In this podcast I talk to Esther about marriage, polyamory, and adultery. AND NOW, for the first time ever, I am adding transcripts of my Design Matters interviews for my Drip family! I've gotten a lot of requests over the years to provide transcripts, and now, finally here they are! The following is the transcript of the audio interview, and below this post is the audio file. Thank you!
Curtis Fox, my producer: This is "Design Matters" with Debbie Millman, from designobserver.com. For 13 years now, Debbie Millman has been talking with designers and other creative types about what they do, how they got to be who they are, and what they're thinking about. On this podcast, Debbie Millman talks with therapist and author Esther Perel about marriage, polyamory, and adultery.
Esther Perel: Many affairs, if they were not discovered and they were left alone, they would die a natural death.
Announcer: Here's Debbie Millman.
Debbie Millman: 10 years ago, Esther Perel took a big turn in her career. She was a psychotherapist known for her clinical work with intercultural and interfaith couples. She has since turned her attention to relationships and sex. In 2007, she wrote a book titled, "Mating in Captivity Unlocking Erotic Intelligence." In 2013, she did a TED talk, "The Secret to Desire in a Long Term Relationship," which has been viewed more than 10 million times. Two years ago, she gave another popular TED talk, "Rethinking Infidelity." That talk led to a new book, "The State of Affairs Rethinking Infidelity." She joins me today to talk about sex, marriage, cheating, and everything. Esther Perel, welcome to Design Matters.
Esther: Thank you.
Debbie: Esther, your parents were survivors of the Nazi concentration camps and the sole survivors of their respective families, which were quite large. Your father had nine siblings and your mother had seven. How did your parents survive?
Esther: I think my dad was in about 14 labor camps, my mother in about nine of them. She spent a year in the woods, he spent six months in Siberia, so there were breaks in between. When I asked them, the first thing they would typically say was luck first and foremost, just we're not chosen for the selection that day. Then, the second thing was the ability to stay strong and to continue to hope, basically, that they would be reunited with their family. That was actually my mother's thing and that she was on a mission that she would be the witness and hopefully, that there would be others that she would reconnect with.
My father more emphasized that he managed. He, in the last year and a half, developed a black market in the camps because he was working around the kitchens with a friend of his. With that black market, he was able to feed 60 children to make them strong enough to be able to continue to work. He also ended up feeding the SS, so that they too relied on him to eat more or better. He always talked about his street smart, basically. The way he managed, the way he figured things out in terms of how... Both of them emphasized decency. Both of them really emphasized that you didn't survive on the back of others, and love, connecting with people, falling in love in the camps.
Debbie: Is that where they met?
Esther: No, they actually knew each other from before the war, but they met the day of liberation on the road.
Debbie: Was it love at first sight at that moment?
Esther: No. No, no. I don't think so. I don't think that that was the model with which they came to marriage either. They came from arranged marriage model, so no, I think that what it gave them...You were walking on the road, you were free finally, but rather lost not knowing where you're going and you basically asked around, "Are there are other people that you know from this town, from that city, from this part of Poland?" Then, people said, "Yes, there is such and such." "Ah, I know her. I used to know her family. We used to do trading together." My parents would never have married if it wasn't for the war, but a lot of the post war marriages were "I'm alone, you're alone. I have nothing, you have nothing. Let's get married." That was really the model. They were from different classes. My mother was from aristocratic Hasidic educated family and my father was basically quite illiterate. Couldn't write, couldn't read much, went three years to school and would never have been a match. But, he looked up. He venerated her. He adored her. They began walking, and then the group grew as you were walking on the roads and then you would meet these people and then those. People would add on. They, through Czechoslovakia and through various countries, kind of walked their way to Belgium, which was walking, hitchhiking, hanging on the back of trucks, being on the trains. Then, found their way to Belgium by fluke because my father had helped someone who was Belgian in the camps and said, "Why don't you come to Belgium?" which they had permits to stay for three months. Didn't leave, didn't want to go to the other countries that had permits for the refugees at the time all very, very current for today. They decided to stay and they stayed for another five years as illegal refugees in Belgium.
Debbie: You've said that trauma was woven into the fabric of your family history. How did that influence your childhood?
Esther: On some level, you would say you could see it. On the other hand, you see numbers. You ask at around age 3 or 4, and you say, "Why did all these people have numbers?" Not my parents, but the people around them. They tell you, without much consideration for child development, Auschwitz, murder, camps, no grandparents, no family, no uncles. "Why don't we have anybody?" kind of thing. You see your mother basically getting up in the middle of the night and checking doors, checking stoves, checking. Everything on the surface in my house was very very normal. But underneath, there was a real sense of dread.
Debbie: How could there not be?
Esther: I went to a book reading last week called "Feeling Jewish." It was not about feeling Jewish. It was about how feelings that Jews have often had are today very appropriate to the reality that we live in.
Debbie: [laughs] Oy vey.
Esther: That notion of uncertainty, impermanence, lack of security. Those were part of the background. At the same time, there was this, "We didn't survive for nothing." "We are going to enjoy life. We're going to live life to its fullest. We're going to capture it with a vengeance." That energy was very much woven into me as well, combined with "I'm not here to have a small life." There was definitely that sense that I was a symbol of life and a symbol of revival. I was special in the sense of the magical child. Not just me, but many of us who were born then. You were going to do something with this. You had a responsibility to all those who didn't have a chance to live. You need to really do something with this life.
Debbie: In preparation for today's show, I found in my research a line that really has stayed with me. You stated that based on your childhood and watching your parents survive and thrive when they could, that you thought there was a world of difference between not being dead and being alive.
