MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And today on the show, building resilient relationships with Esther Perel.
ESTHER PEREL: People want to feel alive in their relationships. And they want it in their friendships, they want it at work, they want it in their romantic relationships. It's essential.
ZOMORODI: Esther is a couples and family therapist, an author, a speaker.
PEREL: And the host of the podcast "Where Should We Begin?" and "How's Work?"
ZOMORODI: Over the past four decades, Esther has become one of the foremost experts on relationships. And with all the stress on families and partners and co-workers right now, we thought Esther was exactly the right person to talk to.
PEREL: If I can help people with their relationships, hopefully I also can change their lives.
ZOMORODI: She investigates big questions like, what are the expectations in a relationship?
PEREL: How do people create trust?
ZOMORODI: How do they deal with conflict?
PEREL: How do they collaborate or compete?
ZOMORODI: How do they build intimacy?
PEREL: How do they communicate with each other? All of these things.
ZOMORODI: And especially right now, relationships are being tested in all kinds of new ways.
PEREL: That prolonged uncertainty that we are experiencing is accompanied with a sense of grief and loss, not because we lose people only but because we have lost the world that we knew.
ZOMORODI: Crisis can push people apart, but it can also bring them together. That's how Esther's parents found each other.
PEREL: I grew up in Antwerp, in Belgium, in a community that was all Jewish Holocaust survivors. My parents came from Poland to Belgium. They both were the sole survivors of their entire family. They both spent years in concentration camps and then were five years illegal refugees in Belgium as well - before I am born. And my parents would never have married if it wasn't for the war.
My mother came from an educated, aristocratic Hasidic family. My father was basically illiterate. They did not belong to the same worlds. My parents - circumstantial marriages, like many post-war marriages. I've lost everything. You've lost everything. I'm alone. You're alone. Let's get married. But my dad adored my mother. He worshipped her. He admired her. And she loved being admired, (laughter) so it worked very well.
PEREL: But their view was, you need to want to stay together, and you need to make compromises.
ZOMORODI: I mean, as you said, it sounds like a lot of survivors had real trauma in common. That's what brought them together. But did it also keep those relationships going, too?
PEREL: A lot of survivors after the war and after they had kind of ended the initial stage of rebuilding and locating themselves and creating a new life and having children right away to prove that they're still human would look at each other and say, we have nothing in common. What am I doing here? But they would never divorce. Again, because they couldn't bear the loss one more time.
PEREL: The luck I had is that when my parents would look at each other, they actually shared a tremendous amount. They loved life. They had a (speaking French). They rejoiced in the things that the other one liked to do and went to do for themselves.
ZOMORODI: Esther's parents transformed their trauma into a partnership that celebrated life. Together, they became even more resilient. And right now, many of us are looking at our lives and wondering, will this time destroy or strengthen our relationships? So today on the show, we're spending the hour with Esther Perel and her ideas about how we can all build long-lasting relationships in romance, our families and even at work.
So, Esther, you've been a therapist for decades now. But back in 1986, that is when you actually shifted your whole focus to work with couples. Why did you decide to do that? Like, what was going on that you felt couples should be the thing you work on?
PEREL: Yes. Yes. Couples therapy became a field that flourished because the meaning of the couple inside the family really transformed. When marriage was a no-exit enterprise, then it didn't really matter if the couple did that well or not. I mean, it mattered a great deal, but it didn't matter for the survival of the family. People stayed together miserable if they had to. Once people could leave, the expectations and the demands from their intimate relationships completely changed. And I found that transition really fascinating.
I also found couples therapy an endlessly fascinating practice and something that would take years to become good at and a science that was proliferating at the same time. And so I realized that there was an energy in the room with a couple. You could actually see the change happening in front of you if you helped people to connect or to open up or to be vulnerable with each other or to speak truth to each other or to apologize to each other. I thought this is a full human theater. It's the best theater in the world. And I became very, very excited about doing couples work.
