Life & Love


This article originally appears in the October 2017 issue of ELLE.

Ensconced with Esther Perel in the velvet-cushioned luxury of the Soho Grand Hotel, I can’t stop looking at the exquisitely slender gold-chain ring on her left middle finger. From it trail delicate gold skeins that caress the back of her hand—a shower of fireworks, a waterfall—captured in a bracelet around her wrist.

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Something about this piece of jewelry, a version of which she was wearing each of the three times we met, screams to me. But am I crazy? Am I projecting onto this marquee couples therapist? She wrote the much-admired 2006 best-seller Mating in Captivity, about the competing human desires for safety versus adventure and how monogamy too often exalts the former over the latter, extinguishing sexual vitality. Her intimate, you-are-there podcast of actual couples therapy, called Where Should We Begin?—“It was like having sex with…a dead body,” one husband miserably tells his wife about their years of obligatory intercourse—became a sensation last summer. Perel’s new book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity (Harper), challenges the quick condemnation of the unfaithful and posits the idea that cheating in certain circumstances can be—emphasis on can—a liberating, even brave, act.

Forgive me if you already know what ring-bracelets like Perel’s are called, but when I Googled, I found these names: “belly dancer bracelet”; “harem bracelet”; and the discomfiting but still often used “slave bracelet.”

The American edition of Perel’s new book has a tamer cover than some European editions.

Courtesy of the publisher

I have no idea whether the 59-year-old Perel wore this accessory for its specific associations, though in Mating in Captivity, she writes approvingly of today’s consensual, sex play version of bondage relationships: “It seems to me that rituals of domination and submission are a subversive way to put one over on a society that glorifies control, belittles dependency, and demands equality.” And it does seem fitting for a woman who doesn’t hide her sensuality and who’s a provocateur. “She’s willing to face the inflammatory issues,” says feminist psychologist Carol Gilligan, who was in a writing group with Perel and whose own pathbreaking book, A Different Voice, about the relational- as opposed to principle-based morality associated with women and girls, inflamed more than a few people in the 1980s. “She seems to like doing it. I say, more power to her.”

Raised in Antwerp to Polish Holocaust survivors who ran a clothing shop (and who spoke German, Polish, Dutch, French, and Yiddish between them), Perel went to Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where she earned bachelor’s degrees in psychology and French literature, and picked up yet another language, Hebrew. She came to the United States for grad school—her master’s in expressive arts therapy is from Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she also trained with family therapy visionary Salvador Minuchin—and never left the country. As she likes to say, she fell in love with both New York City and her husband, Jack Saul, now a Columbia University psychologist who cofounded and runs a program for traumatized survivors of political violence.

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In the decade since she wrote Mating, Perel has crossed over into pop-psych guru territory. Her two TED talks are approaching 20 million views combined; she’s taught at self-improvement juggernaut Tony Robbins’s exclusive Platinum Partnership events; she’s a 2018 South by Southwest keynote speaker; and…Lena Dunham blurbed The State of Affairs: “Esther Perel does nothing short of strip us of our deepest biases.… Thank heavens for this woman.”

Among the sharp pokes Perel gives to conventional wisdom in her new book is to argue that an affair shouldn’t necessarily be singled out as the worst thing that a married person can do to a spouse. What about “neglect, indifference, intimidation, contempt, rejection, and disdain,” Perel writes. Aren’t these equally pernicious betrayals? “The victim of the affair is not always the victim of the marriage.”

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That conclusion may sound unremarkable in an era when we tend to conceptualize marriage as a “system,” when phrases like “divorce is never just one person’s fault” roll off the tongue. But Americans do still seem to reserve special opprobrium for perpetrators of infidelity. (Even the language is criminal; we’d never say “perpetrators of indifference.”) According to results from the 2015 edition of the annual Gallup poll of attitudes toward “taboo” behaviors (such as premarital sex, suicide, gay/lesbian relations, human cloning), adultery “occupies its own space, in terms of public contempt. Over the past 15 years, no more than one in ten U.S. adults has ever judged extramarital trysts as moral.” Yet three-quarters of Americans consider divorce acceptable.

