The Paradox of Desire with Esther Perel
Esther Perel is one of the most innovative psychotherapists in the world. Her first book, Mating in Captivity, was about the dilemmas of desire inside modern relationships. Her eagerly anticipated forthcoming book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, is about what happens when desire goes looking elsewhere. Esthere came to our penthouse to talk about her newly released podcast, Where Should We Begin?, to talk about relationships, intimacy, and the modern dilemmas of desire.
How did you start writing about desire?
I'm interested in roaming desires, wandering desires, fickle desires, stubborn desires, lasting desires, broken desires, whichever way we want to look at that. I'm a therapist, primarily. I work with all kinds of couples. Intimate couples, co-founders, partners, all kinds of couplings out there and I gradually have found my way more and more talking with agencies and brand agencies because we are facing a new reality, a social reality in which desire has often become the organizing principles of modern relationships. This is true in our work, in our relationship to brands, to our family, to our friends, to our partners. We are very much organized around this notion of desire.
How would you define desire?
A working definition would be "to own the wanting." You can always force people to do things, but you can never force them to want it. Wanting is a fundamental expression of one's freedom and one's sovereignty and ownership over a reality. Desire is so central, primarily, because it fits the free-choice enterprise of modern love. It fits consumer culture. It fits the notion that we live in the era of choice.
Is that a new notion, the idea of choice?
For most of history, we were organized, certainly in our relationships, around obligation and duty and loyalty. We have gradually evolved toward a model of relationships that includes the notion of free-choice, freedom, self-fulfillment or individual fulfillment and possibility. There is no other human experience that gives us a greater sense of well-being or happiness than deep, meaningful human connections. That has been established for a while. But what is odd these days is that we want these connections to be fueled by desire. And what it represents when we talk about this is the nature of experience and how we live in an era of experience much more than in an era of duty and obligation. We want these experiences to be fulfilling and transformative and meaningful, in our work life and in our marriages or in our love lives. You find the same things repeated from one sector to another. The cycle of relationships is generally harmony, disharmony, and repair.
What are the questions you tend to ask about desire?
When I think about desire, I ask myself a few questions. First of all, what is this elusive thing, so difficult to create, to sustain, and to increase? Can we want what we already have? Which is probably the most important philosophical question about desire, which philosophers from Kant to Spinoza have dabbled with for so long, you know? And what does it mean when we think that we have certain things or certain people we probably never had? We just like the illusion of thinking that they are ours and that they belong to us and that they're gonna be there forever. To which a patient of mine once came up with a great line; he said, "your partner, at best, is on loan with an option to renew."
What’s the difference between love and desire?
When you love, how does it feel? And when you desire, how is it different? Because they're not the same experience. We like to think that they go hand in hand. We like to think they’re connected, that one springs from the other. Sometimes it does, for some people. And sometimes, they're actually quite irretrievably disconnected. Why is it that the forbidden fuels desire? Why is it that we want that which is right there, we seem to want it differently when we want that which is forbidden to us? One of the greatest erotic formulas ever uttered by a colleague, Jack Morin, was that "attraction plus obstacle equals excitement."
But the obstacles are always there, aren’t they?
How do we actually understand that they are always there rather than create the illusion that we have trampled them and that now it's kind of a straight road ? There's a little bit of history that I think matters in order to understand some of the fundamental shifts that have occurred in the realm of relationships. It’s necessary to understand how this verb, this experience, this state of being called desire has become so prominent.
A little history?
In so many aspects of "Western" history, we pretty much lived in villages and tribes. These tribes gave us a sense of identity. You knew who you were because you knew who you were a part of. They gave us a sense of continuity, legacy, predictability, order, organization, or ritual for how to go through the major life cycle events. If you were born, if you were sick, if you died, if you lost someone, there was a code. There was a set of rituals, a set of meaning-making practices that helped you go through all of this. You didn't have to figure all of this out alone. And those tribes did give us that sense of belonging, which is the new buzz word that you're gonna be hearing about a lot, if you haven't already.
