The Erotic Is an Antidote to Death
Esther Perel has a private couples and family therapy practice in New York. She hosts two podcasts, Where Should We Begin? and How’s Work? and is the creator of a new game called, Where Should We Begin? - A Game of Stories. She is also the author of two TED talks and two books, Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence and The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity.
Krista Tippett, host: The psychotherapist Esther Perel has changed our discourse about sexuality and coupledom with her TED talks, her books, and her podcast, Where Should We Begin? Episode after episode lays bare the theater of relationship, which is also the drama of being human. And now, in the post-2020 world, she’s launching a game to catalyze, at home, her kind of conversation. It’s also called Where Should We Begin? The singular insights in the fascinating conversation I had with Esther in 2019 speak to the flip side of social isolation — the incomparably intense experience many have now had of togetherness. And her deep understanding of “erotic intelligence” feels so interesting as we grapple with emergent dynamics of the human condition writ large, coupled or not, and both intimate and societal.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
Esther Perel: My book and my work is about eroticism. It is about how people connect to this quality of aliveness, of vibrancy, of vitality, of renewal. And that is way beyond the description of sexuality. And it is mystical. It is actually a spiritual, mystical experience of life. It is a transcendent experience of life, because it is an act of the imagination.
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
Esther Perel was a therapist for 20 years before she began to write about sexuality. She’d studied Jewish identity in different national contexts, and focused on relationships between different minority groups in the U.S., the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. She grew up speaking multiple languages at home above her family clothing shop in Antwerp in Belgium, a child of Polish Holocaust survivors. Both of her parents were the only people left of their families. They literally met and fell in love on a road out of the concentration camps and into freedom.
I start almost all of my conversations inquiring about the spiritual background of someone’s childhood. In my mind, I understand that expansively, and that can be religious formation and identity, but it’s also the formative milieu of love, loneliness, loss. And I’m just really curious, because you also, in your way, delve into the spiritual background of human childhood, so I wonder how you would define and describe the spiritual background of a human childhood, with yours as an example — where you would start with that; what that means and how it manifests.
Perel: I don’t know where to start, actually. It’s not like I know from the beginning. But I would say that it probably starts — or a moment that I can remember — is me asking why I do not have grandparents, why I do not have uncles, why there’s only the four of us, why they have an accent, why I came so late, and that a lot of these very naïve childhood questions basically pointed to a history that was presented to me quite matter-of-factly. I’ve often joked that my parents did not really have a course in child development and the things that you say to a 3-year-old versus a 12-year-old. It was presented to me, from the start, that they were in the camps, that they were the only people, survivors of the family that came out of the camps, that the others were murdered, that we were Jews, that they arrived to Belgium, that they happened to be, another five years, illegal refugees in Belgium — all of that was presented like you talk about a walk in the park, very affectless, actually.
And at the same time, we lived in a very popular neighborhood, first in Leuven, where I was born, before we came to Antwerp. Every time, we lived above the store — my parents had a little clothing store and then a lesser-little clothing store. And we lived amongst the Flemish people, and there was one Jewish family on the street, and everybody knew the Jewish immigrant family on the street. And a few times a year, we became ultra-Orthodox. And then we reverted back to the Hasidic background of my parents. We walked to synagogue for an hour and a half, we went to an orthodox shul — my mother comes from an ultra-Hasidic, aristocratic Hasidic Gerer family — and then we reverted back, because whatever they wanted to do, they only knew one way of doing, and that was the old country way. And we completely morphed from one world into the other, rather seamlessly, and I think that has definitely been a major tailoring of my spiritual life and my cross-cultural life.
Tippett: And then you morphed back.
Perel: And then we would come back, we would morph back, and we would resume eating shrimps. I mean, literally, like that. We had Passover: we had the special set of dishes that came out on Passover, my mother would clean the entire house like she had always done in her village in Poland, a different music was put on the record player — we literally traveled to another world. We always spoke Yiddish and Polish and German in the house, as well as Dutch and French, so the language didn’t necessarily shift. And these two worlds lived side-by-side in a way that only we knew they can coexist. It was not visible to the rest of the world.
