Vital Relationship Lessons From Esther Perel's On Being Talk.
“You pick a partner — you pick a story — what story do you want to write?” — Esther Perel
Esther Perel has been on my self-education periphery for some time. I follow her across social media and thoroughly enjoy the insights gleaned from the snapshots of her work, ideas and ethos she shares.
I admit I'm yet to read any of her books. So, when the latest episode of Krista Tippett’s On Being podcast aired featuring Esther Perel, I decided now was as good a time as any to spend some time listening to what the relationship (and general life) expert had to say.
Who is Esther Perel?
Esther Perel is a leading expert on what she calls ‘Relational Intelligence’ and 'Erotic Intelligence'. She has dedicated her career to studying sexuality and relationships, exploring at the heart of her work what it truly means to be human, feel connected, and thrive in our relationships.
From her website:
Psychotherapist and New York Times bestselling author Esther Perel is recognised as one of today’s most insightful and original voices on modern relationships. Fluent in nine languages, she helms a therapy practice in New York City and serves as an organisational consultant for Fortune 500 companies worldwide. Her celebrated TED talks have garnered more than 20 million views, and her international bestseller Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence became a global phenomenon translated into 25 languages. Her newest book is the New York Times bestseller The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity (HarperCollins). Esther is also an executive producer and host of the popular podcast Where Should We Begin?
You can find out more about Perel and her incredible work at EstherPerel.com or by following @EstherPerelOfficial on Instagram (something I highly recommend!).
What is The On Being Podcast?
Hosted by Krista Tippett, the On Being podcast is a Peabody Award-winning public radio show and podcast.
Tippett invites a wide gamut of humans to sit and talk with her, unpicking some of the most vital questions of our lives:
What does it mean to be human?
How do we want to live?
Who will we be to each other?
Each week, Tippett and her guest uncover a discovery about the immensity of our lives. It’s a podcast that truly highlights the breadth of human experience, and how deeply we all yearn to feel connected, seen and valued for our shared and individual selves.
10 Vital Take-Aways From the Talk
The thing I love about Perel and her work is how much she normalises the work of relationships but maintains space for passion, romance and eroticism.
Self-help content around relationships has a tendency to par it back to the highly individualistic pursuit of a soul-mate or twin flame. This usually sits squarely on women’s shoulders (I’ve rarely heard a male friend dump someone because they weren’t ‘their soulmate’ or vocalise their struggle to find their twin flame).
Perel steers the conversations around finding love into one of maintaining love — and how couples can do this together by turning away from everything we’re currently sold about relationships and creating a new space. One where our relationships flourish with realistic expectations and the capacity to embrace what is meaningful for us.
As expected, listening to her talk with Tippett was refreshing and imbued with ecstatic 'YES! That makes so much sense!' moments.
I highly encourage everyone to listen for themselves, but here are ten key messages from her talk that hit home for me:
1. Eroticism thrives between the space of the self and other.
Perel is fairly outspoken around the idea that ‘erotic’ as a word has become extremely diluted within our current dialogues. Eroticism for her is not simply about sexuality and sex, it’s a space for curiosity, discovery and learning.
During the talk, Perel posits that we have to ‘leave the space on’ between ourself and our partner, and explore it with curiosity. She asks “are you welcoming the unknown in your midst?” — this is the space where eroticism flourishes.
2. Ask yourself: “I turn myself off when …?”
I loved this idea of flipping the question around what turns us on to explore what turns us off.
It’s another way to explore that ‘space’ Perel talks about for eroticism, delving into our knowledge of ourselves and our partners by staying open and curious about the things that turn us on and off.
Again, this is not just sexual for Perel, but goes deeper to the small actions, responses, and behaviours that occur before the bedroom that contribute to these feelings.
3. We strive for stability and change.
Our relationships need to be a balanced blend of stability and change. As humans, we crave both, but there needs to be balance. As Perel says:
“If you change all the time, you’ll become chaotic and dysregulate. If you don’t change at all — you’ll become a fossil and stale.”
4. Understand the concept of ‘Ambiguous Loss’.
Perel discusses this as a new form of loneliness that we often describe but haven’t been able to label. ‘Ambiguous Loss’ is when a person is physically present but psychologically gone or vice versa.
In both cases, you cannot resolve the question of loss. Perel advises this is a good description of our current cultural phenomenon. She describes it as the sense of being in bed with your partner, but they’re preoccupied with their phone or device. It’s the loneliness of living in a marriage where you feel loved and cherished as a spouse but starved as a lover.
