If you treat passion for stability, you basically trade one fiction for another. Both are products of our imagination.
Welcome to the Knowledge Project, a long term conversation hosted by Shane Parrish. Our goal with the podcast is simple to learn something new in every conversation that makes us a little bit smarter than we were yesterday. You can learn more about the show and find past episodes at F-stop blog slash podcast. The Knowledge Project is part of forums for a website dedicated to mastering the best of what other people have already figured out. Farnam Street puts together a weekly newsletter called Brain Food that comes out every Sunday, much like this podcast.
It's high signal, timeless and mind-expanding you can read what you've been missing at F-stop blog. I get asked a lot to do episodes on relationships, people want to know how we farm them, how we break them and how we make them stronger. Today, I was speaking with Esther Paral. I've waited a long time for this conversation. Esther is a psychotherapist based in New York, author, Ted Speaker and host of Where We Should Begin podcast.
Today, we're going to talk about her childhood and growing up with two parents who survived the Holocaust. The difference between living and surviving and, of course, relationships and the ways we communicate with our partners. We discuss honesty, common argument patterns, conscious uncoupling, desire, sex and our podcast. It's time to listen and learn. The Knowledge Project is sponsored by Medlab for a decade, Medlab has helped some of the world's top companies and entrepreneurs build products that millions of people use every day.
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And when you get in touch tell them chainsawing you. It's great to meet you. I'm so happy to have you available for this conversation. I've been looking forward to this for weeks. Your parents were in concentration camps, I think, from your mom from 18 to 22, and your father was twenty five to thirty one because of the war. Started very early for them. What is your parents credit their survival to you?
Hmm, yeah, well, we're going right to the heart of the matter. I think my parents always said, look, came first, just sheer luck that they were not rounded up at a certain morning when they would take thousand people and move them from the labor camp to the extermination camp. But secondly, I think they had sheer determination that that they were going to be there to, first of all, to be witnesses, to still be there.
They imagine that they would have members of their family actually, that they would hopefully see again.
And they were extraordinarily determined to stay alive and and and an active about it.
I think they had a very clear sense of where they came from, who they were and why they needed to survive. And the rest is the stories that they told about the multiple things they had to do in order to stay alive.
What are some of the stories, huh?
My mother spent a year hiding in the woods when she was 18 and became petrified by the barking dogs and the sense that every morning she would wake up in a different place and not know what the day was going to be. And she basically surrendered by herself to a male labor camp, figuring that maybe they would need somebody in the laundry or in the kitchen and that at least she would know every morning where she wakes up. I didn't know many people who went by themselves to the camp and when the camp was a better option than the hiding in the woods and stealing eggs from farms and potatoes from fields and stuff like that to just, you know, stay alive.
My dad, the last year and a half in one of the camps he was in, 14 of them, basically organized some kind of a black market with the kitchen around, you know, food and potatoes or potato peels more correctly and and managed to actually feed the Germans as well.
So the SS basically liked him in the kitchen. He was better for him. He ate better, as he said when my dad was there, than when my dad would go to the factory. If you went to the factory, you basically lived another week.
And there was that because you had to work an hour and a half in frozen weather to to get there.
So it's just stories of how they beat the system basically, and stories of how they they made connections with other people, how they created deep friendships, how he had a man, another man who became his kind of lifelong brother, with whom he fought together. I think that it was very clear that neither of them ever attributed to their survival to themselves alone. They had strength.
My dad always talked about how they came from tiny villages in Poland where it's frozen weather and the winter and and they were more robust. They were more resistant. You know, he carried bags of cement on his back and therefore he knew how to work hard in the camps. He didn't come from Paris or cook for, you know, Mediterranean weathers. So they had this whole way of describing what made them strong, basically.
Did your parents meet in a concentration camp? Interestingly, my parents met the day of liberation on the road as they came out of the camps, they were in neighboring camps and people just basically wandered the roads.
And, you know, as my mother would say with cotton balls in your head and looked for whoever they knew or whoever knew something about the towns they came from or about their families or their whereabouts. And and people basically would say, oh, there is such and such I just saw from that village, you know, and go go find them. So they met each other like that and they knew of each other because my father traded with my mother's family when they were still in Poland.
They probably would never have met or married for sure, because my mother was Orthodox aristocracy, educated aristocracy, and my dad was rather illiterate and uneducated and and a grand men, but not necessarily an educated reader. So they would they were completely of different classes.
And he always thought that he had found a beautiful princess, that he had like some of the local law, that he had the lotto, that he had won the lotto with my mother. And it came like that. Basically, people gathered on the roads and began to travel and wonder where they should go. I mean, they were not going to go back to Poland.
Its refugee stories of today. It's the same stories.
And my dad had helped somebody from Belgium in the camps. And that meant give him a name and a false address and just basically said, come to Belgium. So they arrived like that to Belgium, where they had a permit to stay for three months. And then they were supposed to be dispatched in a number of other countries which who at the time were willing to take the Jewish refugees and they decided to stay. So they stayed another five years as illegal refugees in Belgium.
I mean, it's quite remarkable how well I grew up with the stories. My first passport, which was a stateless passport. I mean, that all of that is so, so current. I think that the relevance of the story is not so much about what happened then, but about the fact that so much of a start, this will never happen again, this cannot happen again, and it is happening again all over the place.
All right. Were they just a little bit before we we sort of dive into relationships because what does it mean to come back to life after surviving the Holocaust in a community?
I mean, what's the difference between living and sort of surviving?
I mean, it's a distinction that I began to think about that I didn't grow up with that distinction, though. There were loads of stories about that, about people who were depressed, about people who were bitter, about people who, you know, you married because I have nothing. You have nothing. I'm alone. You're alone. Let's get married. But often these people had no reason to be together except the rebuilding. And so they had a lot of energy in the initial phases and they had children right away as a way to prove their humanity.
And but after that, sometimes they would look at each other and these people had nothing in common.
And my parents had friends like that who were, you know, couples that didn't really have much to do together except surviving, but not living.
But when I wrote Mating in captivity is really when I began to think about it, because mating is about how do you maintain a sense of aliveness? It is about erotic intelligence. And in so doing, I began to look at my community and noticed that, in fact, I could make a separation. It's a metaphor more than an accurate description. You know, I don't know that people I would describe this way would necessarily agree with it.