Tippett: There’s this observation that you make, and I wonder if you were already observing this when you were a child, that, coming out of that experience of a world of survivors, that some people had not died — some people “did not die” — and some people “went on living.”
Perel: This really is a frame that came to me when I wrote Mating In Captivity, which is —
Perel: Yes, much, much, much later. And it came in a very roundabout way, where I was talking with my husband, Jack Saul, about his work with torture survivors and asking him, “What’s the process, and how do you know when a person comes back? And what kind of coming back does a person do after they have been in solitary confinement for years, or away, dislocated, etc.?” And we began discussing that there’s something about when you can once again take risks, because it means that you are not completely trapped in a state of vigilance, when you can once again play or experience pleasure or joy, because it means you are not completely wrapped in the sense of dread. You can’t be on guard and let go. And playfulness comes with a certain element of letting go. And as he was talking about this and his work at the center for victims of trauma and political violence, I remember thinking — I said to him, “This was what happened in Antwerp.” I mean, when I say “two groups,” it’s more a metaphor than a literal description. But there were the people who did not die, and there were the people who came back to life.
And I think that that applies to all trauma. I really don’t think there’s an exclusive monopoly on that for my community. But that’s where I learned it. And the people who came back to life really, in some sense, had less survivor guilt, sometimes, or had suffered differently or were able to reconnect with a certain fervor that basically said, “I’m not here for nothing. I’m going to make the best of it.” And they understood the erotic as an antidote to death: how do you keep yourself alive in the face of adversity?
And from that moment, I began to actually think, my book is not about sexuality, my book and my work is about eroticism. It is about how people connect to this quality of aliveness, of vibrancy, of vitality, of renewal. And that is way beyond the description of sexuality. And it is mystical. It is actually a spiritual, mystical experience of life. It is a transcendent experience of life, because it is an act of the imagination. And that is spirituality, as well.
Tippett: Yes, and I feel like a huge aspect of life in this early century that you are addressing is how, in a sense, we’ve traumatized ourselves and even our ability to love, with the kind of unnatural way — you talk about the “modern ideology of love” and also how we’ve turned the couple into this basic unit, which is unprecedented in the history of our species.
Perel: You agree? Yes.
Tippett: Is that too much of a stretch, to make that analogy?
Perel: No, no, no. I say that when we lived in the community, and in that community, the couple served the family. And you had a couple in order to have a family, to have children, to have economic support, companionship, and social status, of course. And if the couple didn’t do well, it didn’t really matter. I mean, it mattered a lot, but it didn’t influence the outcome or the survival of the family. Today, the happiness of the couple is the key to the survival of the family. That is a complete first.
Tippett: Another way you’ve said that I find helpful — you’ve said we’ve merged the love story and the life story.
Perel: Sometimes I say things well. [laughs] There was a context when I said it. It doesn’t come out like that today. But yes, it’s really — it’s “I want, with my partner, I want a best friend, and I want someone who is intellectually stimulating and emotionally available and sexually compatible. And I want all of that with one person, and if I have to go somewhere else, I experience it as a flaw in the relationship.” And I think that’s a tremendous pressure.
Tippett: It was interesting to me to read in you that family therapy, in fact, once upon a time what that would’ve evoked was — or couples therapy, which would’ve been family therapy — would be focusing on problems with children and that it is very recent that it evolved into just what’s going on inside the couple, because, as you say, this was a pragmatic institution, an economic institution. And this notion of eroticism as distinct from mere sexuality, aliveness —
Perel: Came through rituals …
Tippett: Came through rituals — OK.
Perel: … lots of rituals that celebrated, that marked life cycle transition, etc. They were often celebrated in a community, along a large table, with an extended family. You didn’t necessarily go away with your partner alone to celebrate something that isn’t necessarily seen as private.
The marriage lived in the center. It was one central relationship. But it lived in the midst of an aggregation of other intimate, powerful connections with their own sense of duty, obligation, etc. The priorities were quite clear. None of this had to be negotiated and discussed on a daily basis, as it is now. We have unprecedented freedom, but we are far more unmoored, and everything has to be talked about, because there is no preceding agreement.