And then how that moved to sexuality was the same thing. I mean, it's also because the meaning of sexuality, the expectations around their sexual lives, the shift from, you know, women's rights to women's pleasure to the democratization of contraception, of course, all these things began to change the meaning of sex in relationships. You know, sexual satisfaction became linked with marital happiness.
ZOMORODI: So your first TED Talk was actually about this very topic, arguing that relationships and sex are not separate things, and in fact, sex is a key factor when it comes to building a resilient partnership. And so let's turn to your 2013 TED Talk, which is called "The Secret To Desire In A Long-Term Relationship."
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
PEREL: So why does good sex so often fade, even for couples who continue to love each other as much as ever? And why does good intimacy not guarantee good sex, contrary to popular belief? Or the next question would be, can we want what we already have? That's the million-dollar question, right? And why is the forbidden so erotic? What is it about transgression that makes desire so potent? And why does sex make babies and babies spell erotic disaster in couples?
PEREL: It's kind of the fatal erotic blow, isn't it? And when you love, how does it feel? And when you desire, how is it different? These are some of the questions that are at the center of my exploration on the nature of erotic desire and its concomitant dilemmas in modern love. So I traveled the globe, and what I'm noticing is that everywhere where romanticism has entered, there seems to be a crisis of desire - a crisis of desire as in owning the wanting, desire as an expression of our individuality, of our free choice, of our preferences, of our identity, desire that has become a central concept as part of modern love in individualistic societies.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ZOMORODI: Oh, my goodness. Listening to that, Esther, reminds me of a conversation I had with a colleague a few years ago. And she told me that she and her husband were splitting, and I was like, oh, I had no idea that you guys weren't happy. And she said, oh, we're not unhappy; I think we just could be each happier. And I was like, oh, oh, you're not leaving 'cause you're (laughter) - they had a perfectly fine marriage, but they were - kind of wanted to know what else was out there. Is that what you're referring to as this crisis of desire?
PEREL: I would say that when I hear the statement of your friend, what stands out for me is that, for most of history, marriage was one time for life. Then as we got the possibility of leaving and divorce became legalized, often people left when they were really miserable. And today, we don't leave because we are unhappy necessarily, but we also leave because we think we could be happier. And that is how consumerism has entered modern marriage.
ZOMORODI: (Laughter) Wow.
PEREL: When I think about the crisis of desire, I think about it slightly differently. What attracted me to the subject of sexuality after working for almost 20 years in the cultural arena, I just felt like I'm ready to explore something new, and I stumbled upon sexuality. It was absolutely not planned. And I stumbled about it, actually, around the Clinton scandal because what interested me was how sexuality in every society, in every culture becomes the place where the most archaic, traditional, rooted aspects of that culture are lodged or, on the other end, where the most progressive, radical, transformative changes take place.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
PEREL: It is a window into a society, to its beliefs, its attitudes, its behavior, its research - or lack thereof, like here - around sexuality. And then I began to notice one of the big changes in relationships, marriage or committed relationships, is that for most of history, sexuality was primarily a production enterprise. You wanted eight children so that they could work the land. And some of them were not surviving, so you needed many of them. And they were an economic asset. And it was a woman's marital duty, and nobody really asked if you liked it, if you wanted it, if it felt good; you basically did it. And it was the doing of it that mattered.
And that changed then to a next model, which was belonging and romance inside marriage. And marriage literally shifted from an economic enterprise to an affectionate, romantic enterprise. And then we went from the service economy to - in marriage, to the identity economy in marriage, which is that, you're going to help me become the best version of myself. So now if you only have a few children, you need a motivation, a reason to stay sexually involved with the partner for years on end, and that's where desire becomes part of it. It's no longer what I should do, so it becomes what I want to do. And because it was part of premarital sex, which is quite common in Western world before, desire has become the central organizing principle of modern sexuality - more than arousal, more than reproduction, more than anything.
