Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Esther Perel (@EstherPerelOfficial), a psychotherapist and New York Times bestselling author, recognized as one of today’s most insightful and original voices on modern relationships. Fluent in nine languages, she helms a therapy practice in New York City and serves as an organizational consultant for Fortune 500 companies around the world. Esther is an acclaimed TED speaker and the host of the hit podcasts Where Should We Begin? and How’s Work?. Esther also recently launched Couples Under Lockdown, a bonus miniseries on her podcast Where Should We Begin?.
Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!
DUE TO SOME HEADACHES IN THE PAST, PLEASE NOTE LEGAL CONDITIONS:
Tim Ferriss owns the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of The Tim Ferriss Show podcast, with all rights reserved, as well as his right of publicity.
WHAT YOU’RE WELCOME TO DO: You are welcome to share the below transcript (up to 500 words but not more) in media articles (e.g., The New York Times, LA Times, The Guardian), on your personal website, in a non-commercial article or blog post (e.g., Medium), and/or on a personal social media account for non-commercial purposes, provided that you include attribution to “The Tim Ferriss Show” and link back to the tim.blog/podcast URL. For the sake of clarity, media outlets with advertising models are permitted to use excerpts from the transcript per the above.
WHAT IS NOT ALLOWED: No one is authorized to copy any portion of the podcast content or use Tim Ferriss’ name, image or likeness for any commercial purpose or use, including without limitation inclusion in any books, e-books, book summaries or synopses, or on a commercial website or social media site (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) that offers or promotes your or another’s products or services. For the sake of clarity, media outlets are permitted to use photos of Tim Ferriss from the media room on tim.blog or (obviously) license photos of Tim Ferriss from Getty Images, etc.
Tim Ferriss: Hello, ladies and gents, boys and girls. This is Tim Ferriss, and welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show: Quarantine Edition. Where it is my job, every episode as we know to interview and deconstruct world-class performers of all different types. To tease out the habits, routines, and so on, tactics that you can emulate, apply, test in your own lives. This episode, much like many recent episodes, is going to be a little unusual because of its various points of focus, but my guest is, I suppose on some levels, also unusual, but a friend of mine who’s been on before, that is Esther Perel, psychotherapist and New York Times bestselling author, Esther Perel on Instagram @estherperelofficial, that’s E-S-T-H-E-R P-E-R-E-L, is recognized as one of today’s most insightful and original voices on modern relationships. Fluent in nine languages. That is not me misspeaking. Nine — count them — nine. That’s all of your fingers minus one.
She has a therapy practice in New York City and serves as an organizational consultant for Fortune 500 companies around the world. Her celebrated TED Talks have garnered more than 30 million views and her international bestseller Mating in Captivity, subtitled Unlocking Erotic Intelligence has been translated into nearly 30 languages. Her newest book is The New York Times bestseller The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity. Esther’s also an executive producer and host of the popular podcasts Where Should We Begin? and How’s Work? You can learn more about her at estherperel.com or by following @estherperelofficial on Instagram. You can also hear my first interview with Esther, which ended up being one of the most popular episodes of the year at tim.blog/esther, that’s E-S-T-H-E-R. And without further preamble, Esther, welcome back to the show.
Esther Perel: I didn’t know that our first conversation together was so popular. That’s nice to hear. So it’s nice to be back.
Tim Ferriss: It was. You’re an MVP. And I want to give people some context to place us at a certain time, certain places, because we were chatting before we started recording and you were saying that I’m catching you at a raw moment, and I think a lot of people are feeling that way to different degrees. Could you just tell us what today looked like for you and perhaps how you are feeling, how we are finding you right now before we jump into the questions and answers and so on?
Esther Perel: It’s been actually a day not unlike the days that I’ve been here in quarantine. I do all my therapy sessions online. I am seeing couples in quarantine all over the globe, families in two, three generations of families in a home together. People navigating divorce and separation and the shuttling of children in the midst of lockdown, and it’s not that I haven’t done online sessions, it’s just that an entire day in people’s living rooms, bedrooms, cars, the places where they try to find some moment of some space for privacy. It’s intense. Then I had a supervision session with 23 practicing clinicians talking about what’s happening to them, how has our work changed, what are we hearing in our offices? What are the main themes? How are we taking care of ourselves while we’re taking care of others? How much volunteer work we’re doing with people who cannot pay for therapy anymore, et cetera?
And then I did a session just before you of a couple with a teenage daughter of which she’s in Germany and they’ve been living apart. He’s been in Italy’s red zone and she basically told him to come back within two hours. He was on a plane and that’s it. For the first time in a year, they are living together for three weeks in lockdown and interestingly, it’s giving them an opportunity to actually work through some of the things that the long-distance relationship had conveniently made, in a way, managed to not make them deal with. And you have silver linings, you have these opportunities in the midst of constraints. So that’s been my day so far. And then comes you, dear Tim!
Tim Ferriss: Then starts the inquisition of the interview. I’ll try to make it as sort of user friendly as possible. Hopefully this will —
Esther Perel: No, I’ve been looking forward to it, actually, because first of all, I know you have good questions, often, and your audience as well. And I just thought it’ll kind of be the summary of the day and the summary of a lot of thoughts of the last two weeks, for that matter.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I’ve been looking forward to this conversation as well and I know we had to reschedule due to some of the chaos on my side, also, so I appreciate the flexibility. And I’ve really been looking forward to it. I’m in quarantine. I am with my girlfriend and my dear dog, and we’ve been in quarantine for more than four weeks now. And that’s partially because I have pre-existing pulmonary issues. So I’ve been exceptionally cautious. But nonetheless, I think that many of the questions that will be asked are questions that I would have asked you over a bottle of wine anyway. So I’m looking forward to the conversation and I suppose before we jump into some questions that I have, and questions from my audience, I would love to just hear from you what patterns you’re seeing in interacting with so many couples in quarantine, so many couples who are either together and facing challenges, apart and facing maybe a different set of challenges. What are some of the things that you’ve seen perhaps that are noteworthy or surprising to you?
Esther Perel: I think that when people live under acute stress or when people live with prolonged uncertainty or what I would add this week, which I probably would not have been so keen to talk about last week, is when people are experiencing a growing sense of grief that they are living with. Grief for the loss of normalcy, grief for the world that they’ve known, grief for a future that they thought they could imagine and that they currently can’t. In all these situations, tensions rise. And it exacerbates the differences that are already existing between two people and particularly their coping styles. So people are either coming into my office and our offices I would say in general, who are feeling more together with their efficient complementarity. There’s a good kind of merging of the differences in styles or there can be more polarizing. And each one is kind of looking at the other person’s way of handling things as a threat.
Your going out is a threat. The way that you are not being careful, the way that you are being over-careful is funny. It’s less funny at this moment. I mean it’s funny, every day the answer will change at this moment. But I can’t read one more piece of information. Here is another piece I just read. You want to listen to the latest episode of that? And the other person says, “I can’t ingurgitate any more information.” But what you often get when you have this kind of uncertainty in front of you is that people can argue as if one of them is sure and it’s a kind of a fake certainty in the face of uncertainty and unknown that you will hear in couples. That’s one major dynamic.
And then you have, I think one of the more interesting things that I would describe is what is been called in the disaster literature, the principle of continuity. And the principle of continuity is that when people are faced with the kind of situation that we have right now, with COVID-19, and then this mass loss of safety and security on a global level, people divide along those who emphasize routine and those who emphasize emergency, those who are trying to preserve the consistency of their life as best they can, and those who are in upheaval and that everything can change. Those who think the structure matters, that the kids should continue the rules, the schedule should stay in place, and those who are thwarting the rules because the world is nothing like it was a week ago. And so what’s the point of maintaining that structure? There’s a whole new normal.
And that distinction on the principle of continuities is a very useful concept to look at how people deal with the situation. This, I mean I can go on, but then explain this concept, but let me stop right here.
Tim Ferriss: Well this provides us with plenty to chew on and think about and I would imagine like a lot of people who are listening, these images, these scenes from my own life are popping up as you’re giving these different examples. And I’m asking myself, “Am I A or am I B, or am I both depending on the day?” And I would love to hear, feel free to take this in a different direction if you like, but if we’re looking specifically at this concept of, and could you just say it one more time? I remember continuity, but the principle of continuity? Is that? I can’t remember the exact phrasing that you used. But if you have those who want to maintain continuity and those who say to themselves and perhaps those around them, “The rules have changed. The new normal is not the old normal.” It doesn’t make sense to continue with, say, the kids trying to follow the same lesson plan they were a month ago or two months ago.
If you think to your own experience, if you call to mind a couple of you’ve spoken to trying to navigate this and finding friction because they have these two different styles, what do you do to work with them? What types of questions do you ask or how do you try to help them find some degree of harmony with such seemingly polar opposite positions?
