Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with psychotherapist Esther Perel. Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Hello ladies and germs. This is Tim Ferriss and welcome to another episode of the Tim Ferriss Show. My dog Molly is staring me directly in the face from about three feet away, but that is not relevant to this particular introduction.
The Tim Ferriss show, what is it? My job every episode is to deconstruct world class performers, people who are the best at what they do to give you tactics, routines, habits, etc. that you can apply immediately and test in your own lives. This particular episode has been requested and requested and requested. People ask me: Tim, why aren’t you talking about relationships? When are you going to talk about relationships? Why are you so private? Why are you dodging the questions?
Well, no longer, folks. I am going to speak with Esther Perel. I have wanted to speak with this particular psychotherapist for many years, and for good reason. She has been called the most important game changer in sexuality in relational health since Dr. Ruth by The New York Times, who featured her in a cover story. Her Ted Talks, one of which she actually basically winged off the cuff, which is amazing to me, her talks on maintaining desire and rethinking infidelity have more than 17 million views.
She’s tested and has been exposed to everything imaginable in 34 years of running her private therapy practice in New York City. In this episode we explore everything imaginable. We talk about her life story, how to find and convince mentors who can change your life, for instance what she’s learned from Holocaust survivors. But then we get into what she’s very much known for. We discuss topics like polyamouring and all of its close cousins, is there such a thing as too much honesty in relationships? We attempt to answer questions like can we want what we already have? Why do happy people cheat, and much, much more.
She has many, many case studies because she’s been practicing this in the real world in messy reality for long. A little bit of background on Esther, who I’ve had a chance to spend time in person with, now, and is just more impressive the more time I spend with her. She’s the author of the international best seller, Mating in Captivity. Many of you have heard of this.
It’s been translated into 26 languages. She’s fluent in nine of them. I’ve heard her in person doing this in a crowded room, going from person to person in different languages; it blows my mind as a language nut. This Belgian native now brings her multi cultural pulse to a new book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, which is out October, 2017 through Harper Collins. Right now, though, what you can check out of hers and you should check out, is a brand-new Audible original audio series Where Should We Begin?
She’s co-creating this and hosting it with Audible, and this looks at specific couples and walks you through their issues and how she would recommend they address them. So, check that out: Where Should We Begin? You can say hello to her on the socials at Facebook.com/Esther.Perel, P-E-R-E-L.
I had a blast with this. It’s going to expose my sensitive vulnerable underbelly, for those people who have been asking for all of this relationship stuff. So feel free to ridicule me on the internet; you usually don’t even have to ask. That just comes with this job that I’ve created for myself. So without further ado, please enjoy this wide ranging conversation with Ester Perel.
Esther, welcome to the show.
Esther Perel: Thank you. Hello.
Tim Ferriss: I am thrilled to finally have connected with you. You have one of the hottest possible areas of expertise imaginable. There are so many questions that I would like to ask, and so many questions that my fans would like to ask. I thought we’d start with a bit of background, and if you could tell us just a bit about where you grew up and what your childhood was like, I think that would be good as context to get us started.
Esther Perel: I grew up in Antwerp in Belgium, mostly. Antwerp is the Flemish part of Belgium.
I was there until I finished high school. I have a big brother who is 12 years older than me, so I was the young girl. And my parents, who were actually Polish refugees, came to Belgium after the war. From Belgium I moved to Jerusalem and I studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I lived there for almost six years. Then I came to Cambridge, Massachusetts to finish my master’s degree and I really thought I was coming for one year to America but that one year became two years, became rich and the after that I came to New York and thought I would do that for one year because I wanted to have the New York experience. And I never used my return ticket, and here I am.
Tim Ferriss: You’re still having the New York experience.
Esther Perel: I’m still having the New York experience, exactly.
Tim Ferriss: So you, as I understand it, grew up among Holocaust survivors. I would love to hear you elaborate on that experience and what it was like, what you learned from it and then we can talk about Jerusalem. I am very interested, as many people are, in the history of the Holocaust but even more than that; the personal…
Esther Perel: The lived experience.
Tim Ferriss: The lived experience. There’s a book called If This is a Man, and there’s another book called The Truce. Both are written by Primo Levi and were recommended to me by the illusionist David Blaine, who actually has Primo Levi’s prisoner number tattooed on his forearm. It was one of the most impactful books I would say I’ve read in the last ten years. But I have no direct experience with Holocaust survivors. What was that like, and what did you learn?
Esther Perel: So interesting that we’re starting from there. I think that If This Was a Man by Primo Levi is one of the most powerful books one ought to read. It’s a unique testament. It’s very simple. There were 60,000 Jews in Belgium before the war. The vast majority of them were decimated throughout the war and in camps. And so after the war, a group of Eastern European Jews basically came to Belgium through all kinds of meas. That’s when they arrived.
My parents, who were both the sole survivors of their entire families, which means 200 people lost on every side; they were both the youngest in their families. My mother was in the camps from 18 to 22, and my father from 25 to 31 because the war started very early for them.
They came with nothing to be there for three months. They were legal refugees for three months who were meant to continue from there to other countries, where they had been given refugee status. But they chose not to leave, and so they stayed for another five years as illegal refugees in Belgium, which is very telling for me right now with what’s going on in our country here. I am born later.
So when I am born in ’58, they already had found a way to legalize themselves, to become Belgian citizens. I grew up in a different environment, but I am growing up in a community of 20,000 Jews that are all Holocaust survivors. That’s basically all we knew in the Jewish community. Of course there was the larger Belgian community around.
You know, you saw numbers. You asked, why don’t we have grandparents? You asked, what are these numbers? It came with mother’s milk, is the best way I could say it. It was so ever present. We spoke Yiddish, German, Polish, French, and Flemish in my home. Depending on the subject matter and depending on who was speaking to whom, the language changed but there were five vibrant, interchangeable languages going on the whole time. If you can imagine that language is a door to a world, then you can imagine how many worlds were coexisting at the same time, that had nothing to do with each other, actually.
I grew up above the store. Because most of the Jews of Antwerp were actually in the diamond business. My family was among the 2 percent who were not, and so they had clothing stores. I grew up in a neighborhood where there were two Jewish families.
So it’s like the daily store with the foreigner in the neighborhood, and you know who they are, the two foreigners. They have an accent, and they look different, and the whole thing. I lived above the store in this very popular neighborhood, lower middle class neighborhood. Where we spoke actually not even just Flemish, but we spoke dialect Flemish from the street, like from the hood; the equivalent of the hood, basically. I would straddle back and forth. One of the ways I can describe it is my father when he turned 50 had two birthday parties.
One birthday party was for his Jewish survivor friends; that took place in Yiddish and in Polish and with a lot of vodka. And one birthday party was with his Flemish friends, and that was in dialect and with a lot of beer. By the code, by the drinks, you knew exactly which world you were traveling in and how you had to behave, and how much you could show that side of you versus the other side of you.
I think maybe more than anything, when you grow up in that kind of a community you grow up with a notion of impermanence; that what is today could disappear at any moment. I think that’s probably one of the strongest experiences. You don’t ever think that there is a notion of what is now will be there tomorrow. You never know. So you learn to adapt to that notion of impermanence, of insecurity if you will. My parents were bon vivant; they loved life. They didn’t survive for nothing. They were going to enjoy at best. And as I have often said, they understood the erotic as an antidote to death, as in they knew how to keep themselves alive and enjoy. Not everybody was like that.
You had very different kinds of moods. They were storytellers, so people would come from everywhere and they would tell about their life and their experiences. They were good storytellers, which means that they knew how to screen out, and they could make you laugh and they didn’t make you completely tense when you would listen. And everybody wanted to know their stories. They were amazing, amazing, amazing stories of survival, of subversion. My dad was illiterate.
He spoke five languages but he was basically illiterate, and he was a grand, grand human being who had done a lot and had saved quantities of people. I would say the strongest value in that community, or not the strongest but one of the very strong values, one was very definitely decency; how you behave towards other people.
The other one was – how would you say that in English – to manage, street smart, to be street smart. To know to survive, basically; to find your way out of situations and to be able to survive. Survival was the central organizing experience of all of these people. And then the second experience was revival.
Tim Ferriss: I have so many different directions I would love to take this, so I will try to do it one at a time. Dialect Flemish from the hood; could you give us any example of what street Flemish sounds like?
Esther Perel: [Speaking Flemish].
Tim Ferriss: What did you just say?
Esther Perel: Yes, dude, do you want me to say this in Antwerp dialect?
Tim Ferriss: How would you say “how are you, what’s up?”
Esther Perel: [Speaking Flemish].
Tim Ferriss: Say that one more time?
Esther Perel: [Speaking Flemish].
Tim Ferriss: Oh, boy. Yes, I’ll save my embarrassing rehearsal for when we meet in person.
Esther Perel: [Speaking Flemish].
Tim Ferriss: I think you might have just insulted my ancestors, but I’m not sure what just happened.
Esther Perel: I said I could say all of this in Antwerp dialect, but in order to be sure we all understand it, I’m going to tell my stories in English.
Tim Ferriss: That is a fantastic idea, so thank you for that. I love languages so I just wanted to hear something that I had never heard before. You mentioned that your parents were sole survivors in your families, if I heard you correctly. When you look at your parents, and I don’t know if it was simply because of their age or other factors, and that would be the primary factor; but when you look at your parents and at other sole survivors, what did they credit the survival to?
Esther Perel: Oh, that is a great question. I did get to ask them this question.
