Ira Israel deep dives into the unsparing genius of Esther Perel for a fresh perspective on healthy loving intimate relationships.
For patients who wish to deconstruct the myth of romantic love I always recommend “Love in the Western World” by Denis de Rougemont and the subsequent “We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love” by Robert A. Johnson, “The Eden Project: In Search of the Magical Other” by James Hollis and “Consuming the Romantic Utopia” by Eva Illouz. To reconstruct romantic love I often recommend “Journey of the Heart: The Path of Conscious Love” by John Wellwood, “Intimacy: Trusting Oneself and the Other” by Osho, and “Marriage as the Path to Wholeness” by Harville Hendrix.
Esther Perel commands a much more expansive breadth of knowledge regarding relationships than anyone I have ever read, her insights are blistering, and the manner in which she has aggregated the academic literature and assimilated her clinical observations is nothing short of genius.
Ms. Perel’s primary gift lies in unearthing apparent paradoxes and this is embodied by her own confident yet humble and respectful presentation style. She does not quote scientific studies; rather she changes the playing field and provides provocatively fresh perspectives on relationship dynamics. Some of the paradoxes she explores are our needs and desires for both safety and adventure, security and freedom, and reality and fantasy. She destroys assumptions about sex and intimacy, monogamy and infidelity, and gives an updated understanding of attachment styles.
Anthropologically she observes that the shift during the Industrial Revolution from village to city life caused the burden of selfhood to shift from the tribe to the individual. Just as Sartre posited that we are “confronted” by our relatively new freedoms, Ms. Perel notes that contemporary urban life places the onus on the individual to decide “how much we eat, sleep, work, and fuck.”
Ms. Perel is most widely known for her work on infidelity which she reframes as “a desire to feel alive;” she claims that the majority of people who stray from their marriages have been faced with their own mortality in some way during the preceding three years and their affairs function as a temporary antidote against certain demise. In her renowned TEDtalk, Ms. Perel discusses the putative incompatibility of eros and marriage by rhetorically asking, “How can you desire what you already have?”
Ms. Perel is aghast that twenty or thirty year-old marriages can be annihilated by a single transgression stating that “divorce offers more dignity than forgiveness” in our culture. Wryly she adds that infidelity is the only transgression worthy of two of the ten commandments.
In session, Ms. Perel asks her patients thought-provoking questions such as “What do you seek to express through sex? Connection? Contained aggression? Spiritual intimacy?” Most poignantly, she reframes monogamy as “a gift – something you give to your partner.”
Esther Perel represents the vanguard of the conversation that we need to be having about relationships. She claims not to have answers, which is refreshing; however, her questions are unparalleled. Her enlightening reframing and reconceptualizing of relationship dynamics will help the rest of us on “Team Transition” shift the dying white, patriarchal, capitalistic, consumeristic, Judeo-Christian paradigm of monogamous marriage for life to the next paradigm, whatever that may be.
If you are interested in the future of healthy loving intimate relationships and have the opportunity to attend one of Esther Perel‘s vibrant upcoming talks don’t miss it!
Photo: Flickr/Maggie Winters