Esther Perel Goes Off Script

She became today’s most famous couples therapist by ignoring all the rules of the trade.

Photo: Dina Litovsky for New York Magazine
Photo: Dina Litovsky for New York Magazine

In 1964, on the occasion of his 50th birthday, Icek Perel hosted two parties. The first, held on a Friday, was populated by friends from the neighborhood: working-class Belgians with whom he had formed a joyous, if circumstantial, alliance. Over beer, they told jokes in Flemish; his guests, who were also customers at the clothing shop he ran beneath his apartment, hardly knew he and his family were Jewish. The second party, held the next day, mimicked the first but was revived with a few crucial twists: The guests were all fellow Holocaust survivors, the punch lines were delivered in Yiddish, and the beer had been swapped out for vodka.

Icek and his wife, Sala, were the sole survivors of their respective families and met on the road to liberation before settling illegally as refugees in Antwerp. Their union was unlikely — she was born to aristocrats, he was functionally illiterate. As survivors, they were in a state of disbelief and started a family to prove to themselves they were still human. Their daughter, Esther, began working in the store as soon as she could speak. Her parents, she observed, were constantly shifting roles; depending on the time of day, they might speak to each other as colleagues or as a couple. Esther was their bridge and their best reader. Where others saw isolated traits, she recognized a grand narrative: of loss, of love, and of the strange and conflicting ways one’s identity can shift to accommodate its context.

Today, Esther Perel identifies as a scriptwriter, the person who propels a plot forward when life’s main characters are otherwise paralyzed by self-doubt. But when she speaks to her audience, a population of millions, it is from her position as America’s preeminent couples therapist. She is the author of two best-selling works of nonfiction, Mating in Captivity and The State of Affairs, and the host of two podcasts, Where Should We Begin? and How’s Work?, the latter of which began its second season this month. She is an expert in dealing with couples who are vexed by contradiction. They come to her when they need security but desire space, and when they imagine love to be capacious only to experience it as a constriction. They are, in other words, stuck. Most arrive at her office looking for a way out, but by the time they leave, they will have surrendered any fantasy of a quick fix. In Perel’s treatment of relational conflicts, there are no solutions, only paradoxes to manage. Her observations are studded with the seductive certainty of mantras. Sex “isn’t something you do, it’s a place you go”; love “enjoys knowing everything about you,” but “desire needs mystery”; and envy “is a tango between two people,” while “the dance of jealousy requires three.” Like anyone who has found community among strangers or felt alone in a crowded room, she believes our relationships determine the quality of our lives.

When we meet for lunch, she speaks with the conviction of someone who has been rehearsing her lines for years. Anyone who has gone to therapy will recognize the trappings of the profession in her speech. She is prone to repetition, and her advice is so crystallized as to sometimes seem premeditated. In response to more than one of my questions, she recites phrases from her books and lectures word for word. Perel’s greatest trick, perhaps, is that she still feels present. Her most well-trodden sound bites are uttered conspiratorially, like she’s letting you in on a secret. Even in a ramshackle plastic-covered outdoor–dining bungalow, she can turn a passing encounter into a scene. Halfway through our meal, a businessman who has either refused or forgotten to wear a mask begins yelling for the waiter. I’ve already dismissed him as a jerk and resolved to avoid eye contact. Perel, halting our conversation, turns directly toward the man and watches him with such open curiosity that by the time he finally speaks, it feels as if she has summoned his lines directly from his guilty conscience.

“I need my mask,” he says.

“Of course,” she responds, laughing. “It’s very important.”

At its inception almost half a century before Perel’s birth, couples counseling focused exclusively on marriage — then recognized as a couple’s only legitimate form. In the U.S., counselors were rarely clinicians and usually performed sessions as tasks that were auxiliary to their primary duties as gynecologists, clergy members, or social workers. The problems that arose within unions were assumed to be navigable through the development of practical skills like cooking or household management.

Following the declining birth rates of the Great Depression, however, a new kind of counselor took up the mantle of romantic management. In 1930, Paul Popenoe, a eugenicist who had made a name for himself promoting forced sterilizations and who is now popularly, if ironically, regarded as the “father” of marriage counseling, opened the American Institute of Family Relations in Los Angeles. The sanctity of the white race, in Popenoe’s view, would depend on both the degradation of nonwhite families and the maintenance of white marriage. “I began to realize that if we were to promote a sound population,” he wrote, “we would not only have to get the right kind of people married, but would have to keep them married.” Over the course of two decades, his notions quietly launched an industry of counselors. They weren’t all eugenicists, but Popenoe became their representative fixture in popular culture. By the 1950s, he was the publisher of countless marriage manuals; the host of a dial-in radio program called “Love and Marriage”; a judge on one of TV’s earliest reality shows, Divorce Hearing; and the author of “Can This Marriage Be Saved?,” an advice column that ran in the now-shuttered Ladies’ Home Journal and was once regarded as “the most popular, most enduring women’s magazine feature in the world.”