ZOMORODI: That's a lot of pressure on a relationship, Esther.
PEREL: Yeah, yeah.
ZOMORODI: I mean...
PEREL: Since the '60s, people can do it when they want. They have contraception in hand. So here is a generation with contraception in hand, premarital sex as a norm, the possibility of experiencing with each other what they want, and so often, they don't feel like it, and they don't know why.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
PEREL: And that's when studying desire in long-term relationship became really like, what's happening? Why don't they want to now that they can?
ZOMORODI: In just a minute, we'll hear what Esther discovered when she investigated long-term intimacy and more on building resilient relationships, even when infidelity is involved. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And today on the show, building resilient relationships with therapist Esther Perel. And before the break, Esther was explaining how the expectations in modern marriage have changed.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
PEREL: So we come to one person, and we basically are asking them to give us what once an entire village used to provide. Give me belonging. Give me identity. Give me continuity. But give me transcendence and mystery and awe all in one. Give me comfort. Give me edge. Give me novelty. Give me familiarity. Give me predictability. Give me surprise. And we think it's a given, and toys and lingerie are going to save us with that.
PEREL: So now we get to the existential reality of this story, right? Because I think in some way, the crisis of desire is often a crisis of the imagination.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
PEREL: When I say that we cannot have one person give us what once an entire village used to provide, what I'm saying is that there is a kind of individualization in romantic love that I think is problematic. Look. At this moment, I'm not just even meeting a partner. We are meeting a soul mate. A soul mate used to be God, you know? But at this moment, people are talking about ecstasy, transcendence, meaning, wholeness, you know, things that we used to look for in the realm of the divine that have now been transcended into romantic love. It was meant to be. It's almost a divine intervention. It fell from the heavens in front of me.
And, you know, I think that the problem is with that model of one person for everything. What I will say is that people need community, and they need other friends. They need other people to talk to. They need other people to share activities that their partner isn't interested in. To ask one person to do all of that - to give me belonging, to give me meaning, to give me community, to give me transcendence, to give me - and then all the other stuff of everyday life - succession, children, family life, money, etc. - that is...
ZOMORODI: And clean out the dishwasher, Esther (laughter).
PEREL: Right. It's like - that is - and everybody knows it. And I think Eli Finkel says it very nicely in his book. It's, like, you know, the people who are able to get on the top of Mount Olympus have a fantastic view, and their relationships are often much better than the relationships in history. But not everybody can climb to the top of Mount Olympus. And so it makes all the other people feel like there's something wrong with them because they don't have this kind of bliss that they talk. They have normal, everyday marital warfare rather than marital bliss.
ZOMORODI: Yeah. And I think that warfare can really be about anything, right? It can be work or family obligations, money and infidelity, which is actually what your second TED talk was about, the one you gave in 2015 called Rethinking Infidelity.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
PEREL: Why do we cheat? And why do happy people cheat? And is an affair always the end of a relationship? For the past 10 years, I have traveled the globe and worked extensively with hundreds of couples who have been shattered by infidelity. There is one simple act of transgression that can rob a couple from their relationship, their happiness and their very identity - an affair. And yet this extremely common act is so poorly understood. Adultery has existed since marriage was invented and so, too, the taboo against it. In fact, infidelity has a tenacity that marriage can only envy, so much so, that this is the only commandment that is repeated twice in the Bible - once for doing it, and once just for thinking about it.
PEREL: So how do we reconcile what is universally forbidden yet universally practiced?
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
PEREL: Because I find a soul mate, when you cheat on me, it hurts more than it has ever hurt in history because I come to deal with the expectation that it isn't meant to be. It's not meant to happen. I didn't wait until I'm 34, you know, after I've met so many other people, and I found the one. How can the one do that to me? When people did not marry the one, infidelity was deeply painful. When people married their soul mate, infidelity is traumatic. And it's a shattering of their identity and their entire world. And in that sense, it has become one of the more ultimate betrayals in relationships. People can do a lot of things in relationships, and nobody says instantly, get out. Leave. Throw the dog on the curb. You know, get out.
