Few psychotherapists are as willing to talk as openly about infidelity and monogamy as Esther Perel.
The Belgium-born author of the 2007 best-seller “Mating in Captivity” has a new book out called “The State of Affairs” that digs deep into the roots of relationship culture in the U.S. She also hosts a relationship therapy podcast called “Where Should We Begin?”
Perel’s latest book — an extension of her popular 2015 TED Talk — encourages readers to re-examine their own notions of love and partnership to have a better understanding of why we behave the way we do, both in and out of coupledom.
Perel, who spoke at the Texas Conference for Women earlier this month, will return to Austin next year as a keynote speaker at South by Southwest. While she was in town, we invited her into our studio to record an interview for an episode of Austin360’s “I Love You So Much” podcast that comes out Dec. 1, which you can download through a podcast app or stream at austin360.com/loveaustin360. This is an edited and condensed version of the conversation.
Why do we continue to have such overly romantic ideals about relationships?
The two most important changes in American society that have affected relationships are secularization and individualization. We used to talk about soul mate and the “one and only,” and it usually referred to God. Today, we say the “one and only,” and it’s the person. You look to this person in romantic love for the things you used to look for in religion: belonging, transcendence, ecstasy and meaning. All those things used to belong to the sanctuary of the divine. Today, you want that in your relationships. We want one person to provide what a village used to provide.
The truth is that we are much more alone than we ever were. We used to live in communities and tribes, and we belonged to those tribes. We had very little freedom there, but you knew who you were and what was expected of you. You had certainty at the expense of freedom and belonging at the expense of individuality.
Now we live in the opposite extreme. We can be free, but we have to know what we want. We have to do our own calibration, our own regulation. You don’t have the bells of the church to wake you up. You have to set your own alarm clock. The burdens of the self have never been heavier.
At the same time, we have the other religion of consumerism. We don’t just want a deal. We want a good deal, and we bring that language of the deal into the relationship and our notion of commitment. “This isn’t what I signed up for. This isn’t a good deal,” you might say. “Where is my return on my investment? I can do better. It’s not that I’m unhappy, but I could be happier.” That pursuit of happiness, of desire and of entitlement definitely plays with our notion of commitment. It’s not until death do us part. It’s until love dies.
As a Belgian, you have argued that some of these issues around relationships stem from several tenets of American culture. Can you explain?
This society is very much organized around the notion of control: self-control, self-reliance, self-sufficiency. Other parts of the world don’t necessarily think that we are so in charge of everything. We believe that we are interdependent with other forces, such as society, political issues, the supernatural. It’s not all in your hands. It’s the difference between Catholic and Protestantism, at its roots.
Americans believe in pragmatism, efficiency and unvarnished directness, but in being so direct, in trying to cut the deal, Americans avoid nuances. There is a wrong and a right, an either/or approach to things. Rather than living with the ambivalences, Americans want two contradictory things: The freedom of nonmonogamy and the stability that comes with commitment. We want both.
This culture believes that every problem has a solution, and if you have an issue, you roll up your sleeves, you look at it, you break it into small pieces and you get to work. That’s effort optimism, the ethos of America. I think there are some problems that aren’t problems to solve. They are paradoxes that you manage.
We need to have the willingness to have the ambiguity, the mystery, the lack of resolution for some things, the fact that not everything must be said. Rather than trying to control every aspect of life, you can engage in the unknown mystery of life that is right in front of you.
In monogamy, the opposing forces of stability and desire create tension in so many couples. What advice can you share about negotiating these hurdles?
Monogamy, for most of history, meant one person for life, but today it means one person at a time. When we decided that we didn’t need women to be virgins at the time of the wedding, monogamy went out the door. People negotiate around it through open marriages, divorce, consensual nonmonogamy, fidelity.
Relationships that do better are relationships where people know to calibrate their expectations. Recognize that people want commitment, stability, predictability and security, but they don’t want it at the expense of the loss of individual freedom and self-expression. Find ways to talk about that within your current relationship.
Do you see any differences in how baby boomers and millennials treat relationships?
Millennials are more romantic than the boomers. They can hook up out the wazoo, until they make the commitment, and once they find that commitment, they want even more fidelity, more exclusivity than even the boomers wanted.
If you have a culture that says you can have it all, you can be perfect, you can master everything and you are in charge, you have two prices that you’re going to pay. First, you are constantly having to worry that you are not enough, and second, you think that everybody else can do it but me. You carry all the burdens because it’s all about you.
In the pursuit of happiness, you don’t know how not to be happy and have the broad range of feelings of life. You are constantly battling your dependency and the notion that to become something and somebody, you need others. This notion that you can do it all yourself becomes a big blur.
What are your feelings toward dating apps?
You’ll rarely hear from me that it’s good or bad. For a lot of people, online dating opens up possibilities that would otherwise not exist, but at the same time, I’m aware that digital communication is a communication that flattens. It eradicates nuance and it eradicates what used to happen in relationships, which is this constant process of iteration and reiteration in which you negotiate with another person to learn their attunement, to learn and to know and to feel each other. You can’t get that texture in a text.
Of course, there’s also the fact that once you are so seduced by all the possibilities, you end up having to face the flip side, which is a lot of freedom, but also a lot of self-doubt, a lot of uncertainty and an inability to make a choice because you are continuously looking for the perfect choice. You’re looking for the one who will cure your FOMO; the one for whom you are not wondering what else is out there; the one that is so captivating that you’ll delete your apps.
We have no texture on the keyboard of a phone, but once we meet, it will be multisensorial. It’s going to be embodied. It’s going to be all the senses, but the experience of having spent so much time online, the senses are being dulled in that way. People have always been rejected, but there is something powerful when you go from 500 texts to zero. It just knocks your brain out in a way that is unbeatable at this point. I don’t think we know the consequences of that.