“Even in the presidential election, nobody criticized Trump for leaving two wives—I heard not one thing,” Gilligan notes. “Esther writes about women who won’t even tell their friends if their husband has an affair—it’s so shameful to stay with a man who did that.” When my now ex-husband decided to leave our marriage, I remember almost wishing that he’d cheated on me. It would make my story so sympathetic, so immediately graspable: “Yeah, that bastard, he screwed another woman, can you believe it?”

While the popularity of infidelity obviously isn’t new—though sex stats are notoriously unreliable, 21 percent of married men and 13 percent of married women admit to it, according to 2016 figures from the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center—Perel theorizes that sexual monogamy is becoming ever more prized.

“I said, ‘This is your wife in full force, telling you how betrayed she feels—and passionate, because she loves you.’”

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“There is nothing else for which you actually need to get married anymore,” she tells me in her killer Belgian French accent. “You don’t need to be married to have sex, to have children. You don’t need to marry to have economic stability. Sexual exclusivity becomes the signage of our importance to each other: ‘This is the one thing I’m going to change for you.’ And the more hookup culture we have, where you have a race to the bottom for how meaningless sex can be, the more you have an enshrinement of exclusivity. These two forces are very much in dialogue with each other.”

Counseling people in eight languages, in countries from Turkey to Israel to Switzerland, Perel has noticed that while it’s common across cultures to feel profoundly angry and hurt by an affair (even in France!), Americans compound the harm by layering the act with moral outrage—a product of our Puritan beginnings, she says. Perel also takes issue with our insistence on viewing infidelity solely through a trauma lens, calling the approach “narrowing,” at best. She’s reacting to the fact that some of the best-known psychological work in recent years categorizes affairs as “attachment injuries,” in which the betrayed party is plagued by obsessive thoughts, flashbacks, and other PTSD-like symptoms. This is indeed true for some people, especially in the initial aftermath, she says, but it’s not true for everyone.

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Just the day before, she confides, she’d led a couple through a “coming clean” session. The wife began by thanking her husband for copping to his extramarital activity, but as they went on, “you could see the rage literally mounting,” Perel says, her hands chopping the air as she becomes the scorned wife: “‘You are mine, you belong to me—what were you doing? You lied to me.’” Then she switches back to interpretative-shrink mode: “Basically she was the woman he’d been wanting for the last umpteen years! Whom he was no longer seeing, because she was busy working and being Miss Pragmatist. And I said to him, ‘You want this woman? You have her. This is your wife in full force, coming at you and telling you how hurt she is and furious she is and how betrayed she feels—and passionate, because she loves you.’ ”

Not all infidelities fit this model, Perel emphasizes. Sometimes there is little positive feeling or goodwill left to reactivate; sometimes an affair is a “love story that is meant to be a life story”—Perel’s shorthand for when the unfaithful partner leaves the marriage for the “other woman” or man. 
But in this case, “to speak to her as a traumatized woman would have been one direction; I chose to speak to her as a passionate woman fighting for her man.”

Why is that better?

“Because it’s way more empowering,” she says. “She’s not a victim; she woke up, and she knows on some level that she neglected the guy and ignored herself and the relationship for a while. He has her attention—unfortunately, sometimes this is what it takes. It doesn’t mean she’s to blame for [his unfaithfulness], or anything like that.”

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This seeming relativism has earned Perel her share of critics, like the blogger “Chump Lady: Leave a Cheater, Gain a Life,” who suggests that the “barmy Belgian” should “STFU.” Prominent therapists, too, have taken her on, among them Janis Abrahms Spring, who wrote her own best-seller, After the Affair. She recently told the Economist, “The reason my book has been so successful is because it provided a language that captured the heart of the hurt party and made them feel less crazy and alone. For Esther or any therapist to in any way minimize that pain is to retraumatize the traumatized patient.” (Perel’s response to that kind of criticism? “There’s nothing I need to add to the trauma model; it’s all been said. I don’t dispute that framework—I add to it.”)

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In fact, the therapeutic process Perel lays out in The State of Affairs doesn’t sound all that different from Abrahms Spring’s. First, in what Perel calls the “fallout” stage, she guides couples to deal with the acute feelings of violation—requiring adulterers to deeply acknowledge their partners’ pain, apologize repeatedly, and go out of their way to rebuild trust.