Esther Perel: I mean, the first thing you do here is you basically provide people with a framework and you tell them, “This is what is often called anticipatory trauma or anticipatory grief.” That sense, a foreboding, it will, a little bit, in the beginning of a horror film in which the set has been set up and the cast and the characters have been outlined but the action hasn’t started, it’s just about to start. And until now, there was more of an option for denial and people could just, because it’s so difficult for us to imagine an invisible danger. And danger usually is something you feel and see. It’s a threat and therefore your reptilian brain reacts. And the danger that you don’t see, it’s very hard to make people change their entire life in relation to that.
So the first thing I say is I normalize. I tell people, “This is what happens around disaster. There’s four stages. There’s the warning, there’s the planning, there’s the actual event. And then there is the aftermath.” You, for example, you were very active during the warning and many people kind of looked at you [strangely]. “What is he talking about? He’s just hypervigilant,” et cetera. And then they caught up with you, some of them during the warning. And some of them may catch up with you in the next phase. So I give a framework and I say this, “There is literature out there. This is not the first disaster. This is not the first epidemic. This is not the first natural disaster.” And in some way, it kind of highlights a perpetual rule, which is that we are all vulnerable to being randomly exterminated at any time.
And this time it’s a virus, or it could be a war or an accident. I mean it really puts us in touch with that, which we may not be able to control. So I talk about that fear that comes from that. And in many couples, one person is actually more in touch with that sense that they have a structured, purposeful, proactive approach and they often will then see the other person as more passive and more fatalistic. For example, I remember working with people who had been in their apartments during the Gulf War and there were the scud attacks and they would put their gas masks on. And so you had some families where things were very clearly organized, everyone had a role, the anxiety was really managed. Parents knew where to put the mask on who. And then you had other people who basically said, “If the scud hits the building, the building falls anyway, so what’s the point?”
And they had this kind of what would have been perceived as indifference, but in fact it was probably an expression of such fear that, in fatalism, they didn’t really get into gear. I think, I hope for example, that your girlfriend, and this is really a classic. In some situations, one partner was laughing at the other one stocking up, and in some situations one partner basically said, “I’m so freaked out by that. I can’t even get my head around it, so I really thank you for preparing this for us.”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I was very, very lucky that my girlfriend knows how closely I track data, knows that I have very, very, very good sources of information and was willing to — with some hesitation of course, because all of her friends were calling us completely insane — follow my lead and we were able to work together. But that’s, at least in my peer group and my friends, that’s been reasonably rare. There’s been a lot more friction. I think it makes it a lot easier for us that we do not have kids. There’s no school, there are fewer variables like that to complicate things. So it was on some level I think easier for us without any dependents.
Esther Perel: But it may be easier on the practical side, right? It may be easier because you don’t have, like this morning I was talking with my colleagues, one of them, she does her sessions in the car, she has three kids at home that she needs to school and she needs to cook and she needs to manage a whole private practice and she needs to have a minute maybe to herself. And the other one was basically, she’s also with a small one and she found this magician who was willing to do these sessions online and she has a grandmother in the Ukraine and another grandmother somewhere else. And she’s basically doing babysitting with the grandmothers online. It’s just an amazing set of situations like this. But the deeper question of how people deal with fragility, with the unknown, with mortality, with grief, with uncertainty, that is not different because you have kids or not kids.
Even though you know, I just did this session with a Sicilian couple for the podcast Where Should We Begin? and she’s a midwife. She goes every day to the hospital. She delivers babies. She has to report. In Italy, a midwife is part of the medical system. And she comes home, and if a person comes in with fever, I mean she has three young children in the house and he’s thinking, “What are you bringing home?” He’s taking care of the kids. So you have the practical piece, but the existential piece is that he’s thinking, “What is the world that I’m raising my children in?” And then I said to her, “Do you share his despair?” And she says, “No, because when I bring a baby into the world, I still think it is this magnificent, miraculous moment.”
And I think it’s tempting to stay focused on the practical stocking up, preparation piece here, the washing of the hands and all the consignments that we have received. I think it’s much deeper when you engage with people in a conversation about loss, about — so continuity, for example, when I think of the principle of continuity, [inaudible], my friend in Israel is the one from whom I learned this. It’s divided around three things. So one is role continuity, right? It’s basically the way that the structure, the way that you do tasks, that you solve problems. Like you, you’re a data person and you have continued to read data and that is part of your role continuity. But the second level of continuity is the relational continuity. It is really, basically how people stay in touch.
There is nothing that’s going to help us more in this moment than social cohesion and mutual support. So how do people stay in touch? Not everybody is in a harmonious situation of relationships. Some people have to go home 3,000 miles away, back to a family from where they fled because it was so violent and unhealthy and other people are living by themselves. And so relationships. And the third continuity, which I think is really the interesting one here, is what is called the historical continuity. It’s the stories that we’ve grown up with. The stories from our indigenous traditions, from our families, from our religious backgrounds, culture, that have told us how people have overcome adversity, stories of vulnerability and triumph that we grew up with that existed in our family and that are kind of transitional pathways, we call them, to help us in this moment so that we can imagine a future.
And this is where I really find a lot of people — have you had other losses? Have there been moments in your family — has your family experienced other disasters? Have you ever experienced this kind of cataclysmic moments like this? One of my moments, I can tell you super-personally, I grew up with these Holocaust survivor parents and their whole group, and there was all these conversations about how did they know when to leave Germany, those who left, how did they know it was time to go? And my kids, at some point I discussed with them coming home, not coming home, they’re 23 and 26, and at one point I said to one of them who wanted to go back to town to New York City and I said, “Look, from where I come from, I would not be able to live with myself that I let you go back to the city.” My whole life, I grew up with this story of, “They could have left and they didn’t.” But maybe he’s right and it doesn’t fit the current reality.
But this is one of the historical continuity that lives inside of me from which I am organizing my reality. So I’ve been away for two and a half weeks too. Not as soon as you, but sooner than others.
Tim Ferriss: How did you handle that situation, with your child wanting to go back to New York City? What was the — after you said that?
Esther Perel: He said, “I know this is your story, but I — ” And he’s very careful and said, “I will be better off at home. I’m trying to finish college on top of it.” This is a kid whose second day of kindergarten was 9/11 and his final semester of college is coronavirus. So he’s bookmarked with historical events. His whole education. And seriously, and we had this whole conversation, and in the end he’s 23. I, at 23, was making my decisions too. And in the same way that some of us have 80-year-old parents who are making their decisions and are not listening to us and — not me, but others. He went back, he went back and that’s — we talk every day. And I have another one in London. It’s not the most — but I did bring him out of New Orleans. I did succeed in doing that. I said, “You can at least come up north,” not because I am sure that I’m right. That’s the other thing I said, “I don’t know if one is better than the other. I just know the place from which my fear and my decision making process at this point emerges.” And all your resident fears, all those fears that live inside of you that are usually nicely tucked away, I promise you, they will come out in situations like this. It’s the residue. The attic opens up.
Tim Ferriss: Hah! Yeah. I’ve personally definitely noticed that. Where there have been moments in the last few weeks where my response has been so strong and or a certain sort of high-frequency stress has lasted so much longer than I would expect given the inputs, that the only way I could explain it was this is coming from somewhere in the past. This is some type of echo that is bad.
Esther Perel: Can you identify it?
Tim Ferriss: I tried, I tried. And I did have some assistance with some of this, which we can talk about if you’d like, but may get into tricky territory if —
Esther Perel: You went on a journey for it.
Tim Ferriss: Yes. Yeah, we’ll leave it at that. And I identified memories — since this specifically relates to shortness of breath and tightness in the chest and acute fear related to that. And I did have a fever and shortness of breath and a dry cough for a period of about 36 hours a week ago. So there was a period of time leading up to that culminating with that, that put me in a very significant state of duress. And my best guess based on what I was able to gather from my own memories is childhood asthma, difficulty breathing caused by some preexisting pulmonary issues effectively ending up last and something we have in the US called — or we used to have — called the Presidential Fitness Test, where you’d have to run a mile and do these various things. And I would always come in close to last and I would just feel like I was about to die.
And also specifically this memory that I had of waking up in the middle of the night when I was, let’s just say somewhere between seven and 10 years old, being unable to breathe and just for whatever reason, being unable to breathe. There was a lot of mold and a lot of allergens in my house growing up for a whole host of reasons. And I woke up unable to breathe and was unable to breathe for about a minute. I burst into my parents’ room, it was the middle of the night and couldn’t say anything, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t do anything, and then it suddenly just broke and I was able to breathe. But it was at the point of blacking out, basically. And I don’t know if that’s a causal factor, a one-to-one causal factor, but it seems to be — some of those experiences seem to be lending themselves to magnifying certain things now. That’s my working hypothesis, at least.
Esther Perel: But I don’t know if you need to call it a causal factor. It’s an embodied memory. And we have explicit memory, and we have implicit memory, right? So the explicit memory is your kind of, you remember you can, it’s conscious. The implicit memory lives in your body. It’s not necessarily articulated and in words, but then this thing rises and comes toward you and it activates the embodied memory and people are having dreams, people are having nightmares, and people in journeys are uncovering all kinds of things. I mean, I am surrounded by that and it makes total sense because it’s the personal historical continuity, if you want. And it’s what connects you to prior experiences of powerlessness, of loss of control, of mortality, of constriction, constraints in the metaphoric sense, not just the — I mean, the breath is the basic of basic. So I’m not surprised. If you asked me what I would say with people, it’s this, the first thing is you elicit the memory, you normalize it, you name it.
