The Wisdom of Esther Perel
-- Dan Keller RN, 2023

Perel writes beautifully and her mastery of language and metaphor is delightful. But she attains her full stride in her live podcast -- counseling struggling couples, conducting therapeutic sessions, actively listening, reflecting, challenging with supreme skill.

The podcast is profound; raw, unrehearsed, and unedited (as only a live session can be). It showcases the depth of her insight. She perceives the subtlest cues and drives straight to the heart of her clients' quandaries. Her performances are nothing short of spectacular.

Her 2017 book The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity captures many of the lessons she teaches in her podcast -- a fine read.

My GF accuses me of worshipping Perel as eye candy (and observes that Perel's face has surely been lifted... so what?) But my experience belies this. I first discovered Perel in podcasts which are audio only. Though her language is exquisite, her voice to me sounded little-old-lady-ish; perhaps that of a Dr. Ruth. After months of listening without seeing, discovering her on Youtube I was surprised by Perel's babe-ish-ness. Perhaps even a little saddened; my attraction is to the content not the package. The latter is lovely but the former is spectacular. I hope her success isn't due to her looks.

Here are a few of her priceless lessons. Perel says,

Instead of asking who is the right person for me (whom I must find), ask, whom do I want to be?
She says,
There are many people you will love, and they are not necessarily the same people you will make a life with. Are you looking for a love story or are you looking for a life story? ...Life is about values not just feelings. It is not just what attracts you; it's who can you build a life with.

Values you must have in common with a life partner:

  • Your relationship to others;
  • self-reliance vs. loyalty;
  • comfort and the familiar vs. adventure, travel, novelty;
  • vision/outlook on life;
  • money;
  • feelings/emotions;
  • religious beliefs.

After a transgression:

  • How we repair disappointments: "I still care about you."
  • How we repair transgressions: acknowledge feelings: "I see you're in such pain."
  • And take responsibility: "I messed up."

She speaks/writes of erotic intelligence. It's described in her 2006 book, Mating in Captivity.

Behind every criticism there is a wish. Skillful active listening ferrets out and openly acknowledges that wish.

It's brilliant how she listens. The other talks and she stops talking, immediately.

On sexual matters that are customarily taboo or shameful she is matter of fact. There are matters that we know exist but choose not to discuss:

  • Menstruation
  • Masturbation
  • Fantasies

Don't make decisions when your limbic system is hijacked. Especially not decisions about your life.

I have made that mistake. More than once.

The quality of your relationships determines the quality of your life. So invest in your relationships to have a rich life. Make it so that when people remember you, they smile.

If you have a dream that has accompanied you for your whole life, go ahead and try it.

Defining infidelity: before birth control, says Perel, it was a child out of wedlock. Simple. Today, it could be many things, different for each couple: sex with another, porn, happy ending, reconnecting with an ex on Facebook, etc. Transgressive acts span a spectrum. Where in that spectrum anyone lands is different for each.

The central element is a secret, a violation of an agreement. The actual content of that agreement is different for every couple.

Esther Perel's insights strike me as right on. She says that we demand conflicting things from our primary relationship -- both security and adventure, things it can't possibly deliver simultaneously.

The three main things for successful relationships (adapted from Eli Finkel):

  1. Calibrate expectations -- don't expect everything (that would take a whole village to supply) from one person.
  2. Diversify (not sure what she means here).
  3. Do new things with your partner; the familiar builds friendship; risk-taking creates intensity.

So much to learn! So many ways to do my relationships better! Thanks, Esther!

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