Tippett: [laughs] Right.
Perel: So we have more freedom; we have more uncertainty. And interestingly, in the places where people have too much of atomization, they talk about belonging and loneliness all the time, and in the places where people know everything that’s happening at the neighbor’s house and you can hear every fight and every frolic, people talk about how they can create some sense of agency over their own life. And we want the best of both. [laughs]
Tippett: [laughs] We want the best of both. Another thread that I see in your life is that you actually got involved in street theater and puppetry when you were in Jerusalem. And I feel like now something you do is, you are involved in the theater of relationships and the theater of sex, love, and marriage. And I feel like you’re also making visible, in a public way, something that in fact is very organic that we haven’t made visible in a public way — that the drama of our relationships is the drama of our lives.
There’s something you wrote — you talked about how the challenge of sexual intimacy is bringing home the erotic. “It is the most fearsome of all intimacies, because it is all-encompassing. It reaches the deepest places in us and involves disclosing aspects of ourselves that are invariably bound up with shame and guilt.” So we’re not just talking about naked bodies, we’re talking about naked souls.
And that, in fact, is the territory we’ve wandered into, if we want to have marriage and relationship the way we say we want to have them, which is — and really, Where Should We Begin?, your podcast, lays that bare, one couple after the other. I mean, that’s one thing it does.
Perel: I think you said it very beautifully. I always thought that peoples’ suffering should not be always so hidden — that was a legacy from home. I thought, so many years did my parents suffer, and everybody else, and it’s like, the degree of aloneness that you can experience
And sometimes I have some of that sense in my room. People come, and I’m thinking, it’s not what they’re experiencing. It’s the fact that they’re experiencing it completely alone. It’s compounded. It’s not that I just wanted to do exhibitionism and invite a bunch of voyeurs to listen in on sessions. It’s because I actually think that when you listen deeply, deeply to the experiences of others, you stand in front of your own mirror, and you transcend that aloneness. And I have always said, the best theater in town was couples therapy.
[music: “Calisson” by Blue Dot Sessions]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being, today with psychotherapist Esther Perel.
[music: “Calisson” by Blue Dot Sessions]
And you use this phrase, “erotic intelligence.” So I want to talk about that, because I kind of feel like what you’re doing — it’s very clear to me, and I’m not the only person who sees this, that we have a very small toolkit of forms of intelligence in public life, in our life together, in how we speak in official places. We have factual intelligence, which is so limited and so open to interpretation, and we don’t have great emotional or social intelligence in our shared life. And I think this notion of erotic intelligence is another thing that you would add that actually is much bigger than sexual intelligence.
So one thing you wrote is, “Sex is a language; it isn’t just a behavior. And it’s the poetic of that language that I’m interested in, which is why I began to explore this concept of erotic intelligence.” So talk to me about what that is, both within and beyond the confines of a couple.
Perel: So I will be really honest with you. When I first came up with the term, my husband came up with the term, and it was a spoof. We thought, there is IQ …
Tippett: [laughs] Right, right! OK, there you go.
Perel: … and there is emotional intelligence, and we just thought, this is erotic intelligence.
Tippett: Why not erotic intelligence?
Perel: And then it became a concept that I actually had to define. At first, I just thought — I understood it intuitively, but really, there was nothing substantive and scientific behind it. I did understand that animals have sex. It is the instinct. It is the base. But we have an erotic mind. And that erotic mind, it is infinite. And eroticism thrives on the ritual and the celebration and the infiniteness of our imagination — and on the forbidden, for that matter, too.
There’s a transgressive element in that. And that’s part of why I became so interested in how do you integrate this force into the domestic life that we also want? What is this dual sets of needs that we grapple with?
Tippett: Right, so this really gets at what is existentially important and civilizationally at stake in the fact that, as you also are out there saying we have a “crisis of desire,” the irony that we have the Baby Boom generation that gave rise to sexual liberation, and yet it is now headline news that interest in this is waning and conflicted, and people are not having enough sex, and the complexity of desire.