I give a lot of, I’m giving names to things so that people can have a vocabulary with which to then talk with the people around them. And I go and I mine the stories that people have, that people carry inside of them. What was told to you afterwards by your parents about this event? How has this event been described in your childhood afterwards?
Tim Ferriss: Could you run us through an example perhaps, or just use a past experience, past client, a hypothetical, or what I just said to show how this might be applied? I don’t actually recall what my parents said to me.
Esther Perel: For example, a lot of the people that what we call preexisting conditions, right? Or people who experienced themselves as high risk, young people even, where you’re described by your family — I mean, you’ve just actually described it when you talked about the running. Did you grow up with an image of yourself as, “I’m not athletic. Physicality is not my strength. My mind is stronger than my body?” My mother, for example, always described my brother as he was the fragile one. He was the sickly one. Those words become a part of your self-description for a while until you change it. It’s not etched in stone, but it lives on for quite a long time.
I have an image of myself as robust, but I also think that if ever something was to hit me, it will knock me over. I will not have small booboos. I will have big things, and I can put myself in the seat of patients for a moment. I live with that idea, that things can disappear overnight. It’s part of my history. That you can just, today you’re walking around. That’s the description during this day. Yesterday, he was still running in the park, and here he was, and he’s gone. And it’s like it goes so fast. It doesn’t fit. And so I have that image. I think of myself as someone who yesterday would be running in the park, and today will be gone.
What am I doing with people? A lot of the things I do have to do with writing letters to your parents. This is the moment, if you’ve got things to say, you’ve got to say them, and don’t wait. Understand that some of your parents who are much, much older and have gone through all kinds of things, in some way, are maybe less scared of dying than boomers and millennials. In some interesting way, they figure that at some point everybody must go, that they may have experienced other adversity that, in some way, makes this not necessarily the thing that is frightening them the most, or that they have gone through other epidemics, earthquakes, tsunamis, you name it, and they have dealt with loss massively and they know that you continue living afterwards. So they’re not willing to stop playing golf or to stop playing cards or to go indoors and you’re pulling your hair, but they’re not necessarily listening.
I am talking with parents about how to talk to their kids, so it’s a range. Now we’re going in all ages of achievement, so let’s start from the older. First of all, if you’re going to go back home and you already are an adult, you need to understand that many times, family visits are experiences of regression, just so you get used to that. You will feel like you are an adult until you enter the house of your family. So I talk with them about that, about how you’re going to not turn this now into a moment of having to prove that you’re really grown up.
Tim Ferriss: Sorry, if I could just pause you for a second. It makes me think of the very recently late Ram Dass quote of, “If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.”
Esther Perel: Oh yeah, of course, of course. Yes, yes. That’s a fantastic line. I mean, it’s like, people are thinking, “I went home and it’s like they didn’t want to listen to me, and I brought all this stuff, and they don’t want to wear it!” It’s very granular. One comes home and only wants to talk about being with his friends and the parents are all upset because he doesn’t want to — and I’m like, “No, no. Instead of feeling rejected that he doesn’t want to be with you, this is your perfect moment to talk with your kid about the importance of friendships and what it’s meant to be in college or wherever they are now developing new connections and why it’s so disruptive.”
What we’re dealing with is massive disruption. I saw you talk with people about how the multitude of responses that we have to this disruption, and instead of blaming your kids or getting all angry that all they think about his friends, use this as an opportunity to talk about friendship, to talk about your friends, to talk about the importance of community, whatever it is. But there are really incredible opportunities for deepening at this moment. That is actually one of the beautiful things happening. People are spending more time together. At the end of the day or night, they actually don’t want more online. At the end of learning the whole day for distant learning on their iPad, they don’t want to watch another series at night. They actually want to play a game.
So it’s all these paradoxical moments, and what I can tell you is that the multitude of family situations that has presented itself to me in this two weeks is just mind-boggling. How are you going to deal with the shuffling of the children with your ex, who you think has not been protecting themselves enough? How do you deal with the person who just began dating someone, but they suddenly are living together because what disruption and impending disaster does is it accelerates everything. It functions like an amazing accelerator.
We all know that in the aftermath of disaster there will be more babies, more marriages, and more divorces. It’s either, “Life is short. What are we waiting for? Let’s make baby,” it’s either, “Life is short. I’ve waited long enough. Let’s leave.” It’s like you are meeting a place where suddenly your priorities get reorganized and the superfluous gets thrown overboard and you feel like you’re touching the essence. You don’t know what’s going to be, so you want to really hone in on the few things that matter to you a lot.
I have a lot of these kinds of conversations with people. People are telling me, “I’ve not really had integrity for the last few years and I feel like this has kind of rung an alarm to me that I want to be more honorable again. I want to not just think about money, business, success, et cetera. I want to think more about the people that matter to me,” and another one who talks about, “I’ve been wanting to do art for so long and this maybe is the opportunity for me to rethink what’s important to me.”
There’s a lot of rethinking what’s important to me at this moment and who is important to me and there’s a lot of people calling their previous therapists. That’s a classic thing that happens around disaster. It happened after 9/11 as well, people who reconnect with someone that knew them before. And then people who are calling people in Europe, in Asia, who they haven’t spoken to in a long time, and people are calling. They’re talking. They’re not just texting. They want to hear voice. All of that is happening. I’m giving you a bucketful, but it comes at me as a bucket as well.
Tim Ferriss: Well, there’s a lot to explore in the bucket and on one hand, it seems like we have these philosophical, existential questions. We have this glimpse of perhaps mortality that is often receded in the background that allows us to see the finite nature of our time that helps to bring out the essence, as you said. And then you have these tactically challenging situations for a lot of people, and you mentioned one that I would love to highlight and get your opinion on, and that is someone who is, say, sharing custody with an ex.
I have a friend of a friend. She lives with her, I think it’s daughter, along with her elderly parents. She shares custody of that daughter with her ex, and her ex is not being as careful as she is and is, at least from her perspective, perhaps acting somewhat —
Esther Perel: Irresponsibly.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, irresponsibly. They’re in different circumstances, but she’s very concerned, not for her own health necessarily, not even for her daughter’s health necessarily, because —
Esther Perel: But for her parents.
Tim Ferriss: But for her parents. Exactly, although, I mean, I do think just to point out that, in the US at least, a fairly high percentage of those on respirators are 45 and younger. So it’s not entirely biased towards the old entirely, but let’s, for the time being, just assume that they are at the greatest risk. How would you suggest she approach having a conversation with her ex? How would you help someone like that if they were your client try to navigate this? Maybe it’s not a conversation. Maybe it’s something else. But how would you help someone in that position navigate that?
Esther Perel: “Tim, I know that our lives are very different and that you really, typically do things the way that you do them, and when a kid comes to stay with you — ”
Tim Ferriss: Sorry, I thought you were talking to me, actually me! Okay, I got it. So this is what you would say to her. I’m sorry!
Esther Perel: Yes, yes. That’s the conversation that I would suggest that she have with him!
Tim Ferriss: I was like, “Oh no, I always do things the way I do them. You’re right.” All right, so sorry. Could you just start over so my head isn’t in a —
Esther Perel: I could call you John. Okay.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, John. Let’s say John.
Esther Perel: John. First of all, tell me the age of the child.
Tim Ferriss: I believe, let’s say [the] child’s eight years old.
Esther Perel: Okay. “So John, you live the life you live, and in a moment of time when [Jimmy] comes to you, I trust you or I don’t always trust you, but that has not impeded the fact that our kid stays with you, that he eats with you, goes to school with you, drives with you, a lot of things that I typically would probably do differently. But you are who you are. And this is not me coming to ask you to change or to criticize you. This is me sharing with you that I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility and fear at this moment for the many people that are living in my house.
“And that’s where I would like to ask you to please collaborate with me. Would you be willing to help me in this? Not because you are scared, not because you think that washing your hands or doing all the things that we’re supposed to do is important. I’m not here to convince you of any of that. I’m just asking you if you would be willing, for my parents who once were your in-laws and who hopefully that you still fancy or have liked as people all those years, et cetera, I need your help. I need us to put a few ground rules down for the time being, because I can’t do it without you.”
That’s the hard thing to say suddenly, right? Part of the divorce is, “I don’t need you.” But here you’re coming to say, “I can’t do this without you. We are still woven together in some way. The divorce is the end of the marriage, but it’s not the end of the family. And it’s a reorganization of the family and this special circumstance forces us to reorganize yet again, to be more interdependent than we usually have been or want to be.