But I remember thinking in my community, I often noticed that there were two groups of people and the people who survived, the people who did not die often were quite afraid, reticent, continuously aware of danger and trusting.
Nobody literally could enter in there. And there was a certain kind of morbidity in the homes. There was often survivor guilt. There was often a sense that, you know, life had broken them. And then on the other side, I saw people who were going to take life, you know, by the horns with a vengeance. It's like I didn't survive for nothing and I'm going to make the best of it and I'm going to live grand for all those who didn't make it.
And for me, the way I described it is that they understood the erotic as an antidote to death. Basically, it's it's what does it take to maintain hope, to maintain a sense of meaning, to have imagination? Because if you have hope, you need to be able to project yourself, you know, whether you're in a camp or whether you're in a relationship. You have to be able to imagine yourself to have a sense of anticipation, to project a better situation than the one you're in or something to look forward to.
And that's a whole way of cultivating the imagination is something that I then began to really talk to my parents about and and understood that, in fact, you don't have to be in a concentration camp for that. This is an essential tool for life, for experiencing joy and meaning and freedom and possibility.
I was thinking, as you were saying, that like we often take tomorrow for granted, but I imagine that that's almost impossible for you growing up with your parents in that situation and in a community like that.
I would say that it's the opposite for me, I, I think. I live with tremendous energy and and I do a lot and I live quite full, but underneath there is a kind of chronics, that sense of dread that everything can stop any moment. I have no sense that tomorrow is taken for granted for me. I think that I'm going to get a big surprise and it won't be a small bubble.
But I try not to think about it the whole time. But it is it is continuously there. And I think on the one hand, you could experience it as something that is terrifying, that deflates you, that constricts and contract you, or you can experience it as because anything can stop any moment. I'm going to give it its fullest right now. So in a way, it really naturally creates a stance in life in which the present has to be savored or fully experienced or dealt with.
It's not always a positive thing, but basically it's not an effort to be in the present.
In that sense, if things are sort of impermanent, I guess in a way where you're constantly questioning tomorrow and what could be there, what might be there, and how does that affect our relationship as an individuals with trust and vulnerability? I mean, you know, the question of permanence and impermanence is the question that also points to the distinction between east and West. We believe that there is such a thing as permanence and we believe that there is such a thing as stability and predictability.
There are entire philosophies who look at the world and a life as being in permanent flux. That's the state of impermanence, that things are continuously changing and morphing. And therefore, you know, to to imagine that you can create stability is basically a fiction. And I think there's something very powerful about that.
That means that you actually are. I don't think it necessarily doesn't permit you to trust or it doesn't allow you to feel vulnerable. It just is a different awareness about about the world. It's a different philosophical stance.
Look, for example, in mating, in captivity, I wrote I remember a moment when I read that sentence and it made a lot of sense for me. Right. The idea that you should trade passion and for security, for example, from the Eastern perspective or from the perspective of impermanence, if you treat passion for stability, you basically trade one fiction for another. Both are products of our imagination. And once I began to think like that, it offered for me something way more flexible in what people can do in their relationships to maintain a sense of vitality or a sense of aliveness.
And it really comes down to the imagination. I mean, it is with our mind that we create stories and those stories basically shape our experience. And if you live with the story of things never change, you live in one reality. And if you live with a narrative that says things to always change, they continuously change. Then you live with a very different set of beliefs about how you love, how you work, how you live. He talked to me a little bit more about the stories that sort of shape how we see the world and your experience with them a lot in terms of your psychotherapy, is that are you replacing narratives with people?
Are you sort of trying to get them to open up and expand their view and a relationship therapy? Or how does that how does that work?
Oh, it's a great question. So, look, I am a therapist that integrates a lot of different modalities and different approaches. But the narrative approach is very dear to me. And because I do see relationships as stories. So, yes, when people come in and they come in with one version or one way to tell their story of their relationship or the story of themselves in their relationship.
My first thought is what else is there, what the story is here that has not yet been told, but is this really the story? Is this the only way to look at this story? That is very much how I think, because I do believe that language shapes our experience. If I say certain ways, I will feel certain things and have certain thoughts that accompany those exact words. And so I have in my mind that when you come into a first session that just ended yesterday, you come in with a particular story.
By the time you leave that first session, my goal is that you will leave with a different story. And if you leave with a different story, you deal with a different experience of yourself in your relationship, which opens up possibilities for new insights, for changes, for new degrees of responsibility and for freeing your perception of your partner as stuck in the story that you have put them in as well. So the change the story is to create movement is to create possibility for change.
And that is basically why people do come to therapy.
I think narratives affect more than our relationships, right? They affect how we live, they affect how we see the world, they affect how we see others. And part of understanding and connecting with other people is not necessarily agreeing with their narrative, but being there.
So let me give you an example. Right, because I literally had this experience a few days ago, a couple of days ago.
So a couple comes in and the original presentation is that they have big fights, nasty fights. She becomes very mean, she gets abusive, she curses. You know, she grew up in a very abusive household herself.
And it is about, you know, the story is really presented like, you know, she's fine. Basically, there's no that fine. Nothing is said really about him. And it's and she's the problem. That's a classic presentation. One person's the problem. And and then it turns out that he's not just OK, he's actually a saint. He's the little prince. That's how he ends up calling himself. He's the little prince who actually can do no wrong.
And therefore, anytime she asks for something, if she says, I wish you bring me flowers or something, it instantly becomes a slight to him and indignation that because he's so good, how could he do anything that is missing or shortcoming or and gradually the session evolved into taking her out of the role of being the identified patient and looking at how they actually were in a dynamic together in which de facto there was nothing she could ever ask or say because he appeared like she was so put together and strong.
But in fact, he was very, very fragile and always at risk of feeling fractured in his, you know, in his attempts at creating a strong identity.
But it wasn't nearly as strong. And gradually it became clear that maybe she wasn't just the fragile was one, but he was as well. And that there was a whole story behind, you know, how he lived with this idea that he is so good all the time and he's been so good to his very sad mother her whole life. And therefore, any comment is unfair to him. And it totally changed the dance. It totally changed the dance because it looked like she had been this unreasonable, hysterical woman who would come up with this big request.