Esther: This is a line that I actually came up with when I was writing Mating in Captivity. I was speaking with Jack, my husband, who had co created the Center for Victims of Torture and Political Violence at Bellevue. At the time, I was saying, "How do you know when victims of torture come back, or people who've been kidnapped? How do they come back to life? What lets you know that?" Gradually, we would talk about how you come back to life when you're able to once again be creative, when you're once again able to be playful. Because if you're playful, you're not being vigilant. You're not on guard. You're not watching for the next disaster to hit you. You come back when you're able to take risks which means that you're able to leave the safe harbor to leap into the world and do things, take risks. You're having an active engagement with the unknown, as Rachel Botsman says about trust. I was listening to Jack describe this whole thing and I thought, "That's so interesting." That's when I actually began to shift my interests from sexuality to eroticism. Because eroticism is that life force, that aliveness, that vitality. Then I began to apply it to my community. I grew up in Antwerp, in Belgium. I've often said, but I didn't say before I wrote Mating. Now it's a line that people, somehow...It has really spoken to them because it applies to every trauma. I don't think it's unique at all to my background. In my community, there were two groups of people, the people who did not die, and the people who came back to life. The people whose houses were morbid. The couches were covered in plastic. The shades were pulled down. They were supposed to be refuge from the danger, but they were not supposed to be places where you lived, when you tried, where you laughed.
Esther: Trusted, made love, experienced pleasure, anything like that. The world was dangerous. You don't trust anybody except maybe your family. You certainly can't experience pleasure and enjoy. Because when you're experiencing pleasure, you're not paying attention to danger. You can't be in those two modes at the same time. I remember those children. I remember their parents. They were in my class. I would go play at their houses and it was morbid. They lived very tethered to the ground.
Then I looked at this other group of survivors as well, and they were like my parents. They were going to live life. They were going to experience the erotic as an antidote to death. They were going to face adversity, understand that the world may not be safe, live with the insecurity, but not let it stop them and enjoy, party, dance—really experience beauty, travel, curiosity, exploration, discovery, stay connected to the adventurous side of life. I was very lucky. I really am lucky, I have to say, to have been on that side of this continuum, if you want.
Debbie: What gave them that resilience? Because there really is two different paths you can take coming out of trauma, and this is the worst possible trauma that someone can face. Where does that hope, that sense of trust actually come from in a person?
Esther: We talked about it a lot and I don't know that there were ever definitive answers. There were snippets that were being described all the time. My father would say, "The worst was when you were at the hands of a young SS. If he was older, he could have a little bit more compassion. Probably he remembered his older father. Probably he had had a child. He was less ruthless. The young ones were the worst." Or he would say, "We would walk with newspaper around our feet in frozen weather to go to the factories and every once in awhile there were these women and they were just throwing us a piece of bread." Somehow he held on to those snippets of humanity, slivers of humanity. Really like that. My mother definitely spoke a lot about her premonitions. She was very much driven by this other sense of her that guided her. But I think it has to do with your childhood. The Holocaust was one of the first times where people really...there was Charcot and there were the various other layers of looking at adult trauma. But all the views of adults were that the trauma had existed in childhood. The women of Charcot were in the mental hospital and people understood that in fact they were not just hysterical. They were, the majority of them, victims of sexual abuse. But the Holocaust was the first time that people understood adult trauma. Then we've applied this now. It's a given. Everybody understands this. This notion that trauma being an event that produces terror in you and a sense of paralysis in response to the extent of that terror, and you cannot do anything against it. I think the extent to which you felt in the camps that you could do something, that you had some sense of agency, that you still had some type of—even on a daily basis sometimes—of minimum control over your destiny and over your life that day and over how things were going to go down... My mother always described how she mended her socks. She kept herself prim and proper. She said the day you could see somebody stop grooming themselves you know they were on the way out. That preservation of the humanity on the inside very much a lot of the things that Viktor Frankl articulated for us in the "Search for Meaning," because that's where he had experienced it too. My parents were not as articulate about it, but when I listened to everything they put together, it probably came down to that. It's a combination of your history, your childhood, the experiences that you had. They had a rather good connection, my parents. A lot of the survivors, once they were done surviving and rebuilding the basics, looked at each other and said, "What do we have in common? We have nothing. All we had was the shared trauma."
Debbie: Sometimes that's all you need.
Esther: No. Many times it wasn't enough.
Esther: Many times it wasn't enough. No, because these people looked at each other and once they were busy, they had already had children, they had rebuilt something, they looked at each other and it's like, "This is not life. This is not life. Surviving is not living." I think my parents lucked out. They had a lot of fun. They enjoyed each other. They enjoyed doing things together. I think my mother probably on occasion thought she could have done better. But he treated her like a queen. Most of the people of that generation didn't divorce, either, because divorce was another death. They stuck together but they were not necessarily always very good couples. I remember something very, very significant. At one point I must have been maybe 10 years old or something and there was a wave of men who passed away. The husbands of my mother's friends, this whole group. My father actually with one of the men remained the only men of this clan of seven, eight women.
I said, "Aren't they lonely?" My mother looked at me. She said, "They are so happy they don't have to wash his socks anymore. They are free women finally." I thought, "Oh my God." I've never forgotten this. These older women no, they don't all miss their husbands. Even if they were nice, it's just that the role that they had to have as the wives of these men...
I think my parents just didn't fall into that particular trap, but I think it was really luck. That doesn't mean they didn't have their fights. But I also came late. I'm 12 years after my brother and I think my brother may have different answers on a lot of these things than me. I came at when my parents were much more established, had already begun to rebuild. I was already a child of a middle class family, not a child of illegal refugees.
Debbie: When did you decide that you wanted to be a therapist?
Esther: I was a therapist as a teenager to my friends. I understood I have a knack for this stuff. I was interested in psychology, because I didn't feel good about myself. That's the first place you go to read. You see, "Why do I struggle with all the things?"
Debbie: As a therapist, you have to undergo some sort of therapy, correct?
