Bestselling author Esther Perel has been a longtime friend of the Networker and our beloved editor Rich Simon. In this conversation, which took place in the fall, she considers how the pandemic has changed therapy, her practice, and our lives. It was her last interview with Rich before his passing.
Rich Simon: We’re all aware that the pandemic has changed therapists’ lives and practices in profound ways, especially in our relationships with work and family. What’s your perspective on what’s happening right now?
Esther Perel: I closed my therapy office in September, an exercise many therapists are coming to know personally. I was busy with the nitty-gritty practicalities until I sat on a moving box and took in the reality of the transition. It was quite emotional. I’d spent 15 years in that room, my sanctuary. Over the years, I’d accumulated books, tchotchkes from travels, and holiday gifts from clients. My podcasts were created there. I rehearsed my TED Talks there. The office became a reflection not just of my story, but of the people who’ve poured their hearts and souls out between its four walls. For the first time, I was a therapist without a couch. It felt like being a painter without an easel.
There’s a profound change occurring in our relationship to space. In working remotely, it feels at times like we’re doing home visits. In my office, clients could see my photographs and framed degrees. In video calls, we enter each other’s intimate spaces: kitchens and messy bedrooms. That’s no small psychological shift. We’re not working from home—we’re working with home.
Working with home means all of our roles are overlapping at the same time, often in the same place. For me, my roles as therapist, mother, partner, CEO, supervisor, and friend are overlapping at my kitchen table. Everything bleeds into one another; it’s a dissolution of boundaries.
Typically, there’s a delineation in time and space between home, office, train, gym, restaurant, etc. We change clothes. We change scenery. Routines and rituals accompany each of these activities and imbue them with meaning. Now the only delineation left is the click of the mute or “leave meeting” buttons. It’s no wonder that we’re so confused and exhausted.
Simon: What are you seeing in how people are dealing with the prolonged uncertainty and the loss of so many boundaries?
Perel: I’m seeing first and foremost that there’s a sense of weariness: Can we afford this? Is furlough really furlough? How much longer until we can visit family? What does it mean to have a baby right now? People are concerned about their mental health, their family relations, and the social and economic upheaval that directly enters their veins. Stress, domestic violence, substance abuse, and overall tension and conflict in families are increasing.
Tensions are coming to a head as we grieve the loss of loved ones and the world we once knew. We are torn between the desire to protest for racial justice in the streets and the need to protect our immuno-compromised family members. Parents are straddling bizarre school schedules. Longtime friends are falling out over mask-wearing. Young people are playing Russian Roulette when they go out to crowded bars but still want to keep grandma safe. Some of us are concerned and cautious but still living a full life while others are living in blatant fear. It’s a time of polarization as we pull back and root into the more extreme versions of our learned coping mechanisms.
Simon: Of all the changes and adaptations people have had to make during the pandemic, what most stands out for you?
Perel: It’s interesting how much we’ve changed our relationship to space and to strangers. Waiting in a line or sitting next to a stranger on the train used to bring an opportunity for spontaneous connection. Now it brings the opportunity for spontaneous contamination. The part of our lives that’s fed by our encounters with chance, happenstance, curiosity, mystery—what I call the erotic dimension of our lives—has been greatly diminished. We spend the bulk of our energy on trying to keep safe.
Recently, as I was sitting in a restaurant with a friend, I watched a woman arrive to meet a man for dinner. There was two minutes of negotiating if they were going to shake hands or hug. It was actually nice to see, because that silly negotiation in itself is a new type of intimacy and communicates that “we’re in this together.” We’re used to critiquing the psychological isolation of our society, and the pandemic is taking all of our isolationist tendencies to a new level. But in our reinventions of rituals, we’re finding that we’re actually quite able to adapt to the challenges of our times.
Simon: We could go on and on about the disruptive side of the pandemic, but is there a positive side to any of it?
Perel: Crises operate as relationship accelerators. The awareness of death puts life’s priorities sharply into focus. “Life is short. What are we waiting for? Let’s move in together.” Or “Life is short. I’ve waited long enough. I want out.” I think that this type of disaster will highlight all the cracks in a relationship as well as all the light that shines through.
I see people realizing how much they appreciate who they’re with and thankful that they’re not going through this alone. And I see people for whom it exacerbates all their usual relationship challenges—only now it’s worse because they don’t have eight hours in between doing something else away from each other.
People also seem to be experiencing a new relationship with work–life balance. Some have really appreciated slowing down. Some people see this as an opportunity to fortify the structures in their lives. Others see it as a chance for massive change. Different generations seem to be experiencing this differently. My son just graduated college and very few of his friends have jobs. I’ve been impressed with how they’ve reached out to each other and created levels of interdependence that they never had before.
Simon: Are there surprises and new discoveries in your practice?
Perel: I think that because people have slowed down, many therapy sessions have deepened. People aren’t traveling. Parents have been home more. Partners have a glimpse into more of each other’s daily lives. And working on Zoom can also open up all kinds of interesting possibilities.
I’ve been seeing a client for two years who has issues with his parents. They live some distance from him, but now, having them join us in a virtual session is easy. And so finally, after two years, we had the much-needed family session. I’ve found working this way allows me to expand the circle of people in a client’s life that I can interact with. The other day, in fact, my client was telling me about an issue she had with a friend. And I said, “Why don't we have a session with your friend?” We’re moving into a new era of therapy where geographic distance is not an obstacle. There’s a new fluidity of contact.
Simon: Therapists talk a lot about how exhausting it is to do virtual sessions all day. How do you handle that problem?
Perel: I’ve begun to conduct walk-and-talk sessions. It started with a woman who hadn’t been outside her house in two and a half months. I said, “Can you leave right now?” And she said, “Yes.” I said, “Put your shoes on, and let’s go for a walk. You’re shriveling up. You can't stay like this.” And so we walked, and then I thought, Wow, this was as good for me as it was for her.
Esther Perel, MFA, LMFT, is recognized as one of today’s most insightful and original voices on modern relationships. Fluent in nine languages, she helms a therapy practice in New York City and serves as an organizational consultant for Fortune 500 companies around the world. Her celebrated books, Mating in Captivity and The State of Affairs, have been translated into nearly 30 languages. Esther is also the host of the hit podcasts How's Work? and Where Should We Begin? She's currently recruiting pairs of co-coworkers, colleagues, and co-founders navigating new struggles due to the pandemic for her next podcast season; learn more at howswork.estherperel.com