My mother, she first spent a year in the woods at age 18, running from farm to farm, hiding in the woods of Poland. And then she was so terrified that she actually surrendered by herself to a labor camp, to a man’s camp. Because she thought if I am in a camp, at least they probably will put me in the kitchens or in the laundry, and I could at least wake up every morning in the same place. My mother ended up going to nine different labor camps. Labor camps were generally next door to the concentration camps, and as long as you could work, you were in a labor camp.
If you were not selected that morning for transport, you could continue work. But the distinction is often a very narrow distinction. My father was in 14 different camps. The rest of their families were either gassed in Treblinka or in Auschwitz, basically; his family in Auschwitz, her family in Treblinka.
My mother would say it was a combination of premonitious dreams. She was very, very superstitious and she really believed her dreams that would tell her, tomorrow don’t go there, tomorrow be a little bit late there, tomorrow make sure to have an extra layer of newspaper on your feet because it’s going to be really, really cold. She had all these premonitious dreams of her father talking to her and things like that. She would always say chance came first; my father, too.
I think ultimately both of them said chance came first. And then there was what you did with the chance that was given to you. So there was always a mixture between choice and coincidence; choice and chance. My mother said she always made sure that she was clean, that she was groomed, that she was mending her socks, that she maintained her humanity.
That she didn’t allow herself to become dehumanized and degraded the way that she was being treated by the Nazis. My father, when we went to visit Auschwitz actually ended up telling me a story of a Dutch convoy of women that arrived, and he somehow picked a woman out of the crowd and he decided that he would help this woman. Basically, the next day they were shaven and so he couldn’t even recognize her so he asked the keeper, who is the other woman that he had noticed the day before.
They began some correspondence, which I have no idea how he wrote because he couldn’t write, and I never bothered asking him who wrote for him. But he fell in love with this woman, and he just decided that there were certain things the Germans couldn’t take away with him. That had to do with feelings and with love in the most dire of circumstances.
Then he basically developed this black market in one of the camps where he was with his best friend, where they were for almost a year and a half. Where he ended up feeding 60 young men who would otherwise have not had enough to eat, and therefore to work, and therefore to survive. He ended up feeding the Nazis, too. So when he got caught with those letters, one of the Germans sent him back to the factories and said you’re not staying here. Factories meant you had one week to live, basically.
But he had been feeding the German guys so well that the guy said I eat better when you work in the kitchens, and so he put him back in the kitchen. So he always said it was a combination of chance and ingenuity, street smarts, as he would call it, and doing for others. Doing for others gave you a purpose to stay alive and to wake up in the morning.
Tim Ferriss: If you look at then the survivors, whether by chance first like you mentioned, choice, some combination of those factors and others; you mentioned survival and revival. When you look at the survivors, who ended up being able to revive themselves and who did not?
Esther Perel: The third reason my mother always said is that she always thought that they wanted her to stay alive because if the others were not going to make it, there needed to be at least someone from the family and she always thought that she would somehow be reunited with somebody. So, she maintained this very deep connection inside of her that they were waiting for her somewhere. Then they realized that there was nobody. It’s an interesting question that I organize in my mind like this.
I organized it when I was actually writing my first book, Mating in Captivity. At the time I had a conversation with my husband, who was working with survivors of torture and political violence. I would ask him, when do you know that people come back? What does it mean to come back? Come back from different war zones, to come back from having been kidnapped, to come back from solitary confinement; what does it mean to come back to life?
And as we were talking, it became very clear that when you reconnect with life, not just when you are surviving but when you are living, it means that you are once again able to take risks, able to branch out, to go into the world, able to play because you cannot play if you are in a constant state of vigilance and guardedness. And able to trust.
Then I thought to myself oh my God, this is so much what I saw in Antwerp. I remember, since my entire classroom of children with similar families, that there were always two groups of families in my community. I decided I would call this… There was one group that didn’t die, and one group that came back to life. The did not die, you could feel it when you went to their houses. They often had plastic over the couches and the curtains were pulled down; it was morbid. You’re not dead but you’re not celebrating life.
You certainly are not enjoying because if you enjoyed, then you are not being careful. You have guilt. You often have survival guilt; why am I here and none of the others made it? And you are weighted down and the world is a dangerous place, and you are not to trust anyone outside the family and all of that.
And then I thought there were those who came back to life. That’s what led me actually to really want to explore what is eroticism; what is this antidote to death?
How, in the face of adversity, do you continue to imagine yourself rising above it, connected to joy, to love, to pleasure, to beauty, to adventure, to mystery, to all of that? Those people, it was very interesting. You had people who came together because they were the survivors of this camp and the survivors of that camp, and then you had people who came together for this kind of holiday or that kind of celebration, and they never discussed their experiences. It was all implicit.
But they were together, and they were charging ahead at life. The first thing they did when they would come out of the camps, by the way, is have a child. Because I’m alone, you’re alone, I have nothing, you have nothing; let’s get married and let’s have children. Because if we have a child, then we know we are still human, we are able to procreate, and we create legacy. And they didn’t kill everything off.
And so my parents, they planted trees in all kinds of places in the world. They put plaques in memory of all the other people of their families. My mother, in 1999 she received $10,000 from one of the factories of slave labor, decades later. She took the $10,000 and she went and planted an entire forest that had just burned, and she replanted the forest because it was like affirming life, and with a sense of defiance; it didn’t all die inside. And I think it’s that energy, that life force that really defines… and this is true for my community but I would apply this to any large scale trauma that communities experience. I don’t think it’s unique.
Tim Ferriss: I agree, and I don’t know why I want to ask you this question right now but you mentioned trust as one of the elements, one of the ingredients in the group that was revived, that was living and not just having avoided death. And these are not mutually exclusive, but does trust come first and then vulnerability, or does vulnerability come first and that’s how you develop trust?
Esther Perel: That depends on your theory of trust. This is the big debate on trust theorists. Rachel Botsman will tell you that trust is an active engagement with the unknown, so that’s one direction. The other direction is that it’s the actual experience of vulnerability that allows you to then trust. It goes in both directions.
I don’t think there is a definitive answer for that. And maybe it’s not an either/or but it’s a both/and.
Tim Ferriss: Both/and. Right.
Esther Perel: It’s like do you need to know in order to taste, or do you want to taste first and then be told what it was?
Tim Ferriss: Definitely depends on what type of cuisine and what type of chef, but I understand what you mean.
Esther Perel: So a child needs to be able to trust in order to get off of your lap and to explore and discover and play and be gone in their own space. And at the same time, it is the act of doing all of that and coming back to base and propping themselves back on their lap that reinforces the trust. I actually tend to think more in dialectic terms at both/and rather than either/or. But I think it’s a fantastic question, the question of trust. Does the act of trusting release the option, the possibilities to experience the vulnerability, or is the vulnerability of the unknown that you actually engage with ultimately what builds the trust?
Tim Ferriss: Right. This is something I’ve been thinking quite a lot about. But I wanted to also ask you about impermanence. I’ve tried to focus much more in a sense on things that are impermanent in my life in the last year, year and a half that in part was a result of a conversation I had on this podcast with BJ Miller, who is a hospice care physician. So he’s helped more than a thousand people to die. Great guy.
Esther Perel: We were at TED together.
Tim Ferriss: Yes, so a fantastic guy. I went to Princeton undergraduate and he was one of the warning stories because he lost three of his limbs in an electrocution accident a few years before I went to school there. I asked him what purchase of less than $100.00 had most positively impacted his life in the last six months or a year that he could pull from memory.
He mentioned a bottle of wine, and it wasn’t an expensive bottle of wine. The reason he mentioned it was – and I’m going to paraphrase here, but he said it was the fact that it went away, and how that encouraged you to enjoy something that you knew wasn’t permanent. So I’ve thought about that a lot since, and how to not fear things being impermanent but really use it as a source of leverage to maximally enjoy those things while you can. I’m curious how your parents’ ability to savor impermanence impacted you, or your behaviors or your routines or anything, if it did; I don’t know.
Esther Perel: I would say in two ways. First of all, I’m rather voracious in living. If there’s one more experience I can have, one more thing I can discover, one more place I can travel to, one more conversation that could be interesting, I am quite voracious. Not because I’m insatiable but because a part of me always says who knows what will be tomorrow? I don’t live with “there’s always a tomorrow,” I live with “who knows if there will be a tomorrow?” and that’s very simple. And then the other thing I would say, and that’s something that’s maybe not so known about me but I also live in a bit of what we call in my jargon a counter phobic way. Which means I act as if I’m fearless, but I’m actually petrified with dread.
Tim Ferriss: Please elaborate. Counter phobic?
Esther Perel: I act as if I’m fearless. Counter phobic means I act like nothing scares me – not nothing but there are a lot of things I do that could be very scary sometimes to other people, anyway and I live it as if I have no fear. Even today, I was driving down on my bike and I was thinking, last week it was filled with snow here; why am I always just pushing the edge and seeing if I can get away with it? And the truth is I got on my bike in the snow and I realized there was no way I was going to be able to do this, and I put the bike back.
But I was thinking how many times I do things, thinking nothing’s going to happen. And at the same time as I do it, I think at some point something bad is going to happen. It’s that what I mean. You would think I wouldn’t do it; if I think something bad can happen, it would stop me. But no, I do it and at the same time I think something bad is going to happen. Every day I think something bad is going to happen.
Tim Ferriss: Do you wish that were different, or do you think that helps you in some way?