Perel: Because desire is to own the wanting. That’s one way of looking at it. And in order to own something, there needs to be a sovereign self that is free to choose and, of course, feels worthy of wanting and feels worthy of receiving. That’s why desire is so intimately connected with a sense of self-worth.
In the Boomer generation, my question was — and that’s when I began Mating, but we are so much further along now on that crisis of desire — it was, why does this group of people, this generation that, for the first time, has contraception in their hands, premarital sex as a given — all in the West, of course — the permission to do what they want, and they don’t feel like doing it, or at least not with each other? How come?
That was my beginning question. And I understood that people no longer come to couples therapy — or to sex therapy, more accurately — because they have problems of functioning and behavior and pain. All of that is still there, but we all know, in our field, that there’s a whole new set of issues that has to do with the crisis of desire, of wanting. And how do you want the person that you love, also? And how do you want the person with whom you want a set of other things that have to do with what love brings, that is about familiarity and about closing the gap and not having such tension and creating family? And that becomes really interesting. How do you continue to be curious next to somebody that you’ve lived with for 25 years and not think that you know already everything about them?
Tippett: And again, as you say, so on the one hand you can talk about ways, but this is really work of the imagination. So having walked down this new path in the history of our species, where we expect and need these central relationships in our lives to give us so much, one of the things you’re saying — you’re saying many things — is that we’re actually driven back to work to understand ourselves better, to unlock our imaginations. I mean, I think what you’re saying in “owning the wanting” — we have to get conscious about what it is we’re wanting, which is a new requirement.
Perel: So the question I ask, sometimes, is: “I turn myself off by …” or “I turn myself off when …” which is not the same as “What turns me off is …” or “You turn me off when …”
And this was a dear colleague of mine who passed away recently, Gina Ogden, who gave me that question. It was so clear, because if “I turn myself off,” what do people say? “I turn myself off when I don’t take time for myself, when I am bloated, when I eat too much, when I am worried about my children, when I fret about money, when we are angry, when we haven’t had a moment to be together, when we don’t talk about anything, when I feel disconnected from my body, when I am critical of my body,” etc., etc. It has nothing to do specifically with sex. It has to do with shutting down.
And when you ask people, “I turn myself on…” all the answers are about aliveness. “I turn myself on when I listen to music, when I dance, when I play music, when I go out with friends, when I take care of myself, when I’m in nature, when I climb the mountain, when we play together, when we have time to just lounge.” It’s about a quality of aliveness. It’s about the permission to feel good. And that comes with self-worth, as well. And from that place, if you approach me, I will respond, because I’m in the same zone as you, and vice versa.
Tippett: Here’s some other language you wrote: “Eroticism thrives in the space between the self and the other” and that “we must be able to tolerate this void and its pall of uncertainties,” which also makes sense to me.
Perel: I mean, faced with the unknown of our partners, we can either be anxious — and this is true with the unknown of life. We can be anxious, we can want to close the gap, we can want to seek the familiar in that space, or we can leave that space open and respond to it with curiosity. And I can tell you, every couple in my office, I know exactly where they are on that continuum. It’s not an either/or, but you know if people are welcoming the unknown in their midst or if they are more in need of solid, familiar, predictable grounding. And it also has to do with their histories and their childhoods.
Tippett: There’s that unfortunate fact again.
Perel: Yeah. [laughs] But it creates a different orientation to coupledom, as well, not just to life.
Tippett: Right. I think we haven’t just named this fundamental tension that is in us, that is at the root of this, that thing that we’ve been talking about, which you write about so wonderfully, that — and this is just true, again, in every way about being human — this need and desire we have for security and predictability and permanence and being anchored and, at the same time, this need and desire that can compete with that. And it seems like in a relationship is — well, I guess I feel like, at best, in a dance with that is this need for novelty and adventure and mystery and risk and the unknown.
