Listening In With Esther Perel

Ester Perel / TED Talks

ESTHER PEREL suddenly seems to be everywhere.  Friends are listening to her podcast series “Where Should We Begin?” with episode titles like “You Can Be Right or You Can Be Married.” More than 17 million people have watched her two TED talks—“Rethinking Infidelity” and “The Secret to Desire in a Long-Term Relationship.”  Stories about her have appeared both in The Atlantic and The New Yorker —in each more than once.

Recently, Perel was a featured speaker at the Psychotherapy Networker Conference in DC, where a dominant theme was listening as a way to help bridge the great divides in contemporary life, such as between red and blue perspectives, and for increasingly isolated individuals, especially those in couples.

During a panel, Perel said, “Isolation, not obesity, is a public health crisis.”  She sees this as the reason for her podcasts’ popularity. Because couples don’t have enough opportunities to listen to other couples, they lack the vocabulary to conduct productive conversations themselves.

Although she was born in Belgium, educated in Israel and speaks nine languages,  Perel is “fundamentally American,” writes Cristina Nehring in The Atlantic —in her “can-do conviction that people will live happily ever after” and in her self-promotion.

When Perel, who has more than 30 years of experience as a couples therapist, put out the word that she was offering a therapy session to couples willing to be recorded for podcasts, thousands volunteered.  Each session, edited down from three hours to about 45 minutes, focuses on a different problem: cheating, addiction, children. With two seasons recorded to date and a third in the works, the podcasts are available on Amazon via an Audible account, on the Podcast app and elsewhere.

“The show’s drama lies not so much in the details of each couple’s situation as in their struggle to communicate about it, to get their two ‘I’s’ to equal a ‘we,’” writes Alexandra Schwartz in the The New Yorker.  “Perel is a master at what she does.  She is preternaturally incisive and humane.”

“Truth.  People are hungry for truth…the antithesis to the jolly faces that are promenading on social media,” Perel told Schwartz.  By listening to another couple, “you very quickly realize that you are standing in front of the mirror, and that the people you are listening to are going to give you the words and the language for the conversations you want to have.”

In an introductory note to “Where Should We Begin?” on Amazon (Perel made her original podcast deal with Amazon and Audible), she says, “There is no school for relationships, no place for us to learn the tools for rebuilding and repair, to learn to straddle the many contradictions that roil in all of us. [This podcast] is a way for me to create meaningful, deep and open conversations.”

Perel said she starts her therapy sessions with a couple’s “longings and desires.”  In follow-up surveys, participating couples said the therapy “gave them a meaningful vision of the future” and “was harnessing their resources.”

For “I’ve Had Better” (the first episode of “Where Should We Begin?”), Amazon listener comments range from “This was a brutal podcast to hear…they are horrible communicators” to “the couple’s story was a powerful reminder of my own… I am keen to learn more from her.”

“Being privy to these conversations is like sitting in on somebody else’s therapy session and taking notes, but without the hefty bill,” another wrote. “I still learn something profound about the art of communication. Every. Single. Time.”

On a Recode Decode podcast, Perel said that phone addictions are creating a “new definition of loneliness,[ a kind of] ‘ambiguous loss:’ a loved one is physically present but in all other ways absent from a relationship.”

“Some couples are cheating on each other constantly—with their phones,” said Perel, who described one patient saying, “Every night, I go to bed and she’s on Instagram, in the bed.  And it’s like, I’m lonely!”

Loneliness is widespread in America, according to a recent survey of 20,000 adults using the UCLA Loneliness Scale.  The survey was done by the health insurer Cigna because loneliness has been linked to immune system function, higher risk of coronary artery disease and premature death, according to Brigham Young University social psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad. A score of 43 out of possible scores from 20 (most isolated) to 80 (least isolated) was considered “lonely.”  The average loneliness score in America was 44.  With 54% of survey respondents saying they always or sometimes feel that no one knows them well, Cigna CEO David Cordani said he was surprised about the finding that “half of Americans view themselves as lonely.”

Baby boomers had an overall score of 42.4; people ages 72 and older, the Greatest Generation, scored 38.6; and members of Generation Z—born between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s—scored 48.3.

Whether social media is a culprit depends on how it’s used—either passively, “just scrolling feeds,” which is associated with negative effects, or “to reach out and connect to people to facilitate other kinds of [in-person] interactions,” said Holt-Lunstad.

Women across all ages report higher levels of loneliness than men—with married women slightly lonelier than married men.  But among single people, single men “vastly outweigh single women as the lonelier bunch,” according to Psychology Today blogger Kira Asatryan.  One explanation: women may maintain more close friendships outside of a primary romantic relationship.

When it comes to romance, though, Perel advocates creating more distance with the goal of upping desire: stop cuddling. “Sexuality is all about bridging distances—but to bridge distances, you must have distances,” Perel is quoted in the Atlantic blog. “Treat each other like trash, and you might notice a discreet rise in sexual tension.”

In her TED talk, Perel posed the question, “why does good sex so often fade, even for couples who continue to love each other?”  Her advice for rekindling desire, such as “committed sex is premeditated sex,”writes Schwartz, is “counterintuitive yet reassuringly practicable.”

“In our age of serialized, bingeable entertainment…there’s something refreshingly bold and optimistic about a show made up only of beginnings,” Schwartz concludes.  Also,“Everyone wants to be heard.  Perel’s show is a reminder of how good it is to listen.”

—Mary Carpenter

Every Tuesday in this space, Mary Carpenter reports on our well-being


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