No, it wasn't. It wasn't at all. And we laughed and we rewrote the story and we changed the whole equilibrium between the two of them in terms of who does what and who's responsible for what and who triggers who, how and when.
And movement got, you know, er came into the room if you want, and er is what you know er create expansion.
So you breed differently, you sit differently, you listen differently, you move differently and the story begins to evolve. And from that place we began to, you know, chisel away at some of the stubbornness of the relationship. It's that what I mean with the story, it's not just you sit, you know, and talk is that the story that is linked to emotions and emotions are embodied experiences. So when people tell you a story a certain way, they also sit in a certain way that that leads to telling that kind of story.
If you change the story, the body will move differently as well. It's a it's a it's a very holistic kind of thing. But it was so clear in this instance because it was a while ago that I had had one of those where you read the intake and you think, wow, you know, there is there is, you know, a healthy one and a nut. And whenever I get one of those stories and a nut is willing to agree that they are the nut when they're not there, not everybody has their adoptive child inside of them, which they try to survive in the world.
But underneath is the the other one, the one that was that dealt with the vulnerabilities, if you want, and then came up with all these coping styles, you know, so that's that was a way of changing the story. The guy came in with a rather inflated Lufti sense of himself and left with a more realistic way of thinking about himself in a very different way of thinking about his wife.
What happens after that? Tell us what happens after that.
Uh. Basically, I gave them an exercise, which I suggest that they do a few minutes every day by which she makes statements to him or requests or just says certain things and he gets to answer to what she actually says to him.
I said, you know, I would like you to just very simple, right? She would say, you know, I would love you to bring me oranges tonight. And instead of doing his typical when when's the last time you brought me the strawberries that I like, that's kind of his modus operandi. It's always, you know, you want something for me? What about you? You know, he could simply say to her, I know you would like me to bring you an orange, very basic, reflective listening.
But that reflective listening for him starts a process by which he's able to hear he's able to just stay with her, not make everything about him, because every time he makes it about him, it makes her think that indeed there is no room for her unless she screams. So she goes back to her childhood where you needed to scream in order to be heard. But it's not just because that's how she is. It's because there's a dance between them, because literally there is no way for her to say something about her that he doesn't make about him and in a defensive way.
So we began to chisel away at the defensiveness and we did it with humor and with all kinds of crazy statements, because if you bring in some of the absurd, you can highlight that it's in the form and not in the specific content that this matters.
And it was really for him to actually understand it. When you just repeat something and acknowledge something that you don't have to be responsible for it. You didn't do anything wrong. It's like all he heard all the time at any request is that he had done anything wrong, which wasn't what you were saying. So you can what you have in a couple is people here, the inaudible, you know, they hear what they heard in their childhood. But it's not really what is being said to them in the present moment.
And you need to bring reality in so that they can become the adults that they both need to be. And I do it with enactments and made them said, you know, would you go home and do this for for a bit and write to me, write to me every night just to check, you know, just to say I did it, you know, because if you practiced this and you do it with a good dose of humor, gradually you get the point.
You know, the point is much more serious and deep than the little exercise, but basically changed the entire perspective. So from there you begin, you know, therapy is like sculpting. At first, you carve away gross shapes, you make big motions, big interventions so that you get the basic and then you start to chisel, you know, and it's the middle phase of therapy where you literally create the lasting shape of how this relationship could really enter into a new dance with each other.
And the dance will be that I think, you know, the goal is that she won't lose it, that she won't end up cursing him where he indeed feels like he did everything wrong, that they don't get to that place and that they certainly don't get there in ten seconds from zero to 100, and that he doesn't spend his time constantly proving that he's the little prince and that he can therefore hear her without constantly, you know, just measuring his image in his mirror.
It's that fundamental change that needs to take place. There are less there are young couple in terms of how long they are together. And so it's actually really not too encrusted yet. And they will have a different relationship. You know, they will they if they stick to it because they want it and because I think they have what it takes.
You mentioned that they were a young couple and that sort of I have a question about what are the important conversations to have with your partner early in a relationship and how do those differ from the important conversations to have later in a relationship? You know, there is a theory that says that basically whatever you discuss, the difficult conversations, if you want, that you discuss 20 years later, they were all there in the first two dates. People actually know their things.
They know they're key conversations from the first from the first moment. It's not that you have different conversations. The conversations evolve because you have different life stages. You have different stressors. You have different seasons and phases in a relationship. They are new members. Sometimes that joint children, they are people who leave death and loss and all of those shift the system. A couple is a relational system and that system is continuously morphing and adapting itself to external things, work money where they live, moving, etc.
health and internal things. And the conversations that you have are about that, you know, but there are a few basic ones you want to have in the beginning.
This couple, you know, they have 20 years apart. They're young as a couple. They're not necessarily both young in age. She has more experience than him, even though she's twenty years younger. In terms of relationships, he's actually quite new at this at the long and the more kind of committed long term relationship.
Where do they want to live? They're both foreigners. Do they want to have a family together? How we should their professional lives together? You know, in this instance, he comes from a rather traditional family where she's used to come home and there's food on the table as well. Is that the woman you picked? You know, is that been discussed between the two of you or is that an assumption? And if it's an assumption, you only make a statement when the food is not on the table.
And she says, why don't you cook on occasion?
You know, so it's about people's values. It's about people's expectations. It's about people's vision for life. What do they look for in in life? And is there a compatibility about that? You know, I think one of the big conversations that accompanies every relationship is about closeness and separateness, what is together and what is individualistic or individual.
You know, how much money do you get to spend alone and how much money, you know, is involved that you start to have a conversation with the other. Do you travel alone or only together to go to bed together every night? Or can you go to sleep when you're actually tired without having to become a unison?
You know, do you you know, do you want. How do you want to parent? How do you envision family life? How do you see your relationship to the extended family? What are the boundaries with the grandparents or with your in-laws? What do you do with your excess or with your deep friendships with other people? Do you continue them? Do you maintain them? Can you maintain them alone or do they become couple friends? The issue of boundaries of what is ours and what is mine, what do I get to still decide alone?
What is my zone of freedom and what is our zone of committed to commitment and togetherness? I think this is probably one of the very important conversations. People don't discuss it with those terms, but de facto, that is what they are talking about. I love the idea of sort of couples discussing values, and I don't.
