The sex and relationships therapist has been everywhere recently — here’s why.
I feel like lately I’ve been preaching the gospel of Esther Perel to everyone — from friends in search of a new relationship perspective to my boyfriend’s roommate. Perel is having a moment right now. I first noticed it when I saw her essay in Lenny Letter’s “Want to Know What Women Want? Ask Them About Their Affairs.” Most recently, Quartz’s very aptly named “Esther Perel Is America’s First Clear-Eyed Public Intellectual on Love” traces the trajectory of this decade’s Dr. Ruth, a pop culture figure who also opened Americans’ eyes to talking about sexual health in the ‘80s.
That is exactly what makes Perel so fascinating — and, in my opinion, so essential — right now. She’s filling a void that needed filling. The internet offers a proliferation of advice podcasts, of confessional sex and relationships essays, but few things that offer a professional’s perspective, and a refreshingly candid yet gentle one at that. She also captures the exact essence of a conversation that lingers under the surface for many of us today — how we reconcile the erotic with the domestic.
It’s a topic I’m fascinated by — and I think a lot of others are, too, if shows like Togetherness or movies like While We’re Young are any indication. One of the points that stuck with me from Perel’s book, Mating in Captivity, is how in modern society we expect almost every kind of fulfillment — mental, emotional, sexual — from our partners. These expectations coincide with endless options to find a partner or someone to hook up with. We expect so much and have so many choices.
Perel’s advice feels straightforward but never one-size-fits-all. As Quartz wrote, “You’ll never get a step-by-step prescription, let alone a listicle, from Perel; complexity is her milieu and métier.” Her advice and perspectives feel open-minded and generous, and have the attractive underlying thesis that what’s key in a relationship is maintaining and harvesting our own inner, private life that our partners don’t need to know everything about. She encourages thoughtful selfishness (not the paradox it seems) and espouses unexpected table-turns on relationship tropes, such as in Lenny Letter, when she writes, “In many cases, though surely not all, when the spark dies, it’s a woman who shuts down first and loses interest in her partner — male or female.”
On the cusp of her new book, The State of Affairs, Perel has built a small empire. With two books, her first being Mating in Captivity in 2006, a new podcast, TED Talks, magazine articles and lots of social media posts, Perel is being catapulted to — almost — household name status.
Too much internet pop psychology can begin to sound the same — and seem oddly black and white. What I connect with Perel most on is how her advice, at its core, carefully considers the ambiguity of people, of our relationships, of the experiences that unite and separate us. Lots of relationship articles, for instance, revolve around the idea of whether monogamy is natural or not, and it often leaves me with a them-versus-us feeling. Either you’re supposed to be a monogamous normie or you’re supposed to be 100 percent cool with the idea of an open relationship. Perel highlights this duality in a recent New York Post article and honors both sides. “When asked if monogamy is natural, Perel is blunt. ‘Probably not,’ she says. ‘But going to the gym is not natural. Running on a moving mat is not natural. But it’s a choice. It’s a practice. And it can be good for you.’”
And sometimes, she does the near-impossible: combines two seemingly opposing forces. “It is no accident that many of the most erotic couples lift their marital strategies directly from the infidelity playbook.” Amen to that.
If you want to dive into Perel’s body of work (goodbye, the rest of your afternoon), here are a few good places to start. Her article on “Why Happy People Cheat” turns the assumptions we have about affairs on their heads, and her podcast “Where Should We Begin?” just became free to listen to. And if you need any more enticement, I’ll leave you with an end as a beginning.
“These days, many of us are going to have two or three significant long-term relationships or marriages.” Perel writes for The Atlantic. “Often when a couple comes to me in the wake of an affair, it is clear to me that their first marriage is over. So I ask them: Would you like to create a second one together?”