Esther Perel: Oh, God, I wish it was different. Yes, I’m sure it pushes me but there must be a way to live without that constant fear like that. It prepares me very well for the modern times we live in; I can tolerate a lot of uncertainty, and the political climate we’re in and all of that. Today in Antwerp there was another car that drove on the main drag driving into people. It’s like that’s not a surprise to me. I expect it. That’s what I mean. It’s like I live with that expectation. It’s just a matter of when; not a matter of if. But I think it creates a level of anxiety that I don’t wish on anybody. No, I don’t think it’s normal. I think it’s normal given the history I come from; I don’t think it’s a good way to live.
Tim Ferriss: Let’s talk about this antidote that you mentioned earlier, so the erotic as an antidote to death. But actually, I’m going to interrupt myself and before we get there, how old were you when you went to Jerusalem?
Esther Perel: 18.
Tim Ferriss: 18. And why did you go to Jerusalem? Was that your choice, someone else’s suggestion? Why did that happen?
Esther Perel: Before I went to Jerusalem, I actually came to the States and I hitchhiked across the country for seven weeks in 1976, calculate. It was in the bicentennial, and at the time you could still hitchhike very freely and I had one of the most formative experiences of my life because I saw America like I don’t think I will ever see it again.
Since I had zero reference I had no judgment and I just was welcoming of anybody who was willing to pick me up and take me in. I really saw the country in and out, in ways that I wish my kids could have an experience like this but I don’t know that this is happening these days.
Then, I went to Jerusalem because I didn’t want to study in Belgium. I didn’t like the university system in Belgium.
Tim Ferriss: Why not?
Esther Perel: Why not? Because we have a system where you have to study a curriculum that is prepared by the teacher and you have to regurgitate it and study it by heart. And I thought it was a 19th Century system. It really was not at all a useful way of learning, and I had done that already for 12 years before. I studied Latin, I studied Greek, five, six hours a week. I have the whole classic education, humanistic education.
And I thought Jerusalem was mysterious, mystical, beautiful, complex in the middle of this hot beds of all religions. We were going to Israel a lot with my family so it’s not like it was a place I didn’t know. And I thought it was the one place I could leave to study abroad with my parents’ blessing.
So it was very easy. You didn’t come to study in America at that time. I was very passionate about theater, and my mother said if you want to do theater you stay in Belgium, and if you want to travel you have to go to university. I want you to have a structure. And I thought if it’s university, Hebrew University is a great university. The city is magnificent, and at the time it was really a spectacular place. It was much more open than it is now, and I thought what an adventure! I didn’t need much explanation at that time. It didn’t make sense, and it made perfect sense.
Tim Ferriss: If you look back at your time in Belgium and Jerusalem, were there any particular mentors that leap out at you if you had to give them credit for helping steer your life in the direction that it’s gone, or help you make any very important decisions? Is there anyone who really jumps out at you, besides your parents?
Esther Perel: Yes. It’s interesting you’re asking me today because I am going to Washington tomorrow to a big psychotherapy conference called the Psychotherapy Symposium. I am doing an homage to my mentor, but the mentor from America who is 95. I’ve been asked to be one of three people to be the person to thank him. So I’m in the midst of this experience right now.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, perfect.
Esther Perel: What am I going to say to one of the most influential teachers of my life?
Tim Ferriss: We could also talk about that 95-year-old mentor; that’s totally fine as well, or both.
Esther Perel: It’s an interesting question. I am the product of mentorship.
This is true throughout, from Hebrew University, to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to studying with Salvador Minuchin; that’s the name of this mentor. I have been mentored pretty much throughout but even in my other lessons through my theater teacher and dance teacher, mainly because my parents couldn’t always help me with any of these things. They had zero reference to the world I lived in. I sought teachers.
I sought mentors. I sought people who could help me integrate in Belgian life, who could help me trust and believe in myself, as well, guide me. My brother was definitely one of them. Every book I read was recommended by him. But I am totally the product of mentorship. It’s like I sought them out, one after the other.
This man that I’m going to be commemorating tomorrow, his life, Salvador Minuchin who is one of the fathers of the field of family systemic therapy.
Tim Ferriss: How do you spell Salvador’s last name?
Esther Perel: Minuchin, M-I-N-U-C-H-I-N.
Tim Ferriss: Got it, Minuchin. Thank you.
Esther Perel: Argentinean. You’re anointed when you have studied with him. It’s like studying with Freud but a century later. I knocked at his door. I arrived in New York, I knew I had a year to be in New York. I knocked on his door and said can I come and observe? He looked at me like who are you? And that’s the story I’m going to tell tomorrow. At the time, you could still knock on somebody’s door and say I want to learn from you. You inspire me.
And then he let me stay there ten weeks, and after ten weeks he said, “That’s it; that’s about as much as one can learn from observing. You can go now.” And I said no, no, no! Please, please let me stay; that kind of thing. And he always says like I entered through the window, you know?
Tim Ferriss: Sorry to interrupt, but I want to dig a little deeper on that because I am constantly asked by –
Esther Perel: To mentor.
Tim Ferriss: I’m asked to mentor, which usually means unpaid consultant for life so I don’t often say yes to that. But the question of how should I approach mentors, or how should I seek people out like Salvador, and someone along the lines of your story but a little different; I remember a professor who had a profound impact on me, Ed Show, who was at Princeton. He was a very eclectic character. He was similar in his appeal to me as Richard Feynman because they were so diverse in their interests.
He was a competitive figure skater, had taken several companies public. He was I believe the first computer science professor at Stanford because the person who was supposed to teach it didn’t show up and the administration asked if anyone would volunteer and he did.
He was a congressman for a few terms. I really wanted to be in his class. I came back from overseas, and I was late to apply to this class which had become very, very popular called “High Tech Entrepreneurship.” So I went to the first class, and I appealed to him. I said I’ll sit on the floor, I’ll clean the erasers, I’ll do whatever’s necessary; can I just sit in on a few classes?
It was a somewhat similar approach. But when people ask you, and I’m sure they do, how should I seek out mentors, how should I approach people I want to learn from; what advice would you give them and any specifics that you’ve done from the past. Did you just knock on the door of his classroom, or was it his office?
Esther Perel: His classroom. I called, I said I’m in New York and so-and-so suggested I come meet with you; I would love to learn from you. I had nothing, no credentials. I had no reason to be there. It was like get my foot in the door.
Like you, I would have done exactly what you did. I would have said I’ll do anything, I’ll bring you coffee in the morning; can I just be here? Because I just needed my foot in the door. Then I can start thinking now what? I admire people who do that with me. I have to say, when they come and they fly and they write, and they say I’ve been reading you, and then they show me not just that I like you, or I admire you, but also they say a few things that let me know that they get what I’m talking about.
So I also feel deeply understood. And then I feel like oh, man, I was there. I was that 21-year-old, you know? I had no papers, I had no visa. I came here with love and fresh water, really, and that’s what I mean, street smart.
It’s like refugee, go for it, knock at the doors and if they say no, come back again. At the third time, if you don’t act crazy, they will understand that you are deeply motivated. And if you do it with somebody who did it to…
Tim Ferriss: That “if you don’t act crazy” is a really important, bolded part of that sentence.
Esther Perel: You’re not a cuckoo. You’re not like some loose screw, but you really show that I see you, and I want your trajectory, or I want to learn from your trajectory. After ten weeks when he said you’re out, and I said please, please, he said you can be a fly o the wall. And I said fine, I will be a fly on the wall. I will melt in the wall. Let me be as invisible as can be. And then one day, there was a couple that was there, a family, and it was actually a Holocaust survivor family working with the therapy behind the one-way mirror. That’s how we were learning at the time.
Suddenly he looks at me and he says, “You there in the back, don’t you know something about this? What would you do?” And I spouted something out, and then he says, “That’s an interesting thought. Go tell them.” And he literally sends me to the other side of the mirror into the session. And I thought, oh, I’m no longer invisible; I exist! That was the beginning. Then I worked with him for the next four years.
Tim Ferriss: That’s amazing.
Esther Perel: Chutzpah is the word in Yiddish.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, yes, chutzpah.
Esther Perel: Good, healthy, creative, imaginative chutzpah.
Tim Ferriss: We need more chutzpah – I’m not saying it correctly –
Esther Perel: Yes, you’re saying it perfectly well.
Tim Ferriss: – and less mishegas, right?
Esther Perel: Yes, that’s exactly. Less crazy but…
I agree that sometimes it’s kind of a consultant gig for life, but sometimes it’s just – you must have had authors of books or musicians, those that you read when you were young that kind of really shaped you. And it’s a very strange thing when suddenly you become a shaping force in someone else’s life. For some reason you speak to them. And I’m always curious, why me? What is it that I say, because other people talk about some of these things, that touches you? That you would want to come here from far away countries just to meet with me?
And on occasion I’ll go and have a cup of coffee with these people, or a glass of wine. I have responded more than once, just by the way they write the letter. It’s all in how they write that mail to me. I can’t explain it; there’s no logic.
Tim Ferriss: Are there any key ingredients that you can think of? I’ll share from my side as well.
We both get I’m sure more inbound than we could possibly ever respond to, but one of the things that I would say certainly it can’t be ten pages long; that’s obvious. I would say that very often people think it’s a form of optimism that will be rewarded if they end with, “And I look forward to your favorable response,” or “How about next Tuesday?” And I’m not personally someone who generally responds to that very well. I’m more likely to respond if they close with something like, “I completely understand if I never hear from you because you must have an incredible amount of inbound requests like this. But if you’ve read this far, thank you at least for reading this far.”