“I don’t necessarily want it. I doubt you want it, either. But if Jimmy is going to come back and forth, I need all his clothes washed. I need him to have one pair of shoes that goes outside. I need to know that you are really careful. No playgrounds, no gyms,” whatever the things that people have decided is their way of staying really protected. And you ask for it. You don’t tell them. You don’t admonish them. You know you may be right, but it’s a very unproductive approach and you just show your fear, your vulnerability and the fact that you really need them and you hope that they will collaborate as best as they will. You won’t see what they do behind closed doors.
Then you’re going to talk to your eight-year-old and you’re going to say, “There’s a few things that you’re going to need to do as of today without having daddy or me remind you or tell you.” And this is where people are needing to brave talking with their children and not just kind of try to preserve reality as if it’s business as usual. And you tell your eight-year-old, “Understand, there’s a dangerous virus that we are all trying to make sure that we are protected against the best way we can. We’re probably all going to have it. We just want to have it at the level that we can manage on our own basically, and here’s what you need to do.” And then when they come home, the whole thing, but you create a new awareness and a new set of behaviors that match the awareness. That’s how you do it.
Tim Ferriss: That’s very helpful. Yeah. Thank you.
Esther Perel: It’s a very important one. It’s actually one that I hadn’t thought about at first until it came in front of me and I said, “Of course, I forgot that one.” It’s like, how many versions of the story of COVID as it pertains to relationships am I going to say, “Oh, I forgot this one?” I did have the ones that are living apart and can’t meet. I have the ones that are living three generations in the house. I have the ones who are in the process of divorce who are suddenly caught together and even a big house will become really tight when you have to still be together and you’re on your way gone. I have the ones who have barely met and are suddenly living together. I’ve got, “And now came….” Then I have the same thing in a bigger version where it’s adult children in the divorce situation and it’s the adult children who won’t let the grandmother come and see the grandchildren because she is in another house with her new partner. I mean, this thing has many versions.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, many different permutations. Thank you for answering that in such detail and giving a template for people, at least an example of how you would use language. And let’s talk about two of the more common situations. Or at least looking at the questions from my audience, it seems like two of the more common groups. So two people who are in tight quarters together. Could be more than two people, but let’s focus on couples for now. We could talk about kids, of course. And then two people who are separated. So you have, for instance, from Judith H., she asks, “How couples and families can cope and give each other space when they’re quarantined together,” and then Greg F. has, “Every tip she has for long distance romance. Asking for a billion friends.”
Now, I want to actually modify this slightly and borrow from another question from Arad K., which is, “What are her thoughts on how to take advantage of this crisis and the positive ways people are trying to…” Could be anything. But take advantage of this crisis, I think, is a framing that I like a lot. You don’t have to use it. But as that applies to two people together in tight quarters or two people separated and feeling separated, how have you seen people or advised people to sort of take advantage of this crisis?
Esther Perel: There’s lots of things that I’ve thought about. So the people together, I mean, let’s imagine they’re in the same space. There is a lot more cooking going on. People are cooking. They’re not necessarily ordering out or going out, period. So there’s cooking and the whole meaning of cooking. It’s like it goes from, “It’s so long that I’ve taken care of people like that,” to the guy just in the session I just did and it’s like, “She came down for lunch, she cooked, but then she went to eat at her computer,” and he just says, “I will do the cooking. Just spend the 15 minutes with me. I just want us to have moments where we touch base with each other, where you’re not kind of retreating completely into your computer.”
So there is food. Then there is humor. I think that humor is extremely important in these moments. “There is laughter in Hell,” as my father often used to say, and they’re bad jokes, but there’s a few of them that are just really hilarious. And when you crack up like that at some of the things, you receive some of the videos from abroad that I get, it makes me feel so good. It just reminds me that I still can have some perspective, that I don’t have to just be constantly in the grip.
Then there is the critical conversations about mortality, just simply talking about, “Are you scared? Are you worried?” We’re building a studio, a very personal painting studio for my husband. This is meant to be Jack’s next phase is back into painting, and so it’s like we talk about what that phase represents, what would be lost if he didn’t get it, about how eager and how clear he is now that he has to get there as fast as he can. One time he brought me a shovel because he said, “You’re already digging my grave, so why don’t you just start?”
Tim Ferriss: Very theatrical. Yes. I like it. Props.
Esther Perel: He defuses. He defuses. Of course I cracked! There is the humor, there is the creativity. I think people need to paint, draw, write poems, play music, sing songs. The arts helped us throughout history to deal with suffering, to deal with fear, to stay connected to our loved ones that are far away, that are at sea, all of that. People are making clearly sending music, dancing together through Zoom. It’s all these life-affirming, what I call eros, life-affirming experiences.
People are having sex, distant sex as well. People are just laying in bed next to each other. It’s all happening typically, but now it’s happening to people who haven’t done it in a long time. It’s not that these are new behaviors. Happy hours together, drinks, reading out loud to each other. It’s very interesting the kinds of stuff that people are willing to do with these devices. The first time you said we were going to have a conversation, we were going to talk about how our devices are keeping us apart. And today we’re going to talk about how the very devices that have kept us apart are the ones that are keeping us connected. It’s like in a very short amount of time, now they can do both. They can keep us much more lonely and in the vortex of the digital as well. But for many people it really connects. So there’s that.
Then there [are] people getting more and more reactive, irritable, and to just be able to acknowledge, “I’m stressed, I need to go out. This makes me crazy. I don’t get enough movement. I don’t ever get enough air.” I’m sorry. And there’s going to need to be a lot of that, modulating and moderating reactivity, just acknowledging it. We know that in situations of confinement, the tension rises, there is more fragmentation and domestic violence ramps up.
I tell people, “Probably not good to drink. Don’t get too stoned and don’t drink these days. It’s not good if you get sick, but it’s certainly not good at this moment, especially if you have a tendency to drink more than you should and that you are the version that becomes a lion rather than a donkey. Not a good idea. Not a good idea.” It’s like, “Stock up on other stuff.
“Let the other person be. Their way is just their way. It’s really about learning differentiation, accepting that the other person is dealing with the same data from a different stance and that you can’t just go ahead and think of them as they’re your threat.”
Then there is, some people I’ve had to say, “Maybe this is the time to take the medication that you’ve been trying to talk about. It will help you. It will level you just a tiny bit.” So that’s been not many times but enough times where I just thought, “This is the moment. You need it now. Take care of yourself and don’t just try to be heroic in this particular moment.”
And then for the people who are apart, I think that a very important thing for all people is really not to stay too focused on the practicalities. In general, I think long distance relationships do better when people don’t spend the evening talking about the nitty gritty of days, pretending that they are living in the same life. They don’t. But really to connect around more important things and take a walk in nature together. Nature, suddenly people are walking more than they have in a long time.
Tim Ferriss: You’re talking about virtually on something like FaceTime?
Esther Perel: Yes. Yes. Yes. Walk with somebody and see them as you walk and they walk too. People walking together —
Tim Ferriss: May I interrupt for one second?
Esther Perel: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: The talking about more important things and skipping some of the sort of mundane, important, yes, but very kind of surface level, tactical, “Did we remember to restock the cannellini beans,” or whatever we’re talking about. Do you have any questions or prompts or anything that you might suggest to couples to help them?
Esther Perel: Have you been surprised by who has been calling you or reaching out to you? I mean, I’m getting texts from people that I don’t usually hear from. Are there people that have surprised you? Are there people that you have been meaning to connect with and this could be a good moment? That’s a very big one these days that people talk about. This one spent some time in Italy 10 years ago and finds herself suddenly talking with people that she knew back then. I think that’s an interesting one. How is your family? How are the different members of your family? I learned in the last week of friends of mine and people I knew that had siblings who were living in residential treatment centers with people who were in jail, people who were homeless, people who were in vulnerable situations and never even knew these siblings existed.
I mean, it’s like, wow, you’re telling me — or things about family situations that I didn’t really know. I kind of had a sense. And so don’t be scared to ask more and just say, “Tell me about your brother. Tell me about your sister. Tell me about your mentally ill whoever and how are they dealing? Who takes care of them? Tell me about — ” for older people, if they’re not that old, they’re in their 60s and early 70s, not old, with Alzheimer’s. “Tell me about those people that you can’t go visit.” It’s this. It’s going with the next question rather than to stop and just say, “What has surprised you? What’s the thought of the day for you? What’s the thing that really marked your day today? What have you noticed that you don’t usually pay attention to anymore?” Things like that.
It’s not just just death and disaster, but it’s just more conscientious, more attentive, what we like to talk about as present. I don’t know if that’s the word I would always like to use, but just more — people are asking, “How are you?” in ways that they don’t typically ask and they actually want to know. People are signing their texts differently. They’re taking a moment to check in. Even work meetings, before people get into the meeting, they kind of take a moment to just say, “How are you? How is everybody? Any news?” It’s just there is a kind of solidarity, a kind of thinking about the well-being of others that is in the air in a moment like this. Allow it. Don’t think you’re being intrusive. Don’t think it’s not productive because we’ve got business to take care of. This is the moment to do all of that.
Tim Ferriss: Let me play foil for just a second. If you ask someone, and I’m guilty of this too, in answering in the following way, “How are you?” And someone says, “Family’s safe. All things considered, we’re good. How are you?” Right? And so that’s the answer, which has become a bit of a — among a lot of my friends who feel like they shouldn’t complain, for instance.