Perel: To me, these dual sets of fundamental human needs is the basis for which I look at a lot of things. I look at it in life. I look at it in terms of life stages. I look at it, certainly, inside relationships and how we reconcile these two fundamental needs that often spring from different sources and pull us in different directions. And I also think that love and desire belong, a little bit, to both of these sets of human needs, as well. So they relate, and they also conflict. And herein lies the mystery of eroticism.
[music: “Snow Again” by Lambert]
Tippett: After a short break, more with Esther Perel.
[music: “Snow Again” by Lambert]
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being, today with psychotherapist Esther Perel. She’s famous for her presentations, her books, and her podcast on sexuality and couples therapy, Where Should We Begin? And she’s just launched a game designed to catalyze that question in other spheres of life. We’ve been talking about a fundamental tension in human life as it shows up in her work — our elemental need for safety and predictability, alongside our desire for novelty, adventure, mystery, and risk. I interviewed Esther in 2019, and it’s fascinating to revisit now, amidst all the ways 2020 and beyond has brought matters of the human condition and of togetherness into relief — societal, as well as intimate.
For all that is going on the world that feels like we’re becoming more primal, [laughs] rather than moving forward, I also do feel that we’re on this new frontier, and we’re on it in neuroscience, and we’re on it in evolutionary biology, and I think we’re on it in — [laughs] you’re bringing it in couples therapy — that we’re actually reckoning with our humanity in a new way; that we’re forced to do this, that naming that tension and really investigating how does it turn up — not just, as you say, in a relationship, but in stages of our lives? And how can we be more conscious of it and work more creatively and imaginatively with it? It’s quite amazing that we are having this conversation and working these things out in all these concrete situations.
Perel: But you know, I am trained in general systems theory. I’m a systemic family therapist. And I remember, when that paradigm first entered me, this notion that every living organism straddles stability and change — in nature, in companies, in societies — if you change all the time, you go chaotic. You dysregulate, and you become chaotic, and you may dissolve, disintegrate. If you don’t change at all, you fossilize, you go stale, and you may also disintegrate. And sometimes you don’t choose it, because if your whole village is destroyed in a second by a tsunami, you have had such amount of massive change, you are dysregulated. The society is dysregulated, the whole environment, all of that.
So this image, for me, I can take it from nature into technology. When I go to places where people are celebrating in an evangelical way the disappearance of everything that was, and the replacement, I am thinking, oh là là là là là là. And then when I go to places that just sentimentalize the 19th century, I also say, oh, là là là là, because it is that interdependent, dynamic balance between these two that is where we really live. We want certain things with technology, but we also want to stay connected to a certain kind of experience of our humanity. And I have to say, I’m very, very happy that I work on the side of helping people connect.
Tippett: Connect, with quality, right? [laughs] We talk about our connection economy. We’re connected, but we’re not connected with quality. That’s what you’re doing.
Perel: Connected with quality, yes, in all kinds of ways, in all kinds of unusual situations.
Tippett: So I did want to muse on this with you, that there are a lot of big statements right now about how loneliness is the crisis of modernity. And the fact that we are each alone inside ourselves is the ancient condition, and it’s the existential quandary. And I think it’s like, are you lonely, or do we know how to be — can we inhabit solitude, also, as a lifegiving part of being alive?
Perel: Do you know the concept of ambiguous loss?
Tippett: Yes, yes. Do you know Pauline Boss? I had her on the show.
Perel: OK. So I totally borrow that concept from her, but I bring it into the conversation on loneliness because I think what you’re highlighting is so important. The difference between a fundamental acknowledgment of our existential aloneness is not the same as a feeling of loneliness in the sense of feeling dispensable, disposable, not good enough, not surrounded enough, having to go through things alone that one shouldn’t have to go through alone, and things like that.
And I think those are two different levels of experience. I like the concept of ambiguous loss because I think that it’s actually a good description of the kind of new form of loneliness that I think we are often describing.
Tippett: Ah, ambiguous loss as a cultural phenomenon.
Perel: Yes. To explain: ambiguous loss is, for example, when a person is still physically present but psychologically gone, as if — when they have Alzheimer’s, for example. Or if you have someone who disappeared, they are physically gone but psychologically present. In both cases, you cannot resolve the question of mourning and loss, because you don’t know, are they here, or are they not here?