Esther: Yes, you don't have to but it's advisable. I think the Emperor should have clothes. But I was rather young. I was interested in the inner life. I had dreams, I had nightmares. You asked me about the trauma of my parents. I dreamt a lot of trauma stuff and I did experience things viscerally and vicariously, as if I was in the camps. That's very common to a lot of children of survivors. It's not like it wasn't there. It was either journalism, because I knew I'm very curious and I love to talk to people and it's easy for me to speak with people. But I also spoke languages. They knew I have a talent for languages.
Debbie: You have nine, right? You speak nine languages.
Esther: Yes. I spoke five from very early on. My mother often said, "You should be an interpreter."
Debbie: You are.
Esther: That's right. But I said, "Of what?"
Debbie: You are an interpreter.
Esther: But my real passion was the theater. I actually was in the theater from very early on and always thought I would be performing, but theatrically. There is a saying that a lot of therapists are frustrated artists, let's not forget.
Debbie: They say that about designers too. [laughter] You've said that being a couples therapist is probably the hardest type of therapy to be in and to practice.
Esther: It's the best theater in town. [laughter]
Debbie: Why is it so difficult?
Esther: It is a system that can get so intense and invested with so many expectations and so many dreams. It's starts often out in such an Olympian level. Then it just collapses. The collapse is rarely with people saying, "I'm doing something wrong."
The disillusionment of love is generally blamed on the other, what they're doing wrong, how they've let you down, how they're not there for you, how they are making you feel, how they are responsible for how you feel. They used to make me feel glorious. Now they make me feel like shit. It's "They make me." It's intense. It's two histories, and then what they create together, and how they pollute the space in between, and how often it's so difficult to want to own what each one is doing, and how they can trigger each other. Look, here is the thing, there's only two systems that resemble each other. The one you have with your parents, and the one you have with your partner. People can tell me, "I don't have this with anybody else, no friends, no colleagues." I believe them. That level of intensity that trigger the feelings that can rise inside of you that you have with your partner, you have only experienced them one other time. That's with the people who raised you.
Debbie: Why do we mimic those patterns?
Esther: It's the echo chamber. It's where you learn to love. It's where you learn the language of love. It's where you had your first experiences with love or the lack thereof, with protection or the lack thereof, with needs or the lack thereof, with joy or the lack thereof. The foundation of our emotional life, and the language that we have for it, and the meaning that we ascribe to it comes from our early years with the people who raised us, parents or parental figures. It gets revoked when you choose a partner. You choose a partner, and you hope that they will fix the holes of the past.
Debbie: Are we choosing a partner unconsciously, very specifically to help us repair that pattern?
Esther: Or repeat that pattern.
Esther: Some theories say you choose a person with whom you're going to repeat it so that you can finally transcend it. Some say it's amazing how you think you chose differently, only to find yourself in your own backyard. What is clear is that what is initially attractive because it is different, becomes the source of conflict later, because it is different.
Debbie: Now you said that you have people come to you and they're basically telling you, "They make me feel that way." "They make me do that." Or, "They caused this." What do you tell people when you are trying to help them, to get them out of that blame, to get them to see what their contribution is?
Esther: The last couple I saw today, I said, "What is it that he does that triggers you?" "He belittles me. When I talk about something and he just rolls his eyes. I feel completely belittled, and like I have no say." Then what happens to you? That's the vulnerability. The vulnerability is I feel small. Then what do you do with that vulnerability? Then I try to assert myself.
Then I want to have some power back, because I feel powerless. Now I attack. That's the survival strategy. That survival strategy triggers the other person. When I feel attacked, I then say, "What happens to you when you feel attacked?" "Oh, I feel disrespected. When I feel disrespected, I want to stick it to him." [laughter]
Debbie: It's a downward spiral of horribleness. [laughs]
Esther: Right? This is an escalation. It's as classic as they come. It's an escalation. I use the vulnerability cycle which is created by a very dear colleague of mine, Michelle Scheinkman to show you are triggered. It touches a vulnerability. You respond from the place that defends against this vulnerability, which is called the survival strategy. With which you then react to the other person who then gets kicked in their vulnerability. Then they respond from their survival strategy. The survival strategy is the strategy that you developed as a child. It was the adaptive strategy to things that you were experiencing back then. Of course, I instantly said, "Tell me, this thing about I feel disrespected, did you have that ever before? You didn't learn that just with him." These things are in the suitcases. It's part of the luggage overload, extra charge.
Debbie: You've stated that we're living in a time wherein we've never expected more from our intimate relationships. You even mention your parents came from a generation where their marriages were supposed to be arranged. Being part of a couple now is essential construct in our social organization as a species all over the planet. Being in love while also being married are relatively new concepts in the same way that being happy or finding purpose in a job is also a relatively new construct. What was the original concept behind the construct of marriage?
Esther: Marriage is an institution that has always changed. I think we shouldn't think it's been one fixed thing till now, and now it's suddenly took on a whole other meaning. My parents, if you ask them what makes for a good relationship, would've said...My mother always said, "It's hard work. It's compromises, concessions. You need to want for it to work."
She did talk about love. That didn't mean there was no love, but it was a byproduct. It wasn't the central organizing system. Relationships were organized around duty and obligation. They were organized around fixed gender roles. Everybody knew what is expected of them. If you do what the gender demands from you, you can expect to be happy. You feel good about having fulfilled your role, etc. Romanticism is the greatest energetic engine of the western psyche. That's it. It has captivated us like no other.
Debbie: Is it a myth? It doesn't last in the way that it starts. What is really happening when we're experiencing romantic love?