Esther Perel: They have it good.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. They have no right to complain because no one in their family is sick. Therefore, all things considered, everything’s great. And then they move onto the next order of business. What would you ask to follow up that question, or how would you respond to that?
Esther Perel: I would say, if you just told me how are things, and I’m asking, “How are you?”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, that’s a great response.
Esther Perel: “I am so glad to know that the facts are in place. How are you?” People who don’t think they’re allowed to their feelings because they have it good are usually more at risk.
Tim Ferriss: What do you mean by that?
Esther Perel: Because when they then have a feeling, they don’t know what to do with it, because they shouldn’t have it. They shouldn’t currently be afraid. They shouldn’t currently be anxious. They shouldn’t currently be depressed. They shouldn’t currently be sad. They shouldn’t currently — because they have a big house or because their family is healthy, or because they have the money. They’re not at risk of losing their job. Okay, so that’s not your worry. That doesn’t mean, “How are you?” Sometimes I ask it again, I say, “Okay, that was your — that’s your first degree of answer. Now I’m going to ask you again, just tell me something, how did you sleep? Are you sleeping? Are you eating? Are you tasting the food?” I think that a lot of people who don’t have feelings don’t sleep. They don’t tell you, “I’m feeling bad.” They just tell you, “I haven’t slept very well.”
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Esther Perel: Then I say, are you the one, so this is one of my colleagues at EPGM, I say — he hadn’t slept, he overslept our meeting this morning. I said, “You don’t go to sleep or you wake up?” He said, “No, I woke up.” I said, “What happens at four o’clock in the morning? What was it like for you? What were you thinking about? What do you think got you up? It’s kind of caught up with you. You’ve been trying to kind of think, ‘I have it all under control,’ and then suddenly, the night terror arrives.” We just chatted for three minutes. It’s not like — I don’t do therapy sessions with every person I meet.
I can tell you once we had gotten that addressed, then we could actually talk about what we needed to talk about rather than him rallying up and just kind of showing up totally disheveled, ready for work. “No, you had a miserable night and that warrants a minute of acknowledgment.” People who tell me “All is good,” I say, “Tell me more. How do you get there? I wish I could have a little more of that myself on occasion. What happens when you say that to your partner or to the people you’re living with? Are you the one that’s in the role of being the person who has to cheer everybody up?” Or, I have on occasion asked two or people that gave me answers like this, and I just say, “Is that a role that you’ve had your whole life?” That’s a very good one. “Is that the typical way that you are allowed to cope?”
Tim Ferriss: I could also, just as you were talking, I also thought it could, at least with a lot of my friends, if I said “How are you doing?” They’re like, “All things considered, great, everything’s great.” I would say, “How are you?” They’re like, “Good.” If I said, “If I were to ask your wife how you’re doing, what would she say?” I’d probably get a much more accurate answer.
Esther Perel: Then sometimes you just say “What does it take for you to get the permission to not have to emphasize the word great?”
Tim Ferriss: Can you say that one more time? I think that’s important, what you just said.
Esther Perel: “What does it take for you to finally have the permission not to have to emphasize great?”
Tim Ferriss: That would take me a while to chew on. How do you —
Esther Perel: Yeah, yeah!
Tim Ferriss: No, yeah. How do you answer that, though? I don’t want it to be a “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” type of koan. When you think about that question, how do you answer that for yourself? Or maybe it’s not an issue, and therefore it’s not a question worth asking, but —
Esther Perel: I’m not always feeling the pressure of being great. I have a range, but I know that people who have the pressure to feel great have also the pressure to make sure that they don’t feel nothing. Small. Like nothingness. On the other side of great is often depression and nothingness.
Tim Ferriss: Right. I see what you’re saying, right. It’s not —
Esther Perel: You can’t be feeling great at this moment.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Esther Perel: I mean, you’re out of touch with reality if you’re feeling great. You can feel relieved. You can feel thankful. You can feel appreciative for what you have. You can feel humble. You can feel thankful to things, but you can’t feel great in this moment, because if you’re feeling great in this moment, you’re detached, you’re disconnected. That’s really what I would say. I also know that some people don’t feel internally that they have the permission to feel anything but great on top of things, in control, in charge. “I got it! I got this!” No, you got nothing. You don’t. Let me tell you something. After 9/11, the people who came down the Towers and lived with a worldview that “Shit happens” did a lot better and were a lot less likely to experience PTSD than the people who came down the Towers and lived with a worldview that says “You’re in charge. Destiny is in your hands.”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, that makes perfect sense to me.
Esther Perel: You understand? It’s like —
Tim Ferriss: Yep.
Esther Perel: The humility ultimately gives you flexibility. The great, when bad things then happen, when shit hits the fan to someone who must be great, even at a moment when it’s impossible to feel great, it breaks them. That’s what I’m saying to people. I’m not turning them into mush or anything. I’m just saying it’s okay. It’s okay not to feel great in a time like this. It’s either your work, your health, the market, the economy, the vision for the future, I am much more okay when I say to someone, “How are you doing?” they say, “I’ve been working very hard. I want to make sure the company doesn’t go under. I want to make sure — ” I have a guy I spoke to two days ago, he just laid off 200 people out of 204.
That’s a conversation. I said to him, this was an amazing moment. I’m a girlfriend of his wife, and she’d — we were chatting and I was actually quite upset in that moment. Then she told me this and I said, “Hey,” I picked up the phone and I said, “I just want you to know, I know how much you care about your workers. I can’t imagine what a hard thing that must’ve been for you to do.” I know, I mean this, I haven’t seen this guy cry ever. This is on the phone. I didn’t see it. I heard it. I knew it. I just, and I also know that there are 204, and that even though it looked like you’re protected, you’re not, because it’s not yours, but then he starts talking to me. I’ve never seen this man talk so much. “I called every one of my managers,” I mean it was so heart-wrenching, you know? It was honorable, it was hard.
It was done with integrity. Then the next thing I get a text from her, it said, “You don’t understand what you just did. It’s like you just knew exactly what to say.” The thing was, “I know how hard this must have been for you.” That’s when I say deepening the conversation. I could have talked about how much money the company has and I could have talked about other things, but it’s not important. At this moment really, this guy, just let go 200 people who won’t have jobs. After that you stay quiet. Like you and me, I stay quiet. It’s not like this, you just let it sink for a minute.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Yeah. There are a lot of really difficult decisions, difficult conversations, difficult actions that have taken place in the last week, will happen this week, and will continue certainly beyond that. You mentioned disconnected, or feeling disconnected a bit earlier. I’d love to talk about, if we could for a moment, people who are living alone or in quarantine alone. I know that I know friends who are practicing, or by mandate, in isolation at home by themselves. Do you have anything you’ve learned with your patients that you could pass on to those people? I can’t personally imagine being alone right now. I do very, even though I spent the majority of my life isolating myself, which not terribly surprising, also suffering with bouts of depression. Now that I’ve become, over the last five years, a more social creature, I find the prospect very daunting of being alone during this time. I would love to know what you would say or what you do say to those people.
Esther Perel: I was literally looking at, I just got a message from one of my closest friends who lives alone. Okay. I think that there are people who live alone, but they’re not lonely. They’re connected. They have a circle of friends, they have family, friends, whatever, they have a network, a system, a support system. They chose possibly, for all kinds of reasons, or they have, to quarantine by themselves. For those people, I basically say keep everything as vibrant as you can. Have dinner with other people. It’s very interesting. Online, online, everything online, of course.
A few times a day, make sure that you’ve touched base with people. Write, write, and handwrite actually, if you can, and then just take a picture of it and send. I think it’s a very interesting moment to actually bring back some of our earlier epistolary exchanges before you just send another email. I think that the distinction for me is between people who are alone and lonely, or people who are lonely and not even alone, and people who live alone. I think I want to distinguish that. The ones I’m the most worried about are the people who are lonely and who are, have nobody to call and not many people checking them. Call, text, doesn’t matter, but reach out. Those I’m very worried about.
I’m worried about depression. I’m worried about alcoholism. I’m worried about suicide. I’m worried about a lot of, I’m worried about, just living in an endless world of porn, whatever it is. Disconnected. It’s just there’s no one to reach out to them. This is not new. Even before the digital, when things like that keep you away from others, the best thing I found for those people is to say, “Go volunteer. People need you. Maybe you don’t feel that enough people love you, but I can tell you there’s a world of people out there who need you at this moment. Who could use you bringing food for them or go get their meds or walk their dog or God knows what purpose. A sense that you matter. A sense of social relevance is going to be the most important thing.”
It always is, but it is even more so now against that kind of loneliness. When you’re lonely, you begin to question, “Do I matter?” and “What’s the difference if I’m here or not?” and “Who even cares? Who would notice?” It’s against that, that I make people go outside. If you don’t care that much anyway, then you can take some risks, but your risks will give you mental health, and your mental health will ultimately help you with your physical health. Being healthy is not just not having a virus. Being healthy is living connected to all kinds of things in the world. Nature, people, work, art. Purpose is the piece. So I’ve made lists of all kinds of volunteering that exists and I send it around to everybody who I thought would really use it at this moment or should use it.