When people describe to me being put on pause in a conversation or lying next to someone in bed who is scrolling through their Instagram feeds and is physically present but psychologically gone or is having literally another life with their phones, what they’re describing is not the physical isolation of loneliness. They’re describing a loss of trust and social capital that they are experiencing next to the very person with whom they should not be feeling alone. That’s ambiguous loss.
Tippett: Yes — there is nothing lonelier than the inside of a bad marriage, right?
Perel: There is nothing lonelier than the loneliness that you feel when you are next to someone with whom you think that you once did not feel lonely. And I will go even further. That one we know. The one we know less about is the loneliness of actually living in a marriage in which you may even be loved, and you may be a cherished spouse, but you remain a famished lover. And that’s a kind of sexual loneliness, where you know you are loved, but you haven’t felt wanted in years.
Tippett: Right. And you — one of the things you teach is that passion will wax and wane, but that it can also be resurrected.
Perel: I mean, the idea is that passion is like the moon, right? It has intermittent eclipses. [laughs] This notion that people will live in a permanent state of passion — no, of course not. I mean, nobody would go to work, for that matter.
But people don’t want to experience passion. People want to experience a sense of aliveness. And it is what they describe, also, when they transgress. What is that aliveness? It’s hope. It’s possibility. It’s freedom.
Tippett: You have said that you believe that the quality of our relationships determines the quality of our life, and I believe that too. And people have said of your podcast, Where Should We Begin?, that it is a public service. So I want to spend a couple of minutes — and this may just be stretching things, but I feel like there are applications to what you are teaching and what you know, to our life together.
I have this thesis that I’ve been playing around with, speaking with people, is that I want us to think about, actually, this erotic energy, this aliveness, and love as it actually works, as opposed to as a romantic ideal — that we actually possess a lot of intelligence in our intimate lives. And I don’t just mean couples, but with our family and friends and the people we love, writ large. We don’t confuse love with likeness and harmony. I feel like we — for me, a question for public life right now, which is very close to the question that you work with, with couples, is, can we get interested in each other again?
Do you ever think about that, applying what you know about how love and erotic intelligence actually work, to life together?
Perel: I do. How am I going to put this?
Erich Fromm, a long time ago, was actually quite a visionary. He wrote in the ’50s. But what he was very capable of seeing is that we think that love is easy and that finding the right person is what is difficult; that it’s the love object that is complicated, but the experience itself, of loving — and of course, he turned it on its head: that love is a verb, that it’s not a permanent state of enthusiasm, and that it’s an actual practice, and that that practice gets repeated all the time. Now, I have added a few — actually, I think I even — love isn’t even something natural, I think he said. “Rather, it requires discipline, concentration, patience, faith, and the overcoming of narcissism. It isn’t a feeling, it is a practice.” I prefer to say it’s a verb, because verbs are action-oriented.
What I liked about that idea was — and I would add to it — is that there’s an element of risk. To have a fierce kind of intimacy, you have to be able to take risks. And the risk is that not everything about you will be liked by your partner. I think that one of the strange concepts of the romantic ideal is unconditional love. Doesn’t exist. Doesn’t exist — never existed, for that matter. Love is conditional, completely. [laughs] It’s not a popular idea.
Tippett: I know — I find it so refreshing, for you to say that.
Perel: I stand by it. It’s like, you do things that are lousy, there is absolutely no reason that I should just continue to love you despite it. No. In a way, I think we are demanding too little, even strangely; like we demand all kinds of things that I don’t know about — “soulmate,” for me, is God, it’s not another person. And some people have that connection, but it’s so few. For the majority of people, as I have also said, you pick a partner, you pick a story. What story do you want to write? And do you have enough freedom to choose the story that you want to write? That’s the next thing. Write often, and edit well. But it is a story.
So now, in that story, there are things about you that will not be liked by your partner. Fierce intimacy is when you see people who tell you, there are certain things about their partner that drive them utterly crazy and always have and will never change. “That, I never discuss with him. We will never talk about that.”
