more on the attachment. For me, it is a progression. If you think of it as we never talked about it and now we’re talking about polyamory, no, we begin to talk about it from the moment we were able to experience sexuality and connection with people outside of the sole framework of marriage, so that was number one.


Esther Perel:

Number two, I think that the people who are negotiating that monogamy who are the cutting edge of that conversation are people who are trying also to bring together different value systems. The value system of commitment, and the value system of personal fulfillment and personal expression. They see sexuality and connection as fundamental expressions of why we are as individuals. That’s a totally new meaning for sexuality. When has it become a property of the self that you get to define that married your life and all of these things which we take for granted and are so revolutionary.


Esther Perel:

It’s marrying the values of individual freedom with the values of commitment. We’re never sort of bringing independence and belonging like that together in one relationship. To understand the conversation about polyamory, to understand the conversation about value systems, not just about where sex is taking place. Then the third thing is that the conversation of polyamory takes place among entrepreneurial spirits. It’s people who are dismantling the old systems in the economy at large as well as in the economy and the culture of marriage.


Esther Perel:

They dismantle the traditional norms and they are trying to create new norms. In that sense polyamory enters. Unfortunately, it also like everything else gets co-opted. It gets co-opted by people who don’t know about commitment. It gets co-opted by people who commodify others. It gets co-opted by people who look at relationships from a consumer perspective and apply the culture of consumerism to relationships.


Debbie Millman:

Tell me a little bit more about what you mean by the commodification of others or looking at a relationship from a consumer point of view.


Esther Perel:

What is my return on investment?


Debbie Millman:

Oh god. OK.


Esther Perel:

Is this the deal I signed up for? This is not what I expected. My needs are not getting met. I’m hedging my bets here.


Debbie Millman:

It’s transactional.


Esther Perel:

It’s transactional, but what is the consumer economy? The consumer economy is an economy of service. It’s an economy of experience and it wants those experiences to be inspiring and transformative, doesn’t it? The design culture is very much a part of that. We want marriage today to be an experience, and we want that experience to be inspiring and transformative.


Debbie Millman:

And Instagram-worthy.


Esther Perel:

Yes. Instagram. What’s a stable household, well-behaved children and a good income if I’m bored?


Debbie Millman:

How do you answer that question when somebody asks that of you, to you?


Esther Perel:

I mean, I’m a Boomer. I just say, “excuse me. There is no choice without loss. You want it all.” The problem is I am the parent of those children who want it all. I colluded in that culture where we’ve given people really a full sense of grandiosity and now we pay the price. We have a generation of people who don’t tolerate frustration. When things don’t work, they throw them away and they get new. They don’t know how to reinvent the location, and a hook-up coach who doesn’t prepare you for a stable relationship. Sexual nomad is fantastic but it doesn’t prepare you for a committed relationship, which you need to find your own way to reinvent things, to keep things interesting, to stoke it.


Esther Perel:

That’s intentional. That’s very active. That’s not some spontaneous idea that sex is just gonna happen. I’ve always said in Mating that whatever is gonna just happen already has. It happens because you invest in it. You bring that same entrepreneurial spirit that I’m gonna reinvent the rules and I’m not gonna follow the old mammoth. Do it, but do it with decency. It comes with a digital culture in which there is definitely a loss of empathy. Every skill you look at will describe that. A concept that people have all the time, that “I can do better.” What is this “I can do better” notion? The better is always the better that you’re gonna find, not the better that you’re gonna be.


Debbie Millman:

Right.


Esther Perel:

I challenge people on that. I just say I’m really sorry. I mean, I get the values. It applies to brands no less, but your marriage is not just a brand. When life hits you, it’s a whole other story. It hits you with so many things that we didn’t expect that have nothing to do with love. They have to do with all the beatitudes of life. I tend to say to people I can’t believe it matters. The commodification of people is when you can ghost them like they never existed when you can simmer and just keep them on little fire and wait, and hope that … it’s this ambiguous state, by which I don’t want to be too committed.


Esther Perel:

I don’t want to do anything that I will lose my freedom, but I just want some of comforts of consistency, so I’ll keep you on fire. In the midst of that, I’m curating my fantastical wishful life in which I lie. I mean, the sadness of couple’s life today, and part of what I’m doing and why I write the books and do the podcast, and do all of the other stuff, is there needs to be an honest, truthful conversation about the pitfalls of modern intimacy, and at this point people lie and so the more they lie, the less you really know what goes on in their lives.


Esther Perel:

In the past your neighbors fought and you heard everything through the windows. Now, your friends divorce and you are surprised. You didn’t see it coming. Nobody really knows and that gap between what people are really experiencing and what they’re putting out there and how they are curating their stories is creating more depression. I mean, it’s just, we know all of it. We know that it is really leaving people more and more depressed and lonely.


Esther Perel:

I mean, The Wall Street Journal of all my papers last week has a whole article on how loneliness has become the number one public health problem in America. Not obesity, but loneliness, and that loneliness is you’ve got a thousand virtual friends, bit nobody who can feed your cat.


Debbie Millman:

Right. Esther, if a couple comes to you having gone through an infidelity in their marriage, what do you tell them? How can you help them? Is the marriage always over after an infidelity?


Esther Perel:

No. Sure not. It really depends. It depends also if they come to me the day after, and it’s just being found out, if they come to me when one person has asked if the other one is still denying. If it comes to when one person has basically said, “I’m leaving you,” without telling why or they say why. If they come to me because one person is asking and the other person is gaslighting them. I mean, there are so many moments, entry points. I mean, are you looking at people who are in the middle who are in the midst of the crisis, with a massive maelstrom of emotions besieging them?