Assuming a couple can move through this phase—Perel suggests that a trauma framework can keep people mired in suffering—the pair moves on to what she calls “meaning making.” Here, both spouses explore the shortcomings of their marriage and/or the individual psychology that drove one woman to, say, have a prolonged fling with the tattooed “arborist who removed the tree that went through her neighbor’s garage after Hurricane Sandy.” The cheater in this case, from Perel’s book, is Priya: a physician and mother of three who described herself as having a “wonderful relationship” with her husband, a man who was “a phenom at work, fucking handsome, [an] attentive lover, fit.” But unpacking her story with Perel, Priya revealed herself to be an inveterate “good girl” who’d been raised in a strict Indian immigrant family and who always put others first. So for her, the affair amounted to a “crisis of identity,” a “belated adolescent rebellion.”

While Perel doesn’t endorse what Priya did, she does have empathy for her. She hears women, more than men, explain affairs as quests for autonomy. Women say “I lost myself” within the marriage, she writes. With men, it’s “I lost my woman.”

Female sexuality often hinges on a kind of narcissism, Perel posits. “I am the turn-on,” the woman tells herself, thus freeing herself from “the burden of caretaking, of having once again to respond to the wishes and the needs of another. It’s narcissism in the good sense…. It allows her to focus on her own pleasure.”

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“I am the turn-on,” the woman tells herself. “It’s narcissism in the good sense.… It allows her to focus on her own pleasure.”

Perel helped Priya to gradually say a “proper good-bye” to her lover, so as not to deny all he’d awakened in her, given her, and she returned to her husband without disclosing what she’d done. This is another way Perel diverges from many of her colleagues: “Sometimes fessing up is the only appropriate response,” she writes; other times, it’s “sadistic.” She cites the standard of a Manhattan family therapist named Lisa Spiegel: “Ask yourself, is it honest, is it helpful, and is it kind?”

Perel is fundamentally a popularizer; her two books are straightforwardly written pastiches of the most sophisticated and searching contemporary philosophizing about love and sex. To characterize the situation of Priya, for example, she quotes the bracing analytic thinker Virginia Goldner: “Sex trades on the thrill of discovering (over and over again) that we are unknown to ourselves…. What makes for the adventure is not only the novelty of the Other, although that helps, but the Otherness of the self.”

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Esther Perel is undeniably sexy. Practically everything written about her notes her habit of tucking back her highlighted blond hair as she speaks. The day we meet at the Soho Grand, she wears a cobalt-blue top that reveals tanned, toned arms and matches both her distinctly sparkly eyes and her suede heeled sandals. She is petite and very feminine, but she is the opposite of coy. As I pay for our iced teas post-interview, I watch her depart: Quick, brisk, purposeful, her bike helmet swinging at her side (she rides everywhere, she says), she evokes in this moment nothing so much as a teenage boy.

She also has an uncommon understanding of and sympathy for the male point of view. In a chapter that puts a fresh spin on the stereotype that women just want to connect and that men just want to get laid, Perel calls sex the “emotional antechamber” for men. “Tenderness, softness, vulnerability…the body is the place where they have sought to satisfy these needs disguised in a sexualized language.” She risks attracting the PC police when she seconds veteran advice columnist Irma Kurtz, who once lamented the trouble men have squaring new expectations of emotional fluency with old but still resonant expectations of masculine toughness. “Men are finding it ever more difficult,” Kurtz wrote in one of her half-dozen books, “to squeeze themselves and their erections into the shrinking maneuvering space between being a wimp and being a rapist.”

When we talk, Perel digs further into the male mind, explaining that she’s been fascinated by how frequently she hears men say that nothing turns them on more than when a woman gets hot for them. The reason? “The woman who comes in with the miniskirt, with the fuck-me boots, the woman who’s on the screen and says ‘more, more, more,’” reassures the guy that he’s not a “dirty, greedy bastard,” Perel says. She releases him from the “predatory fear” that he’s hurting or even raping his partner.