It lets me off the hook, counter intuitively maybe, that makes it more likely that I’ll respond because I perceive they have some empathy or ability to understand the situation that I’m in.
So that would be one contributing ingredient for me. And then the other, I remember I ended up hiring someone years ago to help me work on the Four Hour Body and some other projects because he heard me talking about things that I needed, or read about certain projects I was going to be working on. And he said oh, I just went ahead and did A, B, C, D, and E. You don’t have to respond; I just thought this would be helpful. And I was like oh, okay, that’s very proactive. What about yourself?
Esther Perel: Yes, it’s a combination. What you just described, for me it’s a combination between boldness and humility. The boldness is “I’m gonna do this. I’ve been reading you, I’ve been listening to you; something in the way you say it strikes it right for me. But I don’t expect it. I totally know what I’m asking you, and it would mean an enormous amount. You have no reason to do this.
“But if you were to do this, it could change my life. It would mean so much.” It’s not so much that I can say no or yes, it’s that they really understand the vulnerability of the request. You feel that they are prepared for you to say no, and they are so that if they were to hear a yes, it would mean so much. And I’ve been there. I remember. I’ve been that person. You can’t write to me as if you already know everything. But at the same time, you have to be bold enough to say what do I have to lose? What do I have to lose?
And they say sometimes, “I have never written something like this.” And then I would probably say one thing for me that makes a difference is if they just say I’ve always wanted to be a therapist who works with sexuality in couples. No. But if they reflect back something about me in which I recognize myself and it’s a mirror that I like to look at, then I feel like they really get what I’m about and what I’m talking about.
They’re not just projecting onto me, you know? And that helps. Then I feel also really understood. It’s a variation of what you’re describing in terms of the empathy. So I think it’s similar. It’s a different wording for something that’s quite similar to what you described.
Tim Ferriss: It does sound similar. I promise to get back to this, and I know people are going to want to dig into this. We’ll continue to bounce all over the place. You mentioned the erotic as an alternative to death. What is eroticism and can you explain what you mean by it being an antidote to death?
Esther Perel: Yes. Animals have sex, and we have the erotic. The erotic is sexuality that is transformed by our human imagination.
The erotic is the meaning that you attribute to sexuality; it’s the poetics of sex. It’s not nature, instinct, primary force. It’s everything that gives it a meaning in a context. It’s everything that turns sex not into an act, but into a place you go. Not just something you do, but a place that you go. And that place that you go is a place where you connect with vibrancy, with aliveness, with renewal, with life force, with vitality, with mystery, and that’s why it becomes an antidote to death.
That’s why people often talk about it in spiritual terms, in religious terms. It has a transcending quality to it. It’s really the more mystical meaning of the word erotic; eros zoa, a life force. It’s really modernity that narrowed the meaning of eroticism to something that is more blatantly sexual, rather than life force.
But that life force, often expressed through the sex, takes on a whole other dimension. For me, to understand that I wasn’t just working on sexuality, because I’m not interested in what people do, the act. You can do sex and feel nothing. Women have done sex and felt dead for centuries. It’s really that other side of it. And that, you don’t have to do much of anything; your own imagination.
We are the only ones who can have sex for hours, blissful sex and wonderful connections and orgasms and all the like, and never touch anybody, just because we can imagine it. And that imagination is the ability to transport ourselves outside of this moment that we are in into something completely different. That is the erotic alon. And I am very interested in that.
Because I work with people who come in and complain about the loss of desire, and the loss of that energy, and they want to reconnect with that force and they don’t know why they lose it and they confuse it with arousal, and it has not much to do with that. When people complain about the listlessness of their sex lives, they sometimes make themselves want more sex but they always want better. And that better, when you analyze it with them, it’s about that life force, that vitality, that vibrancy, that mystery, that imaginative play, that curiosity.
Curiosity is an essential ingredient of the erotic. That’s what they want to reconnect with. So then that metaphor that I talked before about not dead versus alive, survival versus revival, you can survive and have sex and have children, but you may feel dead. Whereas you can have an experience in which you feel utterly alive when you’re in your 80s, and you do whatever 80-year-old people do.
It doesn’t really matter because the force transcends the act. That’s for me the interest of working on eroticism. I work with people who want to feel alive.
Tim Ferriss: If you, say, look at your group of patients and you then look at a subset who are what they would consider happily married, or happily in a committed relationship, or maybe committed is too loaded a term. They’re happily in a relationship, and they don’t want to leave that relationship. There are many incredible elements of that. Yet, they’ve hit that point which many people have hit, certainly I have hit before…
I’ll make this personal, I’m very good at monogamy. I can do it. I’m very, very good at it. But after, say, a year, a year and a half, I feel like I have to suffocate a part of myself that subjugates my sex drive so that I don’t wander. And that ends up affecting sex with my partner.
If you’re talking to these people and they hit a point where they feel sex drive decrease, or listlessness, what do you view as the ethical options that are on the table to address that?
Esther Perel: Okay, but that is like four subtopics.
Tim Ferriss: Yes, exactly. There’s a lot. That was probably a far too complex question but I suppose making it personal is leading me to do that.
Esther Perel: Mating in Captivity for me was really a conversation on that very question that you just asked? People would come to me and they would say we love each other very much. We have no sex. Or, we love each other very much; where is the desire?
Which was very different from the traditional model that you would normally learn in school, which of course is there is no sex, people mustn’t love each other because one leads automatically to the other, and therefore sexual problems are always the consequence of relationship problems. And you should fix the relationship and the sex will automatically follow. That was the premise. I decided to question that premise because it didn’t really work like that in my office.
I saw people who got along much better, and it still didn’t change anything for the desire. So I began to ask what is the relationship between love and desire? So the first one is what does that mean? Is desire fated to degrade? Is the degradation of desire inevitable? And what does it mean, and how does one rekindle it, and can one rekindle it? And can you want what you already have, which is the fundamental question of desire.
Then there is the second part to what you’re asking, which is the question of monogamy.
When you say I can do monogamy very well for a year, then you are defining monogamy by one criteria only, at least in the way I’ve understand the way you speak; is that you’re defining monogamy as a sexual exclusivity.
Tim Ferriss: Sure. In this particular case, that’s what that means.
Esther Perel: But that’s one definition of monogamy. Because monogamy is a term that has continuously evolved in its meaning. For most of history, monogamy was one person for life. At this point, monogamy is one person at a time. Everybody goes around saying I’m monogamous in all my relationships.
Tim Ferriss: That doesn’t mean I had an orgy every five minutes with just one person at a time! I’m kidding.
Esther Perel: No, two years. It’s two or three years. We have a bottle of sequential monogamy. You know, plus we don’t arrive monogamous to our relationships; we’ve had previous ones. So at this point, where does monogamy exist? In reality but not in your history, and not in your fantasies.
So that’s another consideration. And then there is maybe if we stop just looking at monogamy from the exclusivity model, because the exclusivity model is an economics model. Monogamy, generally, while history has been an imposition on women, it has not necessarily been a requirement for men. In fact, men practically had a license not to be and they have had all kinds of theories to justify why they shouldn’t have to be. Because we needed to know about paternity and patrimony and lineage.
So monogamy had nothing to do with love; it had everything to do with an economic system. That word has transformed since romanticism so much that at this point, I think that the conversation about monogamy should probably be less a conversation about sex and sexual boundaries and sexual exclusivity, and more about the multiplicity of relationship configurations, in which monogamy may be more emotionally determined rather than just sexually determined, like gay couples have done forever.
I think we need to loosen up the term, not to totally trash it or not totally bind it, but certainly untie it; loosen it up and redefine it. Now, within that, it’s a choice, monogamy. It’s something you choose to practice when you keep it in the definition you want. And then the question is, what do people do with their thwarted desires, with their other attractions? Definitely they have them.
They can acknowledge them. They can have a relationship in which they negotiate with each other what to do with these other desires. They can hopefully not always interpret them as you’re not enough, which is the most powerful reaction that people have today to that term. The majority of people have practiced proclaimed monogamy and planned [inaudible] adultery.
That’s been the dominant model. The question is simply do people want to have a negotiation with themselves that is private and secretive, or do people want to incorporate this as part of the conversation of couple making at this point? We’re not meant to have desire for one person for life, for 60 years. That is not how we were conceived; neither were we ever conceived of having 60-year relationships with the same person either, for that matter.
So we are left with a host of new questions about the nature of erotic desire, given first of all that until very recently, we didn’t have sex in relationships just because of desire; we had it for procreation and generally for women it was a martial duty. So sex that is rooted in free will for pleasure and connection, just because we want it, and with you, and hopefully at the same time and so forth, is a very new model and we are all grappling with it.
Everybody’s wondering what do you do with the loss of desire? How important is sex anyway? Can the relationship sustain without sex? Can the relationship sustain with sex with others while having a relationship? What are the boundaries? This is the conversation of modern love, one of them anyway. There are a few but this is one of the dominant conversations of modern love. I don’t know if I’ve answered you but I hope I’ve kind of highlighted some of the flashpoints.
Tim Ferriss: You have, and we’ve got the time so we’re going to keep going. You mentioned, and I think this is a very important observation, that adultery used to threaten economic stability. Now it threatens more so emotional stability. Although in some senses, certainly, if you’re within the legal construct of marriage there can be economic ramifications, certainly.
