Meet The Expert: Esther Perel

Feb 15, 2019
Originally published on August 9, 2019 9:29 am

In this edition of Meet the Expert, Ophira Eisenberg, host of NPR's Ask Me Another at The Bell House in New York, talks Esther Perel, a renowned couples therapist and host of the podcast Where Should We Begin?. Having just finished its third season, the podcast documents Perel as she leads live counseling sessions with real couples coping with sexlessness, infidelity, and loss.

Despite the inherently intimate setting, Perel said her patients aren't afraid of opening up. "We're not here to make a performance, we're here to have a session," she explained. "You forget about everything else. You just delve. You go into the trenches."

Perel lead a Valentine's Day-themed game of "Guesstimators," quizzing Eisenberg and musician Jonathan Coulton on little-known statistics regarding fidelity, marriage rates, and sharing a bed. And while Valentine's Day ("The annual day for you to take stock of the quality of your romantic investments," according to Perel) has its detractors, the relationship expert has some advice for improving the experience.

"Instead of Valentine's being about this one and only person, you should Valentine us all," she said. "It should be a relationship day for the love of all."

Heard on Michael Ian Black Is Back, All Right!

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Before the final round, it's time for us to play a game. This is Meet The Expert. So please welcome couples therapist and host of the podcast "Where Should We Begin?," Esther Perel.


EISENBERG: Esther, thank you so much for joining us, and thank you so much for agreeing to help me with my relationship live on stage.

ESTHER PEREL: No, you've already said that you're going to do exactly what you came in with doing. So...

EISENBERG: (Laughter) That's right. I'm sure a lot of people say that, right?

PEREL: Exactly, because people come to tell me what's wrong with the other, and I should fix their partner.


EISENBERG: That's right.

PEREL: It's a drop-off service.


EISENBERG: You have this podcast. This is the third season that you've completed called, "Where Should We Begin?" These couples are having live counseling sessions with you. Does it take a little while for people to sort of disarm?

PEREL: Look. People come. They have been thinking about what they want to do there. They have some things pressing that is troubling them that they would like to get help with.


PEREL: I tell them, I'm also aware of the mic. I'm nervous. They're nervous. We're not here to make a performance. We're here to have a session.


PEREL: And you forget about everything else. You just delve. You go into the trenches, and you do the work. And I think that this idea that you are altered, that you change the way you say because you feel that you're being watched...


PEREL: You know, you're often more watched by your inner critic than by anybody else.

EISENBERG: That's right. OK - Valentine's Day.


EISENBERG: I'm sure...

PEREL: The annual day for you to take stock of the quality of your romantic...


EISENBERG: Whoa, whoa, whoa.

PEREL: ...Investments.

EISENBERG: It's like love Yom Kippur.


PEREL: Well done (laughter).

EISENBERG: All right. So that's part of what you think that Valentine's Day should be. It's not just about a chocolate and flowers and this. We should all sit there and take stock privately or...

PEREL: Everybody does. But everybody does.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) They do. You're right.

PEREL: You sit there and you say, you know, how are we doing? Are we worth the chocolate?


PEREL: Is the state of our relationship sweet enough or is it bitter or is it - no, it's a fraud. It would be a farce. It would be lying in our own face. Now, I'm not doing anything. You know, people are constantly thinking how much do they deserve the celebration of their relationship, which everybody else is cashing in on, of course. But it's a terrible pressure there.


PEREL: I actually changed it last year. I decided that instead of Valentine being about this one and only person, you should Valentine us all. And it should be a relationship day for the love of all. I think that would make the Valentine a lot more pleasant to a lot more people.

EISENBERG: I think you're right. I really like that.

PEREL: You're with me.

EISENBERG: I really like that.


EISENBERG: So Esther is going to lead a special Valentine's Day version of our game Guesstimators, where Jonathan and I do not know the answers to these questions that she's about to pose.

PEREL: Yeah, we made them up for you.

EISENBERG: All right. Take it away, Esther.

PEREL: So according to the Pew Research in 1960, 59 percent of adults age 18 to 29 were married. These days, what percentage of adults 18 to 29 are married?

EISENBERG: OK, so this is the United States, basically.

PEREL: Yeah.


PEREL: This is U.S.

JONATHAN COULTON: Does that count people who are divorced who were married or is it the people who have never been married?

PEREL: In the '60s, about 60 percent of people were married in their early 20s. How many do you think today in their early 20s?