Esther: That's two different questions. Actually, you've asked three questions. The first question is, what is the difference between a love story and a life story? There are a lot of people you can love. You don't necessarily can make a life with all of them. What has happened is that we tried to merge the love story and the life story. We want marriage and love to become one part. We've gone a lot further. I've lately gone around to describe the short history of marriage so that we can understand how did love conquer marriage. It's actually the title of a book by Stephanie Coontz, which I think is very, very apt. For most of history, marriage is an economic enterprise around duty and obligation. The marriage is between two families, not between two individuals. Love may be there, but it's not certainly the thing that organizes it. It doesn't matter how good you feel or you don't feel, the marriage continues because there is no exit. There is primarily no exit for women. The only exit was early death. Seriously. We, at the end of the 19th century with the rise of romanticism, urbanization, the move to the cities away from the villages, the rise of individualism, all these big industrialization, those big movements, begin to bring love to marriage. Because love has always existed, and so has passion. It existed somewhere else that marriage had nothing to do with that. In fact, for quite a long time, adultery was the space for love since marriage wasn't supposed to provide that.
Debbie: Equally for men and women?
Esther: Yes. It's just that men acted on it much more than women. They had the license to do so. The idea was that the love stories took place on the fringe of the marriage, on the outside of the marriage, not inside the marriage. Then not only do we bring love to marriage, but now we bring sex to love. We, for the first time, link sexual satisfaction with marital happiness.
For that to happen, we have to have contraception so that we can liberate sexuality from its sole connection to biology and procreation. We can turn sexuality no more as an economic asset endeavor in order to produce children, but for connection and for pleasure. That's a whole new definition of the role of sex inside relationships. It never existed before. Now we talking about the desire for everybody, with root sexuality and desire, including for women. Who cared, in my mother's generation, back then in Poland, about what women liked, or didn't like, or were experiencing? It was irrelevant. She did her duty. It was a marital duty. That she wanted or didn't want was a separate story. Then we brought happiness down. Now we want to be happy. We want to be happy in our marriage. From happiness in our marriage, we also make intimacy a new concept which is "into me see." Now it becomes a matter of validation. Then we're going and we're starting to look for the soulmate. When have we looked for a soulmate in marriage? A soulmate was with the divine. It was a religious pursuit, not a relational pursuit. Then, from there, we want to go to the one and only. That one and only that we need to choose in the midst of a formal culture, in a swiping culture where we have 10 other choices at every minute. "How do I know that this is the one and only, the one that's going to make me want to delete my apps?"
Debbie: [laughs] Do you believe that there is just a one and only?
Esther: No, absolutely not, never. I think there are many people with whom you can make a life with. There are many people with whom you will have had unique experiences. No, there is not necessarily one person. You may feel that this is the one with whom you want to do it. You may at any day know that that person could one day disappear and that you could one day turn your gaze to someone else. I do not hold that notion of the one and only. I think today, that one and only has to give you everything that the traditional village had to give you. You have to get security, and children, and family life, and companionship, and economic support. You have to have the person who inspires you in your career, and the intellectual equal, and the best parent, and the best friend, and the trusted confidant, and the passionate lover. This is it. This is the one person for everything model. It collapses just from the sheer weight of the expectations. We are very, very wedded to it.
Debbie: We're living at a time where we've never been more crushed by the weight of these expectations.
Esther: I think one of the things that I began to notice more, and more, and more, a lot of it has to do with the disillusion of the traditional institutions. People turn to religion for wholeness, for meaning, for transcendence, for ecstasy. Today, we turn to romantic love for all of those needs.
Debbie: Or brands. [laughs]
Esther: Or brands, exactly. That is a phenomenal thing. The stability didn't come from your relationship, especially a romantic marriage that is totally at the mercy of the vagaries of our heart. What stability is that going to provide us with? It's an amazing shift. More and more we turn to the partner to give us that sense of meaning, that sense of belonging, that sense of resilience. Those huge existential components of our life, never was one person responsible for those kind of things. This is what has fundamentally altered modern romance.
Debbie: This is something that everybody or quite a large number of people in our culture believe is possible. If you work hard enough, you will be able to achieve this with your partner.
Esther: Yes, for 65 years, absolutely. Love will be enduring, and intimacy oh so enthralling, and sex oh so exciting, without a ripple. There is this unit called the couple that has an enormous amount of expectations put on it, with the pressure to do well, to be happy, and to be perfect. On top of it, that unit is rather isolated because most people have no idea what goes on in the backstage of a couple. It's an amazing pressure at this point. Couples have to do so much, they get so little support, they talk to nobody. They talk to nobody. Single people talk. Couples don't talk. Sometimes the women will talk a little bit, the men talk to nobody, in straight couples, and you just think where exactly are they supposed to learn from? I saw a couple today. I said, "Do you have ever been in couple's therapy?" They said, "25 years ago." I said, "What brought you back?" He says, "My coach told me that I don't renovate my house myself, and I don't fix my car alone myself. Why do I think I can fix my marriage myself?"
Debbie: Smart friend.
Esther: I thought, "Very good," but I said, "But your car probably has gotten a tune up on a regular basis, and you had your last conversation about this topic 25 years ago."
Debbie: You describe listening to people's stories in your practice and you found yourself shocked, judgmental, caring, protective, curious, turned on, turned off, and sometimes all of that in one hour.
You describe crying with your patients, feeling hopeful and hopeless, being able to identify with everyone involved, and you reveal how you see, on a daily basis, is there not only the devastation infidelity causes, but how inadequate much of the current conversation about the topic is. Is that why you wrote this book?
Esther: I wrote this book because I believe that the quality of our relationships determines the quality of our life, and I wrote this book because I think that we learn our best lessons from watching when the worst happens or from studying when the worst happens. If you're going to look at trust, you want to look at the violation of trust, and if you want to look at love, you want to look at betrayal, and if you want to look at resilience, you want to look at crisis. This is one of the big shit shows that can take place in a couple, and it was going to lend me a lens to understand a lot of the things not to do.
