Relationships can be lonely, especially when things have gone to shit. It's easy for fights to erupt over the most nonsensical non-issues when you feel you've been unfairly relegated to a certain role—the nagger, the flirt, the caretaker. "As part of a couple, you draw from the other the very behavior you expect to see, and you set the other person up to do so as well," says Esther Perel, a therapist whose new Audible series, "Where Should We Begin?," takes us behind the closed doors of couples counseling sessions. "But because couples are isolated units, you don't realize everyone else is doing the same thing."
Perel, a Belgian-born therapist whose TED talk on why people cheat has been viewed more than 7.5 million times, believes in utilizing unorthodox methods to interrupt a couple's self-defeating loops. In one episode, she blindfolds a couple and encourages the husband to adopt a French-speaking persona named Jean-Claude to help him transcend the hesitant person he's become in the bedroom. (The session ends with Perel singing Edith Piaf.) In another, she tells a compulsive cheater, affectionately, to "shut the fuck up" and actually listen to the pain his cheated-on wife is trying to articulate.
"I have a transgressive desire—not sexually, but just to break rules," Perel told Broadly. Of the traditional therapist–client relationship, she says: "I hate arbitrary things that exist just for their own sake. I find that unbearable."
The heartbreak and confusion couples bring to her run the gamut from infidelity and impotence to gender identity issues and childhood sexual trauma. But unlike other sexually progressive advice givers, Perel isn't simply responding to their anonymous voicemails; her sessions are a dialectical, dynamic affair, so authentic that you can literally hear the white noise machine playing just outside her room.
In the first episode, a woman grapples with her husband's infidelity. Perel, as both arbiter and confidant, finds fault with the identities both parties have constructed for themselves within the relationship—while the wife has assumed an air of indifference to avoid being hurt again, her self-victimizing husband complains that making love to her is like having sex with a corpse. At one point, Perel tells them, "It's very rare that I make blanket statements like this: Your communication is terrible."
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Like other narrative-based therapists, Perel is also adept at coaxing her clients into reframing their experiences. She encourages a wife who has chosen to stay with her sex-addicted husband to embrace dual realities: that she was loved, and that her husband had a secret life for over a decade. She acknowledges that reconciling the two is no easy task. "When you're betrayed you lose the coherence of the narrative of your life," she says.
Like Dan Savage, Perel's professional identity straddles both the psychology and pop culture realms. A sought-after speaker, she's shared her relationship theories with well-heeled crowds at the Aspen Ideas Fest and Summit at Sea. Her well-coiffed appearance and TED Talk bona fides have drawn comment from outlets like the New York Times: "Petite, perfumed, blonde and someone who strategically brushes back her hair while speaking, Ms. Perel quickly builds intimate connections," is how Susan Dominus described her in a 2014 profile. In the same profile, Tony Robbins notes that Perel is just pretty enough for her looks not to be a distraction. "She's an attractive person, so men will pay attention—sounds horrible, but true—but not over the top, in a way that would make women not feel safe."
In truth, Perel's popularity likely has more to do with her lightning-fast revelations than whatever sexual fantasies her male clients may be projecting on her, though you can't say that her Belgian accent (she's fluent in nine languages) isn't an asset.
There are two types of relationships: those that are not dead and those that are alive.
Hollywood certainly seems to love her, as evinced by the rapt, standing-room reception of industry types and GOOP enthusiasts she received at the LA launch of her series last Thursday. (Perel was slated to appear at an event with Gwyneth Paltrow the following night.)
In person, Perel has an eagle-eyed stare and eyebrows that arch quizzically at the hint of bullshit. Before I've even been able to glance at my questions, she asks me about my favorite episode of her series, which turns out to be a deeply personal question; while I'd probably first downloaded the series to be an emotional voyeur, it had dredged up all sorts of uncomfortable realizations about my own romantic life.
This was her goal, she explains: "There is a hunger for truth right now—to get at what's beneath the smiling faces you see on Facebook." Even in art-house film and on premium cable, she says, relationships aren't fully rendered. "You don't always get the intricate nuances and dynamics—the normal marital sadism and the intimate terrorism, as well as the hopefulness and ability to repair." For that, you'd have to read Dostoevsky (also available on Audible).
While Perel is often blunt in a way that's cathartic to the listener—she tells the couple in the first episode, "You don't hear each other and nothing is absorbed! You're having a competition about who destroyed the relationship first"—her show's genius is that she pulls back the curtain on the therapist's role. She narrates her own sessions in the series, giving listeners a sense of the tricks therapists use to spur their patients' disclosures.
According to the show's producer, Jesse Baker, attendees at the New York launch of the series questioned the ethics of recording live sessions with clients, which is usually done for training purposes. Perel has since been quick to note in conversations that the series participants—who aren't the same patients she sees in her day-to-day practice—all signed waivers that clearly stipulated their three-hour sessions would be recorded. She believes that, while condensed, the podcast format lends the subjects a certain dignity. "I'd been asked multiple times to do television shows and I just didn't want to be a therapist on the air," she said. "I knew that if there's a camera, you don't know any more who you're performing for. Are you serving the couple, or are you serving the audience? But if there's a way of doing it and turning it into art, then you transform the story into something larger."
Both Perel and Dr. Ruth, the patron saint of sex advice, share an allergy to polite conversation and a belief that a vibrant erotic imagination is integral to a relationship's success. Perel's 2014 book Mating in Captivity explores how familiarity breeds contempt in the bedroom; A healthy distance, she argues, creates longing, anticipation, and uncertainty—all the elements needed for steamier sex. When she started out as a therapist, she says, couples counseling conferences didn't even acknowledge the existence of sex, much less its importance in a healthy, nurturing relationship. In combining different theoretical frameworks into her therapy—dialectical, Freudian, narrative-based—she hopes to dismantle "archaic" ideas about what a couples counselor is supposed to be.
She also hopes her clients leave her office with at least the a few strands of a new story. "I'm not an American, and I don't live with the pressure of having to solve every problem," she says. "I'm very happy with beginnings."
But she's also unafraid to tell a couple to throw in the towel. "There are two types of relationships: those that are not dead and those that are alive. My job is not just to make sure people can survive in agony. My job is to see if people can embrace a different kind of aliveness —either together or apart—with dignity and integrity."