COULTON: Got it.

EISENBERG: This is - yeah, whether they're married or not.

PEREL: This sociological question does not deal with your ambivalence.


EISENBERG: I feel like I'm having insight into your marriage, Jonathan.


COULTON: I don't know what's happening.

PEREL: (Laughter).

COULTON: This therapy session is going terribly for me.


EISENBERG: I feel like people are getting married later. But that's my experience and my experience of many of my friends. But I also live in New York, which I realize is not exactly an example of the entire country.


EISENBERG: But I still think it's just generally lower.

COULTON: It's more acceptable to live with a partner now than it was in those days. So I think people are sort of trying out cohabitation for longer.

EISENBERG: Cohabitation and...

PEREL: And you don't need to marry to have sex for the first time.

EISENBERG: You don't have to get married to have sex.

PEREL: Actually, you marry, and you stop having sex with others.


EISENBERG: I'm going to say - so 59. I'm going to say - you know what? I'm going to go for, like, half - 30 percent.

COULTON: I feel like it's a little higher than that.

EISENBERG: OK, 40 percent - how do you feel about 40 percent?

COULTON: Yeah, let's say 40 percent.

EISENBERG: OK. That's what we're going with - 40 percent.

PEREL: Twenty.


EISENBERG: 20 percent.


EISENBERG: Nobody's getting married anymore...


EISENBERG: ...Between those ages.

COULTON: Between those ages.

PEREL: It's to - everybody that may still will do it about 10 years later.

EISENBERG: Yeah. Now marriage is more about just settling.


COULTON: Settling down, settling down.

EISENBERG: Settling down, settling down.


EISENBERG: All right. Let's go to question No. 2.

PEREL: Question No. 2 - research generally indicates that men cheat more than women. But according to data from the National Opinion Research Center, by what percentage have female infidelity increased since the 1990s?

EISENBERG: OK. Well, first of all, it's increased - good to know that.


PEREL: Why? Why do you think it has gone up?

EISENBERG: Why has it gone up? We have more tools that allow us to connect with people.

COULTON: And I would say maybe there's less expectation that the woman is tied to the home in some way. Everyone is out and about.

EISENBERG: Right - less she has to put up with (laughter).

PEREL: How much percent, do you think? It's actually very interesting.


PEREL: Forty percent.


COULTON: Oh, all right.

EISENBERG: Oh, that's it.

COULTON: So 40 percent higher.

PEREL: That's almost twice as many.


EISENBERG: Almost twice...

PEREL: Yeah.

EISENBERG: ...As many.

PEREL: But here's the thing. No. 1 - contraception. Before then, there is no ability to experience sexuality for women freely of the consequences. Second - divorce laws.


PEREL: Third - economic independence of the women. So she's not so likely to be destitute, ostracized, et cetera. So all of that makes women more likely to behave like other people have behaved.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) Right.

COULTON: (Laughter) Like men.


EISENBERG: Like men - all right.

PEREL: Want the last one?

EISENBERG: Yeah, let's go to the last question.

PEREL: So according to a survey published by the website FiveThirtyEight, what percentage of adults who live with their partners said that they sleep apart every night?

EISENBERG: I don't know. I will never know. I will never have this option because I live in New York. So if I didn't want to sleep in the bed with my husband, I would have to sleep...

COULTON: In the kitchen.

EISENBERG: ...In the kitchen.


EISENBERG: So what percentage of adults say they sleep apart?

PEREL: Fourteen.

EISENBERG: Fourteen - not a lot.


EISENBERG: I feel like we've learned a lot from this. I feel like we've learned that we were kind of healthier relationships, and also, everyone's going to try harder.

PEREL: So here's the thing. We have higher expectations for our relationships. I don't know if we have healthier, but we definitely have unprecedented expectations it seems. We're going to talk about Valentine, right? We want more and more and more from a party of two. And my friend Eli Finkel always says, you know, when you go climb the mountain, the view gets more and more beautiful, but the air gets thinner and thinner and less and less people can get there.

So the good relationships of today are often much better than the relationships in history, but not everybody gets there. Why? Because most people, you know, bring the best of themselves elsewhere and not necessarily home.

EISENBERG: Right. Everyone should just try to keep climbing. All right.


EISENBERG: All episodes of Esther's podcast "Where Should We Begin?" will be available on Apple Podcasts soon. Everyone give it up for our expert, Esther Perel.

(APPLAUSE) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.