Are those values permanent values change over the course of a relationship to what you expect out of relationship? Does that change? Because often often people say they grow apart. Is that true? Like, how does that happen? Yeah, but that's a I'll answer that in a sec. It's a different for example, I saw a couple this week and they're having infertility issues, you know, and one of them wants to really get in there and use all the means possible that science and medicine can provide.
And the other person basically is a more religious person and says, you know, if it's meant to be, those are not things we decide. And this is a real philosophical value question. What is the right of an individual to tamper with fate if you want, you know, or to tamper with what life puts in front of you? Do you go at it and and try in every way you can because your agency is what's at the center or is what's at the center an acceptance of what life puts in front of you?
Or if you want, what God puts in front of you.
This is but they're not discussing it like that. They're talking about should they go for infertility treatment and when's the next IVF cycle. Right. But what they really are talking about is that and once you actually put it in terms of values, it becomes much less a debate between them about who is passive and who is active, you know, who gets things done and who's lazy. And and it becomes a kind of a you know, you bad rather than you're different.
That's why values become really important in these conversations. You know, we discuss feelings, we discuss values, we discuss beliefs. We discuss political assumptions. We discuss our view to the universe, you know, and how we see our place on this planet. But we don't discuss it as if we are in a philosophy course. We talk about it in terms of how we relate to food and to excess or to abundance, how we are either looking at what's missing or at what's there.
It takes place in small micro moments, but in fact, the conversations are about big ideas.
So when you ask, do people grow apart, look, when people grow apart, it's not because they have a difference of opinion necessarily, because some couples have major differences in opinion, but they continue to remain deeply connected, curious about each other, respectful of who they are, and they are not threatened by the difference of the other basically other couples.
The slightest differences, World War Three, you know, so it's not in the difference itself. It's in the way that people experience the difference. If you're secure, you can be next to somebody who doesn't eat meat and you don't need them to be like you in order to validate yourself. So when people grow apart, what's happening is both. There are two kinds of growing apart. There's either bickering, chronic conflict or high conflict or there is disengagement and indifference and separateness.
You can either have too much or too little of the thing that actually makes people grow apart. You know, that's really the choreography of growing apart. It's it's constant fighting or it's so far apart that you don't even notice if the other one is there or not there.
That's their parts. In the instance of of high conflict, what you get is people who are in very critical relationships. Everything is negative. There is a blame and defense dance. You do. I defend, I counterattack you defend, you blame me. And we just go at this all the time and we react to everything the other person is doing for everything you do. I have something to say, you know, and people basically feel diminished and they feel like they don't recognize themselves.
And, you know, they they constantly blame the other for their misery. That's the other thing is they really hold the other person responsible for how unhappy they are.
On the other side, what you have is people who no longer share much of anything and they live entire separate lives. And and there's very little that brings them together. And there is a sense of isolation, of sometimes of loneliness, of of indifference, of neglect, of lack of contact, of legs, lack of what we call bids for connection, you know, ways in which it's clear that you're part of my life, you're part of the fabric of my every day.
It's like just so far apart. And both of these are descriptions of couples that grow apart. You mentioned something in there that I just want to explore a little bit I'm curious about, which is secure, what does it mean to be secure in a relationship?
I'm going to give it to you as an image of a little child, you know, do you have kids? I do, yeah. All right. So how old are you?
I just I keep telling them, but you're so attention and you still have it very much and you've had it from the beginning. They sit on your lap or they hold you or they rest on your shoulder or on your chest. They are nested. They need nothing at that moment. They just kind of a completely at ease or they're trying to console themselves, but they are drawing from you their sense of comfort and consolation. And at some point they're done.
It's all fine. And they get up and they begin by crawling or they go. They what they run. They basically leave you to go and be into their own world, to go, to play, to go to do their thing. They are now experiencing freedom. They've just experienced safety and security and an attachment and nesting. And now they're moving into the world and they're going to do hide and seek. They're playing there in their own imaginary realm.
And in order to play, they have to be free and unselfconscious and free of worry. Otherwise, you can't play.
To be secure in a relationship is to have both of those things is to be able to come back to the harbor, to anchor yourself, to feel rooted and then to get up, to leave and to go and play without having to worry. Now, what is it that you don't have to worry about? You don't have to worry about the fact that when you go you're leaving somebody there who is suddenly bewildered and anxious and depressed and angry, but actually somebody who is totally at ease letting you go or that you worry that when you come back they won't be there and that hide and seek, that's why that game is so important, is to know that even when I'm gone, I live inside of you.
Even when I'm gone, when I come back, you'll be there. Even when I'm gone, I take you with me. And so I experience freedom and connection at the same time. That is security in a relationship for adults and for children. I like that a lot, and one of the other things I wanted to follow up on was sort of it sounded like we're almost getting into a common argument, patterns within couples.
What are the most common argument patterns that you see and how do we learn to have better conversations with our partner? There are three primary choreographies of of arguments, it's a fight fight.
Fight, flee, flee, flee.
So either we go at each other and the both of us go at each other and we are we enter into the more conflict like, you know, bickering, a chronic picking. The other version is one person attacks, but the other person flees or stonewalls or withdraws and you get pursuer. Distancia one pursues the whole time and the other one is distancing. And the third one is you got both people basically closing the door, going into their room and not talking to each other for the next two days.
That's three main choreographies of arguments. And what's really important in terms of couples and relationships in general, I will say, is that it's probably one of the golden rules is to understand that the choreography, the form is way more important than the content. If you have people who are going at each other, they go at each other about everything. It's not the specific topics that make them go at each other. Their style is we attack and every subject will be spoken like that.
If they are into, we close the door. It's not the particular issue that makes them close the door. They close the door and every issue they will discuss, they'll address it with the same dance. And what you're challenging in a couple is the dance is the rigidity of the way that they go at it. You know, one person instantly raises their voice. The other person basically shuts down, raises, rolls their eyes, says, here you go again.
Wait, you know, all of these motions, that's that's what happens in in a couple in a couple that struggles with this stuff. Right. You're asking me about arguments. So those are the three choreographies of arguments.
When I was doing research for this, one of the things that struck me as incredibly insightful and I wish I had known a long time ago, as you said, behind every criticism, there's a way where. Yeah, can you expand on that and explore that with us for a little bit?