Tim Ferriss: Could I get a copy of some of those? I don’t know if they’re really specific geographically, but would that be something that I could put in the show notes for this episode?
Esther Perel: Yeah, I’ll give you a lot of things. I mean, My Neighbor is the one that is the easiest. I think it’s called My Neighbor. It’s, because it’s by Neighborhood and is it that? That’s the name of it, I think.
Tim Ferriss: I don’t know, but I will tell people that we will put these resources in the show notes.
Esther Perel: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: If you just go to tim.blog/podcast and that will —
Esther Perel: I have them by New York, but they must be everywhere. I have a friend who runs a shelter for domestic violence. I have another person I know who works in a residential treatment center. All these places need people that will come and work with the people who live there. This, I mean it’s endless actually. It’s a very interesting thing. There is no, there’s going to be less work, but there is actually an enormous amount of people needed for things. I will send you the ones I have, they are primarily mostly New York-based, but I’m sure they have been spread around the country. There’s two young kids who basically gathered 1,300 volunteers in the city to just deliver food to the elderly. Those who are trying to stay home —
Tim Ferriss: Amazing.
Esther Perel: And they don’t necessarily know how to connect with Instacart, or don’t have kids who will do that for them. I mean they’re walking dogs, going to get their meds, taking them to the doctor. People still need to go to the doctor. There’s still other health issues. These two young kids in their 20s gathered 1,300 people in a few days. I made sure that two people I work with, who I thought, “You are not rotting away like this, get up and go help!” I didn’t say it like this, but I really think that if you don’t feel that your life is important enough for you, sometimes it helps to know that at least it makes a difference for others.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. The phrasing that you used earlier I thought was very powerful, and correct me if I’m wrong, but it was “Even if you feel that people don’t love you, or wouldn’t love you, or couldn’t love you, there are still plenty of people who need you.”
Esther Perel: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: I think that’s very, very powerful to let sink in. I think that’s a very strong wedge in the door that can open the room just a crack to let in a few rays of light. From that point —
Esther Perel: There’s another version of it, Tim, it’s like, I think of this other person I was working with last weekend, she’s on her own now. She’s divorced, whatever, for a long time, but she also broke up with a new partner and there was a scan of nostalgia. Of “I don’t have a partner.” Meanwhile, there are a lot of other people around who actually would be there. I think it’s also important to identify with people who [are] in their circle and to do a social mapping. Who actually does think of you, but you don’t value it enough because it’s not that. It’s not your partner. It’s not a boyfriend, a lover, it’s not romantic. That’s an important piece as well, is to actually broaden the definition of who’s there for you.
I draw a lot from my memories around the AIDS epidemic. From my work around 9/11. From my own personal history, from the Gulf War. I mean there’s a lot of the AIDS epidemic for sure, there’s a lot of situations where we’ve learned a lot of things. It’s not like this is the first time that we, and we have to invent everything. Peer connection is probably the most important thing that will help us in terms of mental health at this moment. They’re in groups. People, men’s group continuing online. Sometimes it’s just basically activity-based. It’s fine. It’s fine. It’s at least, because why is it so important? In this moment, when you live in your home like this and especially if you don’t have much space, the disruption is in space and in time. People have a rhythm, they’re used to going out, they come in. Alone or with partners.
They know when they are together, when they are apart, when, even with kids, when the kids are away, when the house is their own, and none of this structurally, nothing is actually sustained at this moment. It demands tremendous adaptability, tremendous adaptability in a very, very short amount of time. People who are alone in that sense, or live alone or have less adaptability, in that sense, their life is actually more similar to the way that they’ve lived it. Except that they can’t move themselves the way they used to move. In terms of what happens inside their space, there’s not that big of a difference.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I’ve seen, certainly for my girlfriend at least, that group exercise classes online —
Esther Perel: Yep.
Tim Ferriss: — have had a profound impact on her ability to function and thrive on a daily basis. Whether that be group exercise or dance classes. I think there’s a site, if you’re interested in hip hop dance, I think it’s called Steezy. I have no idea how to spell this, but I —
Esther Perel: I do Gaga. I do, I follow Gaga. Dancing is extraordinarily important at this moment, more even than exercise, because you can’t dance and be sad. You can listen to music and cry. You can read and cry, you can draw and cry, but you can’t dance and cry. The body won’t let you.
Tim Ferriss: I’m just trying to imagine what that would look like. I remember somebody sent me kind of a crying combination, smiley emoticon recently. It was so confusing to me. So yes, dancing and crying seems difficult to combine.
Esther Perel: No, because the body that is collapsed cannot dance. Dancing is actually very important. There’s a lot of people, they put music together, they put songs, they dance together, they talk at the same time. I mean, it’s actually very imaginative and resourceful how people are doing everything to stay connected. To stay, to feel energized, to feel vital. What has helped you? What have you done? She does the exercise classes, and you?
Tim Ferriss: Well, I do a few things, and it’s evolved over the last four weeks as I’ve realized what seems to help and what doesn’t seem to matter, at least personally. I will say that I have no delusion that this is normal as it was, say the same normal two months ago. Nor will it be the same two months from now, I don’t think. Certainly, economically, that will not be the case. I have found structure and routine to be very, very helpful for me, because I am bombarded all day with requests for help, text updates, data, et cetera, that reflect such a high degree of uncertainty and unpredictability that it’s very helpful to have certain parts of the day that are predictable for me.
Esther Perel: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: So among other things, my girlfriend and I, up to this point, I would say up until a few weeks ago, woke up at very different times. She would get up very early. I would get up a few hours later, and we would work respectively during the day, meet up, maybe we’d go out to dinner, maybe we’d eat at home. Oftentimes we would have different social engagements. We might not eat together. That’s all changed. So we’re now waking up around the same time, seven o’clock or so, 7:30. We are, at least most recently, exercising together. We’re not actually following the same workout. She’ll be doing her dancing or yoga or using an app for different types of calisthenics. I’ll be doing something called, well, there are a few things I rotate through. There’s something called The Happy Body by Jerzy and Aniela Gregorek. That’s a whole mouthful, but if you search The Happy Body and Gregorek, G-R-E-G-O-R-E-K, you’ll find what I’m talking about. I did a podcast interview with Jerzy as well.
It’s effectively a very short morning mobility sequence. It’s very low impact, and I find that it undoes a lot of the damage that sitting with a laptop or multiple screens for a good portion of the day can inflict. So wake up, exercise together, which has really been surprisingly impactful for us. At that point, the phone is also on airplane mode. I have to — I’ve been trying to put my phone on airplane mode around, say 8:00 p.m., and to take it off of airplane mode only after breakfast. Otherwise, you’re just getting assaulted with bad news 24/7. This is going to be, just give me a minute because some of this might be helpful to folks. Then I’m also ensuring, at least when it is allowed, to walk at least an hour a day. Try to get sunshine. If I can’t do that, I actually have a chest freezer that has been modified and caulked.
Some of this can still be done even in places where there’s some restriction of movement, so that I can use a cold plunge. I’m using a lot of cold and even a cold shower during the day for some type of physiological change. At night, this is one of the bigger changes, as you mentioned, we’re cooking at home every night and we’ll sometimes cook for multiple nights at a time. When we eat, even if we’re not cooking, we’ve actually chosen a different table in a different room, because my girlfriend has an office here in the house. I don’t. I would usually go downtown to an office and work, but I can’t do that at this point, or I’m not willing to do that. The kitchen table’s become my office, and the last thing I want to do is sit at the kitchen table and have dinner. We’ve moved a smaller, really small table, low, small table to the living room.
We sit down and we make a ritual out of dinner. We’ll set out the placemats and we’ll use the folded linens and we’ll open the door so that we’ll close the screen, but can hear some nature outside and we’ll light a candle and say a grace, say what we’re grateful for, and eat together. No devices. At that point, we usually go for a walk after dinner with the dog, because Molly requires outside time for bathroom and otherwise, and come back. At that point, usually try to avoid devices, and we have a television series that we watch during the week, which right now is The [Marvelous] Mrs. Maisel, Which is a fantastic show. Then we watch something else on the weekends, so that we are distinguishing between the weekdays and the weekends. We deliberately change our routines and activities on the weekends so that there’s some feeling of a break such that it’s not Groundhog Day every day. Also, use heat exposure. My girlfriend likes hot baths. I am very fortunate to have a small barrel sauna, and so I will use heat at night. Then —
Esther Perel: I said to Jack that I needed to buy your sauna thing, because it’s actually one of the things that they find to be very, very useful over 56 degrees Celsius. It actually is very, it’s very countering of the virus and I remember —
Tim Ferriss: It’s very helpful.
