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Real Couples Are Having Provocative Conversations With SUPER STAR Therapist Esther Perel — And You Can Listen

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Love, Self

We just found your new favorite podcast.

I had such an electrifying experience this past week. I was invited to attend the launch of Esther Perel’s new audio series, Where Should We Begin, produced by Audible. You can listen to episodes every Friday for free at Audible.com/Esther.

I have known Esther Perel for quite some time and love her work. But the intimate setting at ABC Home nestled in Manhattan’s chic Flatiron District and her being in conversation with Jesse Baker, the executive producer on this project, particularly energized me, and, I admit, kind of made me fall in love with Esther in a whole new way.

I left with some powerful takeaways that are valuable for anyone in a relationship — especially any that are the least bit boring or even broken. These takeaways are doubly valuable for therapists and healers who specialize in fixing relationships.

Very briefly, Where Should We Begin is a ten-part audio series, wherein each segment the audience gets to voyeuristically listen in to the ultimate private conversation: a couple in session with their therapist.

EstherPerel.com

In this case, it’s not just any couple’s therapist. With her magnetism, profound intelligence, and sultry Belgian accent, Esther is truly one of a kind.

Ten lucky couples were chosen from over 400 who submitted applications to be featured in this project. Their identifying features have all been changed to protect their privacy. They represent as broad a cross section of the U.S. as was reasonably possible in terms of gender, sexual orientation, age, race, geography, cultural and religious differences, as well as with respect to the issues they were facing.

In starting the conversation about how this project materialized, Esther explained that so many people live like isolated islands and feel like their problems are theirs alone, that they hunger for truth and more meaningful, authentic conversation, the kind that happens in the intimacy of a therapist’s office.

Esther said that experience listeners will have with this series is “you think you’re listening but (instead) you’re standing in front of your own mirror”… and “it becomes a communal experience” given how universal and common these situations are.

Also, you don’t know what these people look like, making it that much easier to project yourself or someone you know into these stories.

In discussing her therapeutic approach, Esther laid out beautifully how she goes about effecting change and helping clients reimagine their perspective as two key outcomes in her work with them. She also emphasized the power of re-thinking our own stories: the narratives that we unconsciously follow, and how, when made conscious, they offer us so much potential for positive change in our relationships and in how we think about ourselves.

 

Esther depicts a typical scenario with a patient like this  “You ask ‘What’s going on for you’… and you help your client realize that ‘What’s going on is a story you’ve been telling yourself for a long time’… and how story becomes language, language becomes identity, and identity becomes destiny.

(WHOA! Great way to back into the existential!)

In these sessions, she works to “create an opening for air and space, for novelty and change to come in” with her clients, noting that these couples really desperately do want something to happen as a result of these conversations.

They come in with a story. She wants them to leave with a different story… to breed hope and a different possibility.

In a segment called “Speak to Me in French” Esther offers some interesting, unorthodox means of sparking hope and effecting change in her office. In this session, she presented all sorts of different methods that a couple, who was so painfully stuck in their relationship, used to break through their issues and reach one another in a new hope-filled way.

Based on the possibilities Esther suggested, the husband spoke in French and the wife was blindfolded. (Esther noted that maybe if you can’t see, you’ll hear better. Ha!) Both also agreed to use different names. And so, Esther set the stage to change this couple’s narrative.

The man admitted that he had a French cat living inside of him. The cat even had a name! It was Jean-Claude. Without missing a beat, Esther greeted this alter ego enthusiastically, “Bonjour, Jean-Claude!”

As Jean-Claude spoke, he became a different person… to his wife. The exercise revealed a different part of him that was just as much of who he “normally” was, but not whom he had allowed his wife to see and get to know.

Jean-Claude shared a different aspect of himself, and as he spoke in broken French (which Esther translated), his wife, using the pseudonym Jacqueline, connected with a very different part of him — a more vulnerable and even mysterious part of him.

Esther upped the ante and did something completely novel. She sang an Edith Piaf song as a way to help Jacqueline reach a part of herself that she had trouble accessing. As Esther sang that beautiful, plaintive song, Jacqueline experienced a tear-filled emotional breakdown, which led to a powerful breakthrough to her husband.

At one point in the evening’s program, an audience member asked Esther, “You have this way of knowing the unknown. How do you decide which way to take the conversation?”

TED.com

Esther replied with a powerful anecdote, harkening to a gay couple’s story that she titled “Where Did You Learn to Live on Crumbs?”

It’s a segment about infidelity, where one partner was high drama, intense, and high maintenance (the “Alpha”) and the other was the ever-faithful, ever-loyal, low maintenance “Beta.”