Acknowledging this loss can be a huge stepping stone to working through it and overcoming it.
5. Passion does wax/wane but it can be resurrected.
As human beings, we want to experience passion and a sense of alivenes. It’s linked to other fundamental concepts we crave in our lives and loves — hope, possibility, and freedom.
Perel advises that we should pursue “erotic energy and love as it actually works rather than an ideal.” This comes back to ideas of love and passion we’re repeatedly sold, but that rarely reflect the reality of our romantic relationships, at least not without a bit of work.
Accepting and embracing that passion comes and goes, and being willing to stay curious and explore new ways (Erotic Intelligence, as Perel calls it) to invite passion back in is key to successful, long term, and realistic love.
She says love is not just likeness and harmony, it involves all the chaos and mess too and embracing this together can helpus work through it back to passion.
6. Can we get interested in each other again?
We often think that love is easy and finding the right person is difficult (an idea first put forth by Erich Fromm). Perel advises that love is a verb — it’s a practice that needs to be repeated all the time.
Despite what we’re educated to believe by mass media, Perel says that love isn’t natural. It requires discipline, concentration, and most of all the overcoming of narcissism and the ego.
7. Explore the element of risk.
My ears pricked up a notch when Perel said:
“To have fierce intimacy, you have to be prepared to take risks — not everything about you will be liked by your partner, and we have to take those risks.”
Love is wholly conditional. We choose the parts of ourselves we maintain and keep in our lives, just as we choose our partners. We have to learn to work on our own and together to explore the ‘risk’ of the parts that we don’t like. In so doing, we may be able to learn to accept them or overcome them.
8. When you pick a partner, you pick a story.
Another thing I love about Perel's ethos is how she normalises not liking every single thing about our partners but making a decision about what we are prepared to accept. I loved this idea of ‘writing a story’ when you pick a partner and deciding: “what story do you want to write?”
The process of writing is empowering. When we ‘write’ a story, we take full ownership. This feels groundbreaking to apply to our romantic relationships when we’re stuffed with ideas that love and romantic relationships ‘happen naturally’ or ‘shouldn’t be work’.
Writing takes work. Writing takes honesty.
Love takes work. Love takes honesty:
“Do you have the freedom to write the story you want to write? In that story, we won’t like everything. Fierce intimacy equals being honest about what drives you crazy.”
9. Eroticism reduced down to sexuality is a reduction of the word.
I touched on this point a little earlier but this quote has really stuck with me in terms of staying open to the ideas of eroticism and what it can represent in our lives, not just our relationships:
“It’s about transgressing the rules and stepping outside of the limitations of life. Without that, we’re not really living.”
10. The best version of ourselves is not always within our romantic relationships.
Breaking down archiac ideas of love once more, the idea that we have to be everything and the ‘best’ of who we are for our partners isn’t accurate in our modern world.
Perel says that it’s okay for our ‘best’ version to exist outside of the relationship but that we cannot neglect the role the different versions of who are play in maintaining and building a relationship of stability and change, balance and longevity. It’s essential to ask:
“How much are you investing in your relationships? You cant put all your energy into work and bring the leftovers home.”
She says that the people who can have this type of relationship with the same person, where the different versions of ourselves interact, is at the heart of erotic intelligence. This is where you’re able to pivot, adapt, and bring the new/different version of yourself to the relationship and the world.
New experiences and new versions of yourself will develop based on how you’re experiencing the world, creating a sense of aliveness and joy.
Dive into Self Discovery
“You discover who you are in the presence of another.” — Esther Perel.
Our relationships, romantic or otherwise, will inform who we are and who we become in various ways. Often, this won’t be immediately (even consciously) felt or seen, but it’s there.
Embarking on a romantic, intimate relationship is a process of self-discovery. Every iteration of romance I have pursued and entered has changed me in vital ways. Change and growth aren’t always serene, as I have learnt in recent years, and learning to embrace the chaotic messiness of growth (in and out of love) has been a life-affirming process for me.
Surrendering myself to the idea of writing my life story, taking ownership and proactively choosing the partner to star alongside me in the narrative has been one of the most significant processes of my life — and I’m only just getting started.
For anyone exploring, percolating, stuck or successfully pursuing their own relationship story, Perel’s work is well worth spending some time with.