I’m going to bring it home to San Francisco, for a second. I live in San Francisco. That’s home base. I’ve tried different relationship configurations in the past. I’m not married, I don’t have kids. I’ve had some wonderful relationships. I’d say for the last ten to 15 years, I’ve done a better job of setting my own boundaries, understanding other people’s boundaries, making sure that all of those are very explicit so that whatever agreement we have, at the very least the agreement is clear. So I’ve had some really good relationships.
What I’ve seen in the last, say, let’s call it five years; it’s certainly existed for longer than that but whether it looks like two or opening up or others, there is a trend at least in the Bay Area for people to try what they would consider monogamist or polyamorous relationships.
Just in the cohort that I’ve observed, and there are a lot in the Bay Area, the always honest, all the time radical candor approach seems to implode with pretty spectacular fireworks on a regular basis. So the question I want to pose is, is there such a thing as too much honesty, and how do you think about that whether for yourself in your own relationships, or how do you advise your clients when they’re grappling with this?
Because for instance, and for you out there who are sensitive: earmuffs. Cover your ears. There are people out there who can have a high tolerance for what they would call compersion, and for people who don’t know that word, at least the way it’s been explained to me, getting gratification or pleasure from someone else’s pleasure.
So if your partner is having sex with someone else, you derive a certain amount of pleasure from that. I know couples who have tried this because they’ve been told it’s a more highly evolved approach, and so they’ll sit down to dinner and let’s just say in the hetero normal relationship, the male will say, “So, what was it like having so-and-so inside you last night?” And they’ll try and have that conversation and everything blows apart at the axels.
And it just doesn’t work. There are some people for whom it works very well. Bu t how much honesty is too much honesty? Is there such a thing as too much honesty? Are there other parameters that you’ve seen work for people?
Esther Perel: Yes. But you see, there are two different cultural systems here.
When it comes to the polyamorous model in San Francisco, it is a bit of a growing movement n the hub beds of the startup cultures like Silicon Valley because it’s people who choose a lifestyle that has to do with an entrepreneurial mindset, that aspires to greater freedom of choice, to authenticity, and flexibility. And so there’s a kind of a marriage between the community that lives there and the appeal of a more polyamorous life.
But for me, the question of honesty is actually must broader. It extends way beyond. Look, we live in the United States, and America prides itself on being a pragmatic culture. And as a pragmatic culture, it likes unvarnished directness and it has all kinds of expressions for conflating honesty with factual truth. Say it as it is, don’t beat around the bush, get to the point; there are so many expressions in this culture that favor explicit statement versus more opaque communication.
That conflates the concept of the moral cure of honesty has to do with truth telling and transparency. That’s the definition. There are many cultures in which honesty means something very different. Honesty is not about laying it all out there; it’s actually about thinking about what the consequences will be for the other person to live with the truth. It’s not a confessional model. It’s not rooted in Protestantism.
And so honesty is not about I have to tell you everything I feel, or everything I’ve done. It’s about what will it be like for you to live with the consequences of knowing? And so you don’t say certain things because you want to save face for the other person, or because you just don’t see the point of it because there’s almost something aggressive about it a little bit.
It’s like what am I supposed to do with all of this now? You feel better; you’ve unloaded. What about me, kind of thing. And I think it’s very cultural. For me, certainly coming from Europe, we don’t necessarily think that saying everything and putting it all out there and truth telling and transparency are the only markers of importance. I think we think that sometimes keeping things to yourself is just as important. Not everything must be said. Here, this notion that connects with that is also that intimacy is about saying everything. It’s kind of wholesale sharing, you know?
And if you don’t say everything, then you must be keeping a secret. Because the opposite of transparency is secrecy, and there is a complete loss of privacy. And this is true in the intimate realm of relationships as it is true in many other sectors of our society. Privacy is at risk. And so people respond either with the other extremes.
Yes, I do think there can be too much sharing. It’s not too much honesty but it’s too much sharing, and the sharing is problematic when you think that that’s the definition of honesty.
Tim Ferriss: This is really important.
Esther Perel: Was that clear what I just spoke about?
Tim Ferriss: It was clear. I think the honesty, does honesty or 100 percent sharing always equal caring for the other person, or fostering intimacy I think is an interesting question.
Esther Perel: The answer is no!
Tim Ferriss: The answer is no.
Esther Perel: Sometimes of course it is, but it’s not a given; it’s not a dogma. I think that actually holding back, I think making space for the other person, I think dealing with your own feelings, I think this idea that because I love you I should be able to tell you everything. And if you don’t tell me everything, then maybe you’re not close.
And this telling is becoming almost like a bit of an I deserve to know what were you thinking, what are you feeling, why don’t you want to tell me? Like no, those are invitations; those are not rights. You don’t have the right to enter another person; you are invited in.
Tim Ferriss: For those people listening who want to have a very illuminating but entertaining short read on this type of question and radical honesty, there’s a great article. I think it’s called I Think You’re Fat, by A. J. Jacobs at Esquire, who is hilarious and a good friend so you should read that. But I want to bring up an anecdote and hear how you would advise someone. I remember having lunch with a close friend of mine about two years ago, I would say. He had a friend approach him who had cheated on his wife. He had had an affair, and he was grappling with whether to tell his wife or not.
My friend’s advice was no, that is your burden to carry and you carry that with you. It’s not fair to inflict that on her because you want to make yourself feel better. After a very, very long conversation, that was his conclusion. And so I’m curious to know, say in a patient setting if you have someone, male or female because certainly women cheat – I’ve been cheated on before; it happens, certainly. When someone is grappling with whether to tell their partner or not, how do you walk them through that decision?
Esther Perel: What is it that you want to tell your partner? What is it that you want to tell? Do you want to tell that you fell in love with someone else? Do you want to tell that you realized in having a fling with someone else how much you loved her or him? You realized that you have been lying to yourself all these years? You realize that it’s time to get back into gear because you’ve become lazy and complacent?
You realized that you have been keeping all kinds of sexual secrets that have nothing to do with non-monogamy but more with your history? What is it you want to tell your partner? That’s the first thing. And do you want to tell something about what happened to you in the meeting with the other person? Do you want to tell what that meeting with the other person made you think about your life? We’re not just talking about a series of facts. We’re talking about the meaning and the motives of the transgression.
So that’s the first thing I ask: what is the meaning and the motives? Why did you do this? How did this happen to you? Were you looking for it? Did you choose it? Did you just stumble into it? Did you resist it? Did you not resist it? Are you living with conflict? What is the guilt that you’re feeling? What is the guilt? Is the guilt that you’ve realized that you don’t have desire for your partner?
Is the guilt that you realized that your partner must have been really terribly frustrated because you’ve been a terrible lover to your partner? What is it? And so I don’t have to tell people tell or don’t tell. I help people figure out what it is that they would tell, why would they want to tell it, and what did they think would happen to the other person when they tell it to them. I think the notion that sometimes not to tell is kinder than to tell, the way that your friend did, is also one of the many options. It’s not the only one but it is definitely in the repertoire.
That sometimes you tell for your own conscience, and then the other person can churn the whole night. So there is the positive and the liabilities of telling, and then there is the liabilities and the positives of not telling. What do you think your partner would want to know? That’s the other thing.
Do you ask yourself, do you think your partner would want to know? Are you speaking because of your thoughts about the other person, or are you thinking of speaking because of how you feel about yourself? There’s a full spectrum of dishonesty. There are simple omissions, there are partial truths, there are white lies, there’s blatant obfuscation and there’s mental hijacking. Secrecy can be cruel and secrecy can be benevolent. Sometimes you lie to protect yourself, and sometimes you lie in order to protect your partner.
And then there is the ironic role reversal in which sometimes you realize that you’ve been lying to yourself and it was you that you were deceiving. And it’s all of that that you want to unpack; all those twists and tangles of lying before you send people out. Because you can never take anything back. And the next thing that’s going to happen, you’re going to say I slept with someone, and then they want to know how was it? And then they want to know did you fall in love with that person?
And then maybe they don’t want to know. So, slow down. Sit with this. Ponder it. Figure out what this was about for you. If it really meant nothing, what does that mean when you say it meant nothing? Do you mean to say it’s not supposed to threaten the future of your relationship; this is not a person with whom you want to live? But even something that is meant to mean nothing has psychological valance. A lot of effort goes into making something not mean anything, paradoxically.
Sit with that, and I will sit with you for whatever time it takes until we figure this out. And then maybe we’ll write a letter. You’re not just gonna go there and sit. We write a letter, and you’re first going to hand write that letter, and you’re going to get your first version out which you probably won’t send, in which you just cleanse your soul. You do your own conscience cleaning. And the next letter will the one in which you’re less thinking about you and more thinking about your partner and your relationship.
Those are the steps.
Tim Ferriss: That’s very smart. The next question I want to ask, which is actually from the audience, do you think it’s possible for a partner in a non monogamous marriage – could be relationship – to get over the fear of being left by opening that door? This is a very common question because maybe one person is more enthusiastic, or feels the need for some form of non monogamy, meaning sexual monogamy, than the other.
Or, they’re both open to it but they haven’t experimented or experienced this for an extended period of time, or maybe they have and they’ve been burned. Do you think it’s possible for someone to get over that fear of being left by opening that door, and what are some of the strategies or coping mechanisms, if so?
Esther Perel: But what if I told you that the person who experiences that fear more openly and is able to say for me, this triggers the fear of losing you altogether is experiencing a lesser fear than the one who is wanting to have other partners?