Esther asked the Beta, “Where did you learn to live on crumbs?”

He countered that he is a “low maintenance guy” and attempted to parry away from this threatening line of questioning. But, she persisted, “What you’re telling me is that you don’t need to need much or ask for much so you can’t be rejected? Where did you learn to refrain from asking for and needing more?”

He capitulated and replied that it started with not wanting to be noticed; by being “that little gay boy… if you don’t need much, you can fly under the radar.”

And he became very emotional, as clearly his “low maintenance” cloak of armor was a powerful façade. Esther helped to bring to the surface that while this façade protected him, it also served to starve him emotionally.

Esther carefully underscored the point. She noted how common it is for people to learn not to ask… so they don’t have to be rejected! They turn their low maintenance approach into a virtue — often bearing a high emotional price.

She shared two very important questions she learned from her mentor Terry Real that can help someone uncover their hurt and ultimately heal from it. They are:

  • Where did you learn this?
  • Who did this to you?

If pursued honestly, and with plenty of time and space to answer, these questions offer a powerful means to understand ourselves better and help us change our narratives to new stories that can serve us — as opposed to the unconscious, unhelpful ones to which we are often unwittingly prey.

Esther readily added that, in fact, she doesn’t know the unknown but she’s willing to delve in and not know where she’s going.

Poignantly, she describes her approach as very experiential, “Something has to happen here and now… we’re going to look for parts of you and I’m going to help you take risks… I do strange things… using art, music, poetry, movement, not everyone is into talking.”

BINGO!

Esther emphasizes that SHE takes risks. She is willing to be wrong, to say the wrong things, all the while carefully observing the reactions she is eliciting, listening for and looking for a response that gives her the clues she’s on the right path.

Her willingness to take risks and be fearless offers a powerful path of healing for her clients. Her focus on changing the language and the narrative with the aim of fostering a new sense of hopefulness and lasting change for her clients is compelling.

After all, isn’t change a defining feature of nature — human and otherwise? Isn’t change what we all seek to a large degree in ourselves and isn’t the ability to absorb and, even abet, change in our partner and in our relationship among the greatest gifts we can give one another? Especially compared to the alternative, i.e. to stay stuck in resentment, boredom, hurt, and/or brokenness.

Another person asked Esther, “What’s your secret?” Her answer couldn’t have been more on-point and perfectly scripted. She replied, without missing a beat, “to do everything I was told not to do!"

She amplified this point in such a candid manner. It was disarming. She described how she consciously seeks to be real — versus being a blank screen to her clients, to not pretend that she’s better (than they are) and avoids other such techniques that are commonly used to create distance as a therapist.

She noted how she deliberately reveals her humanity to her clients, how her own vulnerable, real, authentic presence serves as a powerful catalyst to connect with and ultimately help her clients.

Esther also has a book coming out in October called The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity. In exploring non-monogamy and being attracted to different partners, she argues, “so often the most intoxicating other that people discover in the affair is not a new partner; it’s a new self.”

Ah! Brilliant!

I was not surprised to read this, given Esther’s focus on change and connecting with others’ otherness but I still found it a powerfully seductive explanation.

Yes! Totally! It’s intoxicating to feel new and special like we do when someone suddenly finds us attractive and are eager to know more about us. Discovering and developing new parts of ourselves enables us to feel attractive. And what a gift to give to our partners!

I am also a passionate advocate for taking steps to discover and expand parts of ourselves as a powerful way to build confidence and be as attractive a partner as possible to our significant others.

I recently wrote a book called Radical Acceptance: The Secret to Happy, Lasting Love. And it features some of Esther’s work and urges readers to cultivate themselves in unexpected ways, including creating some space and a bit of mystery in their relationship, given what a powerful way this is to create desire.

Esther Perel and Andrea Miller

This taps into one of my favorite quotes from Esther who said, “Eroticism occurs in the space between self and other.”

Adding to this, I note, “Esther recommends that you have a few of your own friends whom you occasionally hang out with independently. Develop a new interest. Invite him to unusual new events. Shake up your look. Finding new ways to capture his attention and exhibit some unpredictability is a wonderful way to inject some spice and eroticism into your relationship. This is also a fun way to build your confidence and tap into parts of yourself that may even be unfamiliar to you! Remember, self-confidence is the most magnetizing trait out there.”

Thanks to her epic TED talks, best-selling book Mating In Captivity, and now with Where Should We Begin, Esther offers us many opportunities to see ourselves and our partners differently, ultimately helping us each connect more meaningfully with others and with ourselves.

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