But that sense of belonging also meant tradeoffs?
With the sense of belonging also came a lack of freedom. Lack of personal space, lack of personal identity, lack of individuality. You got a sense of community and belonging but you lost a sense of self. It was this negotiation between self and collective that you're gonna hear about. At some point, we leave these communities, these tribes, these villages and we move to the cities. And a lot of major revolutions take place: industrial revolutions and economic shifts, but the most important thing that starts to happen is the rise of individualism together with the rise of romanticism, probably the most important ideology to check out at this point from the 19th century because every other one is gone. Communism is gone, socialism is gone, Trotsky is gone. But romanticism is thriving, you know. Tenaciously holding on in so many aspects of our lives.
So industrialization affects desire?
We move to these cities and we become a lot more free, but we also become a lot more alone. And we develop gradually more and more different new burdens for the self. Now it's us who have to decide all kinds of things which until now and still in many parts of the world, are decided for us. You get to be a lot more free but you also get to have a lot more uncertainty and self-doubt because you have to know for yourself. And as you move to these new, free spaces, one of the most important words that changes meaning in the realm of relationship is the word "intimacy." For most of history, "intimacy" was basically living with the vicissitudes of daily life. You milked the cows, you watched the children, you feed them, you dealt with the weather, the drought, the rain, the economic hardships, etc.
But intimacy today means something else…
It’s a communicative, discursive experience that can be summed up like this: intimacy is "into-me-see." "Into-me-see" means that when I talk to you, my beloved, you look at me, first of all. No clicking away while I'm talking to you because I need to know that I matter. Because I am going to be sharing with you my most prized assets (not my cows and my goats and my camels, my feelings). My anxieties, my dreams, my aspirations, my worries, my inner life; it's my inner life that I come to share with you. And you are going to reflect back to me and validate me and I am going to momentarily throw this "into-me-see," transcend my existential aloneness. Welcome to modern love.
What else has changed about human relationships in the modern era?
Sometimes when you're living in the present, you really think that what is now has always been. For most of history, when you married, you had sex for the first time. Today, you marry and you stop having sex with others. Marriage or committed relationship, it doesn't matter. For most of history, when you married, you basically were stuck for life and the only thing you could hope for is that you or your partner would die an early death. That was it. The idea that you could start again or start for the first time at any moment in your life is a lure that keeps so many of us hoping and longing and yearning and wanting. That's desire, by the way. For most of history, monogamy was one person for life. Today, monogamy is one person at a time.
So monogamy is about biding your time?
For most of history, sexuality was primarily a reproductive function. But basically, people had sex because they wanted eight children; they needed to have 12 because four weren’t going to make it. And sex was primarily a woman's marital duty. The notion of having taken this thing called sexuality and having rooted it in desire — 'cause I feel like it., ’cause I'm into it, ’cause you want to, and maybe you want me… That’s a whole crucible of desire that is actually phenomenally recent. "I'm not in the mood!" Since when was that ever a concern? Who cares about your mood? It required contraception, the Women's Movement, the Gay Movement, to make this become what is so obvious to us.
But now, sexuality is rooted in desire…
For pleasure and for connection. Most of the time, in the west, we have one to three kids, that's it. So the only reason afterwards to be interested is because there was desire for this quality of pleasure and connection. Otherwise, why bother? For most of history, happiness was basically something for the afterlife. If you lived in a good Christian world, you suffered on Earth and maybe if you suffered enough, you would get compensated or rewarded afterwards. We brought happiness down from the heavens to the Earth. First it became an option; today it's a mandate. And we're mostly happy. We deserve to be happy. It's not that we have more desires than we had but we definitely feel more entitled to pursue them. Fits consumer culture as well.
What other changes took place?