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In our first conversation, at the offices of ELLE, Perel recounted how she’d initially disagreed with HarperCollins, her American publisher, about the cover of her book, showing a matchbox containing two unlit matches, with a third leaning against the side—the marital interloper! Why, she asked, couldn’t one of the matches inside the box be burnt (scorched by the third, that is), as on the cover of the book’s Danish edition? (The State of Affairs is being published in eight other languages.) After all, the book is about how widespread and in some ways unavoidable infidelity is. But, Perel was told, better for the image to leave open the possibility that the book was about preventing out-of-wedlock sex, or at least surviving it. In the end, she says, she came around to the “optimism” of the American approach: Even if one member of the couple goes outside of the monogamous box, the marriage doesn’t have to be over; the flame can still be lit between the two.

Still, to read The State of Affairs is to suspect that Perel wants us to reconsider the expectation of sexual monogamy root and branch. The soft version of this claim comes early on in the book, when she elucidates behaviors that some classify as cheating—swiping right on the phone (“just curious”), Skyping live porn, visiting a strip club. Echoing the themes in Mating, she urges couples to ask, “Do we expect our partners’ erotic selves to belong entirely to us?… Some people view everything sexual as a domain that must be shared. Discovering that their partner masturbates or still has feelings for an ex is tantamount to betrayal.… From another perspective, however, making space for some degree of erotic individuality can convey a respect for privacy and autonomy, and is a token of intimacy.… I’ve observed that those who are most successful in keeping the erotic spark alive are those most comfortable with mystery in their midst.”

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Near the end of the book, Perel goes further, addressing “ethical nonmonogamy,” calling it a “valiant attempt to tackle the core existential paradoxes that every couple wrestles with—security and adventure, togetherness and autonomy, stability and novelty.”

Permission to stray may not block betrayal because, as Perel acknowledges, affairs are often predicated on the drive to break the rules.

Even in her rendering, opening up a marriage doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of infidelity. She describes how polyamorists draw up elaborate contracts governing matters like how much time you spend together; whether you’re allowed to fall in love with another or just have sex with him or her; whether condoms are necessary in “outside” encounters; and so on. My first thought is that it’s all so bureaucratic and unromantic. More than that, though, permission to stray may not block betrayal because, as Perel acknowledges, affairs are often predicated on transgression, the drive to break the rules—and polyamorist setups tend to be welters of rules. No better proof of that was a correction the New York Times Magazine was forced to run to its massive May cover story on polyamory: Concerning a married couple in the piece who live with their young daughter and the wife’s boyfriend, a man named Blake Wilson, it read, “Blake Wilson and Joe Spurr are equally involved in the day-to-day care of Spurr and Zaeli Kane’s child; Wilson does not do more of it.”

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It so happens that such nonexclusive arrangements aren’t completely out of my ken. Perel promptly ferrets this out. “During an interview,” she tells me, “I need to ask every journalist how their reading [of my book] is going to be informed by their life experience.”

Suddenly our corner of the hotel closes in, becomes more intimate: the consulting room, and I’m the client. I confess that I’m involved with a man who calls himself “polyamorous,” but although his wife of many years and I are aware of each other, neither of us is eager to meet (and forget about the three of us falling into an amorous “pile,” as the poly types like to call group sex). My romance with this man has been going on for quite a while now, but it’s become harder for me to sustain as we’ve become closer.

“You want the husband, or do you want to be the girlfriend?” Perel blurts.

“Well, I…want both, I guess.”

“It’s not the same; it’s not the same person or the same road.” Meaning as the girlfriend, she says, “You get the best of him…. You don’t get him when he gets home and puts himself on the couch.”

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Yes, I’ve realized that one reward of our “system” is that he focuses intently on me when we’re together—he’s told me as much. Then, too, the quasi-illicit nature of it, the required splits, the so-called “shadow of the third”—all this can’t help but create extra frisson between us.

The 2006 book about monogamy and sex that put Perel on the map.

Courtesy of the publisher

And yet. The constant separations, the requirement to live by his schedule, it wears on me. More than wears, it tears.

“You feel diminished?” Perel probes.

