A Couples Therapy for the Modern Relationship

Esther Perel on Relationship Dynamics in the Age of Consumer Marriage

Ryan Howes

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.”

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: 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.

This blog is excerpted from “Reinventing Couplehood: Intimacy and Commitment in the Age of Consumer Marriage." The full version is available in the Jan/Feb 2015 issue. To subscribe, click here. >>

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Topic: Couples | Children/Adolescents

Tags: add | affairs | cheating | couples therapist | divorce | divorced | ED | emotion | emotional intimacy | Esther Perel | intimacy | parents | relationships | sex | SPECT | success | TED | therapist | therapists | therapy | marriage

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