PSYCHOTHERAPY NETWORKER: In the decade since you wrote Mating in Captivity, you’ve achieved a remarkable degree of visibility, both within the profession and outside it. How do understand this widespread interest in your work?
ESTER PEREL: I suppose others would need to answer this, but if I had to venture a response, I’d say that my work coincides with a dramatic change in the importance of relationships in our society as a whole. As we’ve moved from the traditional to the romantic model—and now to the self-fulfillment model—never before have we expected more from our relationships.
In our secularized society, romantic love, and not religion, is where we seek meaning, transcendence, wholeness, and ecstasy. We have more freedom than ever in choosing relationships, but we’re crippled by uncertainty and self-doubt. Our quest to find “the one” and the common struggles around allowing our sense of aliveness and vitality to exist within our intimate relationships have become central cultural preoccupations. So much has changed so rapidly that we’re rewriting the relationship rulebook as we go.
I think there’s widespread interest in my work because there’s a hearty appetite for a salve for our existential loneliness. The way these yearnings and anxieties are currently addressed is through a model that promotes concrete one-size-fits-all solutions, leaving out the variability of the historical and cultural context. I see my approach as one that brings in that context and therefore speaks to the actual circumstances and experiences people are struggling with. My biggest contribution to the field isn’t pointing out that these issues exist—a lot of people have identified them—but in offering a way to deal with them that bridges two moral systems, the rule-based one of the past and the empathy-based ethics of the now.
PN: You’re not a researcher or a sociologist, and you certainly don’t rely on numbers to back up your assertions. What gives your perspective any special validity?
PEREL: My history as someone who’s always lived on the edge of polarities—speaking Yiddish and French (the shtetl and the cosmopolitan), living in orthodox Judaism and secularism, believing in the importance of accountability and self-fulfillment—seem well suited for the pertinent questions of the day. As somewhat of a cultural outsider, I’ve always been interested in mining the underlying assumptions of our expectations and beliefs, and so too the assumptions in the field of couple therapy. Many couples tell me, ‘We love each other very much; we have no sex.’ So I became interested in the nature of erotic desire in long-term relationships. Why does good sex so often fade even in couples who continue to love each other as much as ever? Why don’t love and desire always flow together the way our theories about couples say they should?
My contribution comes in how I raise questions and get people to think about them, especially around the idea that sexual problems are always the consequence of relationship problems. I want people to think about the mystery of eroticism. Why is the forbidden so erotic? I don’t mean the simple desire for sex, but desire as the quest for agency, aliveness, and vibrancy. How do we reconcile our fundamental human needs of security and adventure, commitment and freedom, intimacy and individuality? What’s the relation between safety/security and aliveness?
Until we figure out the tension between those existential pulls, we’ll keep getting stuck in patterns of behavior that either sacrifice our vitality and aliveness for the sake of our relationships or sacrifice our relationships for our vitality in aliveness. And that will never work. People want both. So I think these themes have resonated with many people across the globe, especially with Millennials.
Many people have asked me why, if I believe in the strength of relationships, did I write a book about one of the worst things that can happen in one. The answer to this is simple. We learn the best lessons when things go wrong, when we’re challenged, faced with adversity. In these moments, we’re forced to look into ourselves and our relationships. To understand trust, you have to understand distrust. To understand fidelity, you have to understand infidelity.
PN: Certainly, lots of other therapists have talked about the challenge of addressing sexual issues in therapy. What’s distinctive about your viewpoint?
PEREL: Mating in Captivity struck a nerve with readers because it focused on something that people recognized in their own lives but hadn’t quite put into words: the fact that we ask the same person to provide safety and excitement, comfort and edge, continuity and surprise. We want our partner to be our best friend, trusted confidante, equal parent, intellectual mate, and passionate lover. In effect, we want one person today to give us what once an entire village used to provide. I normalized the fact that while it isn’t impossible, it certainly isn’t instinctive, nor is it intuitive. It’s a tall order for a party of two, and the difficulty isn’t only personal or pathological: it’s existential.