It's almost, if you read what happens there, you get a very good idea of what to do actually to have a strong relationship or a thriving relationship. That was one. I wrote about infidelity because I had done a book about the dilemmas of desire inside the couple, and thought, "What happens when desire goes looking elsewhere?"
Debbie: You said that the one chapter you wrote in "Mating in Captivity" on infidelity was the chapter you got most of your questions about.
Esther: Yes. "The Shadow of the Third," it was called, and in many countries, that's all they wanted to talk about. I wrote the book because it is a subject that affects probably 80 percent of us in our life. If you ask a crowd if you've been affected by infidelity in your life, I think about 80 percent of them will say yes in one from or another. Yet, I do believe that the conversation about it is not helpful. Instantly, it becomes a for or against rather than what do we know about it and how do we actually help people, and the conversation at this point isn't helpful.
Debbie: Why isn't it helpful?
Esther: Because it's judgmental, because it is polarizing, because it talks about victims and perpetrators, because it fails to look at the dilemmas of modern love, of desire, of passion, of commitment in the context of the lives that we live in today.
Here's the thing. To understand modern infidelity, you have to understand modern marriage. If I have been chosen as the one and only, then a betrayal is the shattering of the grand ambition of love because what does it say to me? "I'm not the only. Actually, I'm quite replaceable," and that becomes a real gutting experience. Now, it becomes a crisis of identity. "I thought I knew who I was. Now who am I? I thought I knew my life. Now, what is the truth? The whole thing is a fraud. I can't believe anything anymore. Where is my trust? I thought I trusted you for everything. I trusted you then the way that we chose each other, which was we renounced all others." That level of intensity made me say that affairs have always been painful, but today, they are traumatic. That's not in the world like that. This is a unique response to the kind of love model that we have.
If we choose by virtue of this one and only authentic soulmate kind of thing, then desire that goes looking elsewhere will create a devastation that is new and that is different from what it used to be in traditional relationships.
Debbie: Do you think that sexual betrayal is the most painful type of betrayal?
Esther: In that particular model, it often is, or emotional betrayal, but the love gone elsewhere, the desire gone elsewhere, yes it becomes...Americans think that infidelity is a worse offense than cloning, than suicide, than obesity, than lots of things. It really has become the ultimate betrayal because it betrays the grand ambition of love.
It's become one of the leading causes of divorce. How did that happen? That is a 30 year story. The notion that you could have an infidelity in a good relationship, that it's not always a response to something bad in the couple, but maybe something in person, that it's more for themselves than against the other. I think that to understand that relational betrayal, and how one heals from it, and how one forgives it or doesn't forgive it, the choices that we can make afterwards and so forth is core to helping couples today navigate the challenges of modern love.
Debbie: You've written that as tempting as it is to reduce affairs to sex and lies. You prefer to use infidelity as a portal into the complex landscape of relationships and the boundaries we draw to bind them. How can infidelity be a portal into learning that kind of insight?
Esther: I would say it's two things. For me to really understand infidelity, I have to use a lens that I call the dual perspective. Affairs are about hurt and betrayal, but they are also about longing and lust and exploration and self seeking. It's always what it did to you and what it meant for me. You have to go back and forth.
The majority of the people I see are not chronic philanderers. They're not cheaters and those who are have other issues of which this is just one part of it. I see a lot of people who have actually been faithful and monogamous and loyal for long time, for years. Then one day, they cross the line, and they cross the lines that they themselves, or the worlds that they themselves erected. Then you wonder why. Why would they risk losing everything they've built? For what?
Debbie: For what? For what? Why do people do that?
Esther: Aliveness is the essential word that you will hear all over the world.
Debbie: Why does aliveness dissipate over the course of a relationship? Is that we metabolize our passion?
Esther: No. I think that there's a lot of reasons. First of all there are hardships in life and we are coping. We are busy coping and making sure we make ends meet, and we can deal with the illness and the disabilities, and the losses, and god knows what, the tsunamis. Aliveness wanes because we get constrained by roles that is the narrative of women all the time, but I don't think it would be that different by men. They can be in straight or same sex relationships. The role of the wife, the role of the caretaker, the role of the husband, the role of the provider. Roles that are about being responsible, settling down, being accountable, building, protecting, and those are the antidotes of...the opposite side of what is the erotic, if you want. I wrote one line in Mating where I said, "Everything that the erotic thrives on, the unknown, the mystery, the surprise, the imagination, the playfulness, is what family life defends against." Family life needs consistency, routine, rituals, repetition. We know that. It's what kids need. They need that solid base. They don't need this unstructured [laughs] free flow. They need boundaries, they need limits, and then within that, they can begin to explore. It's two forces. It's the force of stability and predictability and continuity battling the other equally strong force of exploration, discovery, adventure, risk taking and all of that. We find it difficult to do both in the same place.
Debbie: In Mating in Captivity, it seems impossible to do in the same place.
Esther: It's challenging. I don't know that it's impossible. I think that there are relationships where people do. They are able to navigate both. No, they're not always stifled, but it is an existential dilemma. It isn't solved with sex toys.
Esther: Let's put it like that. It's not a matter of technique. It needs to be understood as a fundamental challenge that what makes you feel stable is not the same as what makes you feel adventurous, and what gives you a sense of belonging is not the same as what gives you the sense of freedom, and what gives you comfort isn't the same as what gives you edge, [laughs] and that we want the same person to give us both things these days and vice versa. I think that aliveness, when people describe it, they're not talking about sex. What they're talking about is, "I did something for me. I did something that wasn't about being responsible just for others the whole time. I broke the rules," and breaking the rules often gives you a sense of ownership and autonomy and freedom and agency." "I did what I wanted and not just what's expected of me. I'm not compliant. I'm defiant. I'm going outside of the norms in which I have become locked in," and it's that force that is reason why people say, "I feel alive, I feel vibrant, I feel like I'm doing things I didn't know that I was capable of doing even when they are deeply disturbing at the same time."