Why don't you ask me a question about my new podcast, for example. Right. That would be I actually would like you to talk with me about my new podcast, but I won't say that. Right. Why don't you bring me flowers? Why didn't you say good morning? Why didn't you thank me when I did? Why? You know, what is actually. What am I saying? I'm saying I wish you had thanked me. I wished you had noticed that I bought you this new suit.
I wished you had, you know, show me your appreciation for I wished. But if I say I wished, I have to put myself out there. It means I want something and I can be refused. I can be rejected. I can be not heard. And that in a relationship that is not secure, I will defend against that. I don't want to show you that side of me. So instead of seeing what I want, I'll say what you didn't do.
That's the criticism, what you didn't do and what's wrong with you is safer in some bizarre way than to tell you what is special about me and what I would have wanted.
Is that selfish? No, I don't think it's selfish, persay.
I think it's you're valuing yourself over the relationship by doing that, aren't you? By putting it out there, you're saying in a way, maybe I get this wrong. So correct me in a way by putting it out there and being vulnerable. You're saying us is more valuable than, you know, what I'm feeling and my vulnerability. And when you hold it in and you're unwilling to be vulnerable and you're just criticizing, isn't that saying that right now at this particular moment, I'm valuing myself more than I'm valuing this relationship?
You know, I would put it to you differently. I'm saying that you didn't do something because because I actually really it's very interesting. I'm going to try to explain this to you. It's not about being selfish. It's actually about feeling not worthy enough.
I actually believe on some level that maybe you really don't care about me or that I'm not loved or more that I'm not lovable. And because of that fundamental lack of sense of self-worth, I say you didn't do this. Rather than say, I'm not sure I deserve to get this, I'm not sure you love me enough to want to do this for me. I'm not sure that I'm good enough a person to even deserve to have this.
And that's why I put it on you. That makes sense. It's a get it. It's a you know, if I say, you know, you never ask me how I'm doing. You know, you come home and you just start talking about your day. And then when you're done, you basically go to your phone and you do you know, when's the last time you asked me about me?
What am I actually saying? I'm saying I feel neglected. I'm saying I feel ignorant. I'm saying I wonder if you're still curious about me. I'm saying maybe you're more interested in many other people when you don't really believe that I have anything important to say. Or maybe I'm saying you're selfish and you only think about you, which just goes on with, you know, I'm not important enough for you to think about me.
That's all some of the things that go underneath or I'm saying I've already told you five times that I would like on occasion that we also talk about my day. And you really are not interested.
You're not listening. And I don't want to say it one more time and again, feel hurt that it's not coming because you are so selfish. Think about you the whole time. And I so it's basically a it's actually a protective device. Interestingly, to criticize the other person is a protection against being hurt.
I think that makes a lot of sense. I as wonky as it sounds, I yeah.
I mean you said it and I'm like, oh, I was totally wrong. Is there such a thing as too much honesty in a relationship? And is is sort of the opposite of transparency and honesty is secret or how do you how do we think about these these dynamics of honesty and transparency and secrecy and caring for our partner?
Look, I will say to you like this, I tend to not think in categorical, I think that all of those behaviors, values, interactions, honesty, transparency, confession, they are all contextual. They are all contextual relationships take place in a context.
And. Once you agree with that premise, then you ask, what does honesty mean in this relationship at this moment? Is it caring or is it cruel? There's consequences to honesty, what will it be like for the other person to live with what I just said? I actually really think I should never have married you, you dumb. You haven't said an interesting thought in God knows how long. I actually still really think about the person that I was living with before Betty died.
And, you know, I mean, I remarried because I had four kids. But what was good? What was I going to do?
What if it's hurtful but causing you problems? Like I'm no longer in love with you? Well, deal with it.
That's hurtful for your partner there. Is that something?
If you don't if you have doubts, deal with it. There's no need to. What can the other person do with those doubts? I mean, it's like, you know, what am I going to say, I'm not attracted to you anymore. What can the other one do about that, assuming that they still try very hard to look good and all of that and they haven't gained 75 pounds and even then at all, it's like, you know, if you have doubts at best, you figure it out alone and and and then on the things that the other person can't do anything about.
And then you basically say you're a fantastic person, but I don't want to live with us anymore. And I know this is going to hurt you terribly, but you don't put the other person in a bind about something they can't change. You know, some honesty's cruel and and some and, you know, I, I wish I could leave you, but I don't because I like our lifestyle.
Excuse me. You know, that's your problem. That's not the other person's problem.
I think we should really not confuse sometimes what are things that we need to take responsibility for. What I'm going to be angry with you because I feel trapped. You know, they're they're not trapping you. You want to go. You go. But I don't want to go. But I'm angry at you for the fact that I can't go. These are all the dances and the games that people play with each other in the name of honesty. Of course, I think a lot of things need to be shared and discussed because we live in a time where we really value that kind of intimacy as truthtelling and intimacy as as a discursive experience.
Right. Intimacy is what I share with you about my inner life. That's a very, very recent Western new definition of the word intimacy into me. See, I'm part of that culture, too. But I also am aware that people say things well. You told me I should tell you how I feel when I think you're a friggin slob. Is that useful? Could you get something from that? No, it's not. It may be true, but it's not useful.
So I find myself saying so often to people, you may be right, but you are alone and it's not difficult to be right and alone.
That's is your goal, to get your partner to change and to do more of what you want and this is really not helpful. Oh, but it's authentic. OK. It's authentically useless. I do do this with my kids sometimes. I'm like, you're right, but you're not going to get the outcome that you want. That's right. That's right. So what is it you want? You want me to tell you how you think I got it?
You want us to agree on something differently? You got to go. And it's not like that, because every time you tell me you right, you're implying I'm wrong. And if you're implying I'm wrong, I'm less likely to cooperate with you.
Take don't don't lose the compass. What is it you're actually trying to achieve? You know? You this there's this I mean, people, you know, say lots of stuff to each other in my office, you know, and I'm like thinking you probably are right. I mean, in myself, I'm thinking I could see that.
I can totally see how after all these years, this is how you see your partner. But seriously, you want to be close, right? And that's supposedly what you said you want. And you know what? After the dump you just made, I'm not sure you're going to get close. So tell me, what is it you want? You want to shrink your partner and shrivel him up and make them feel terrible about themselves or you actually want something from them.