Tim Ferriss: Could you say that again, please?
Esther Perel: Yes. See, couples have a setup, right? Every couple has a setup. It’s an organization. In every couple you will often find one person who is more in touch with the fear of losing the other, and one person who is more in touch with the fear of losing themselves. One person more in touch with the fear of abandonment, and one person more in touch with the fear of suffocation. That tells you which is the one that is more interested sometimes in experiencing open boundaries and non monogamy, or non exclusiveness, anyway.
But the person who wants the open relationship presents as the one who doesn’t have the fear of abandonment.
Tim Ferriss: I see what you’re saying.
Esther Perel: But that doesn’t mean that their strategy isn’t in fact one that is meant to address an even bigger fear of abandonment than the other. It’s just that in this relationship, the other one is the one who gets to fill the quota for that fear. You understand? Couples have complementary systems. So I don’t, at face value, believe that the one who says I’m afraid to lose you is the only one with that fear. I believe we all have it, but I believe the one who expresses it in the couple isn’t always the one for whom it is actually the most intense. That’s the secret with a lot of relationships.
Tim Ferriss: I agree with that.
Esther Perel: You understand. The person who gets to voice it is actually only sometimes voicing a fear that the other one doesn’t even voice.
Tim Ferriss: I agree.
Esther Perel: That said, I think it really depends. I would not have a set answer for this. There are plenty of people who at first feel very scared, and then have learned to trust differently and have learned to understand that their partner really comes back to them. And in fact, the more they feel free, the more they want to come back to them and they really have learned to trust that. And then there are others for whom it is excruciating. It just feels either a replay from childhood, either a sense that they’re not enough because this notion that you would need more than me and that I can’t fill all your needs is very, very painful to them.
And they bolt into that idea very powerfully. Sometimes there is the sense that you allow yourself something that I don’t; why can’t you stop yourself? There are other things that I don’t get and I don’t go and get them elsewhere.
Compromise should be a part of what both of us do in the name of our relationship. I’ve seen it go both ways. I’ve seen people for whom it really became a way to live that they never knew existed. And I’ve seen people for whom this is just not the way they want to live. They don’t want that fear. They don’t want to remember every time their parents went out, that they didn’t know if they were coming back. They don’t want that notion of what if you will fall in love somewhere else, which of course in and of itself would happen no matter what. That threat is always there.
That reality is part of any couple. But somehow I don’t want to have to know it with such vividness. Or, because I feel that there is something lacking in me, or I feel my own insecurities and therefore every time you go, my insecurities get awakened. It’s a complex system. I would just say that it generally works better when both people are from the same tribe.
When both people have that same curiosity. When both people experience the fluidity as something that is additive and not something that’s an actuality. Then it becomes an enhancing experience rather than a dreadful experience each time. It’s very complicated when one person says to the other, “I really want this.” And the other one says, “This is hell for me. I can’t live with this.” There’s very little flexibility sometimes in that system because both people feel it very intensely. More than one relationship has had to end on that basis.
Tim Ferriss: What I’d like to ask following up on that, because I think this question is… and I’m going to stop hedging all my comments. Obviously, everybody listening, there are a million different ways to organize a relationship and a million different commentarial approaches to it.
Whether it’s homosexual, heterosexual, unisexual, I have no idea; there are a million different ways to go about it. so I am just going to assume for the sake of simplicity that a lot of people are in heterosexual relationships. This question is very common, I think, from women who are… you have a male in a relationship who wants more sexual variety. The woman, in many cases – not all cases – is, at least around San Francisco, potentially open to that but doesn’t have the same sexual drive, necessarily, as the male. So the male is going to exercise that option more than she will. And that leads or contributes to perhaps fostering some degree of insecurity.
If he’s going to be seeing X number of people and I’m not seeing Y number equivalent of people, then the likelihood of him disappearing is higher. I remember I was told once by someone, they said no one can take the person you’re meant to be with. The context in which that was provided was to underscore the fact that, like you said, you’re married, not married, in a relationship, have an explicit agreement or not, the potential and the risk for digression or meeting someone else is always there.
But I guess the fuel in the fire here is when you explicitly give someone the option, the fear is that it’s more likely to happen. And that’s just more of an observation. I wanted to mention two things I’ve been very curious about recently, that seem at least in the group that I’ve observed to work pretty well, even though I think at least one of them is viewed as pretty unfashionable and so I wanted to get your take on it.
The first one is an arrangement, and this I’ve only heard once but I thought it was very clever. Actually, no, not once; twice. An older gentleman, he was in his 60s and married for 20-plus years, has a number of kids and I was asking him about his marriage. He said we have an open relationship. Okay, we were having some wine; tell me more. So he continued talking. I asked him how do you prevent it from causing problems? He said every relationship has problems so it’s not like one is immune and one is not.
But his wife gives him a report card every quarter. So every three months he gets a report card. I think it was a 1 to 10 scale in four categories. Lover, husband, provider, father. He’s allowed to have a low score in any one of those as long as his average is high enough. So they agreed on what his average had to be.
So he might, say, be overseas for a period of time on business trips and he also might sleep with other women. So he’s going to get a low lover score, a high provider score, and then the other two are sort of up for debate. I found that appealing, maybe just because I like measuring things as a way of course correcting and keeping things in check.
The second, which I’d particularly like your thoughts on, although we can go anywhere with this, is that looking at maybe a contrast to the “tell me everything, I’ll tell you everything” breed of polyamorous relationships where radical honesty is an underlying tenet. I’ve run into more than a few people who effectively have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
It doesn’t pain me to say it but I expect I’ll get a decent amount of backlash from my audience, but it seems to work pretty well in the sense that more than a few couples have said look, that whole polyamorous tell everything – and I know those are not mutually dependent – is not for us. But as long as you’re safe, as long as you don’t embarrass me, then you can do what you want and the policy is don’t ask, don’t tell. That seems very old fashioned.
Or maybe the fact that it’s a two-way street makes it less old fashioned, but what are your thoughts on that? Because it seems to me just intuitively to be – and maybe this is highly dependent on the person, but to be less prone to kind of super nova destruction versus the radical honest piece, for most people. Do you have any thoughts? That’s a mouthful, I know but I’ve been thinking about a lot of this stuff for a long time.
Esther Perel: I think I would start and I would say that trust, loyalty, and attachment come in many forms. When you describe this example, and you like it because of its measurements, I would say I like it because of its creativity because there’s thoughtfulness, because there’s a shared complicity, because it seems to have worked, because there’s imaginativeness and resourcefulness in it and because I think that couples often lack a lot of that. Every other system gets innovators and gets new ideas put into it all the time, and it’s extraordinary how much relationships enter into a certain mode and then stay in it for decades.
So anything where I see couples coming up with their own imaginative solutions to various situations and then be flexible about it, and review it and change it, to me is great. That’s it. I think that unfortunately, coupledom does not benefit from the same innovation spirit that every other company and entrepreneurial space these days gets to benefit.
There isn’t one model fits all. A certain couple may have lived for awhile in a monogamous arrangement, an exclusive arrangement but then decided at some point because of all kinds of issues having to do with age, with illness, with success, with you name it, with children leaving, what a new awakening, with loss of weight, you name it. there’s lots of triggers that make people suddenly want to change their relational arrangement.
And I think that if people are going to stay together a long time, they need that ability to review their relational arrangements, and to negotiate it and then to try something and then to see if it works. I can’t enough emphasize my desire for flexibility, to become part also of coupledom so that it enters a groove, it goes until it can’t, and then it just kind of ends there.
It needs to be something a little bit more enriching there. So, the first thing. I think for some people, don’t ask don’t tell works extremely well. It gives them enough privacy, it makes them both know that there is still a primary loyalty and commitment. There is an implicit sense of knowing where one can go, how far one can go, etc. And there needs to be ample continuous investment and reassurance and building into the relationship itself.
The point is not that you should have the leftovers at home and everything else that is meaningful and exciting and interesting and engaging elsewhere. By definition, you still want to be able to put some logs in your own fire. For other people, transparency and radical honesty has become an ideology.
The problem is ideologies generally are rigid. They don’t lend themselves to being adaptive and fluid to what’s in front of you. It becomes a matter of principal rather than a matter of what makes sense. I may be a little bit of the school still where does it make sense, does it work? I don’t care if it’s true or if it’s right; does it work? Is it decent, is it right, is it caring, is it warm? Has it been adapted? Does it fit both people? Those are the criteria as you go back and forth, a kaleidoscopic, not just like two ideas.
For many people, the notion of radical honesty, transparency, truth telling, authenticity; those have become the values of the economy of today, and so is it in the economy of the home. We want experience. We want purposeful, transformative experiences. We want them at home, we want them at work, everywhere. For other people, home is a different thing. And home is meant to satisfy other needs, etc.
There is a segmentation that is accepted. We share these kind of things; we share other things with other people. To me, it’s really a matter of does it fit this particular couple? Does it work for them? Or is there one person who is quietly hurting over a long time and kind of giving in? But there’s a power dynamic, because the word we haven’t used is that in all these negotiations, there is an element of power. There is power when you bring in other people.
There is power when you feel that the other person can leave you. There is power when you are faced with the hurt of a person who is constraining you. There is a dynamic of power in all of these issues. And the question is, is there an equity in the decision making? Do both people feel that they have equal power in their ability to say what works for them?