Tippett: Right. [laughs] So much of love is deciding what you will not talk about, or what you will not talk about now, because you actually want to be heard.
Perel: That’s right. And therefore, find somebody else with whom you can actually have that conversation. And it’s a different way of conceiving it. It works for me. When I say, “The quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives,” it’s because I do think that the bonds and the connections that we forge with others give us a greater sense of meaning and happiness and well-being than just about any other thing — when it’s good, because it can be exactly the opposite, eh?
And now it’s like, how much are you investing in your relationships? And I find that, often, people don’t. They talk about “my partner is my best friend,” and they treat them like [bleep]. They talk about “my friend,” and they haven’t seen that person or talked to that person in years. It’s like, no, you can’t just do it like that. You can’t be lazy. You can’t be complacent about this and put all your energies at work and bring the leftovers home, and all of that stuff.
Or I have this question I’ve been playing with lately, and I just asked it in Sydney. I was like, “How many of you go to bed, and the last thing you touch is your phone? OK, stand up. And how many of you, the first thing you stroke in the morning when you wake up is your phone? Please stand up. And how many of you are doing this while there actually is another person lying next to you in bed?”
That’s ambiguous loss, by the way. I’m like, seriously? Seriously? So that’s what I am trying to address at this point. It’s like, interestingly, we don’t look at relational health enough. We don’t connect it to mental health, we don’t connect it to our overall physical health, and we certainly don’t connect it enough to our societal health, if we want to really go bigger. It’s not the freedom that is our problem. It’s not the fact that we have choice, but they have always gone together with responsibility, with accountability.
And what happens is that the people who talk about freedom don’t talk about accountability enough, and the people who talk about accountability don’t talk about freedom. So the whole thing gets polarized, rather than integrated. Politically, it is like that, and in the psychological field it is like that. It’s like that all the time.
Tippett: And that power, that life force of imagination, is lacking too, in all of those either/ors, that lifegiving piece.
Perel: Yes, because I think that one of the losses of this moment is the loss, somewhat, of our intuition. There is a different kind of knowledge and information that is much more data-driven, that is systematized, that tries to be rational, and that is taking away our ability to sense things, to be in an iterative process of relationships, and to suss out and to live with ambivalence. I think that that great product of our imagination — what is intuition? It is a nonjudgmental way to actually assess another person that is not rational but that is driven by the meaning that that person has for us.
And that form of knowledge is not as popular, these days — or certainly, not in the West. And I think that it is a fundamental piece of knowledge that people need to have in relationships, because when you don’t have that, then you’re left just dealing with borders and consent and rules and things like that, rather than the ability to play, because it is, ultimately, to play.
Tippett: We’re back at play. [laughs]
Perel: Yes. Yes, yes, yes. I think it is the essential. If I had to say what’s one — you said curiosity, at first, and I would say play. But play and curiosity are so intimately interwoven. Those are probably two of the most central elements — imagination, playfulness, curiosity — which go with risk. Risk is when — or I would say, play is when risk is fun. But you can’t play when you are in a situation of danger, anxiety, or contraction. So you have to feel safe in order to play. But if you do not play, you won’t experience the erotic.
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Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being, today with psychotherapist Esther Perel.
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So I think — we’re winding down, and I think you’re pointing back at this, what this erotic intelligence is, what this life force is that is so important in a relationship but, in fact, in aliveness. And I wanted to ask you, we are now living in this world where people have long, long lifespans and many different chapters, where it’s not just that this ideal of finding a soulmate and living with them happily ever after doesn’t work. It’s just that even if you find that soulmate, you may be married for 40 years and then have 20 or 30 years alone. One thing that feels important to me, as I get older, is really taking delight in the many, many forms of love in my life — my friendships — that some of that same energy — that word, “eroticism,” is so closely associated with sex, but I even feel like what love can look like in public, in civic life.
Perel: But you know, when people are engaged in revolutionary movements, they feel erotic.
Tippett: Yes, yes! You’re so right.