And yet there are many, many other painful relational betrayals in couples. But this one today has become the queen of betrayals because of - because love in its idealization is not meant to include this kind of rupture anymore.
ZOMORODI: But you actually point out in your talk that for some of the couples who come to see you, infidelity doesn't necessarily mean the end of their relationship.
PEREL: The fact is the majority of couples who have experienced affairs stay together. But some of them will merely survive, and others will actually be able to turn a crisis into an opportunity. They'll be able to turn this into a generative experience. And I'm actually thinking even more so for the deceived partner, who will often say, you think I didn't want more? But I'm not the one who did it. But now that the affair is exposed, they, too, get to claim more. And they no longer have to uphold the status quo that may not have been working for them that well, either.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
PEREL: I've noticed that a lot of couples in the immediate aftermath of an affair, because of this new disorder that may actually lead to a new order, will have depths of conversations with honesty and openness that they haven't had in decades. And partners who were sexually indifferent find themselves suddenly so lustfully voracious, they don't know where it's coming from. Something about the fear of loss will rekindle desire and make way for an entirely new kind of truth.
ZOMORODI: Yeah, what are you thinking when you hear that? Because you now have the benefit of 20-20 hindsight. And do you think that society is changing the way - I guess, are people being more empathetic and kinder and less, you know, making moral judgments about people? And I suppose that that depends on what generation you're from.
PEREL: I think when I listen to it, I - first of all, I haven't heard it in quite a few years. And I - what stands out for me first of all is the silence in the room.
PEREL: I remember the silence in the room. People were transfixed. I felt slowly like, I am talking the taboo. And then I felt - you know, and I am in the United States. And I knew this has never been said from a TED stage, any of this. And I just - at one point, I was there. I was swimming, and I had to continue swimming and walk that fine line where I really wanted people on all sides of the experience to feel like I had addressed them with respect and dignity and that fine line was so, so important for me.
I've worked for 35 years as a clinician with couples. I've seen hundreds of people around this story. And I also understand that the people who come to me were looking for a certain approach that was not present enough. The other view is is out there and is valid for some people. To many people, it is really the view that they are looking for.
But there were a lot of people that were looking for some other way. They actually knew that they were not in bad relationships. They didn't really want to separate. They wanted to find a way out of this that wasn't mired in shame and in secrecy and in silence and that actually said to them, this is not the end of your relationship, per se. And I was very pleased and moved that I could offer an alternative perspective to those who were looking for it. There is no one size fits all.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ZOMORODI: So I think this is a great moment to turn to another side of your work, which is podcasting. You let listeners hear a therapy session between you and real couples on your podcast, which is called Where Should We Begin? So I guess, first of all, why a podcast?
PEREL: So after the TED talk, I said to myself, these are things that I've often spoken about but only at clinical conferences and only in professional environments. This was my first time I was putting this out to the general audience. And I thought, this is where it belongs. There's so few people that can make it to my office or any therapist's office. This is actually a conversation that needs to take place in the public space.
And I want to shape, influence, engage with the conversation on a global level about relationships today. Relationships are undergoing massive transformation on all levels. But especially couples have gone through an extreme makeover. There is no other relationship that has gone through so much change. And most couples have absolutely no idea what's happening in the neighbor's house, like you and your friend. You know, you're not living in the village where everybody hears what's going on next door. So your friend is divorcing. And you think, oh, I thought everything was fine.
You know, and I thought, this office - I will preserve it. I will continue to do clinical work forever, as much as I can. But what happens here needs to be democratized. It needs to be made available and for free and all over the world and to people who have no idea about this. And the taking it out of the stigma and the shame was a piece of it, but it really is - was more it will make it accessible.