And if you want something from them, you're going to have to do this very differently. So sorry. How often are those conversations high stakes because we've waited so long to have them versus we should have had them months or years or perhaps decades earlier, and now they're so hard and we have so much we have an internal conversation with ourself that just comes out almost like a fire hose.
At this point where as it had we had it earlier, it would have been a trickle.
How do we how do we learn to bring those things up when the stakes are low?
So I will first challenge you that the stakes are not necessarily low because you're in the beginning, I mean, there are lots of people who come with heavy suitcases and it doesn't take long, you know, a few months, a year for the suitcases to open.
And everybody brings their history with them. And the way that they learned to interact with people, particularly their loved ones and what they learned at home. So. It's not necessarily that people are always just so nice in the beginning and they accumulate over time, you accumulate because of the resonance of the stuff that is happening with your partner. If the stuff that happens with your partner is so instantly similar to what you experienced at home. It doesn't take long.
It's not the time. It's the actual echo chamber of what you have in your relationship and how it mirrors what you had in your family of origin.
That's what creates the the the intensity. That said, what does happen over time is that the patterns, the the back and forth, the conversation I had a couple this week is really interesting.
A lesbian couple, a wonderful couple, but they are for four years together and. And basically, I kind of could see in the conversation within five minutes that what they were saying to each other, this was probably no 100, 97 times the same conversation like this is it? This is what this is the one. It's so patterned, predictable, rigid, narrow and boring. And they're trapped. They know they're trapped. That's why they're there. Because they're stuck.
Because it's the same old, same old. So at one point, I basically switched seats and I made them reverse roles. And each one for the next 15 minutes basically spoke as if she was the other. It was phenomenal. So if you worried that they don't hear each other and that's why they need to repeat the same thing again, no worries. They know each other's words by heart. They could play the other person to the teeth. So then once we established that, I said, OK, now we can maybe start to have a different conversation.
I mean, this is like, you know, one says one thing, the other one snaps right in there like a banana peel. You sleep on it and up you go. You know, and I say this and she says that, and it's this ping pong.
But once they did the roleplay, they actually began slowly to get into the experience of the other, because you really do enact what the other one is really trying to tell you. And then you ask them. And how does it feel when you're saying this yet again, you know, and it's that thing that you you you try to to break is the rigidity of and the immediacy where you want to create space for something new to be able to come in so that change can occur.
Otherwise, people do sometimes come dead upon arrival. Because what you're looking for is, is there motivation on the part of each person to want to do something different?
You know, most of the time people don't come to couples therapy or relationship therapists, the same with families when they see families to say what they want to do different, they come with a long list of expectations of what they want their partner to do different, you know, take a drop off center, came to bring you my partner.
You fix it and you're trying to say therapy becomes helpful in relationships when each person is willing to do something new regardless, not contingent on what the other person is doing, you become committed. You're not going to do the usual. If the usual is you close your door and you don't say another word or if the usual is you just up the volume or if the usually is you go under vicious attack or if the usual is that you just kind of talk about the weather when the other person is talking about their dying mother, you're going to make an effort to change what you do, because if you consistently start to do something different at some point, the other person has to adapt because it's Ping-Pong.
If the ball goes to a different corner, you can't stay standing on the other side. At some point you will move.
What is good sex so often fade in relationships, even for couples, you continue to love each other.
There are loads of reasons, I think, that that that sex fades. And when I say that sex fades, I think that it's important distinction.
Distinguished. I'm not talking about the act of sex itself. People can have some type of regular sexual activity, perfunctory, comfortable, you know, or less comfortable. But I'm not interested in the performance of sex.
That is not really what that is not really what the people come to me for.
I would say like that some people come because they've become really sexless relationships. Sometimes they are deep, affectionate couples. That idea eroticized that are desexualized.
But sometimes what they want is to reconnect with the degree of intensity, of aliveness, of erotic charge. And that's very different than to just the act of doing sex. So that said, it is a long list of things that make people disconnect from their erotic self, basically, and some of them are not of their choice, their stressors of life. They have to do with health. They have to do with economic difficulties. They have to do it employment struggles, etc.
, etc., and children and family life and all of that. But sometimes it's also I think that's where it became the exploration that I got interested in is really a kind of a breakdown of the imagination. It's a willingness to. Go for for the least, basically, it's the same difference as, you know, cooking a beautiful meal for which you thought about you bought the special ingredients, you took the time to prepare it. You set a nice table.
You looked forward to sitting down to enjoying it, to having good conversation, maybe good wine that accompanies it, etc., versus cutting a tomato, which is perfectly fine, but it doesn't have the same poetry attached to it. And that's what happens to people sexualities is it becomes the kind of basic lasting on the list that you should do at the end of a long day, as if it's one more chore in a messy room that is rather uninspiring, without much playfulness, without much imagination, without much creativity.
You can do it. But doing it is not the same as the quality of the experience that comes with it, and that's why it fades. It fades because people don't necessarily invest in it and value it as something, you know, in the beginning, it seems to come on its own, supposedly. So you don't have to do anything. And people have decided that it should be spontaneous and it should you should just be in the mood and it should just come.
And all these should be whatever is going to just come in a long term relationship already has. So it demands predetermination. It demands really creativity, demands intentionality and premeditation, which is very tricky to premeditate sex because it supposedly goes against this romantic you know, I just was swept and it came all over me. Part of why we lose it is because we are filled with mistaken ideas about what actually it takes to create pleasure, desire and excitement.
Talk to that's a good segue way into love and desire. What's the relationship between pleasure, desire? Love is love about closeness and desires, sort of like finding new experiences or adventures. And how does that fit in? I mean, I at one point played with the idea that love is about having and desire is about wanting and and therefore it's two different verbs that often pull us in different directions. Love thrives on closeness. It thrives on deep knowledge with each other.
It thrives on minimizing the tensions and narrowing the gaps. And, you know, in on a sense of predictability, you do want to know that you're going to have the same person to next morning who will still love you and that you will still love and desire is a lot more fickle. You know, desire is to own the wanting and that wanting how you connect to that sense of sovereignty and agency and freedom. You know, that is the opposite of you want make me you know, it's it drives much more on mystery and curiosity, on the unknown, on discovery, on exploration.
And the challenge of modern relationship is that we want love and desire in the same place. It's never happened before. That's the interesting thing we know. And it doesn't get solved with Victoria's Secret just so easily.