I offered a different way of talking about sex, one that’s not titillation or condemnation. Rather, I talked about sex being not just something you do, but a place you go. I talked about getting away from the genital model—the emphasis on penis and vagina—away from the act of sex, and toward the poetics of sex, the quality of the engagement, how it infuses us with a sense of aliveness, renewal, curiosity, meaning.
Except for a few important voices, like David Schnarch, Pat Love, and Michele Weiner-Davis, the couples field had basically avoided these topics. In all my training as a couples therapist, no one taught me about human sexuality. And you can’t do couples therapy that really helps people achieve more intimacy without exploring the sexual dimension of human connection. Attachment and sexuality are each evolution-based, neuro-bio-psycho-social systems. Distinct though interrelated, they represent different ways for adults to connect with one another. As a rule, clinicians who focus on attachment have tended to pay less attention to sexuality, and vice versa. I sought to reconcile both. I explored love and desire, how they relate and how they conflict, for therein lies the mystery of eroticism.
Our therapeutic culture “solves” the conflict between the drabness of the familiar and the excitement of the unknown by advising clients to renounce their yearnings in favor of more rational and “adult” sexual agendas. Therapists typically encourage clients to really get to know their partners. But I often tell my clients that knowing isn’t everything. Eroticism can draw its powerful pleasure from fascination with the hidden, the mysterious, the suggestive. Revealing less is not a norm of couple therapy. Many of the couples who come to therapy imagine that they know everything there is to know about their mate. In large part, I see my job as trying to highlight for them how little they’ve seen, urging them to recover their curiosity and catch a glimpse behind the walls that encircle the other.
PN: How did all these ideas about culture, sexuality, and relationships change your clinical work?
PEREL: When I work with couples, I don’t have a technique or a method: I have an approach. Fundamental to my approach is helping couples understand how they’re shaped by larger social and cultural forces that guide our individual needs and become the scripts with which we interpret our experiences. How can you not talk about the consumer society in which we live when you hear couples say thing like, “I’m not getting my needs met. This isn’t a good deal for me. This isn’t what I signed up for”?
Doing that keeps the conversation from narrowing into I want this and you want that. What’s wrong with you that you don’t want the same as me? As therapists, we need to recognize that we’ve always experienced pain, joy, and fears, but the way we narrate and interpret our suffering and the meaning we give to our fears is shaped by the time and place where our dramas unfold. Your grandmother didn’t have the opportunity to think about her choices in the way we do today. No one ever asked her if she enjoyed sex; it was just part of her marital duty. A happy marriage for her meant something quite different from how we evaluate ours today.
PN: A danger of the approach you’re describing is that it can become too much of an intellectual exercise. How do you keep that from happening?
PEREL: The therapy I practice is experiential and aims to be transformational. Ideally, you can’t leave my office the same way that you walked in. You come in with a story and need to leave with another, and for that you need a new experience. That means enactment. I’m an expressive arts therapist, and often use tools such as the empty chair, sculpting, puppets, role-reversals, poems, music. People get up, they move around, they touch.
Clearly, I’m not the right fit for everybody. Nobody is. But I have a good idea who I’m a good fit for. When a man starts to talk about how hard it is for him to receive sexually or emotionally, I know we’re talking about certain definitions of masculinity. So I say, “You learned the societal scripts really well,” and we usually laugh together. And then I say, “Do you think you have it in you to manage your own little insurrection, to become free from this? You think you could write your own bylaws for your sexuality with your partner or for your emotional exchange with your wife?” So it flows in that kind of a way.
The people who wind up coming to me want to free themselves. They want to feel more joy, feel more playful. They want to take risks. They want somebody to give them the permission and the tools to feel and act differently. That doesn’t mean I advocate any particular way to be in relationship, but I’m willing to create a space for people to explore. I offer a place where people can come to talk about the stuff they often feel they can’t talk about anywhere else.
