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Psychotherapist and New York Times best-selling author Esther Perel is recognized as one of today's most insightful and original voices on modern relationships. Her celebrated TED talks have garnered more than 20 million views, and her international best seller Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence became a global phenomenon translated into 25 languages. Her newest book is the The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity.
1440: You say "we need a new conversation" about modern relationships. What does that conversation look like?
Esther Perel: Well, I think the interesting thing is maybe why a conversation? For most of history, relationships were pretty much dictated by rules and by duty and by obligation. You knew who would be the breadwinner, who would wake up to feed the baby, who could demand sex, and who could stray with tacit social approval. Parents had the authority to tell their children to go to bed and they didn't need ten minutes to explain why it was important. Husbands knew exactly what to say to their wives and wives knew exactly what not to say to their husbands. Things were structured. Once we shift from rules to freedom and choice, relationships become framed by conversation. It's the only thing we have. In a modern relationship, the decisions are made through conversation, through dialogue, through negotiation, and these are complex relational transactions made up of multiple parts.
So, it's not even that we need a new conversation. It's the simple fact that conversation has become the central tool for being in a relationship rather than preset modes of conduct.
At this very moment, the conversation that is changing—the latest one in an installment of so many—is that the oldest power exchange system is being negotiated. For all of history, men traded social power for sex, and women often had to resort to trading their sexual power, their youth and beauty, for access to social power that was denied to them. This power structure is now under intense scrutiny, it is being reexamined and challenged.
When I say we need a new conversation about modern relationships, one is about the power structure, but the other one is about authenticity.
That is another fundamental new conversation because we are no longer in the economic, pragmatic model of marriage. We're no longer even in just the romantic model of relationship—we now want to be met in our authenticity, we want to be driven to become the best self we can be.
So power, authenticity, and accountability (which has to do with trust and transparency in taking responsibility for the relationship we create)—these are the three pillars of relationship that are currently being reevaluated.
1440: A great deal of your work examines the expectations we place upon partnership—and the parallel draw so many people feel towards infidelity. Let's talk about what we expect of our partners.
Esther Perel: I think we are struggling in our relationships. Many of us are struggling in our relationships both at home and at work. Relationship expectations are at an all-time high, the norms are shifting under our feet, and we are basically writing the new rule book as we go.
Part of my work is to help people manage these changes.
I think one way to look at how expectations have changed is to see that we came from many, many centuries of a model of contentment and now we are in a model of optimization. That is a whole different set of expectations.
We have created a model of one person for everything. When you lived in the village, you had belonging and you had certainty and you had identity and you had roots, but you had not much freedom. Now, we live in an era of unprecedented freedom, but we also have massive uncertainty and self-doubt constantly because we have to figure it all out ourselves.
We all long for love. We long to be intimately connected to ourselves and others. For some, a partnership or marriage is the natural outcome of this longing. Others find alternative styles of intimacy more fulfilling. For most of us,...
And our expectations encompass it all—I want what we have always wanted from partnership, but I also want a best friend and I want a trusted confidant, and I want a passionate lover, and I want the person who's going to make me become the best I can be. And I want to be happy. And how do I know I'm happy? Could I be happier? Perhaps I divorce not necessarily because I am unhappy, but because I could be happier.
We have never before called our partner our soul mate. Our soul mate used to be God. As Jungian analyst Robert Johnson writes, "We turn today to our partner to basically give us what we once looked for in the realm of the divine: ecstasy, meaning, transcendence."
It's beyond romanticism.
1440: You're teaching a weekend program at 1440, along with a consortium of scientists, authors, and teachers, called Radiant Intimacy. What is this notion of radiant intimacy? What sits at the root of our need for intimacy?
Esther Perel: At the root lies the need to connect and to soar. One of our fundamental needs is to connect, it is at once protective and generative and a big plus is if we enjoy ourselves as we do it.
Thriving—or radiant—intimacy is a relationship that manages to reconcile the two fundamental sets of human needs: stability and change, security and adventure, separateness and togetherness.
It knows how to anchor itself in something that is solid, reliable, steady, and it knows how to make room for change, for innovation, for the unpredictable, for newness, for edge, for risk taking.
It knows how to play between trust and risk taking. That's really it. It's an active, dynamic, constantly moving interdependence of parts, and the peak experience is not some optimum point that you reach. The peak is actually in the flexibility of being able to constantly adjust and flow and change.
This interview was conducted by Kate Green Tripp, Managing Editor for 1440 Multiversity.