But as the postwar period brought more women into the American workforce, economic security was decoupled from marriage, and coupling was ascribed with the frivolous marks of pleasure. Partnership, no longer constrained to a financial function, became the locus of everything else: wish fulfillment, identity formation, friendship, sexual pleasure. By the time Perel began her undergraduate studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the late 1970s, couples counseling was in the throes of an identity crisis. Practitioners in the therapeutic avant-garde were attempting to hitch the field to burgeoning theories of mental health, while their more traditional counterparts tugged the reins, keeping their focus trained on matrimony. Perel, for her part, gave no thought to the psychology of romantic love. Her program combined French linguistics and literature, but she simultaneously developed an interest in psychotherapy and theater. She completed 700 hours of training in psychodrama, a form of therapy in which patients use props and improvisation to dramatize their memories.

Perel wondered if performance could make sense of the conflicting narratives produced by migration. What is the difference between departing from one’s home willingly and fleeing without choice? And how do those differences influence the way people act as immigrants in the countries that host them? From her parents, she had learned identity was malleable, but the therapy of her time espoused a one-size-fits-all approach. “I felt like I could use theater, I could use poetry, I could use music,” Perel says. “Therapy is an art for me, not just a science or a method. For that, you need to be able to use many different tools.”

When she moved to Cambridge in 1981 to complete her master’s degree in -expressive-arts therapy, Perel felt exhausted by the dyadic nature of individual psychotherapy, which relies exclusively on solitary accounts. Group therapy, though, was like cinema: People acted from scripts inherited from their parents, mangled- their lines, and performed the very traits they claimed to detest. For her first clinical project after graduation, she gathered a group of Black and Jewish mental-health practitioners for a series of workshops held in New York City. They were all strangers to one another, but their personal and professional experiences were entwined: Many of the Jewish participants had been raised by Black nannies, and many of the Black participants had been mentored by Jewish clinicians. Perel was fascinated by the relationships forged between minority groups. How had the marginalization of one set the stage for the marginalization of the other? And how had arriving in the U.S. as a refugee resulted in a relationship to diaspora that was fundamentally different from that of someone who had arrived here enslaved?

She began conducting group-therapy sessions with couples, who together explored similar themes. Eventually, a few of those couples asked to see her alone. Because she wasn’t yet licensed, she would need to be supervised. She began studying under Salvador Minuchin, the founder of structural family therapy. The couples therapist Terry Real explains Minuchin’s innovation succinctly: “If a child is truant, a traditional individual therapist will think, What does the truancy mean? A family therapist will think, Who is the child going home to take care of?” For Perel, the shift felt revolutionary, especially in the context of her patients, almost all of whom had married across cultures, religions, ethnicities, and races and were attempting to reconcile their inherited family values with new theories of romantic love.

After facilitating a guest seminar at a drug-addiction clinic, she was invited to provide counseling for its resident families and couples on an ongoing basis. Eventually, one of her supervisors took notice of her unconventional style and offered her a job teaching in the psychiatry department at New York University. Perel was still unlicensed and had no degree beyond her master’s but nevertheless began teaching and supervising psychiatric residents. “When you’re an immigrant and your degrees don’t correspond to the norm,” she says, “you have people who say, ‘Meh,’ or you have people who say, ‘Show me what you’ve got.’ ”

In 1998, Perel was approached to write a book. She had been teaching for almost a decade, her reputation was growing, and summarizing her research on intermarriage for a broader public was the logical next step. But the excitement that had once animated her career was depleted. She was raising two young sons, and her clinical work was starting to feel rote. “I had lost my curiosity,” she says. “I knew what people were going to say, sometimes before they spoke, or so I thought.”

Marriage rates were plummeting, but sex was all over the news. At a White House press conference, the president, standing beside his wife, declared he “did not have sexual relations with that woman,” while “that woman” was widely denigrated as a “slut” with a penchant for perjury. The Clinton scandal was that year’s best blockbuster, and Perel was a diligent spectator. She wondered how a country so promiscuous could be so quick to clutch its pearls. And how a man, having orchestrated missile strikes across three continents, could proclaim himself powerless when presented with the sexual interest of a 22-year-old intern whose touch, he rationalized, was a necessary balm for his occupational distress.

Perel had no training in sexual psychology, but she knew she had found the inspiration for her first book. In its final form, Mating in Captivity is a treatise on the paradoxical compulsions that condition long-term relationships. Because eroticism is sustained by fantasy, Perel realized it could be used as a portal — into an individual’s idiosyncratic kinks, sure, but also into the sociopolitical strictures that make one desire escape. Our work lives are governed by efficiency, but desire “squander[s] time and resources.” And although democratic ideals like compromise make for a healthy marital union, they simultaneously make for lackluster sex. “The grand illusion of committed love is that we think our partners are ours,” she wrote. “In truth, their separateness is unassailable, and their mystery is forever ungraspable. As soon as we can begin to acknowledge this, sustained desire becomes a real possibility.”