Debbie: Esther, what's so interesting about this notion of...
Esther: It's the transgression...is really the word. It's less about infidelity and more about the power of transgression.
Debbie: But I kept reading over and over and over again in The State of Affairs about this desire for feeling alive and wanting to experience that, and that is ultimately what tempts people outside of their marriage to feel this aliveness again.
What's so interesting, if we think about what we were talking about earlier in our interview about going to a therapist and saying, "He does that to me" or "She does that to me." Or "He makes me feel that way" or "She makes me feel that way," that's the same thing that we're doing at the beginning if that person is making you feel alive. What happens over the course of time to go from feeling alive to feeling dead by the same person?
Esther: Because what you often actually explain when you work on the affairs, you say, "You know, the aliveness doesn't just come from the other person. The aliveness comes from the action that you just took. The aliveness comes from the disruption, the interruption, the transgression that you just committed. The aliveness comes from the risk that you just took." But the thing is, we don't always want to take that risk in the same place where we also want our security. The reason we transgress and cheat, if you want, in part, is because I want to leave my security for a bit, but I sure don't want to lose it. I want it to be there when I come back, but I don't know how to do it in the same place. Because we have a model that wants it all in one place, by definition, we end up hurting one place to go and experience the other. That's the way that we've set it up. We haven't set up marriage for adventure. We have set up marriage for stability, for family, for raising children, for building homes, for the security aspect of our life. I think that when people today tell me, "I want a person who has these qualities and these traits," and they go down the whole inventory and the whole thing, I always say, "The experience of love is not what the other person is, it's how you experience yourself in the presence of the other.
Debbie: You're right. Sometimes when we seek the gaze of another, it isn't our partner we are turning away from, but the person we have become. We're not looking for another lover so much as another version of ourselves, and you go on in writing this, to quote, Mexican essayist Octavio Paz, who describes eroticism as thirst for otherness. Are you saying that it's possible that the most intoxicating other that people discover in an affair is not a new partner, it's in yourself?
Esther: But a new version of oneself. Yes. A new version of oneself, yes.
Debbie: But isn't that what happens when we fall in love to begin with?
Esther: But a lot of infidelities are also love stories, except we don't call it like that in psychology. You have to go to novels and to opera to say that we're going to see a movie about love. We say it's a movie about affairs. [laughs] Not all infidelities are love stories, but a lot of them are. Sometimes, you don't fall in love with the other person as much as you fall in love with that other version of yourself, because when you make a choice, when you choose a partner, you choose a story, and that story becomes the story that you're going to enact. That's the character you're going to play, and sometimes, you begin to say, "What else is there about me? Who else can I be?" That's why I say affairs are about longing and loss. It's the lost parts of ourselves that I wonder where they went. That's why that very new affair of today, the return to the ex that we can find on Facebook that I used to know in college 10 years ago, has become such a compelling plot because it's like, "What would my life have been? I can actually go and try it out this time, which I could never do before." I do think when you enter a relationship, you often become one version. The relationships that thrive are the relationships that know how to reinvent and resuscitate themselves so that you can have different version of yourself exist there in the course of the years, which lead me to always say, "We are going to have two or three marriages or committed relationships these days, most of us in the west, and some of us are going to do it with the same person. What does that mean? It means that in the context of me and you, I'm going to be able to be another me, and if I can be another me, I don't have to go choose another person. I can do it with the same person. If I can't do it with the same person, I go look for it with another person either by ending my relationship with you, either by stepping outside and segmenting my relationship with you. This doesn't justify it, this just explores it and tries to understand it. It's very important that when we talk about infidelity, because it's such an incendiary subject, that the understanding of it doesn't mean that it's a justification of it or a condoning of it. It really is, what is it that people are doing, and what are they looking for, and what does it mean to them? If they continue with it, where will they go? It's true. Many affairs, if they were not discovered and they were left alone, they would die a natural death.
Debbie: Because the mystery wears off?
Esther: That's right, because they were not meant to be anything else besides an affair. That was their reason. That was the raison d'Ítre. It was meant to be a fiction, a love story, and love stories run their course. It's like a novel. It ends. A life story is a different story. It's a different narrative, but when people confuse the metaphors, they tell me... [laughs] I met this guy at the conference last week, and he's like, "I met this new woman and this is incredible and the sex is phenomenal and it was such passion..." And I just kept saying to him, "Just do yourself a favor. Don't confuse the metaphors. She hasn't met your kids yet."
Debbie: [laughs] Your mother.
Esther: "She hasn't met your ex yet."
Esther: At this point, you're in a bubble. Don't mix things up. Leave the bubble. Don't think that the bubble means the next 20 years. You have no idea at this moment if that bubble can transform. Some bubbles should just stay bubbles, and they will be beautiful as bubbles and you will carry it inside of you afterwards like a sweet memory.
Debbie: I want to talk to you a little bit about something that I've been reading about a lot more than I ever have before polyamory. Polyamory seems to be the new "it" word in sexual dynamics. Why is that something that has popped up in our culture as this major new step that people are taking in their relationships, and in life?
Esther: If I was to say to you that for most of history, monogamy was one person for life. Today, monogamy is one person at a time.
Esther: And that people comfortably tell you that they are monogamous in all their relationships. Right?
Esther: That makes perfect sense. Today, we consider premarital sex rather a norm in the west. That was a major change of sexual boundaries. From premarital sex, we then began to want a different kind of sexual fulfillment inside the relationship. We don't just want procreative sex. We don't want routine. We don't want pity sex. We don't want service. We don't want just a job done. We want a connection. We want pleasure. From there, we began to talk not just about the freedom before, but also the freedom within, and now the freedom outside. This is just a natural progression of the sexual boundaries that monogamy and the discussion about monogamy, which is a discussion of polyamory is the next frontier.