These are the conversations that people have at dinner table or when they sit with a friend. And I would like to let people know, what happens to you is happening to other people, too. A, you're not alone. B, when you listen deeply to the experiences of others, you actually see yourself in your own mirror. So even if this is not your personal situation, in every episode, you will find something that actually speaks to you. And see, as you hear other people have those difficult conversations, maybe you'll have the courage to start your own. And you'll get a vocabulary that you have needed.
ZOMORODI: OK. So we have a clip from "Where Should We Begin?" This is an episode called The Chronic Philanderer from the most recent season. And in this episode, you talked to a couple who is dealing with the husband's infidelity. For years, he's been talking to strangers in online chat rooms. And now he's having an affair with an old friend from high school, actually. So let's listen to a clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "WHERE SHOULD WE BEGIN?")
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It makes me feel diminished. Like, it makes me feel replaceable. It makes me feel replaceable knowing - you know, one thing he would say to me at the beginning is that if I met this woman before I met you, this is someone I could have seen myself live my life with. I was so shocked. I thought I was finally giving him the family that he needed to complete himself.
PEREL: I know. I know.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I was giving him the stability. I was trying to be, you know, loving and calm and compassionate and a good mother. And I was trying do all these things. I thought it was, like, really giving you everything that you wanted.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: They were.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And it's like - but that's where it was...
PEREL: Did you you hear?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You were. I was. But it wasn't enough.
PEREL: But that may not be because you're not enough. That's the catch here is to not translate this as if I was more, he wouldn't do this instead of, I was plenty.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I know.
PEREL: And whatever he did is not a response to you. You have got to know that.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I know.
PEREL: OK. No matter how much you've given him, there's a piece of it he's going to have to do on his own.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I know.
PEREL: Or not.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Or not. Or not.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Can I just say something to qualify the comment that this was someone I could live or see myself with a life with? I think in some ways, as warped as it may sound, I felt that was - it's not a compliment to you, but it's the idea that this wasn't just a floozy.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: This was someone of substance. The idea was it was an experience...
PEREL: May I stop you?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.
PEREL: I think the only - or the most important thing at this moment if you will say something to your wife has to be about acknowledging how [expletive] thing it was to say and how hurtful it was and not to justify yourself - seriously.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I really wasn't trying to hurt her.
PEREL: I don't care if you were trying, but when we do, you own it.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah. OK. I'm sorry. I am.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah. And what makes it worse is you keep justifying it when sometimes it's just - someone just wants to hear, I'm sorry, and that was wrong.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ZOMORODI: Oof (ph), Esther. I mean, this clip - I don't know how other people feel about it, but for me, I am torn. Like, on the one hand, it feels very voyeuristic. And on the other hand, I feel very judgmental. I'm like, come on, man. Get your crap together. And then I'm also really listening to how you handle him. And I'm thinking like, well, what can I learn from how Esther is talking to this guy?
PEREL: Interestingly, there's only - this is the only episode about infidelity in the whole season. But what people will have said and will say about this episode is many people want to strangle him.
PEREL: And I think that, you know, that, first of all, that is not my job. My job is to hold him responsible, accountable, hopefully have some ability to relate to another person's feeling and to the effect of his behaviors on his loved ones. And interestingly, when you reach the end of the session and you hear his - you know, his challenges around his feelings about masculinity, about the fact that he could not have a genetic connection to his children, about the way that, you know, he became the way he is not out of nothing. He becomes humanized. You may not like him, but you begin to understand him.
And that is the role of the therapist. The wife has to decide what she wants to do. And nobody lives with the consequences of her decisions but her. So it's very easy to tell people do this, do that. We are not in their seat. We help people gain clarity. We help people there to do the things that they are afraid to do if that's what they say they want to do. But we also understand that this is a couple that has two decades together almost, that they have a rich life, that they actually often get along quite well and that, for a couple like that, COVID may have actually been very good news - confinement, not COVID.
