Esther Perel Unpacks Desire, Infidelity, And Partnerships In A New Podcast

Listeners sit in on real sessions with the renowned couples therapist in Audible's new series 'Where Should We Begin?'

In the vast landscape known as couples therapy, Esther Perel has emerged over the past decade as the field's one true rock star, having built a body of work focused on matters of sex versus love and independence versus devotion.

If Perel had one breakthrough single it was her 2013 TED talk, "The Secret to Desire in a Long-Term Relationship," a lust-forward take on modern romance that has been viewed online 10 million times. The lecture launched Perel, already a best-selling author with her 2006 book Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, into the celebrity-therapist stratosphere. 

The next obvious step toward media domination was television. But the 58-year-old Perel -- who divides her time between her own family (she is married and has two college-age sons), a bustling private practice and international speaking appearances -- was not keen on TV's grueling scheduling demands. (She was already working in the medium, as an on-set consultant for the Showtime drama The Affair.) Nor was she interested in subjecting her patients to the kind of widespread scrutiny that comes with a Dr. Phil-style talk show.

She had never considered a podcast when one was proposed to her over breakfast last March by Jesse Baker, an Audible producer and true believer. "I'm not joking when I say Esther has really changed my life and made me think differently about every relationship I have," says Baker. After the initial pitch, Perel "was hesitant, or maybe just a little inquisitive," recalls Baker. "But there was definitely something about this idea that struck a chord with her."

"At first, you think that you're listening in on other people's intimate lives. But then you realize that you're standing in front of your own mirror."

The result of that meeting is Where Should We Begin? The new Audible Original series brings a mass audience to where only a handful have ever gone before: inside the sacred confines of Perel's Manhattan-based private practice. For 40 minutes at a time, listeners are flies on the wall as Perel helps troubled couples unpack -- often with excruciating honesty and vulnerability -- their challenges. "It's crucial that it not be visual," explains Perel from a hotel room in Spain, where she was about to deliver a series of lectures on infidelity, the subject of her upcoming book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity. She continues: "Because what happens when you listen to these podcasts is that, at first, you think that you're listening in on other people's intimate lives. But then you realize that you're standing in front of your own mirror."

To find the series' 10 couples, a call was put out to Perel's network -- disciples who had already subscribed to her email list or have ordered one of her online courses. There was some concern at first that couples would be reluctant to come forward. But that wasn't the case: More than 400 of them filled out an application. Candidates were then interviewed by phone and eventually whittled down to 10 couples from across the United States, covering "a wide range of problems, sexual orientations, races, and relationship phases," says Baker. The initial screening calls were recorded and in many cases serve as the introductory narration to each episode. In the first episode, "I've Had Better," for example, a formerly Russian Orthodox mother of three who converted to her husband's Islamic faith, grapples with his yearlong affair. The husband, meanwhile, talks of feeling neglected and openly questions if his wife even wants to be in the marriage. 

Infidelity is the subject of two other episodes, including one case in which a woman married for 36 years learns her husband has been a philandering sex addict the entire time -- but other shows veer into topics like infertility, unemployment, death, and loneliness. The bulk of each episode is set in Perel's office, where she helps both parties navigate some emotionally treacherous terrain. "We meet for three hours, like all my consultations," Perel says, clarifying that the session is "not therapy, but a therapeutic conversation." Many of the couples have been in therapy for years, but find themselves trapped in "infinite loops," as Perel puts it. Her gifts lie in her intuitive ability to identify the glitches.

"They come to me because they're stuck," she says. "So the work is: How do we create a new story together, in which there is more hope, more movement, more possibility for change, for the truth -- to have the kind of relationship they want to have?"

The resulting podcast is unlike anything that has come before. Unlike the jokey Felt, a short-lived cable series on Logo in which Sesame Street-style puppets acted out tapes of real therapy sessions, there are no gimmicks here to lighten the mood. And unlike the highly packaged therapy of Dr. Phil, these sessions play out with no studio audience, in a compressed version of real time. The discussions on Where Should We Begin? can therefore swing from conversational lulls -- "It's like slowly chiseling away at something until you land on where you need to be," says Baker -- to heart-quickening displays of profound pain. "But," adds Baker, "it's not voyeuristic. In the end, it's really not about the couple; it's really about you."