I believe therapy should be a place that’s very bold and free of judgment. I still do much of what Sal Minuchin taught me—kick and stroke. I’m not just there to say, “yes, yes, yes.” I’m big on relational accountability, but I’m willing to let people step outside of the strict ways that dictate how to be married today. Statistics tell us more than half of marriages don’t succeed. If Apple sold a product that fails 50 percent of the time, would you buy it?
I think we’re still stuck in a one-size-fits-all conception of marriage. But what about a couple who really get along super well and love their family, and at the same time, haven’t touched each other in six years? Strengthening the emotional closeness is often not sufficient, and many therapists know that. So what are their choices? That’s the bread and butter of my practice. Should they divorce? Or should they wait until there’s an affair? Because at some point, there will be an affair if one of the two people is dying inside.
PN: You clearly see yourself as being a truth-teller who refuses to accept the myths that pass for the received wisdom in our field. In the arena of sexuality, what’s one of the most clinically limiting myths that’s widely accepted?
PEREL: There are quite a few, but let’s start with “women want intimacy, and men just want sex.” Or the variant that women cheat for love, escaping loneliness, and mean cheat for sex, hungry for variety, escaping boredom. But here’s what happens in my office when that kind of conversation gets started. She may say, “All he wants is sex.” But maybe for him, sex is actually the gateway to his deepest emotional place. After sex, he can open up, not because he got laid, but because sex is his language. And I see the guy sitting there, and it’s like somebody is explaining him to himself.
This is the story for many men: the only place they can be touched is sexually. They live in an environment in which the only way they can access their feelings is through the language of the body and through sexuality. So then I might say to the wife, “I think you and your partner are wanting the same thing. You’re not nearly as far apart as you think, but you need to translate for each other.” And I then I might contextualize it by saying, “It’s not just your guy, it’s guys in general.”
PN: Let’s say a couple comes to you because one partner has just discovered the other is having an affair. What’s an example of how your approach might differ from that of a more conventional couples therapist?
PEREL: A lot of people come to me from conventional therapy because they’re curious to understand what really happened at a deeper level. They resonate with the idea that their first marriage may be over, but a second one could be born out of it.As a therapist, I create a container for two very differentiated experiences. It’s a dual perspective. Affairs are about hurt and betrayal, and they’re also about longing and self-seeking. So I work with the consequences as well as with the meaning and motives—what I did to you, and what it meant to me.
Affairs are intimate betrayals, but in a relationship, betrayal comes in many forms, such as indifference, neglect, contempt, violence. I don’t immediately see the adultery as the ultimate betrayal topping the hierarchy of wrongdoings. I don’t grant moral superiority to someone just because they didn’t cheat. Thus, I don’t automatically think of infidelity as a deal breaker, but as a major crisis from which couples can learn and grow, and sometimes create a stronger more alive and resilient relationship.
Often when people are having an affair, it’s not because they want to leave the person they’re with as much as they want to leave the person they themselves have become. And it’s not that they’re looking for another person, but another self. But even happy people cheat, and affairs aren’t always a symptom of something wrong in the marriage or in the individual.
So I’m willing to entertain the idea that good can come from an affair—which is far from saying affairs are good for your marriage. Many people grow from a life-threatening illness, but that doesn’t mean that I’d recommend getting cancer as a path to growth.
PN: I imagine people are quite curious about how you personally address the issues you talk about so boldly in your work. What do you tell them about the rules you follow in your own marriage?
PEREL: You’re right. I’m frequently asked to talk about my marriage, and I say, “If I talk about my relationship, I have to talk about things that belong to my partner, which he may not want me to share.” When my children come to live events, they have no interest in listening to me talk about my intimate life with their father.My professional life is about helping other people think about their lives, not about imitating mine. I have a lot of aspects of my life that I share with the public, like the fact that I’m the daughter of two sole survivors of Nazi concentration camps, which I guess puts me in close proximity with Eros and Thanatos. But what I do in my bedroom is something that belongs to my husband and me.
Richard Simon, PhD, founded Psychotherapy Networker and served as the editor for more than 40 years. He received every major magazine industry honor, including the National Magazine Award. Rich passed away November 2020, and we honor his memory and contributions to the field every day.