ZOMORODI: (Laughter) Right.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ZOMORODI: Coming up, we'll hear more from Esther on how she helps people navigate relationships in another area of life at work. On the show today, building resilient relationships with Esther Perel. I'm a Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And today on the show, therapist Esther Perel shares ideas on how we can all strengthen our relationships, whether that's in the context of dating, marriage, family and, more recently, at work.
PEREL: When people go to work, you interview them about their official resume - what schools did they go to, what experience of work have they had? And nobody's asking you about your unofficial resume, and your unofficial resume is your relationship history, and that relationship history does not stop at the door when you go into the office; it travels with you, and it is going to influence how you work with your colleagues or with your father or with your co-founder, etc.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
PEREL: A few years ago, nobody would invite me to come to talk about relationships in the corporate or in the business context because...
ZOMORODI: Why? Are you too risque?
PEREL: No. No, relationships was a soft skill. Relationship was soft skill. It wasn't part of the bottom line. And soft skills were often considered feminine skills, and feminine skills were often idealized in principle and disregarded in reality. And as we moved in the workplace from production to service to identity economy, where people now expect from work the same as they expect from their romantic relationships - those are the two places where people look for meaning, community, belonging, continuity, all of those things. Now, suddenly, relationships become the new bottom line because no amount of free food or money...
PEREL: ...Compensation, benefits is going to compensate for a poisonous relationship. And then I began to think, you know, I would love to go and show how these relational dynamics that I have been exploring, they don't just take place with your partner, your romantic partner; they actually are part of your relational life.
ZOMORODI: And it's because of all those reasons that you started working on a new podcast, "How's Work?" - right? - where you record therapy sessions with co-workers or co-founders and help them navigate their relationships.
ZOMORODI: And I want to play a clip from an episode that's called "Not Many Men Work With Their Moms," where you have a session with a mother and a son who've been running a real estate firm together. And at first, the mom ran the firm by herself, 25 five years, before hiring her son when he was 22 years old. And now here they are - it's six years later, and the two of them are finding it hard to separate their relationship as mother and son and their relationship as business partners.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST "HOW'S WORK? WITH ESTHER PEREL")
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I'm 61, and I have a problem now. I don't know how I will go on and for how long I will go on. You have your whole life in front of you. I don't. And I'm here because I cannot find my references anymore. Comes a moment when I want to say, maybe there's something else for me. I don't know where I stand anymore. This is my problem. And maybe that's why I'm so nervous sometimes. You know, sometimes I'm at the office; I see that he's bad-tempered. I said, oh, maybe he's hungry. I'm going to the supermarket - the mama again.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: And I do like this - I go, are you OK? Are you OK?
PEREL: You stroke his face?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Where's the mom? Where's the boss? Difficult. Whoa. Some - and, also, when I tell you, don't tell the clients, my mom is busy; she will phone you back. Tell - missis will phone you back. All those things you have to adapt. Very difficult. But I have a question. I have a question. And I have a question to you. Do you still need me? This I want to know. Do you still need me, honestly?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: The way it has been the last five, six years, it has been a learning curve. And I still learn every day from you, but it's more of a way that I don't need you to hold my hand as much anymore. You can loosen it a little bit, or I can let the hand go a little bit as well. For my years to come, it's more knowing that you have my back more than you hold my hand.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: There will come a moment where I will not be there anymore. You have - you will have to be alone. I'm thinking a lot about it.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: That's good to know.
PEREL: Do you know that?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Subconsciously, I do.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ZOMORODI: Esther, listening to that conversation, I'm just so impressed that they are so open with each other. Do they - do you find that the people who want to do these sessions with you are - they are ready to have the conversation? Or is it hard work getting them to sort of get to where they need to go?
