We’ve gotten used to the idea that families today come in many shapes and sizes—blended families, accordion families, single-parent families. We no longer cling to an idea that one model of family structure should apply to everyone. But when it comes to couples, we still hold onto the romantic ideal of finding that one soulmate who’ll fulfill all our needs for companionship, emotional intimacy, and erotic adventure in a single relationship. Couples therapist Esther Perel, however, in her 2006 book, Mating in Captivity, zeroed in on the inherent conflict in even successful marriages between emotionally safe but mundane intimacy and the potentially disruptive need for eroticism and novelty in committed partnerships. Ever since, she’s been sought after as one of the most provocative thinkers exploring new possibilities for modern couples, recognizing the mismatch between the romantic ideal and the realities of contemporary life.
A native of Belgium and fluent in nine languages, she’s a keen observer of the pivotal influence of culture and social context on human experience. Her 2013 TED talk, “The Secret to Desire in a Long-Term Relationship,” has attracted more than 5 million views. She’s the consultant on the acclaimed Showtime series The Affair, and her upcoming book, The State of Affairs: Cheating in the Age of Transparency, is a further investigation of some of the paradoxes of modern marriage. In the interview below, Perel shares her thoughts about how the broader social context shapes expectations of marriage in crucial ways that are often ignored by many models of couples therapy.
RH: One of your many quotable statements about contemporary marriage is “Never have we invested more in love, and never have we divorced more.” What do you mean by that?
Perel: In a short time, marriage has gone from being an exchange of property and an economic arrangement to a relationship based on emotional sustainability. We live in a time in which we no longer divorce because we’re unhappy: we divorce because we think we could be happier. We demand a lot more from marriage in terms of satisfaction, happiness, and emotional and sexual intimacy. We want our partner to be someone with whom we experience safety, stability, and security, and we want that same person to bring us mystery, awe, transcendence, novelty, adventure, and surprise. Within this one relationship, we’re trying to satisfy two sets of fundamental human needs that we’ve never in history tried to reconcile before.
RH: Is achieving that mixture of desires an unreasonable expectation?
Perel: Well, let’s say that it’s a tall order for a party of two. I don’t know how much time our grandparents spent thinking about how happy they were in their marriages. They derived their happiness from many sources: their community, church, children, siblings, large network of friends. Their sense of belonging, continuity, and who they were was bestowed onto them from multiple sources. While I don’t think we’re any more insecure today than we used to be, we bring all our insecurities to one person.
RH: Let’s say a young couple who’s been married for about a year comes to therapy and says, “We’re not feeling very happy. We’ve lost the passion in our marriage.” How might you address that with them?
Perel: I might ask, “What is it that you’d be feeling, how would you be acting, and what would you be doing for each other that would let you know that you’re happy?” Much of the time, partners in a couple coming to therapy just say, “My needs aren’t being met.” That kind of statement is rooted in a society that’s highly individualistic and has essentially applied consumerism to relationships. Unhappy couples believe they basically bought a product. They look forward to how good it will be, and then find that what they’re experiencing isn’t what they read on the tag. So they’re disappointed and say things like, “I was told that when I’m married I’d feel happy and fulfilled, but I’m not feeling that.”
RH: They’re disillusioned because it was an illusion in the first place.
Perel: The younger people today are the children of the disillusioned and divorced. They say, “My parents were miserable, but I’m going to do it differently.” The men and the women I work with invest more in love and happiness than ever before, and yet, in a cruel twist of fate, it’s this very model of love and sex that’s behind the exponential rise in infidelity and divorce. I think we have a situation in which fascination and disillusion stare at each other. We’re asking one person to give us what once an entire community used to provide. Both people in a relationship want what they want, and both feel that they deserve to have it. That sense of entitlement to personal fulfillment is new. Then they’re disenchanted when the romantic ideal fails to jibe with the unromantic reality.
RH: As therapists, what can we do about that?
Perel: In my work, early on I ask couples, “What’s your investment? What are the resources you bring to make your partnership a thriving, vibrant, creative one?” The first step in couples therapy is to ask people to take responsibility for their contribution to the problem. That’s a hard thing for many people to do because what’s foremost for them is satisfying their individual needs in marriage—versus surrendering those individual needs. Everything in the digital era is about customizing and individualizing, and there’s no way that kind of thinking isn’t permeating our thinking about relationships.
RH: You once said, “Just because a marriage ends doesn’t mean it’s a failure.” Explain what you meant.
Perel: I think we’ve always equated longevity with good and successful marriages, but plenty of people who stayed “till death do us part” were absolutely miserable with each other.
It’s important to recognize that some relationships can end with dignity and integrity, and be appreciated for what they were without being viewed as a failure. Couples raised their children together, bought a home together, buried their parents together, helped each other through cancer spells together. It’s cruel and shortsighted to say that if it ends, then it’s a failure.
I think marriages sometimes just pass their shelf life, but the partners still stay connected because they have children and experience divorce as simply a reorganization of the family. More and more, I help couples who choose to end their marriage take with them the richness of their relationship and what they created, rather than just see the whole thing as a calamity.
RH: What does that kind of a separation session look like?
Perel: I had a beautiful one last week, in which a man and a woman decided they didn’t want to continue their eight-year relationship. I knew that his father had committed suicide, so I wanted him to have a chance to say goodbye to someone he loved—an opportunity he didn’t have with his father—even though he was choosing not to stay with her. Together, they remembered the beautiful moments they’d shared together that they’d continue to cherish. I also had her say to him the ways in which she knows that she hasn’t been available to him for various reasons. And that, too, was important for him. He felt she hadn’t thought about him often enough, and so it was her opportunity to tell him, “I own that I didn’t think enough about you. I wish I had, but here are the reasons why I couldn’t.” It was an amazing session. I had them each write what they were taking with them from the years that they’d been together, which they read out loud. We were all in tears. It was absolutely beautiful.
RH: What would you like therapists to take away from your work?
Perel: I don’t have a method—I have an approach. There’s no one size fits all. Life and relationships are more complex than treatment manuals. Understanding the brain is important, but not at the expense of context. When partners behave in ways that aren’t nice, it’s only a part of them. As a therapist, your job is to help them reconnect with other parts of them that are more dignified, respectful, and authentic.