Esther Perel:

Are they a complete loss and confusion, and just like “what just hit me? I thought I knew where I’m going at. I thought I knew my life and this whole thing is just fallen apart,” or am I meeting them a year later and they’re trying to still heal and to deal with forgiveness or trust, or are we connecting sexually? It really has to do with the development … number one. Number two, what is the quality of their relationship? The quality of the relationship is not always determined by the affair.


Esther Perel:

Who are you as a couple? Who have you been? Where do you meet? What’s your strength? What’s your story? Where does it take you now? Are you completely fallen apart in the aftermath of this or do you actually find yourself having conversations like you haven’t had in years, and sex like you haven’t had in years? In fact for the first time, finally, you’re truthful with each other and we can finally begin to grow, and you’ve been jolted out of your complacency. That’s another entry point. It really depends, but I am not a person who starts from the point of view that this is the deal breaker, this is the final … how do you say in English?


Debbie Millman:

Nail in the coffin?


Esther Perel:

Yes. In French, you say the hit of the hammer. You really need to watch, and you need to let them tell you. Of course the people who come to me are more often people who would like to be able to continue. The ones who go into the lawyers didn’t come to the therapist.


Debbie Millman:

I have two final questions for you, Esther. The first one is a personal one. You’ve been happily married for over 30 years to Jack Sail, a professor at Columbia University, as well as a therapist and an activist. What is the secret of a happy marriage there?


Esther Perel:

Oh god.


Debbie Millman:

Aside from a gorgeous husband.


Esther Perel:

It’s interesting. We were at an event this weekend and one of the questions in the audience had to do with [why] women need men and what do they need from men, and that whole thing. How can you be a powerful woman and find a man who is powerful as well? I went in the direction of it’s not what you want, to me, it’s always this image. It’s the ability if you want to rely on somebody, you need that somebody to be able to withstand your force. It’s the game you play on the beach, if I fall backwards.


Esther Perel:

I can only fully let go if I know that you’re gonna catch me. The more powerful the person, the more what’s gonna fall is strong and you need somebody who can resist that. I think my husband definitely has done that with me. I think we both often will talk about how even when I hate his guts, I’m not bored, and he would probably say the same thing. I mean, there’s something that we remain interested in who we are as people, not just as spouses and parents and all the other things.


Esther Perel:

We’ve always tried to do new things. I think that a system stays alive and fresh because it has new experiences, new challenges, new thresholds. We just don’t do the things we’ve enjoyed before. We set ourselves up for various new adventures a lot of the time, especially now that the kids are gone. The kids are no longer the adventures, so we create new ones for ourselves. I think it’s about really what the polyamorous people actually call compersion.


Esther Perel:

It’s the ability to rejoice for the pleasures and the joy, and the happiness of the other even if it has nothing to do with you. It’s the ability to say, “Take your time. Go spend a week. Go do this. This is such a thing that you enjoy. I’ll figure it out. I’ll handle the house. These gifts of letting the other people still attend completely to themselves separately go a long way. I think it’s admiration. Admiration is different from respect. Admiration involves a certain level of idealization.


Esther Perel:

We each have very good friends of our own. Some we share, some are our own, so we’re not reliant on each other for everything by far. I think it’s that. We’ve had our share of things. I think any honest relationship could probably say that they could have landed here, but they landed there because on some fundamental level, I think he’s a good person for me to go through life with, and vice versa.


Debbie Millman:

You talk about that quite a lot, what it means to be with another person in your life and in your new podcast, Where Shall We Begin, which is actual therapy sessions with couples in conflict that you helped navigate their marriage with.


Esther Perel:

Yes.


Debbie Millman:

Tell us a little bit about that and how people can listen to the podcast.


Esther Perel:

Where Should We Begin is the real, unscripted life of couples in my office where I can finally open the door, lower the walls and invite you in so that we can take away some of that loneliness that surrounds couples at the same time as we have all the pressure to be such a fantastic unit. It’s a way to show you the myriad of crisis that couples get thrown into and how I work on it with them. It’s one therapist with one modality. It’s not the only way, it’s not the right way, it’s just me.


Esther Perel:

I think that when you listen in on the stories of others, you often find the words that you need, the vocabulary that you need for the conversations that you may wanna have. You often realize that you’re not listening so much to them as you’re watching yourself in front of your own mirror. Couples used to live in the village, and I wanted to create a new village, but it’s a virtual village and that virtual village is a place where I want people to have a sense of community as couples, but also individuality.


Esther Perel:

I want them to have a sense of continuity, but also freshness and innovation. I want a sense of belonging but also freedom. That is the combination of the modern time and the traditional. We’re not going back to the communities of the past, but we want some level of community, but we also want to preserve our individuality and the freedom that we have today that we never had in the past. The podcast is really to bring the couples back to the center of the village, and to take the wise person, in this case maybe the wise woman outside of this small room with four walls where we find ourselves, and back into the center of the square where the wise person used to be.


Esther Perel:

You sat in the middle of the square and you held court. It’s about giving people a sense that their experiences are universal and that they’re not just their own personal struggles. It’s about creating this conversation about the subject of sexlessness, infidelity, polyamory, infertility, loss, trends, issues to the world, because I believe that if we create these open conversations that are honest and truthful, we actually will contribute to helping people have better relationships, which ultimately will then have better lives.


Debbie Millman:

Esther, thank you so much for being on Design Matters today, and for helping us understand the myriad intricacies.


Esther Perel:

The design of marriage.


Debbie Millman:

The design of love—


Esther Perel:

The design of relationships.


Debbie Millman:

… and human behavior. Esther Perel’s new book is called The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, and her podcast is called Where Should We Begin. You can find out more about Esther Perel and her books on her website, estherperel.com. This is the 12th year I’ve been doing Design Matters and I’d like to thank you for listening. Remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I’m Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.

And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both.  — Debbie Millman