In this instance that you described, what’s beautiful is you feel like whatever he does, she gets to evaluate him. And so the evaluation is power, it’s authority. In the good sense of the word I use the word power. So they are calibrating power. You get to do things, but I don’t want to have to suffer because of it. I want to know that I still get the primary goods. I want to know that I come first. So yes, you want go play, go play.
But don’t play on my behalf, and don’t play on my account. I don’t want a devaluation of our assets because you are accruing other revenues somewhere else. And then play with this. And so for this couple, to me I’m putting my script onto it but when I listen to the description, I’m looking at what is the power distribution. Because the power is the sovereignty. The power is the dignity of this. Otherwise, all these things become not power but power maneuvers, and that’s a whole other thing and that has nothing to do with just sex alone.
Every relationship is a power dynamic. That has to be laid out first. Inside of that, we can come up with so many different arrangements, that people will live for awhile and then switch. I would say that to the polyamory people as well. There was a beautiful proliferation of non monogamy thinking that is taking place, and they’re very different from the free love pioneers of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
But then of course many of those people are the children of the divorced and the disillusioned, and they’re not rebelling against commitment per se, but they are looking for more realistic ways to make their vows last. They’ve concluded that that includes other lovers. And I think that the form can vary enormously.
You can have occasional hall passes, you can have swingers who play with others, you can have established threesomes, foursomes, complex polyamorous networks; all of these things have one purpose, to reconfigure love and family life, which we have done from time in memorial.
Tim Ferriss: Right. Your comment on power reminded me of I think it was Oscar Wilde who said everything in the world is about sex except sex; sex is about power.
Esther Perel: Yes, yes.
Tim Ferriss: You’ve spent so much time with people grappling with these issues. What was the research process for your new book, and that is really I fresh on the industry, I would think at this point for you. What was the drive behind it? Why do another book, and what was the research process like?
Esther Perel: Mating in Captivity looked at the dilemmas of desire inside the relationships and The State of Affairs, which is my new book, looks at what happens when desire goes looking elsewhere. I had gone to 20 countries on book tour for Mating, and in many places the only chapter people wanted to talk about was the Shadow of the Third, the chapter on monogamy, which was only one chapter in that whole book.
And I thought there’s no way I could do a thorough study of desire without looking at desire that goes wandering. What is roaming desire like? What is the power of transgression? Why is the forbidden so erotic? What is this thing called adultery which has been historically condemned and universally practiced? It took me awhile. This is ten years since I wrote Mating in Captivity.
I take a long time to think and I only write if I feel I have something to say. And something to say means that I want to change the conversation on the subject. I don’t want to just add one or two thoughts, I want to really frame the conversation. I want to take something and make a cultural shift around it. So for the past six years, about, I began to travel the globe and have conversations about the subject of infidelity, transgression, trysts, love affairs, fuck buddies, betrayal, trauma, lying, deception, cheating, gas lighting from both sides.
Tim Ferriss: Wait, what is gas lighting? I’ve heard this expression before and I don’t know what it is.
Esther Perel: Gas lighting is when I say I know you are seeing somebody else, I know it, I feel it and you say no, you’re crazy; this is because of what your father did to you. You’re just paranoid. And you literally destroy the coherence of my reality.
Tim Ferriss: Got it. It’s when you’re accused of something and you turn it around and sort of fracture some.
Esther Perel: Yes, but you also literally begin to make me feel like I have no longer a grasp on reality.
Tim Ferriss: I see. Got it.
Esther Perel: It’s a real mental torture. It’s not just that you’re denying; it’s that you’re also saying what’s wrong with me that I’m thinking this? And then you basically make me doubt myself, and you make me doubt that when I think the tea is hot, it’s actually hot. I no longer know to trust the world that I live in, my perceptions, my thoughts, my feelings. And that becomes an internal breakdown. It drives people crazy. It’s really cruel, actually. It’s very common but it’s a cruel thing to do. I’m 34 years a couples therapist. I have a fascination for couples. I work in seven languages. I can take them from all over the world.
And I began to only see couples who have been affected by infidelity in one variation or another. I also did a TED Talk in Passon, which has 7.5 million people in a year or two and I thought okay, I’ve got 1,500 letters. I thought my God, I’m a walking confessional. The world is pouring their secrets onto me on this subject. Let me try to think it through. Let me really delve into this and look at it from a systemic point of view.
Meaning if I ask an audience have you had any experience with affairs or infidelity, nobody’s going to lift their hand. Nobody’s going to say I cheated or I’ve been cheated on so easily. But if I ask the same audience, have you been affected by infidelity in your life, I probably get 90 percent of the fingers up. It’s an amazing thing. As the child of, as the friend of, as the boss of, as the lover, as the other woman, as the partner, as the person who went out, you name it.
And now it becomes really a collective experience. So I wanted to look at it from all angles and I see couples two, three hours at a time. I delve into the labyrinth of passion, all of it from all sides. Then I collected all the data, I wrote, I transcribed hundreds of hours of sessions. I transcribed all the letters, and then I began to gather and decide what are the main assumptions at this point about this subject?
How does our culture think about this? By the way, infidelity happens in polyamorous couples, too. The fact that you get an open license doesn’t prevent people from climbing the fence. Something about transgression is deeply human.
Tim Ferriss: You’ve also observed the definition of cheating begins to expand.
You have sexting, texting, dating apps, watching porn; the inside of the wall is getting narrower and narrower in some respects, also.
Esther Perel: Absolutely. The definition is elastic. It’s unbelievable today how many more ways we define something as being outside of the boundaries and we consider them infidelities. It is one of the experiences that encompasses the entire human drama. Everything, jealousy, hurt, betrayal, pain, lust, love, passion; all of it. It’s like every opera, there’s a reason. It is one of the most complex human experiences to really delve into but it is endlessly fascinating. And so I wanted to rethink infidelity; what does it mean today?
Why does it happen in any kind of relationship? What does it mean to know that your partner never really belongs to you? They’re only on loan with an option to renew, or not.
Tim Ferriss: Related to that, I get asked about marriage and kids a lot, even though I feel very unqualified to comment on either. But what is the argument for marriage these days? Because I have trouble coming up with one. The argument that comes to mind, because the legal construct, the financial consequences, the difficulty in the unraveling, if you want to change direction or a new chapter means a new partner, whatever it might be; there are a lot of consequences.
The only argument that I can come up with for it is related to loss aversion. Where maybe if you really want to make a strong, committed effort to maintain a relationship for a long period of time, that if you have something to lose, if you don’ t enforce that that in this case takes the form of a legal construct that you’re not going to put in the requisite effort.
So, okay. But it just seems to me that there is so much downside that prevents flexibility. How do you think about that, or is there an argument for the legal construct of marriage? Because I have more and more difficulty as I see friends’ marriages imploding, exploding. Good people, often faithful people; it gets harder and harder for me.
Esther Perel: Yeah, but Americans love to marry. Maybe once, twice, three times. Part of the way that I began the project of writing about infidelity came out of the Lewinsky-Clinton scandal because I was very intrigued. Why was this country so tolerant about multiple divorces and so intransigent about the slightest transgression?
Tim Ferriss: Right, fair enough.
Esther Perel: No matter how much sex becomes open, they remain intransigent about the subject of infidelity. And the rest of the world, by the way, that is more family oriented, has always opted the other way around. You protect the family and you don’t divorce. Why Americans love to marry I have never fully understood. I have my thoughts, but it’s not like I have a definitive answer to that. I think those are two questions.
A deep, meaningful connection with another human being with whom you weave a story along the stages of life, that is one thing. Does it need to take place within the construct of marriage is a very different thing.
Tim Ferriss: Agreed.
Esther Perel: In Europe we marry much less, but we have families.
And we try to create families with what modernity has given us, which is a rather nuclear model of family, which is a very difficult model for family and a terrible model for couples. We were not meant to be two adults with four or two or three children all alone in cities. None of it is the way we were meant to do it. and so it’s extremely taxing on the couple. And at the same time, the only reason families today survive is if the couple is doing relatively well. That’s the only thing keeping families together.
We’re facing a very interesting thing. At the same time, if Apple sold you a product that fails 50 percent of the time, would you buy it? Yet, that’s what happens to marriage. If you think that’s a guarantee, think again because at this point, it is really not doing that well in terms of guaranteeing you things. But, I think there are very few rituals at this moment.
With the loss of traditional religion, there are very few rituals. There are very few structures, very few institutions to which we can adhere. I can see that in that sense the importance of marriage as a ritual that is rooted in a tradition and that comes with a code of conduct and with an official norm to it. and so that’s where I place marriage. I don’t think of it in legal terms at all. I think of it very much in terms of its cultural meaning.
It’s like a spine; there are very few things people can hang themselves on these days. Everything is about the self and the burdens of the self are very heavy at this moment. So marriage has become that institution that still tells you how to go about doing these things in life.
To me, the very interesting thing when you ask about why marry, I think about the gay marriage. Gay marriage really was one of the ways to try to understand what does it mean to legalize, to give rights to create families, to allow people to adhere to a norm when there are so few norms at this moment. Everything has been revaluated and redefined. And I think people are sometimes very desperate for norms, structures, pillars, architecture.
Everything else is fluid, fluid, fluid but we all need solid as well as we need fluid, and marriage has remained one of the last solid constructs, even though it fractures way too fast and way too often. Can you do it without marriage? Completely. But for some reason, people feel that commitment without the structure isn’t buttressed in the same way. The marriage is the buttress. It’s the fulcrum.