What do you mean it's never happened? We've never looked for, you know, the word passionate marriage is a contradiction in terms. We've never looked for passion in the same place where we looked for security and anchoring and somebody with whom to pay the checks and fix the house. These two things were separate for all of history. Love stories took place somewhere and marriage to play somewhere else. Marriage wasn't necessarily about love in the first place. It was an economic enterprise, primarily with the place where you want to experience full surrender, you know, and the intensity of the unknown.
How do you bring that in the same place where you want to know that what you have to do is what you're going to have tomorrow?
It's a very it's a grand experiment of modern love, is that we are trying to experience security and adventure in the same place.
Now, it's not impossible, but it is a grand challenge. How do I pretend with the person with whom I've been living for thirty years, that there that there's still so much to discover? How do I remain curious about somebody who I at the same time I desperately want to feel familiar with?
How do I bring surprise in the place where I want to experience continuity? How do I bring out parts of myself that have never revealed to someone who pretends to know me so well?
How do I take risk, sexual and emotional risks in a place where I usually don't want to make too much of a big production, and this is why it is very challenging to not just have sex in long term relationship. People can have sex but have sex that is for pleasure and connection. Sex that we that we look forward to that is anticipatory, that reveals us to ourselves.
That's a kind of an erotic intimacy, right, where we discover things about us that are still new. It's what our new conversations people can have about that. What does it mean to take risks in the same place where you also want predictability? Why does it mean to allow yourself degrees of surrender with someone that you need to rely on? Was going to wake up tomorrow morning to get the kids to school.
Now, it becomes really a fascinating exploration, we all grapple with this thing, you know, and.
It demands real active creativity at the same. That's why I like the food metaphor, because everybody understands the difference between putting some food on the table and eating for sustenance and having a lavish or having a beautiful, thoughtful, creative meal that is about pleasure, not just about sustenance.
And the erotic is cultivating pleasure for its own sake. It's not about achieving an orgasm. It's not about the performance of sex. We did it. We both came.
No, it's really about the quality of the experience and and of the pleasure that you experienced and and where it took you and where you went with your partner. That over time is a real piece of art. As you were saying that I was thinking.
Are there tips and tricks that people could use at home that want to bring up a conversation about sex with their partner?
But more importantly, I think it's how do we go about discussing something that's difficult or hard with our partner?
Is there a prompt or a way to start that is going to be more predisposed to better outcomes?
I mean, interestingly, I didn't anticipate it at first, but I do now know that it is one of the most powerful aspects of the podcast is that people would hear other people have conversations that they want to have. And the deeper they would listen to these other people and the more they would see themselves in their own mirror and the more they would acquire some of that vocabulary to then go to their partner and say, you know, I was or they listen with the partners to the podcast and they say, how do you feel about this?
Have you ever thought about that? Is that something you would be interested in? Do you have those fantasies? Is that what you feel with me at times? Have you ever experienced that kind of a block? It's like like going to a movie, right? Like when you have a third entity, it allows you to speak to your partner by virtue of the thing that you have just watched or shared or listened to in the case of a podcast.
And then you can ask the same question. You know, do you feel that kind of pressure? You know, have you ever faked with me, you know, because this woman is talking about that, you know, this man is talking about that.
You know, have you ever felt that kind of you know, if you ever wanted to try that for us? You know, it's it's easier than to suddenly sit in the car and say, oh, you know what? I was thinking maybe one day we should do this. Where are you coming from? You know, where is that coming? But if you listen to something together, it it gives it a permission. It places it in the permitted conversations that we can have as a couple.
So now you would say, but what are the questions that I ask, you know, in the sessions to those couples? I like writing, for example.
So I often think, you know, with some couples, I've found it very useful to create a separate email address. And that separate email address is one in which you're not talking about management ink. It's not about the kids, the money, the family, the to do list. It's really the lovers nest is when you and I think about each other as partners, as lovers. And in that place we write to each other in a very different language.
I'm not talking to the mother of my kids or to the father of her. I'm talking to my to my partner. And I send songs. I send jokes. I send pictures. I send send it, send just sweet thoughts, you know, and that creates a kind of a lubrication that I still hold you as my lover, not just as my life partner. And it creates that erotic space in which we see each other with different eyes.
And that in itself is often very sensual and creates a permission in which people then start to say different things that they haven't felt they can see. You know, the grand paradox is that the idea is greater intimacy would normally free us to greater sexual freedom and sexual openness.
But in fact, that is not necessarily the case. The more we start to feel intimate with each other and we become close and we worry about each other and we are afraid of each other's judgment. And the more sometimes we actually become less open. Many of us, we're more open in the beginning than afterwards, which is a paradox. And so then the question becomes, how do we reopen? How do we start to talk again about things which over time we stop talking about supposedly because you should know and it's assumed and we become uncomfortable about it.
And I think that what my sessions are about and what I think I do actually in the podcast as well is show how you you.
How you make to people who think they know a lot suddenly listen to each other again and realize that the one that is next to you is actually forever somewhat mysterious and elusive, if you just want to remain curious, this part of that come back to the narratives.
It's almost as if at the beginning, our narratives are wide open and we see you as everything, including all of your likes and desires. And then as we spend more time with you, I'm thinking possibly we start to identify, oh, you're a mother, you're a wife, you're in these roles. And we see less of this big, broad person and that shapes what we see and how we interact.
I completely agree. I completely I mean, you know, you see people sitting with friends.
Sometimes I go for lunch and I sit in a restaurant and, you know, I go to a simple spot like that and I just see people looking at each other, talking to each other, well-dressed, animated, engaged, attentive. And then I'm thinking, who is here with their partner? Probably very few, right? And I'm thinking what they're going to do is they're going to be so engaged throughout the day and then they're going to go home and basically they're going to bring the leftovers home and at home they're going to talk very little, actually, or they're going to check in on the day and on the logistics and all of that.
I'll give you an example if it's really interesting. I had it myself recently. I'm sitting with friends and with my husband and and we were talking about playing as children. And one of the people said, you know, I actually I don't remember playing as children that I didn't have characters. We had come out of a movie. I didn't have characters. And and I was more kind of a sports. And I was very, very competitive, my my husband's.