PEREL: I would say the conversation is ready for them. They have no idea what they're going to do. I am very moved when I hear this passage myself. It's like - it's the conversations that - you know, the majority of the world is family business. It's not corporations (laughter). And I know so many sons and fathers and sons and mothers and daughters and parents who would like to have a similar conversation. So no, I don't think they come in because they're ready. They come in because they're in - they're stuck. They come in because they experience pain. They come in because they don't see a way out. And they say, maybe a session with Esther could be helpful.
ZOMORODI: And this episode really is a good example of what you mentioned before - that as much as therapy is about exploring intimacy in relationships, it's very important to have context be part of the conversation. And, of course, with this duo's conversation, the context is kind of messing with their heads. There's a mother-son relationship that suddenly doubles as a professional partnership. In other cases, I'm assuming you talk to people who go in business with a close friend. What are some of the main challenges you see when relationships function or they have to function in multiple contexts?
PEREL: So look. A lot of co-founders these days are friends who meet in college. And in the beginning, you know, there's another episode of two friends like that who started a company that became very successful, except they can't communicate with each other one bit. And one is literally on the way of kicking the other one out.
And that is painful enough when it's between two people who work together. But when it's your friend and when you feel like you are the one who, in the previous incarnation, were the one who was protecting him and you were doing much more of the work and you were kind of letting them, you know, roll behind you and that you're not just going to lose your partner but you're going to lose your friend and you're going to lose all the memories that were attached to this person that used to be so positive - I mean, how often do you sit at a dinner, and you meet someone who starts to tell you these horror stories of breakups, bad breakups.
And like in romantic relationships, when people remarry, you want to know, what is the story of their previous relationship and their divorce? When you start a business with somebody you want to know or even have a relationship with someone you work with, you want to know, what was their relationship with the people who had that position before? And I ask everybody, how many of you and your businesses have bad breakups? And to what extent do those breakups and in what way do these breakups influence the way you start to work with the next person and even who you hire? Often, we tend to hire the person whose strengths match the weaknesses of the one before you. I think work is a very rich ecology to explore the overt and the covert, the seen and the unseen relationship dynamics that people bring. We expected more in our personal relationships, but it happens no less at work.
ZOMORODI: It makes me think also about how the pandemic has really changed - you know, for essential workers, they're still in the same context, obviously under enormous strain for their family. And then there are the other people who are working from home on what feels like thousands of Zoom calls, where I know, for, me you know, I'm in the middle of a meeting, and I'll have my daughter plop down on my lap? And it's - it can be very disorienting, I think, for people that you're in one context and another context at the same time.
PEREL: So I would say I don't think we are working from home, Manoush. I think we are working with home. I am with my family, my children for some of us, my partner for some of us, my parents, my siblings, my roommates. I am inhabiting all the roles at the same time. I am the parent, the teacher, the lover, the friend, the child of the colleague, the boss, the CEO, you name it. And it's all happening often on the same chair in the kitchen.
PEREL: I do not leave. You know, we are used to having a different attire and a different time and a different space for the multiple activities that we engage in. When we go to work, we get dressed a certain way. We go to exercise. We change clothes. We move. We go from one place to another. Our activities are demarcated and delineated in time and in space. And at this moment, it is pretty much all a wash. I am homeschooling here, and there's no summer programs. I'm watching my children at the same time I'm trying to have a meeting. I am pretty much dressed from the midline up.
PEREL: So we have all these disembodied experiences. And people talk about exhaustion for a reason - because even the phone is much better, you know, where we actually are in synchronized time and not in a delay constantly. And we're not trying to look at people with whom we actually never make eye contact. So I think it's a very different reality. For some of us, we manage. We are - we have a separate room we can go. Some people even get dressed in the morning as if they were going to work, and they try to really maintain the routines, the rituals and the boundaries, which are the three essential elements that create structure. But for many of us, it is way more chaotic and draining. That's the reality at this moment of working, as we like to call it, from home or Zoom life.