Well, for most of history, adultery, which has existed since marriage was invented and is a transgression for that matter, was an economic threat to the relationship. Today, when marriage is no longer just an economic institution but an institution about trust and affection, infidelity is an emotional threat. For most of history, monogamy was basically an imposition on women in order to know who gets the children when I die and who gets the camels when I go and it had very little to do with love. The more interesting part of it is that monogamy has always been assigned to women for economic reasons, whereas men have been forever allowed to roam with all kinds of theories that came to justify why that was part of their nature. So, there has been a lot of patriarchy. There have been a lot of double standards.
Where do children fit into this?
For most of history, people got work out of their children. The children were there to help you. Today, people don't get work out of their children. They get meaning. And that is a very different relationship. That sentimentalized idealization of these little Smurfs you have to attend to 24/7 has taken on a complete apex of folly at this point. So that, at the moment, the hierarchies are reversed. And for the first time in the history of humankind, family life depends entirely on the happiness of the couple. That's it. Not laws, not economic dependence. We still want from our partners what we always wanted: companionship, economic support, social status, children, but on top of it, I want you to be my best friend, I want you to be my trusted confidant and my passionate lover, all in one. And I want you to be my intellectual equal and the best parent, and I want one person to give me what once an entire village used to provide. One person for everything. That's our model.
That’s a problematic model!
That model has confused loyalty with fidelity. It really says to one person, "I should be able to have a multitude of experiences with you that have always been dispersed and allocated and compartmentalized by the community. You can't ask one person to be a whole community. But this is where we're at. So never have people invested in love as much as they do today and never have people fractured more from the breakdown of love than they do today.
But that’s love. We were talking about desire…
So this is a little bit of where we've come to. This elusive thing called "desire" has to do with the gradual rise of individualism. In order to say "I want," there needs to be a sovereign "I" that is given the permission to say "I want." There is an "I" (a subject) and a "want" (a verb). We have any entire cultural system meant to help us become more of who we are, what we want, what we believe in, but also when we love, and when we desire.
“To sustain desire is the ability to reconcile two fundamental sets of human needs”—Esther Perel
So the difference between love and desire is…?
If I was to connect a verb to love, it would be "to have" whereas for desire, I would usually think "to want." Love wants to love and be loved. It wants to close the distance, it wants to minimize the gap, it wants to neutralize the threat. Desire needs a space. It needs a bridge to cross and someone on the other side. It needs me to want to be curious about the other person. Love is cozy, it's comfortable, nothing is meant to happen. I trust it. I can rely on it. It's predictable. It's reliable. It's dependable. When I'm looking out and leaning forward and I'm curious and engaged and focused and present: this is the position of desire. It's a different body, it's a different movement, and it's a different breath.
So how do you sustain desire?
In all aspects, to sustain desire is the ability to reconcile two fundamental sets of human needs. Everyone’s understood since the Greeks, when people wrote epic stories about the need to journey, that we all straddle two fundamental sets of needs: one for security and one for adventure. One for predictability, for loyalty, for home, for roots, for dependability, for stability, for safety... and one for change and novelty and mystery and the unknown and unexpected and risk and danger and imagination. Whichever language you use for it, it's probably one of the most archetypal dualities from Literature to Psychology.
How does this relate to corporate environments?
Companies are trying to straddle tradition and change, innovation and timeless values, individuality and community, being an icon and challenger. That duality is continuously present. What is different in our modern lives, in our romantic lives, is that for the first time we want one person to give us both. I want you to be mysterious and I want you to be familiar. And I want you to be cozy and comfortable and I also want you to be surprising. I want you to be stable but I also want you to be adventurous. I want you to be reliable but I also want you to be different on occasion. That ability, to integrate these two things, is the biggest challenge for companies, for individuals, for modern relationships, you name it. In the end, it's a lens that I begin to look through for many, many of the things in front of me.
How does trust fit into all of this?