And he says, oh, me as a child, I was a different person every day and then proceeded to talk about the kind of games that they played in the woods behind the house as children and how they were in fantasy play and all of that.
And I listened attentively like that, just like a story that he may have told me or not, you know, and we talked about basically the power of imagination and to to enter other roles and how much we do this as children and how, you know, actually sexuality is one of the places where people have it as adults, you know, in their in their homes.
And I just thought to myself, would we have had this conversation alone where I would say, what was what did you do when you played as a kid? Yet people raise children together, but they don't ask that question necessarily, and it's such a revealing question, what how you played as a child? What kind of what did you allow yourself to play? Did you have the permission to play? Was it safe enough to play? And what kind of play did you engage yourself in?
Boy, does that tell you an amazing story about a person. It's a great dinner conversation. I highly recommend.
I was thinking I wonder how our relationships would change if we started giving our partners the best hour of our day and waking up an hour earlier and spending it with them instead of the sort of like 10 to 11 p.m. leftovers, as you called it.
I wonder if we went to bed an hour earlier and woke up an hour earlier and spent that time with our partners. How that would change our relationship. So we would have we'd be the most alert, the most attentive and probably the most curious, massive.
I mean, that's been studied. And we know we know that couples that have rituals every Wednesday at five o'clock, we meet in the bar and have a drink. Every Tuesday, we have lunch. Every month we leave a night away. Depends on what they can afford, what they can do. But those who have that ritual in place, which really states, no matter what else goes on in our life, we have a dedicated time that is ours where we check in with each other, whatever we do, you know, we go row, boating, whatever.
But it's very clear that those who have done that for decades on end now, you know, you could say it's because they did it that they are stronger or it's because they're stronger that they do it.
I think those things interact with each other, but it's I don't know if I would do it. Morning and night depends on what other people are living in their homes. But I know that if people have a regularly dedicated team that says we matter and it's not, everything else comes first and we come last, which is what is often the case for many couples that that makes a huge difference.
And why does it matter? Because this is the first time in the history of human relationships that the quality of the relationship in the couple is what will determine if the family will survive.
Oh, that's interesting, for most of history, family life existed regardless of if the couple likes, gets along or doesn't at this point, your family will exist if the couple is relatively content, depending on that. So if you invest in the couple, you actually preserve the family. And what people do is they put all the energy in the family when there is family or in the work or in everything else.
And the couple is often left gasping on the vine. And then we need to talk about conscious uncoupling.
But it's neglect. It's it's it's the other way around. It's real.
If you look at most people, the couple often will come last.
I hate to end with conscious uncoupling, but I do want to get here because we had a lot of questions from readers and listeners about conscious uncoupling. So what is conscious uncoupling?
What does it mean? How does it work and why is it proven effective in season three?
I have a whole episode that is called The Happy Divorce, and it's actually a couple that is getting along better now that they are no longer married than they were when they were married. And they actually remain very involved as a couple, partly because now that they're not married, they can finally free themselves. Of all the restrictions and assumptions that they had about what is expected from them in marriage, it's really it's like they liberated themselves from the constraints of the of the definition called marriage.
And so now they can finally have the relationship they want. So I, I highly recommend it. It really will explain that.
But for me, the conscious uncoupling is the idea that there needs to be a way for people to at some point choose to separate without us still thinking that longevity is the main marker for success, that if you meet at a funeral home at the end of life, then it means you had a good relationship and that every breakup or separation or divorce is a failure.
I think it's that that needs to be challenged. We live way too long. We live twice as long as 100 years ago, and not all of us will necessarily only have one relationship, an adult relationship. You know, we will have two or three, many of us and some of us will do it with the same person, but others will sometimes change.
And if you can leave and to the best of your ability, wish good to the other person, wish them well and wish you well, then you actually are more prepared for the next relationship.
The more you remain tied in your bitterness, you know, the more you bring that with you, the way people leave the previous relationships, the quality of the breakups is really at the heart of how people start the next relationships, how much they will trust, how they trust, how they collaborate, how they protect themselves, how they anticipate, you know, what had happened, how much they bring these invisible other's exes with them, be the ex partners, husbands, wives or boyfriends or founders.
You know, it's really very interesting to see the parallel of of those things.
How should you leave a relationship like what are the variables that you should be considering when you're doing that?
We want different things in life. I still love you. I still care about you. I still respect you.
I have I still have strong feelings for you, whatever the feelings are, you know, I mean, I'd love you any more to want to live with you or I may still love you, but not want to live with you. Love life and life is not the same. So you basically it depends.
If you have a family, then you know that a divorce is a reorganization of the family. It's the end of the marital unit, but not the end of the family. It's a reorganization of the family. If you don't have a family and it's two people, then it's about we've come to a place where one of us or both of us have chosen no longer to be together. And the best thing you can do is not want to destroy the other person as a way to kind of separate and justify it by vilifying them, demonizing them, etc.
. Basically, I do this for me. I don't do this for us. That's a given or I do this whatever the reasons. And I wish you well. And here are the things that I take with me of what we have lived together. And here are the things that I hope you take with you of what we share together. And here is what I wish for you.
And here is where I think that I could have done better. If you leave and you seriously only think that it's all about the other person, you may be missing something. It's very good. To know that you two could have done things differently, and that is honesty, by the way, you asked me before about honesty. Honesty is not only what you have to say about the other person. Honesty is also your own reckoning and your own accountability with where you've shown up and where you went absent and missing in action.
Those things go into the final conversations when I do conscious uncoupling in my office, which is basically people who are willing to be deliberate and intentional about how they part. That's the idea. The same way that people do it when they come together, how people start and how people end are amazingly important psychological bookmarks of their relational life. I think that's a great place to end this conversation. This was fascinating, working people find out more about you online.
So first is Esther Perel dot com.
And there you can also subscribe to the newsletter and the blog or the training program sessions or the workshop for couples, which is called Rekindling Desire, and then all the social channels at a separate official and on Facebook and Twitter. Thank you so much, Esther.
This was a real pleasure and a treat, and I had a great time with our conversation. Wonderful. You can find show notes on this episode, as well as every other episode at F-stop blog slash podcast, if you find this episode valuable, shared on social media and leave a review to support the podcast, go to F-stop logged membership and join our learning community. You'll get hand edited transcripts of all the podcasts and so much more. Thank you for listening.