That would be an interesting thing to look at numbers. Do relationships that are not held together by the contract of marriage, do they dissolve any more in Europe than they do here? I’m not sure. You know, it’s 52 percent or 48 at this point, maybe it’s gone down a bit, on first marriage but the fascinating data is not first marriage. It’s 65 percent divorce rate on second marriages.
Tim Ferriss: 65 percent?
Esther Perel: Yes. That sis the much more interesting data. Why?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, why? Why do you find it interesting?
Esther Perel: Because it touches on something else that I think is much more interesting, certainly as a couples therapist. Okay, let’s assume the second time it’s easier. You’ve done it the first time. You may not have the young children, etc. But to me, the more interesting thing is that the first time, you still actually adhere to the model.
I think often the divorcees are the true idealists. The believe in the model; they just chose the wrong person and they’ll do better next time. The second time, they begin to think that maybe it’s not all about the other person and that maybe it’s time to take some responsibility for themselves. Everybody at some point has some relationship things to work out, and the only question is with whom? Who are you gonna do it with?
Tim Ferriss: But it would seem that at some point, you should also ask, wait a second. If the p pare coming out of the same factory, meaning the structure that has a 50 percent failure rate, perhaps the structure should also be a variable under consideration, I would think.
Esther Perel: Absolutely. But that’s coupledom. That’s not just marriage.
Tim Ferriss: I agree.
Esther Perel: To me, I am really fascinated by how creative… having just written a book about infidelity, I can tell you that if people took 1 percent of the creativity that they put in their affairs and brought it to their marriages or to their relationships, it’s astounding. It’s the same people. Changed context, and they suddenly are filled with imagination and attention, and focus, and generosity, and kindness, and desire. So, it’s not marriage per se as coupledom.
And for some reason the expectations for coupledom have never been higher but what people invest in it hasn’t really measured up. People bring the best of themselves not to their partner. They bring the best of themselves at work, to their friends, to their colleagues, to their hobbies, to their children for that matter, much more; not to their partner. And that is a much more interesting thing to me than marriage per se.
I don’t ask so much why do people marry, I ask more why do people so often bring the leftovers to their partner while at the same time wanting their relationships to be so glorious. Something doesn’t click.
Tim Ferriss: What do you think the answer is?
Esther Perel: It’s like when people say my partner is my best friend, and sometimes especially in my office I have to say, do you treat your best friend like this?
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Esther Perel: What kind of BS is this? No, no. Would you say this to somebody else? Could you imagine being that critical with your friends? What is the idea? This is where marriage comes in. It’s because you really think that because you’re married, the other person is just going to be there and take it. Vice versa, this is in both directions. It’s like there is something about the seal underneath that has locked this that allows people to then behave subpar.
And maybe if there was more of a fear of losing it, because your friends won’t take it, certainly your boss wont’ take it, your colleagues won’t take it; you behave that way at work, you’re out! But at home, you think you can do these things. You can treat people really poorly. You can put them down, you can disqualify them, you cannot listen to them.
You can shout, you can kick, you can neglect them, you can be indifferent. My god, there are so many days to not behave well at home and then call them… To me, this is where I make people accountable. It’s like excuse me, you can’t trap another person. This is like marital sadism.
Tim Ferriss: We could talk for hours, and you have a number of different venues and vehicles through which you’re exploring these topics. The book is one, of course, and could you say the title of the new book one more time, please?
Esther Perel: The book is The State of Affairs; Rethinking Infidelity.
Tim Ferriss: I suspect this will be as your talks and previous work has been; very, very popular and topical.
Esther Perel: I would say this. I would say why do people cheat? Why do happy people cheat? Isn’t fidelity always a deal breaker? Why do we think that men need variety and are bored, as we think that women are hungry for intimacy and lonely? Why do we have such complete different ideas about why men and women cheat? What do we do with jealousy? Can love ever be plural? Is passiveness an archean vestige of patriarchy or is it intrinsic to love? It’s all these questions that I’m taking on.
Tim Ferriss: And you’re also going to be exploring that in your own program on an Audible channel soon, as I understand it.
If you wouldn’t mind describing that just a little bit?
Esther Perel: Yes, I’m very excited about it. It’s really different ways of exploring. The book, The State of Affairs, is not really a book about infidelity. It’s really a book about what do we learn from infidelity about the human heart and the human condition. I use that lens to enter into excavate many, many subjects. I wanted to also have the opportunity of letting people come into my office and actually be in those conversations that I have with couples because most of the time, we have no idea what happens in a couple.
Couples are isolated islands. Sometimes the women may talk to somebody and the men talk to very few. And so we have no idea what’s in the antechamber of the couple.
So I did a series with Audible, and we’re going to do a second one already that of ten couples therapy sessions covering a range of subjects. Where you think you are actually entering into the intimacy of these other relationships and you very quickly realize that you’re actually looking at your own mirror. And you’re looking at yourselves. And you start to talk with the people of your life; your partners or others, about where you are in relation to these questions.
They are stories of infidelity and stories of raising children, and stories of infertility, and stories of unemployment. It’s a very, very poignant experience because it’s intimate in your ear. You don’t see them but you hear them. Ten couples who have volunteered to come and have a session with me like I do generally in my office. It’s exactly what I would normally do but this time, recorded and told as stories to share and stories to invest ourselves in.
Tim Ferriss: What is the name of the series?
Esther Perel: Where Should we Begin? Isn’t that what every session starts with? Where should we begin?
Tim Ferriss: For people listening, in the show notes I will have links to everything that I can get links to that we’ve discussed.
Esther Perel: The podcast comes out May 18, and at first it will be on Audible and on Amazon Prime. And then the book comes out in September and will be in stores October 10. Then the podcast will also be released on iTunes and so it will be rereleased at the same time as the book comes out.
Tim Ferriss: I have just a few more questions. I want to let you get back to your day, but as we wrap up a few quick questions, one is what book besides your own have you gifted the most to other people?
Esther Perel: The book I’ve probably gifted the most is Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, since I’m 16.
Tim Ferriss: That is a fantastic book. And what about reread the most yourself? What book or books, any books that come to mind that you’ve reread?
Esther Perel: I recently reread The Art of Loving by Eric From. I reread The Erotic Mind, by Jack Morin. For this book, I reread Madam Bovary, which was very disappointing. How? I’ll tell you what I reread that I loved, because one of my kids was reading it in school, Crime and Punishment. You can reread the Russians. They are timeless.
Tim Ferriss: This is a metaphorical question. If you had a huge billboard where you could put a short message on it, noncommercial but a short message, could be one word, could be a sentence, could be whatever to get out to millions of people, what would you put on that billboard, or what might you put on that billboard?
Esther Perel: There’s always more you can do for another. Just don’t have your day without having done something for someone that you don’t know, for that matter. Not just for the ones that are in your little circle. I don’t know. On a billboard, it would say “Do your part.”
Tim Ferriss: I love it. Any parting comments, request of the audience? It could be the same thing you just said, but any parting thoughts, questions, or suggestions for people who are listening? Any ask of the audience?
Esther Perel: You know, the reason I say do your part is because so much of the culture we live in is about doing things for ourselves, enhancing ourselves, pushing ourselves, being more successful. It is the most powerful anti depressant. I know that you do something on the depression front as well, ad I think that the cures of today’s isolation, there’s a lot of other things we have gained but we have lost something.
And isolation and disconnection is really a curse. It’s a curse of modern life. I think there is no more powerful anti depressant and nothing that will give us more meaning in life than to know that we matter for others. And that means to do for others.
Which is a little bit what couples therapy is about. Most of the time when people come to couples therapy, they don’t come in order to say “I came to check myself out.” They usually come to be an expert on the other and they say fix it. Do something. Or, I came to drop off, you know? I’m all the time thinking, what are you doing? Take responsibility. It’s freedom responsibility.
And for the rest, if any of you are inspired by what I say, join me on all the platforms where you can find me so easily. There’s nothing I think I value more than to be in conversation. Like I’ve so enjoyed our conversation, you and I. To talk about these things, it’s part of everybody’s life all the time; love, sex, trust, loyalty, commitment. What else is there?
Tim Ferriss: Absolutely. Where is the best place on social media for people to say hello to you, if they wanted to say hello? Is there any one preferred place?
Esther Perel: I would say my fan page on Facebook, probably, but I am on Twitter and I’m on Instagram and I’m on YouTube. I’m doing this whole beautiful series, actually, of videos that I’m putting up on YouTube on relational intelligence that I think kind of are snapshots of where I say short what I often say long. I’ll tell you, what I want is we have often these days tried to simplify things, and I think what I try to do is create a conversation on relationships and love and all of that, as work as well as at home.
Both levels of relationships. In business, in companies, etc. that embraces complexity, that’s multi cultural, and that’s inclusive. And I think the more people join this, the more you will help me do my piece of social change.
Tim Ferriss: So everybody, definitely say hello to Esther. Estherperel on Facebook, Instagram Esther Perel official, YouTube, PerelEsther. Switch now. I’ll put all of these in the show notes. Esther, thank you so much for taking the time. This was a real joy and a tremendously stimulating and thought provoking. I have a lot to think on, so I appreciate you sharing your expertise and your experiences with us.
Esther Perel: Thank you. It’s a treat. Thanks a lot.
Tim Ferriss: And to everybody listening, you can find links to everything that has been mentioned; the books, the podcast, everything imaginable in the show notes as usual, with every other episodes. You can just go to tim.blog/podcast. And until next time, thank you for listening.
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