ZOMORODI: It's funny - you know, the other thing that I've been thinking about is you talked about how work has changed and how it's become more part of our identity and community in this sense of belonging at work. It's not a job. It's who you are. And I wonder, you know, are you hearing from - I'll give an example like Airbnb, a company that, you know, recruited people based on identity. You're part of the team. The free snacks, the parties - and then they had to let go of a high percentage of their workforce. And you think, well, wait. I thought we were a family at work, and now that's over.
PEREL: Yes. Work was not just what I do but who I am.
PEREL: And when I lose my job, I lose a fundamental part of my identity. I thought I mattered because a younger generation has been raised with a deep sense that they are important and that they matter. And I can - I am totally dispensable and nobody actually really feels responsible for making sure that I will have something to eat. I think what a pandemic does for work and for personal is it rearranges your priorities. It makes - you know, a pandemic is an accelerator. Every disaster is an accelerator of relationships. It's an accelerator because it brings mortality to the forefront or loss - loss of job as well. And at that moment, you basically say, what am I waiting for? I'm going to go do what's really important. So I actually think that there's going to be a burst of creativity as well where people are going to say, if I can't do the traditional route and I went and I studied something and I prepared myself or I worked very hard and I hoped I would climb the ladders and all of that - if the promise of the traditional system doesn't hold, then I can go and try something completely different.
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PEREL: There is a rearranging of priorities and a reach for the essence that accompanies situations of disaster. And I think that's what we are seeing as well. You know, people are having much deeper conversations with their colleagues. At work, people understand - you know, they see homes. They've never seen where their colleagues live. They're in their living rooms. They're in their kitchens. They're in their bedrooms. Who is with you? Who are you taking care of? Who's your salary meant to feed? You know, there is actually a level of depth that is resurfacing that is very beautiful, you know? So I think in the relational sense, I would say that a pandemic, a disaster, often will highlight the cracks and it will also highlight the light that shines through the cracks.
ZOMORODI: Is that the same thing for - you know, there are predictions that divorce rates will be - will rise. Do you think that that's true, too?
PEREL: Yes because when you say, you know, what am I waiting for, it can mean life is short.
PEREL: I don't want to wait. I want to be with you. Let's move in. Let's get together. Let's have children. Let's - you know, let's do the things that we've been wanting to do. But it can also say life is short. I've waited long enough, and I'm out of here. And I just - I don't want to compromise. I don't want to accept things that the brevity of life doesn't allow me to accept anymore.
ZOMORODI: And so I have to ask, therapist, how are you doing through all of this?
PEREL: I think I mirror what I describe in the world and often thought of my parents because thinking about prolonged uncertainty and living with a deep sense of unknown and when is this going to end is what they would talk about. They talked about it but also people who were living in hiding during World War II who spent years - years - in a ditch, in a closet, in a haystack. And you wonder, how do people do it? And the spirit is so strong that they are actually there to tell us, at least some of them. And so I really began to want to listen to those stories, you know. What does it take to continue to wake up and to have hope and to give meaning to the hope and to give hope to the meaning, as Viktor Frankl used to say.
ZOMORODI: And what is it?
PEREL: I mean, in my case, I think if I'm helpful, if I can do somebody - something for someone else, I feel less helpless, and then I have a reason to get up. It's - ultimately, it's your relationships to other people. I still want to see them one more time. I want to hold them one more time. I don't want to let go of the meaningful relationships I have and the meaningful things I do. I think, ultimately, that's what gets everybody up.
ZOMORODI: That's therapist, author and speaker Esther Perel. We are so grateful to her for spending the hour with us. Her podcasts are "Where Should We Begin?" and "How's Work?" And you can hear her two TED Talks at ted.com. Thank you so much for listening to our show this week with Esther Perel on building resilient relationships. To see hundreds more TED Talks, check out ted.com or the TED app. Our TED radio production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye, J.C. Howard, Katie Monteleone, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Christina Cala and Matthew Cloutier. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Michelle Quint. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.
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