No relationship can exist without trust. It is the foundational truth. You break the trust, something fundamentally shatters. You break trust in an intimate relationship, Volkswagen breaks trust with their car: it doesn't matter. That infidelity, that sense of betrayal, runs deep. And that's where the cycle of harmony, disharmony, and repair comes in. When I think of repair, I'm not just thinking of it as one word; I'm talking about it as re-pair-ing. Putting the "pair" back together. That’s the relationship. "Fixing" is not the same as "repairing". Should have said that to United Airlines recently! Everybody understands what a violation of trust feels like. Everyone understands what it's like when you thought you knew reality, when you had a grasp on what's in front of you and you suddenly don't know anymore what to believe. And worse is when you don't know anymore if you can believe yourself.
What happens when you experience that betrayal?
You can't navigate the world. You know it from your work life. You know it from your family life. Rebuilding trust is an incredible process that actually speaks to resilience. If we understand these forces and these contradictions, we can actually can begin to unlock what helps us sustain it. The tension between transparency and mystery. We live in an era of transparency. And suddenly the United States loves transparency. It loves directness, get to the point, don't beat around the bush, say it as it is. You have an entire vocabulary that bypasses mystery.
So transparency is about building trust?
Brands have developed the same notion: that to tell the story as it is, to be completely honest about the story, is the way to establish a relationship. This is the anti-religious perspective, because one thing religion did understand was mystery. It knew how to shroud something; you just had to enter those buildings and you knew that you were in the presence of something bigger, intangible, that you couldn't unlock, that you could never penetrate but that had a tremendous power of penetrating you. And that piece of mystery is getting lost in our modern relationships. If you don't allow for that mystery, you curtail desire. You basically go from arousal to satisfaction and you bypass desire. You basically forget. When I work with some couples, I tell them, "foreplay starts at the end of the previous orgasm, not two minutes before the real thing."
You have a new podcast featuring unscripted sessions with some of your clients. Can you tell us a little bit about Where Should We Begin?
One of my clients is a Chinese man who never was asked during his entire childhood, "What do you want?" That was not a question in the repertoire of the house. It was cultural; his family sat at a table and they ate and nobody said a word. I'm working with him on the very basic experience of feeling deserving. I'm working with him on seven verbs that are probably the basic grammar of relationships: to ask, to give, to take, to receive, to share, to imagine, and to refuse. When you have never been able to ask, when you've never learned to ask, this is a profound, transformative moment in the direction of desire.. It's not "how can you want what you have," but "how do you know that what you have is what you want?"
“Your partner, at best, is on loan with an option to renew”—Esther Perel
These are questions we could all be asking.
Everybody was raised with a duality of security and adventure. Some of us came out of childhood wanting more security, more protection, and more safety. Some of us came out of childhood wanting more space, more freedom, and more adventure. You can take a moment and do a quick check-in with yourself and see on what side you leaned. That doesn't mean it's static and stays like that for life but many of us come out of our childhood with one need more defined than the other. And many of us will then notice that in our relationships, and in many relational systems, there is often one person more in touch with the fear of abandonment and one person more in touch with the fear of losing themselves. Some of us are more connected to the fear of losing "the other" and some of us are more connected with the fear of losing who we are. And those tensions all swim in the pool of desire.
And the podcast gives you an avenue for exploring these questions.
There are episodes about loss, about sexlessness, about infidelity; there are trans couples, gay couples, lesbian couples. There are all kinds of stories that defy all of the gender stereotypes. But the main thing that they all share, which I think responds to a hunger that we find in so many places today, is that they speak truth. There's no false news in those relationships. And that wish: to listen to truth, especially truth in a relationship, which is not the parading that you see on Facebook, where you may, at times, think you’re looking into other people's lives but very quickly realize that you are, in fact, standing in front of your own. Much of my work is about creating spaces for deep, meaningful, open conversations. The broad spectrum of them, here and abroad. I do it in seven languages so it allows me, when I travel, to really enter another culture and hear how are the stories of life told.
Words by Esther Perel and The Editors. Photos (c) Guillaume Ziccarelli.