Esther Perel: And I said, “Jack, we need to get one of Tim’s — ”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, the barrel saunas. Yeah. Yeah. They’re surprisingly — I mean, look, I recognize this is where I can get very judgmental towards myself. I recognize it’s not within the grasp of everyone, but at least last I checked, they sell reasonably inexpensive barrel saunas at Costco. They did at least for a period of time. This does not require a year’s salary necessarily, but the point being that we’re using heat and cold as contrasts through the day and we find that to help with sleep, also. Then I usually foam roll a little bit before bed because I’m still so spun up. Even if I’ve done a lot of walking, even if I’ve done some exercise, my mind is generally still very, very active, so I will do some foam rolling to try to down-regulate and then we’ll go to bed.
And we use a humidifier. We also use, or I use at least, a hot vapor device just to try to ensure upper respiratory tract — or support upper respiratory tract health. And that’s the day. And there are days where there are certain types of other exercise. I might not do the Happy Body and I might do Peloton, for instance. I use Peloton quite a lot and just seeing human faces on a big screen, recorded or live, doesn’t seem to matter for me, it’s really, really helpful. So I’ll do that. Or on the bike, meaning the stationary bike, we’ll do scenic rides. So this is video footage of the Alps or New Zealand or fill in the blank and that’s more or less the day and it’s pretty much copy and paste every day. There’s less variance in my routine right now than at any other time in the last several years, and I think that is part of what is helping me to stay mostly sane. So that’s a long answer to a short question, but those are a few —
Esther Perel: No. But I think that many of these will be really helpful and I mean you inspire me to add a few things to —
Tim Ferriss: Can I add one more before I forget?
Esther Perel: Yeah Of course. Of course.
Tim Ferriss: The other thing that my girlfriend and I have done, and this is actually based on a conversation I had with Brené Brown not too long ago on the podcast who spoke about how she does this with her husband, but we will tell each other in the morning oftentimes, we don’t do this every day, but if we are really worn thin, maybe we didn’t sleep well. Like last night I couldn’t stop thinking, I was physically exhausted but just had that tired and wired experience where I just could not ramp down. And I had taken a fair number of things already to try to help me sleep and it didn’t matter. So I got probably two or three hours of sleep last night and so I told my girlfriend this morning, I said, ”I’m probably at about 20 percent, just to give you a heads up in case I’m overly sensitive.”
Esther Perel: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Tim Ferriss: I don’t have a whole lot of slack in the system right now. I have a total of 20 percent in the tank. And she does the same. So it could be that we’re at 70, 80. ”How are you doing?” ”I’m feeling really good. I’m at 90. I had a full night of sleep. It’s a beautiful day.” “Great.” And then there are some days, whether there are hormonal contributions, let’s say, with a menstruation and so on, or could just be related to sleep events, news from close friends and family, et cetera, that we give each other an indication of how much buffer we have in the system, so that our behaviors are perhaps easier to understand and also so the other person can pick up the slack if necessary and make more of an effort for a day or two.
Esther Perel: Yeah. That’s very much what I was saying before when I said if you’re irritable, if you’re low energy, if you’re — so basically check in with each other. Do post checks and let each other know where you are at so that your responses are put in a context, and each one knows what they can expect from the other. I think you’ve given a really rich list. I go to nature, I take hikes, and I have a certain path where I can literally go alone every morning or I will have somebody else call someone and say, ”Do you want to go ride?” And they drive to me and we walk up the mountains, but one person on each side of the road.
So I actually am able to still see people. A few, but that I have a book club. We have migrated online and I have a movie club, which is the most beautiful thing because we spend 90 minutes talking about films every week. We have to watch a film and we talk about it, and for a while you talk about something completely unrelated, so different with people who are in Australia, in France, in the US. We are all over the place, our little group, and it’s been so nice. So nice to just — yeah?
Tim Ferriss: No, could you say more about that? Just tell us more about the format, when you do it. How does it work? What are the rules of the movie club?
Esther Perel: We were about to start this movie club because we had a book club for three years now and we were just about to start a movie club and this thing happened and we spread out. And so I said, ”Let’s not let it wait, let’s do it wherever we are.” Literally, some are in Europe, some are in Australia, one is in Hawaii, the others are all over the US, and basically we decided on a movie.
Tim Ferriss: What’d you decide on?
Esther Perel: Well the first one was Jojo Rabbit.
Tim Ferriss: Uh-huh (affirmative).
Esther Perel: The second one was The Marriage of Maria Braun by Rainer Fassbinder, which is a movie of ’79 that is a phenomenal movie. And the third one that we’re doing now is — let me see. It’s an American film.
Tim Ferriss: Dumb and Dumber?
Esther Perel: No, no, no. It’s a film club in France. Stars In My Crown.
Tim Ferriss: Stars In My Crown.
Esther Perel: Stars In My Crown. One person basically said, ”We highly recommend it,” and so we don’t know what we’re watching. One person chose a movie and we say, ”Let’s go with it.” So we meet, four o’clock on Sunday, because that is a 6:00 a.m. or whatever. They’re changing in Australia and in Europe this week. So we have to make sure that this one isn’t too early and this one isn’t too late and we are in the middle, three or four o’clock in the afternoon on Sunday, and we meet and we are about — how much will we be this time — maybe around 15 of us, and two of them are in the same room, some of them are on their own, and we discuss the film.
Tim Ferriss: So you watch it anytime you want.
Esther Perel: Yes. You watch it alone —
Tim Ferriss: Is it weekly or monthly? It’s a monthly, or —
Esther Perel: Weekly.
Tim Ferriss: Weekly, okay.
Esther Perel: We moved it to weekly. We were going to do it monthly, but we moved it to weekly because it just was so nice. Such a relief.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, that’s a great idea. That’s a great idea.
Esther Perel: So often we’ve seen the movie actually one or two days before, so it’s fresh, and one of us is the moderator that basically makes sure that everybody gets a chance to speak.
Tim Ferriss: And you’re using Zoom for this? Or what are you —
Esther Perel: Yeah. Zoom. Zoom, and then this week we have the book club, which is usually once a month. And —
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, once a week for the book club is ambitious.
Esther Perel: Yes. Yes. No, plus I can’t read. I mean I feel like I do not have enough of that concentration at this moment. So I haven’t done my homework for this Sunday.
Tim Ferriss: What was the assignment? What was the book?
Esther Perel: Book of this month is, I will tell you in a sec. Book club, next book club. A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell. Don’t ask me more. I haven’t read the book.
Tim Ferriss: Haven’t read it!
Esther Perel: I have not. No, and if I don’t read it, I don’t attend. You can’t just show up for the sake of showing up. You can show up for the first 20 minutes when we are checking in and having a drink, and then when people start the conversation, basically you say, ”See you next time.”
Tim Ferriss: And is there a particular set of questions that you go through for the movie, or is it just a free-for-all when you guys meet for the movie check in?
Esther Perel: We did it twice. We start sometimes with were there people who particularly loved it and particularly did not? And then we ask “Why did you love it?” “Why did you hate it?” type thing. And then with me, the question was “Why did you choose it?” Because I chose the one from last week. “Why did you choose this movie? What did you see?” Then there’s a couple of people who know a lot about cinema and they often know the work of that director, and then it’s just really a very interesting chat.
Tim Ferriss: So tell us your answer. Which movie was it last week, and why did you choose it?
Esther Perel: Last week, the movie was The Marriage of Maria Braun, which if you don’t know Fassbinder, he’s one of the most important post-war German directors, ’70s. It basically is the story of a woman who is also the metaphor for Germany. So it’s a story told through this one woman and her post-war life and how she climbs and becomes this rich lady and her relationship to this man that she married who she actually spent one night with that spends her whole life waiting for. But in fact, the story of Maria Braun is also the story of how Fassbinder sees Germany post-war. So you have these two tracks being told at the same time: a love story of a woman, but in fact it’s the story of a nation. And being able to tell two stories at the same time, of which one is overt and the other one is hidden, is incredible. Plus it’s the cinematography. The guy who was the cameraman of Fassbinder, then after that movie, he moved to the States and he became Martin Scorsese’s film camera man.
Tim Ferriss: I’ve heard of him! Yeah.
Esther Perel: So the cinematography of the film is also just something amazing. And I didn’t see this film since ’79. I just remembered it as one of those formative movies in my life and it followed Jojo Rabbit. So it had the logic as to why I thought about that. And then our next movie will be Badlands.
Tim Ferriss: Badlands.
Esther Perel: Terrence Malick. One of the greatest American directors. So it’s not very formal. It’s like somebody says, ”Let’s do Malick. Malick is an amazing director to discuss,” and so then do we decide which would be a good Malick movie to see? And then we decided, okay, let’s do Badlands because it’s one of the great American films and it’s exciting. It’s so nice to be talking about something else for a bit.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah! Sorry to interrupt. You said in the beginning you do your catch-up introductory check-ins and have a drink. Are there any rituals or rules around that? Do you guys cheers each other or are you all just nursing one drink?
Esther Perel: No. No, actually. In that sense it’s rather — we are half Americans and half from all over the world. And the people from abroad tend to not want this to be too structured. It’s a bit like that. The conversation ends when we’ve said what we had to say. It’s not like we say from 6:00 to 8:00. It starts at 4:00 and then this one, it went ’til 5:30 and at 5:30 it felt like we had enough.