Perel: I really think it’s so important to understand that eroticism, narrowed down to the pure sexual meaning, is a real reduction of what the word stands for. It’s a transgressive force. It is about breaking the rules. That is erotic, because it takes you outside of the borders of reality and the limitations of life.
If we didn’t have that, we couldn’t be living. It’s that fundamental. And whenever it gets just brought into the sexual realm, it really loses its richness and its meaning, why people need that. And yes, you want the love of — this idea that the romantic relationship is the penultimate, the one in which people will feel this complete self-actualization and the best version of themselves — no. People, sometimes the best version of themselves is not in their romantic relationships, it’s in their relationships to their employees or to their mentees or to their friends.
And especially in a moment where the community structure isn’t there to hold us, it is the multiplicity of these different relational arrangements that really has to become the foundation, for many of us. And if you have a hierarchy of relationships — if you call some people “single” and some people “partnered,” for example — the partnered person of today may not be tomorrow and maybe wasn’t yesterday. And the single person of today will be partnered tomorrow. What kind of a distinction is this at this point? It doesn’t fit anymore.
We go in and out of many, many different kinds of relationships, and — I finished one of the TED talks with this line where I said, “Many of us, these days, are at least going to have two or three marriages or committed relationships in our lifetime. And some of us will do it with the same person. And those people who do it with the same person — that is erotic intelligence,” because they’re able to reinvent themselves on location and to create a newer relational arrangement with each other. And if you cannot do it with each other, you’ll go do it somewhere else. But you need to do it, because if not, you die, if you don’t change to continue to stay alive.
And it involves novelty, but novelty is not about new positions. That’s why people then end up thinking you’re talking about sexual positions — no. Novelty is new experiences of yourself in the world and of your partner in relationship to you, if you’re talking about a partner. But if not, it’s new experiences of yourself in the world, and that involves taking risks by having an active engagement with the unknown, as Rachel Botsman calls it. [Editor’s note: Ms. Perel is paraphrasing; Rachel Botsman writes about “a confident relationship with the unknown”] And when people do it, there’s a sense of purpose, there’s a sense of aliveness, there’s a sense of joy, there’s a sense of transmission — there’s no age. There is no age in the chronological sense, because you are in touch with life.
Tippett: Yes, yes. I do want to ask you this question, and I don’t ask everybody this question, because it’s enormous. But just how would you begin, given the life you’ve lived, the things you care about and see, how would you begin right now to answer the question of what you’ve learned about what it means to be human?
Perel: I think that what it means to be human — there are many ways to answer it, but what comes up for me immediately is, we all come into this world with a need for connection and protection and with a need for freedom. And from the first moment on, we will be straddling these two needs: what is me, and what is us?
The common parlance today is, “I need to first work on myself. I need to first feel good about me or solve me, before I can be with somebody else,” and I find that also a strange thought. You know who you are, you discover who you are, in the presence of another, and so this constant dance between me and you, between I and thou, is at the core of being human. What right do I have to do for me when it hurts you? How much can I ask for me and not give to you? How much do I give to you until I feel that I have not given enough to myself? How much do I make sure not to lose you but lose me in the process? Or how much do I have to hold onto me but lose you in the process?
That tension, that dance, for me, is very much at the core of being human — freedom and responsibility, which probably is kind of the core of existentialist thinking.
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Tippett: Esther Perel has a private couples and family therapy practice in New York. She hosts two podcasts, Where Should We Begin? and How’s Work? She is also the author of two TED talks and two books, Mating in Captivity and The State of Affairs.
And in a couple of weeks, Esther and I are going to get together to play a round of her new game, Where Should We Begin? – A Game of Stories. We’re planning to turn that into a special edition of Living the Questions, which will turn up in the On Being podcast feed. Keep an eye out for that, wherever you find podcasts.
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The On Being Project is located on Dakota land. Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear, singing at the end of our show, is Cameron Kinghorn.
On Being is an independent, nonprofit production of The On Being Project. It is distributed to public radio stations by WNYC Studios. I created this show at American Public Media.
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