In 1964, on the occasion of his 50th birthday, Icek Perel hosted two parties. The first, held on a Friday, was populated by friends from the neighborhood: working-class Belgians with whom he had formed a joyous, if circumstantial, alliance. Over beer, they told jokes in Flemish; his guests, who were also customers at the clothing shop he ran beneath his apartment, hardly knew he and his family were Jewish. The second party, held the next day, mimicked the first but was revived with a few crucial twists: The guests were all fellow Holocaust survivors, the punch lines were delivered in Yiddish, and the beer had been swapped out for vodka.
Icek and his wife, Sala, were the sole survivors of their respective families and met on the road to liberation before settling illegally as refugees in Antwerp. Their union was unlikely—she was born to aristocrats, he was functionally illiterate. As survivors, they were in a state of disbelief and started a family to prove to themselves they were still human. Their daughter, Esther, began working in the store as soon as she could speak. Her parents, she observed, were constantly shifting roles; depending on the time of day, they might speak to each other as colleagues or as a couple. Esther was their bridge and their best reader. Where others saw isolated traits, she recognized a grand narrative: of loss, of love, and of the strange and conflicting ways one’s identity can shift to accommodate its context.
Today, Esther Perel identifies as a script-writer, the person who propels a plot forward when life’s main characters are otherwise paralyzed by self-doubt. But when she speaks to her audience, a population of millions, it is from her position as America’s preeminent couples therapist. She is the author of two best-selling works of nonfiction, Mating in Captivity and The State of Affairs, and the host of two podcasts, Where Should We Begin? and How’s Work?, the latter of which began its second season this month. She is an expert in dealing with couples who are vexed by contradiction. They come to her when they need security but desire space, and when they imagine love to be capacious only to experience it as a constriction. They are, in other words, stuck. Most arrive at her office looking for a way out, but by the time they leave, they will have surrendered any fantasy of a quick fix. In Perel’s treatment of relational conflicts, there are no solutions, only paradoxes to manage. Her observations are studded with the seductive certainty of mantras. Sex “isn’t something you do, it’s a place you go”; love “enjoys knowing everything about you,” but “desire needs mystery”; and envy “is a tango between two people,” while “the dance of jealousy requires three.” Like anyone who has found community among strangers or felt alone in a crowded room, she believes our relationships determine the quality of our lives.
When we meet for lunch, she speaks with the conviction of someone who has been rehearsing her lines for years. Anyone who has gone to therapy will recognize the trappings of the profession in her speech. She is prone to repetition, and her advice is so crystallized as to sometimes seem premeditated. In response to more than one of my questions, she recites phrases from her books and lectures word for word. Perel’s greatest trick, perhaps, is that she still feels present. Her most welltrodden sound bites are uttered conspiratorially, like she’s letting you in on a secret. Even in a ramshackle plastic-covered outdoor-dining bungalow, she can turn a passing encounter into a scene. Halfway through our meal, a businessman who has either refused or forgotten to wear a mask begins yelling for the waiter. I’ve already dismissed him as a jerk and resolved to avoid eye contact. Perel, halting our conversation, turns directly toward the man and watches him with such open curiosity that by the time he finally speaks, it feels as if she has summoned his lines directly from his guilty conscience. “I need my mask,” he says.
“Of course,” she responds, laughing. “It’s very important.”
AT ITS INCEPTION almost half a century before Perel’s birth, couples counseling focused exclusively on marriage—then recognized as a couple’s only legitimate form. In the U.S., counselors were rarely clinicians and usually performed sessions as tasks that were auxiliary to their primary duties as gynecologists, clergy members, or social workers. The problems that arose within unions were assumed to be navigable through the development of practical skills like cooking or household management.
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