When I read Mating in Captivity earlier this year, it struck me as a particularly compelling articulation of common sense. But at the time of its publication, Perel says, “it was the shaking of the sacred cows.” Fellow clinicians accused Perel of dismissing marriage. “I won’t say who,” Real tells me over the phone, “but a very well-known, well-respected marriage therapist got out onstage in front of thousands of people and said that she was dangerous to families.” The State of Affairs, Perel’s second book, published in 2017, was an instant best seller but invited a similarly indignant response. Infidelity, the book suggests, isn’t a betrayal that always necessitates a relationship’s demise; like all sexual plots, it is a story that contains a multitude of possible endings and can be harnessed to breathe new life into a partnership. (“An affair,” Perel writes, is “a radiant parenthesis.”) Because her theory of adultery wasn’t unilaterally critical, she was accused of championing a theory- of love that celebrated deception. The New York Times book critic Parul Sehgal described Perel as “a tonic, and sometimes a tough one to swallow.” Writing for The New Yorker, Zoë Heller described her analysis as “punishing and arduous.” Perel admits the writing process was difficult. “I was, for a while, struggling with the notion that I could hear how people were reading. I kept thinking, That’s not what I’m saying! I could literally role-play my writing and their reading, until I finally said to myself, This is not for everybody.

There are some moments that aren’t for me. I cringed, for example, when Perel describes a white Frenchwoman who — in a desperate bid to trigger the superstitious beliefs of her cheating West African husband — cloaks herself in “vibrant African dress” and hides a bottle of lamb’s blood in their shared garden. Perel praises the wife for her ingenuity; I fantasized about the husband’s revenge.

Even now, Perel seems surprised by her audacity. She pauses her recollections a handful of times to point out that, at every stage of her career, she has had “no idea” what she was doing. So it should come as no surprise that by the end of her initial meeting with producers from Audible for her now-hit series, Where Should We Begin?, it became clear to everyone that Perel had never listened to a podcast.

The company’s original idea was for couples to come on the show and each present their case. Perel was adamant it wouldn’t work. In her experience, when two people sat down to tell a story, they rarely began in the same place. No one was completely reliable, least of all the therapist, who, like anyone trying to hold up their end of the relational bargain, was bound to make mistakes.

In the version of Where Should We Begin? that made it to air in 2017, the trio write the story together. Each episode is composed of a single, anonymous, one-off couples-counseling-session mediated by Perel and brought to life through everyday domestic dramas: sexless marriages, salacious affairs, competing fantasies of reconciliation. In the four years since, Perel’s audience has doubled in size. Where Should We Begin?, which moved to Gimlet in 2019, is downloaded millions of times a year and is on the verge of becoming a brand — this summer, Perel plans to unveil a card game of the same name. How’s Work? launched in 2019 and employs the same format but features partners in the workplace (only some of whom are romantically involved). “I don’t change lanes,” Perel tells me. “I change contexts.” Because these sessions aren’t ongoing, Perel refuses to recognize her podcast work as therapy, but she insists it’s “riveting storytelling.” Indeed, despite the proliferation of therapy-themed podcasts, which have grown so populous as to compose their own mini-ecosystem, nowhere are the theatrics so captivatingly quotidian as on Where Should We Begin? Couples interrupt each other, lash out, and withhold affection. If she’s successful, Perel will pull the whole thing together. The couples that appear before her aren’t patients, but she considers her work with them to be an act of “public health.” She believes the insights gleaned in therapy need to be “affordable, as in free” and “accessible, as in worldwide.”

Still, Hayden Dawes, a therapist and Ph.D. student who has served as a consultant on Perel’s shows, concedes there are those who say she’s “exploiting people,” that the work that has made her a star “is a step up from Jerry Springer.” A recent episode of WSWB?, for example, features a husband and wife who are technically separated but confined together in quarantine. During our interview, Perel refers to them as “the couple from hell.” They are so insistent on belittling each other that I wonder if I’m not meant to find their fighting entertaining. (Honestly, I do.) Stripped of its theatrics, their story is typical: Their union is disintegrating in the shadow of an affair. She lodges white-hot accusations against him; he responds in the detached tone of a third party. They are actors from different plays competing for the same spotlight. Toward the end of the session, Perel admits that perhaps they aren’t destined for a grand finale. “You’re going to need to learn to stay away from each other and navigate being together apart,” she says.

When I ask if she knows where the couple is now, she says they have almost certainly separated. “In the end, you’re interested in change,” she tells me. “You’re interested in people not being stuck in the stories that no longer serve them in their lives.” Perel may be an expert narrator, but unlike most celebrities who have made a career of performing psychology, her strength is in never professing to have all the answers. For every ten mantras, she makes a misstep, which she readily admits. Either she speaks too soon, or doesn’t say enough, and it is often her lapses in judgment that feel the most narratively compelling, like when an actress, inspired by a whim, goes off script and, for a brief moment, gives in to her compulsions.

Esther Perel Goes Off Script