That’s not quite it.… It’s more that he and I are so connected that it seems unnatural when he has to leave, I offer. As in, why can’t we just let this love go where it will, like a river that gushes over a dry bed and fills all the crevices and cracks and pocked places. (Obviously, I don’t have engulfment fears!) And the truth is, I’m not overly worried about losing the thrill if he were with me full-time. Maybe I’m deluding myself, but while some people sexually gravitate toward the unfamiliar, the more I know someone, the more vulnerable I allow myself to feel—and that feeds sexual intensity and exploration: “I’m giving so much of myself, I’m so open, I’m like, ‘I’ll go anywhere with you,’ and then to have to close it down.…” Ehhh. Listening to the tape of my conversation with Perel, I hear such aching bewilderment in my voice.

“You got your answer,” she declares. “That’s it.”

Not really, because Perel is not my therapist, and I haven’t come to any firm decisions about what to do with the ethical nonmonogamist in my bed.

From what she’s written and said in many talks and interviews, Perel seems to want us to seriously contemplate treating marriage as a central emotional (and practical) relationship of one’s life, but not the only one, and not always the sexual fulcrum. She points out that some people wouldn’t mind the separations like I do, that when the object of their affection left, they’d simply tell themselves, “Now I’ll go back to my life for a few days. I’m in my own world, but I know he’s around.” Then later, near the end of our time together, she declaims: “Is the marriage the source of happiness, or the hub from which you launch yourself into other sources that nurture you? Is that okay?… Can the marriage be adequate and people have the best part of their life in their creativity…their career, their writing, their friendships, many other things that matter?”

When she says this, I can’t help but think she’s describing something like her own life, and I find myself wanting to lean into this approach—Perel is so persuasive and self-possessed and cosmopolitan. But then, I’m the third, the match outside the box, and I may be more like psychologist Harriet Lerner, another mega-best-selling author (The Dance of Anger and 11 other books), than I wish. She wrote me a glowing e-mail about Perel—“We need her original and intelligent voice to push the boundaries of our thinking and help us fire the sex cops who have set up precincts in our head”—that ended with a kind of sigh: “Yet for most of us, that old-fashioned vow to ‘forsake all others’ is the glue that holds our marriage together, and keeps us tethered to the earth.”

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To be clear, as with the bracelet, I have no idea whether my projections about Perel have a shred of accuracy. Not that I don’t try to find out how her marriage operates. She ticks off reasons she declines to discuss it: Because she and her husband have “an understanding” that precludes it. Because she prefers not to flaunt her sex life before her two grown sons. Because her job as a therapist is to help “people think about their lives, not react to mine.” Because she doesn’t want to risk being written off as sexually deviant—as narrow-minded or sexist as such de facto cultural credentialing may be, her status as a married woman with children and a full-time job “legitimizes” her to publish and speak on sex and desire. Because there are no easy answers, and what works for one person, or couple, won’t work for another.

But the primary reason, she says, is that “my background is way more important to how I think and work than my sexual agreements with my husband.”

Perel’s parents, Holocaust survivors, “understood the erotic as an antidote to death, as in they knew how to keep themselves alive and enjoy.”

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What she’s referring to is the story of her parents, whose experience makes adjectives like “horrendous” seem ludicrously insufficient. Each of them spent years using every whit of strength and ingenuity they possessed to survive in Nazi concentration camps, only to be freed and then to literally meet on the road, in the stream of refugees walking out of the camps, and finally to discover that every other member of their families had been killed—her mother’s gassed in Treblinka, her father’s in Auschwitz.

“There were always two groups of families in my community,” Perel told self-help author Tim Ferriss in a lengthy and revealing interview on his podcast. “There was one group that did not die and one group that came back to life. And the ‘did not die,’ you could feel it when you went to their houses. They often had plastics over their couches, and the curtains were pulled down. It was morbid.” As for her parents, “They were bons vivants.…They didn’t survive for nothing. They understood the erotic as an antidote to death, as in they knew how to keep themselves alive and enjoy.”

That legacy, Perel said on her podcast, led her to intellectually engage with “What is eroticism?” How do people “connect to joy, to love, to pleasure, to beauty, to adventure, to mystery”?

Her passionate disquisition on this subject reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from the British analyst and epigrammatic philosopher Adam Phillips, which Perel includes in her book: “At its best monogamy may be the wish to find someone to die with; at its worst it is a cure for the terrors of aliveness. They are easily confused.”

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