For Perel, the calling began in childhood. She was born to Holocaust survivors from Poland, the last remaining members of both family lines. "My parents didn't just want to survive -- they wanted to revive," she once wrote, and she credits that instinct with kindling her ongoing fascination with family, procreation, and desire. She spent her childhood in Antwerp, in the Flemish region of Belgium, amid a community of Holocaust survivors. She later attended Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where she studied Jewish cultural identity. From there, she began to focus on interfaith relationships, which led to a degree in psychodynamic psychotherapy and a professional career in family therapy. The subject of human sexuality, however, was not yet in her crosshairs. "Not systematically, at least. Not as an area of investigation between cultures," she says.

"By listening in on these discussions, you actually get the language for conversations that you yourself may want to have."

But that changed in 1998, when the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky sex scandal was devouring headlines. Perel, practicing in the United States at the time, found herself questioning why "America was so tolerant of multiple divorces and so intransigent regarding infidelity. Yet the rest of the world, which was more family-oriented, had always been the other way around. To preserve the family, people -- and primarily women -- made compromises around infidelity." She put her thoughts in an article, "In Search of Erotic Intelligence," which later formed the basis for Mating in Captivity. It was early in the internet era; nevertheless, the paper proved to be wildly popular, and Perel realized she was on to something big. After returning to academia to study sexology -- the branch of psychotherapy trailblazed in the 1950s by Masters and Johnson -- she launched a midcareer swerve into a more sex-therapy-focused practice.

"I was particularly interested in the subject of desire more than anything else, because desire is such a landmark," she says. "It's such a pillar. It's such an organizing principle of modern sexuality -- of consumer life, for that matter." Taking a Madison Avenue-influenced approach to sexuality helped her unlock the keys to better understanding how relationships thrive. (Her instincts proved to be well ahead of their time, positioning her as a key authority figure for the coming Age of Tinder, where a seemingly limitless pool of partners is just a screenswipe away.) A key underpinning of her philosophy is the notion that "desire is not about 'what I need to do.' It's 'what I want to do,'" she says. "So after sexuality is no longer just for the purpose of reproduction and people want to maintain an intimate connection with a partner after they've had their two or three children -- how do they do that?"

The quest for that answer led Perel into the next phase of her research, a six-year project that zeroed in on infidelity. As she crisscrossed the globe, she found it to be an issue with nearly universal resonance (80 percent of audience members raise their hands when she asks whose lives have been affected by cheating), but with wildly varying degrees of destructiveness to the family unit.

Perel seeks to destigmatize the act of cheating, approaching it more as "a philosopher of relationships." The resulting book, State of Affairs (due this October), explores infidelity in morally neutral and thought-provoking ways. Among the issues on Perel's mind: What may motivate it? What is the experience of people on the receiving end of it? What is different about it today compared to the past? How do we understand it? How do people overcome it? And can they overcome it?

These questions hang over the couple chronicled in the "I've Had Better" episode of Where Should We Begin? In it, Perel is cautious not to pile blame on the husband, whom she found to be more cooperative during the therapy process. "Part of why I take the wife on is because the husband was willing to listen, and he was willing to pitch in, and he was willing to learn -- whereas she was so defensive," she notes. " I think what I did with her is I gave her the courage to go beyond her defenses." 

This is the onion that Perel continually seeks to unpeel within her practice -- a journey she now shares on each successive episode of Where Should We Begin? "Nobody knows what really goes on in the intimate conversations of two people," she says. "My goal is to create conversation -- deep, meaningful conversations where people speak about the unspoken. People are hungry for truth. By listening in on these discussions, you actually get the language for conversations that you yourself may want to have."

Season 1 of  Where Should We Begin? with Esther Perel is now available as a bundle with her new book and season 2 at Listen to episode one: 


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