Esther Perel Explains 5 Things People Get Wrong About Marriage

Some of your most basic beliefs about intimacy are all wrong.

Last updated on Mar 11, 2023

couple looking surprised about what they get wrong about marriage Roman Samborskyi / Shutterstock

While marriage dates back to biblical times, the institution has undergone a dramatic transformation in the modern era. What we call marriage today barely resembles its past profile. Formerly, matrimony was about economic sustenance, partnership, companionship, social status, and children.

Today, marriage is considered a romantic arrangement, a commitment between two equal individuals based on love and trust. Spouses are supposed to be confidantes, friends, and passionate lovers.


There is an expectation that one person will provide what an entire community used to offer. And, for the first time in history, we have linked marital happiness to sexual satisfaction.

Additionally, particularly in the United States, honesty has become conflated with transparency — wholesale sharing — and intimacy requires honesty. Therefore, a secret between two married individuals means the couple lacks long-term love and intimacy.

Secrets are inherently wrong. Intimacy has come to mean "into me see." It is a concept bathed in self-disclosure, the truthful sharing of our personal and private material.


The underlying belief is that by exposing one's internal life to another, they will feel deeply recognized, known, and able to transcend their existential aloneness because they matter to at least one person. Ours is a culture that believes in the ethos of absolute frankness. Anything short of that is equated to wrongdoing.

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With this in mind, some of our core beliefs about marriage — the assumptions we make and the values we hold dear — really need to be questioned at a fundamental level. What are some of those assumptions about long-term love, and how are they flawed? Let's take a look.


5 Things People Get Wrong About Marriage

1. Honesty equals truth-telling, and lying equals deception.

A pervasive notion in American culture is that lying between spouses is inherently problematic. But could it be an act of caring? What if instead of equating respect with confessional honesty, we equate respect with the preservation of our partners' honor and peace of mind, even if that means telling gentle untruths?

After all, isn't this why Sara never told Abraham that he was old and wrinkled? Ironically, this confessional interpretation of honesty disrespects the recipient of the information by failing to consider what it would be like for him/her to live with the disclosure.

By contrast, other cultures consider what it would be like for the recipient of the information to live with the burden of knowing. After all, honesty can be cruel.

For that reason, I tell my clients that they should not say things that will stick to their partner's skin. Not everything needs to be said, and not everything needs to be known because, let's face it: Truth and hostility often live side by side, and not all honesty is salutary.


2. Problems with the relationship are always the cause of sexual problems.

In our modern society, we believe that if a couple has sexual problems, they must result from relationship problems. We see sexuality as a metaphor for the relationship. Thus, we say, "fix the relationship, and the sex will follow."

However, this is a convenient assumption; it's not always the case, and fixing the relationship does not always fix the sex. While love and desire may relate, they also conflict, and therein lies the mystery of eroticism.

While two people may love each other deeply and truly in the kitchen, the same may not be true in the bedroom. Rather, sexuality is a parallel narrative that tells its own story. Otherwise, how do you explain a couple who claims to love each other as much as ever but experiences sexual difficulties or fails to share physical intimacy?

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3. Love and desire go hand-in-hand.

For centuries, marital sex was either a "wifely duty" or sex for reproduction. Then we did away with the loveless marriage and replaced it with the marriage of love and desire. Gone are the old rules, but now we face a new predicament: gone is the sex, full stop.

You see, in every corner of the globe, the romantic ideology of modern love and coupledom has left citizens of the world wondering about, and preoccupied with, the dilemmas of desire.

At every turn, couples around the world are chasing the desired dragon. We, the beneficiaries of the sexual revolution, have contraception in hand, egalitarian ideals in our heads, and the permission to do what we want. Yet, we don't feel like doing it — or at least not at home. Couples cultivate closeness with the expectation that more intimacy will bring better sex.

The message is the same, and we all got the memo: the more you know, the more intimate you become (and you become intimate by revealing every little detail about yourself), and the better the sex will be.


Reconciling love and desire is about bringing together two fundamental but opposing human needs: our need for safety, security, and stability, along with our need for separateness and adventure.

For some people, love and desire are inseparable. The safety, security, and trust experienced in love work to unleash their desire. Others are more disconnected.

While on the one hand, we seek predictability and stability — these are the promises of the much sought-after committed relationship — our other hand is reaching for more, mystery, excitement, and discovery.

Time and time again, it is coming up empty. To sustain desire toward the other, there must be an element of otherness, separateness, a bridge to cross, and someone to visit on the other side. Reconciling the erotic and the domestic is not a problem we can solve; it is a paradox we manage.


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4. Male sexuality is uncomplicated, mechanical, and biologically motivated rather than relational.

Women, on the other hand, are creatures of meaning. Women require a long list of conditions to generate sexual desire and yield sexual satisfaction.

Men need frequent, constant, spontaneous sex; they are biologically driven and rigid, always interested in sex, and less affected by moods than their female counterparts. Let me challenge these assumptions. In fact, men's sexuality is no less influenced by their internal state than women's. Just look at any man who is depressed, anxious, or angry. Those emotions undoubtedly affect his sexual desire and performance.

The difference? Men are more likely than women to turn to sex to help them with their internal state. Men use sex as a mood regulator. However, that's not to say that male sexuality isn't relational.


In fact, men have a lot of fear and shame about performance pressure and fear of rejection by women, motivating men to concern themselves deeply with their partners' satisfaction. Thus, male sexuality is no less relational than female, nor is it simply biological or automatic.

5. The ideal union is egalitarian in nature.

Rather, the best relationships are complementary. They honor the partners' differences. The most successful couples are creative about maximizing rather than reducing or downplaying the complementarity between them.

Moreover, it's never the difference between the people that is the problem; it's how they handle that difference. What couples fight about has little if anything to do with content. They fight because they feel unheard, disrespected, devalued, and not acknowledged. They feel alone. That's what people really suffer from in relationships.

You see, we live in the era of self-criticism. We constantly strive to improve ourselves. Otherwise, we wouldn't shop so much! And that view has entered the individual psyche and the couple's psyche.


Couples spend more time criticizing themselves than appreciating each other. And, unfortunately, people are sometimes far more eloquent about criticism than praise. We need to become better equipped to express praise and acknowledge what's good and what works. Only then will we be able to appreciate what we have — our lives, partners, and marriages.

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Esther Perel is a licensed marriage and family therapist who has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show, The Today Show and whose work has been published in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, Vogue, Ha’aretz, The Guardian, and more.