Debbie: Are ethical non monogamy and polyamory the same thing?
Esther: Yes and no. They are connected. Monogamy is often an emphasis on the sexual boundaries and polyamory really looks at the co living, the co existence of different love relationships. It's less about the emphasis on the sexuality and more on the attachment. For me it is a progression, if you think of it as we never talked about it, and now we're talking about polyamory.
Now, we began to talk about it from the moment we were able to experience sexuality and connection with people outside of the sole framework of marriage. That was number one. Number two, I think that the people who are negotiating that monogamy who are at the cutting edge of that conversation, are people who are trying also to bring together different value systems, the value system of commitment, and the value system of personal fulfillment and personal expression, and they see sexuality and connection as fundamental expressions of who we are as individuals. That's a totally new meaning for sexuality. When has it become a property of the self that you get to define that marriage, your life, and all of these things which we take for granted and are so revolutionary? It's marrying the values of individual freedom with the values of commitment. We've never thought of bringing independence and belonging like that together in one relationship. To understand a conversation about polyamory is to understand a conversation about value systems, not just about where sex is taking place. The third thing is that the conversation of polyamory takes place among entrepreneurial spirits. It's people who are dismantling the old systems, in the economy at large as well as in the economy in the culture of marriage. They dismantle the traditional norms, and they are trying to create new norms. In that sense, polyamory enters. Unfortunately, it also, like everything else, gets co opted. It gets co opted by people who don't know about commitment. It gets co opted by people who commodify others. It gets co opted by people who look at relationships from a consumer perspective and apply the culture of consumerism to relationships.
Debbie: Tell me a little bit more about what you mean by the commodification of others or looking at a relationship from a consumer point of view.
Esther: "What is my return on investment?"
Debbie: Oh, god.
Esther: "Is this the deal I signed up for?" "This is not what I expected." "My needs are not getting met." "I'm hedging my bets here."
Debbie: It's transactional.
Esther: It's transactional, but what is the consumer economy? The consumer economy's an economy of service. It's an economy of experience, and it wants those experiences to be inspiring and transformative, isn't it? The design culture is very much a part of that. We want marriage today to be an experience. We want that experience to be inspiring and transformative.
Debbie: Instagram worthy. [laughs]
Esther: Yes. What's a stable household, well behaved children, and a good income if I'm bored?
Debbie: How do you answer that question when somebody asks that of you, to you?
Esther: I'm a Boomer. I'm a little bit from a different... I say, "Excuse me." There is no choice without loss. You want it all, but the problem is, I am the parent of those children who want it all. I colluded in that culture, where we've given people a false sense of grandiosity. Now, we pay the price. We have a generation of people who don't tolerate frustration. When things don't work, they throw them away and they get new. They don't know how to reinvent on location. A hook up culture doesn't prepare you for [laughs] a stable relationship. Sexual nomadism is fantastic, but it doesn't prepare you for a committed relationship in which you need to find your own way to reinvent things, to keep things interesting, to stoke it. That's intentional, that's very active, that's not some spontaneous idea that sex is going to just happen. I've always said in mating, that whatever is going to just happen already has. It happens because you invest in it. You bring that same entrepreneurial spirit, that, "I'm going to reinvent the rules, and I'm not going to follow the old mamutz." Do it, but do it with decency. It comes with a digital culture in which there is definitely a loss of empathy. Every scale you look at will describe that. A concept that people have all the time that I can do better. What is this, "I can do better" notion? The better is always the better that you're going to find, not the better that you're going to be. I challenge people on that. I just say, "I'm really sorry." I get the values. It applies to brands, no less. But your marriage is not just a brand. When life hits you, it's a whole other story. It's a whole other story. It hits you with so many things that we didn't expect, that have nothing to do with love. They have to do with all the vicissitudes of life. I tend to say to people, "Accountability matters." The commodification of people is when you can ghost them like they never existed, when you simmer and just keep them on a little fire and wait, and hope that... It's this ambiguous state by which I don't want to be too committed. I don't want to do anything that I will lose my freedom. I just want some of the comforts of consistencies, so I'll keep you. I'll keep you on the fire. In the midst of that, I'm curating my fantastical wish for life, in which I lie. I mean, the sadness of couples' life today, part of what I'm doing and why I write the books, and do the podcast, and do all of the other stuff, is there needs to be an honest, truthful conversation about the pitfalls of modern intimacy. At this point, people lie. The more they lie, the less you really know what goes in their lives. In the past, your neighbors fought and you heard everything through the windows. Now, your friend's divorced and you are surprised. You didn't see it coming. Nobody really knows. That gap between what people are really experiencing and what they're putting out there, and how they're curating their stories, is creating more depression. It's just we know all of it. We know that it is really leaving people more and more depressed, and lonely.
The Wall Street Journal of all papers, last week has a whole article on how loneliness has become the number one public health problem in America. Not obesity, but loneliness. That loneliness is you've got a thousand virtual friends but nobody who can feed your cat.
Debbie: Esther, if a couple comes to you having gone through an infidelity in their marriage, what do you tell them? How can you help them? Is their marriage always over after an infidelity?