Tim Ferriss: Right. I like it. I like it. I like it.
Esther Perel: It was just like, ”Okay. I guess we’re ready for the next film. We’ve gone around the block. Everybody has said what they had to say. We’ve had our discussions.” And then we had a few more minutes where people checked in, “How are you? Where are you? What’s it like in Australia? Have you caught the last plane?” People checked in with each other and then we said, ”See you next Sunday.” So that’s been a real high for me, actually. I do yoga every morning with a direct class. I have two ongoing classes in the city and I’ve just continued them online. And then I just check in every night with a friend and I say, ”Do you want to meet me at 7:30 for an hour?” Because I realize that I can’t do it alone.
I don’t have the motivation. If I do it alone, I’ll do it for 20 minutes and then I’ll get caught up with something else. My productivity level is not at the same level and my discipline either. So if I’m accountable to someone, someone is waiting for me, I’ll be there. I’ll show up and I just text anybody. I send it out to a variety of people and I’ll just say, ”Are you free tomorrow for yoga? Or for a walk?” It’s very impromptu in that way, but I realized that I do better with somebody than alone at this moment. And then I go with my husband. I say, “Let’s just take a 20-minute walk before we start sitting at the laptop the whole day. Let’s just walk together,” and we haven’t been to town or anything.
I have not been outside of just plain nature in that sense. Or even walk around. It snowed this week, so we just walked around the place here in the neighboring streets. It’s not major, but just to see sky. Like you, sun. This and that. And I’ve listened to a lot of music. I’ve actually been listening to a lot of music in ways that I don’t — not as background, and I think you think about setting the table. Jack did that last night. It was so good. He set the table in a different room and put a — I mean a ritual of let’s still feel that we can settle in and savor this whole, even if it’s a half an hour. But let everything unravel around. But it’s more than structure. It’s really a ritual.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Esther Perel: And I think rituals at this point are extremely important. Like the one that when you wake up in the morning, that’s a ritual that you do with your girlfriend. So I am looking for different rituals. I definitely measure and this I would say to other people, I know when I can’t read one more article about this.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I think I go past the point of it being helpful. Yeah.
Esther Perel: I mean, no, I can’t. I wasn’t going to listen to The Daily yesterday. I’ve got my list, but I just know sometimes it’s okay if I’m going to go two days without, it’s fine. It’s fine.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, that’s fine.
Esther Perel: So that’s the thing. It’s okay to think about other things. And we have also done some watching of TV together, though I really don’t feel like having more screen time at the end of the day. I’m screened out. So sometimes just sitting quiet and listening to — like you with your porch. You’re sitting outside. It’s still cold here, but just quiet because we’ve talked the whole day, is another thing. We talk, we listen, we are in conversation with patients the whole day.
And work. I think we haven’t said much about that, but I do feel better when I work. I feel that I have a sense of agency, that I can do things. So I prepared a keynote address last week for 1,300 people about couples in quarantine and teaching my colleagues. My supervision group is usually monthly. I said we will meet every week and now I will hold the group. It’s 25 therapists together helping other people to think about their work concerns doing the podcasts. I found it so creative to be doing these podcasts at this moment. I feel like I’m finding a way to bring purpose and creativity together and I’m not thinking about myself. It’s really that. I just don’t want to spend all my time thinking about me in my own little world and just feel like I can contribute, do something for others.
Those are the things that I’ve worked harder. I mean it’s an incredible thing. I don’t even know where it suddenly came from, and I live with my husband Jack Saul, who happens to be for three decades an expert in disaster preparedness. So I’ve got WHO, UN. I hear the names, the calls. This is very much in our house, the expertise of people who have worked with large-scale psychosocial trauma. So I go back and forth between wanting to hear from him because he knows so much and then saying, ”Can we talk about something else?”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Yeah.
Esther Perel: So I think we are very much on the same track in terms of things that we do. He meditates every day. I don’t, but I know that that’s very important. I do my yoga if you want, but meditation, I’ve been trying to run and put this goal for myself that I will add 10 minutes every day to my run because it’s uphill. I try to still feel like I can discover certain things that put little challenges for myself rather than just preservation.
Tim Ferriss: Well, I think we’ve given people a lot to chew on. There’s so many different things to explore, how to use music. I’ve ended up using classical during weekday, work day, typically reggae at night on weekday evenings and then different music for the weekends. And I have a whole system.
Esther Perel: Yeah. Our vinyls are here, so every night we rediscover music we haven’t heard in years.
Tim Ferriss: Wow, that’s amazing. And Esther, you’re amazing. I always love our conversations and it’s been actually a real nice decompress for me just to have this conversation with you and I know how full your days are and I’m thrilled that you were able to find time to spend some of it in this conversation. And I know people are going to want to learn more about you, see what you’re up to, listen to what you’re up to. Where would you like people to go? What would you like them to pay the most attention to? You have so many different projects.
Esther Perel: There’s a few that are very much in line with the moment. So my newsletter and blog I think is probably the most direct place where I also give some of the suggestions or recommendations and you just go to my website, estherperel.com and you sign on. I mean that’s where I’m really putting together in small bites what I often develop in non-form, if you want. So the newsletter, Where Should We Begin? We have a special season that is Couples in Quarantine.
Tim Ferriss: Now just to be clear, I know I said it in the introduction, but the name of the podcast is Where Should We Begin?
Esther Perel: Correct. Correct.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah? Just making sure.
Esther Perel: So my podcast Where Should We Begin? has a special season of which the first episode was dropped last night, which is a couple in Sicily. It’s called Two Adults, Three Children, and a Wall in Between. I did the second one today. We do a series of that and then How’s Work? which I also am going to do episodes for How’s Work? The first season is out everywhere where you get your podcasts. It’s about the invisible forces that shape workplace dynamics, but it is ever more relevant right now, ever more relevant. So what I will do a few episodes as well about the issues around work as they are presenting themselves right now, here and abroad. Sessions is the platform where I work with anybody who wants to be more trained as coaches, therapists, all the people who want to get the training. That’s a digital training platform.
And Sessions is going to be the place to whom I’m going to do training for managers, founders, all of that. And all the social channels. It’s all integrated, but I’ve always worked on how people handle their relationships and I think that health as it relates to relational health and mental health, it’s at the forefront of what we talk, and you don’t get so much of that when people are spending more time about the virus itself. Health is more than just not being sick, so that’s what I want to emphasize in this moment and that’s where you find me, estherperel.com is the gate to it all, and then the podcast app.
Tim Ferriss: Wonderful, estherperel.com is the gate to it all, folks. I’m telling you, check it out. She has just an incredible corpus of work and you continue to put out — yes?
Esther Perel: The guy who asked you what kind of things for people who are living apart?
Tim Ferriss: Yes.
Esther Perel: Also Rekindling Desire, which is the online workshop that I have, that really is for how you maintain playfulness, spontaneity, curiosity in your relationships. You don’t have to be living together at all to go through that, and it is jam packed with suggestions of how to maintain that connection à distance, as we say.
Tim Ferriss: What was it called again?
Esther Perel: Rekindling Desire.
Tim Ferriss: Rekindling Desire. That was actually almost verbatim. Another question. So you answered a question without even knowing it, also a separate question. Rekindling Desire. Excellent. And —
Esther Perel: It’s on the website. Well, I don’t have to say more. Just go check it out. It is what it says.
Tim Ferriss: It is what it is. It is what it says and everybody out there should try a weekly movie club. I think that’s a brilliant idea. I’m absolutely going to explore that with a friend of mine to see what we can put together with our gang. And it’s always such a pleasure, Esther. I really appreciate you taking the time. We will link to everything in the show notes and more specifically for folks who want to see resources from this episode, to see our first episode, which has completely different content, very, very, very different, looking at monogamy, non-monogamy, and all sorts of other topics, as well as the volunteer resources, which will be I think very important and powerful for a lot of people who can benefit from feeling needed right now.
We will put those at tim.blog/esther. So that’s tim.blog/esther. So you’ll be able to find all of my conversations with Esther as well as the resources at that link and links to everything that we have discussed so far. And I think that’s a full conversation for now. Thank you so much, my dear.
Esther Perel: Same here. Be well, be healthy, be safe and all of you who are listening to us, I wish you really all the best.
Tim Ferriss: And I will echo that. Thanks to everybody for tuning in and until next time, be safe, form a movie club.
Esther Perel: Listen to good music.
Tim Ferriss: Listen to good music.
Esther Perel: Allow yourself to dance.
Tim Ferriss: Allow yourself to dance.
Esther Perel: I have to get that barrel. I have to find a way. And stay connected, people, and one thing, it’s so-called social distancing, that’s the wrong word. It’s physical distancing, but it’s social leaning. Do not misunderstand that word.
Tim Ferriss: Exactly. And last but not least, be kind. And that includes yourself. All right, signing off. Thanks, everybody.
The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 600 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.