Esther: No. No. Sure not. It depends. It depends also if they come to me the day after and it's just been found out. If they come to me when one person has asked, but the other one is still denying. If it comes to me when one person has basically said, "I'm leaving you," but without telling why or they say why. If they come to me because one person is asking and the other person is gaslighting them. There are so many moments, entry points. Are you looking at people who are in the midst of the crisis with the massive maelstrom of emotions that's besieging them? Are they a complete loss and confusion and like "What just hit me? I thought I knew where I'm going, I thought I knew my life, and this whole thing is just falling apart." Or am I meeting them a year later and they're trying to still heal and to deal with forgiveness or with trust or with reconnecting sexually? It really has to do with the developmental arc, number one. Number two, what is the quality of their relationship? The quality of the relationship is not always determined by the affair. Who are you as a couple? Who have you been? Where do you meet? What's your strength? What's your story? Where does it take you now? Are you completely fallen apart in the aftermath of this or do you actually find yourself having conversations like you haven't had in years and sex like you haven't had in years and in fact, for the first time, finally you're truthful with each other and we can finally begin to grow and you've been jolted out of your complacency? That's another entry point. It really depends, but I am not a person who starts from the point of view that this is the deal breaker, this is the final...How do you say in English?
Debbie: Nail in the coffin?
Esther: Yes. [laughter] Yes. In French, you say the hit of the hammer. [non English speech] . You really need to watch and you need to let them tell you. Of course, the people who come to me are more often people who would like to be able to continue. The ones who go into the lawyers didn't come to the therapist.
Debbie: I have two final questions for you, Esther. The first one is a personal one. You've been happily married for over 30 years to Jack Saul, a professor at Columbia University as well as a therapist and an activist. What is the secret of a happy marriage? Is there?
Esther: [laughs] Oh god.
Debbie: Aside from a gorgeous husband. [laughter]
Esther: It's interesting. We were at an event this weekend and one of the questions in the audience had to do with, 'Do women still need men?" and "What do they need from men?" and the whole thing. And "How can you be a powerful woman and find a man who is powerful as well? I kind of went in the direction of "It's not what you want." To me, it's always this image. If you want to rely on somebody, you need that somebody to be able to withstand your force. It's the game you play on the beach. If I fall backwards, I can only fully let go if I know that you're going to catch me. The more powerful the person, the more what's going to fall is strong and you need somebody who can resist that. I think my husband definitely has done that with me. We both often will talk about how even when I hate his guts, I'm not bored and he will probably say the same thing. There's something that we remain interested in who we are as people, not just as spouses and parents and all the other things. We've always tried to do new things. I think that a system stays alive and fresh because it has new experiences, new challenges, new thresholds. We don't just do the things we've enjoyed before. We set ourselves up for various new adventures a lot of the time, especially now that the kids are gone. The kids are no longer the adventure, so we create new ones for ourselves. I think it's about really what the polyamorous people actually call compersion. It's the ability to rejoice for the pleasures and the joy and the happiness of the other, even if it has nothing to do with you. It's the ability to say, "Take your time. Go spend a week. Go do this. This is such a thing that you enjoy. I'll figure it out. I'll handle the house." These gifts of letting the other people still attend completely to themselves separately, go a long way. I think it's admiration. Admiration is different from respect. Admiration involves a certain level of idealization. We each have very good friends of our own, some we share, some of our own. We're not reliant on each other for everything by far. I think it's that. We haven't always been happy. We've had our share of things. I think any honest relationship could probably say that they could have landed here, but they landed there. On some fundamental level, I think he's a good person for me to go through life with, and vice versa.
Debbie: You talk about that quite a lot, what it means to be with another person in your life, and in your new podcast, "Where Should We Begin?" which is actual therapy sessions with couples in conflict that you helped navigate their marriage with. Tell us a little bit about that, and how people can listen to the podcast.
Esther: Where Should We Begin, is the real unscripted life of couples in my office, where I can finally open the door, lower the walls, and invite you in, so that we can take away some of that loneliness that surrounds couples, at the same time as we have all the pressure to be such a fantastic unit. It's a way to show you the myriad of crises that couples get thrown into, and how I work on it with them on it. It's one therapist, with one modality. It's not the only way. It's not the right way. It's just me. I think that when you listen in on the stories of others, you often find the words that you need, the vocabulary that you need for the conversations that you may want to have. You often realize that you're not listening so much to them as you're watching yourself in front of your own mirror.
Esther: Couples used to live in the village. I wanted to create a new village, but it's a virtual village. That virtual village is a place where I want people to have a sense of community as couples, but also individuality. I want them to have a since of continuity, but also freshness and innovation. I want them to have a since of belonging, but also freedom.
That is the combination of the modern time, and the traditional. We're not going back to the communities of the past. We want some level of community, but we also want to preserve our individuality, and the freedom that we have today that we never had in the past. The podcast is really to bring the couples back to the center of the village, and to take the wise person...in this case, maybe the wise woman...outside of this small room with four walls where we find ourselves, and back into the center of the square where the wise person used to be. You sat in the middle of the square and you held court.
It's about giving people a sense that their experiences are universal, and that they're not just their own personal struggles. It's about creating these conversations about the subject of sexlessness, infidelity, polyamory, infertility, loss, trans issues to the world. I believe that if we create these open conversations that are more honest and truthful, we actually will contribute to helping people have better relationships, which ultimately will help them have better lives.
Debbie: Esther, thank you so much for being on Design Matters today, and for helping us understand the myriad intricacies...
Esther: The design of marriage. The design of relationships.
Debbie: The design of love and human behavior. Esther Perel's new book is called The State of Affairs, Rethinking Infidelity, and her podcast is called, Where Should We Begin. You can find out more about Esther Perel and her books, on her website estherperel.com. This is the 12th year I've been doing Design Matters, and I'd like to thank you for listening. Remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.
Curtis Fox, my producer: For more information about Design Matters, or to subscribe to our newsletter, go to debbiemillman.com. If you like the podcast, please write a review on iTunes, and link to the podcast on social media. Design Matters is recorded at the Masters in Branding Studio at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. It is produced by Curtis Fox Productions. The show is published exclusively by DesignObserver.com. You can subscribe to this free podcast in the iTunes store, or wherever you get your podcasts.
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