Psychotherapist Esther Perel, who has become a go-to voice on intimate relationships, says she wrote a book about cheating “because I thought if people could use 10% of the imagination they put into their affairs in their marriages, the marriages would be doing fine.”
Beneath this playful comment was a serious message: That once we are in a relationship, much like a steady job, the temptation is to stop thinking about why we do what we do. That’s why Perel advises that the kinds of modern company structures which make work a knife-edge of possible gain or loss, held together by belief, effort, and creative thinking, are a better model for our love lives than the staid careers of an earlier moment in history.
Perel was giving a talk called Making Love Last in London to a huge room full of fans who had queued around the block to see her speak. She was joined onstage by Alain de Botton, founder of the School of Life—which organized the Dec. 4 event—and a philosopher and writer who has addressed long relationships (including in the popular article Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person).
De Botton suggested that we’re creative in modern life when it comes to structures like companies or other endeavors, and yet so “conventional and static” at home. “How else might we arrange our personal lives to allow individuality, creativity, invention, inventiveness, in a way that sometimes we don’t?” he asked Perel.
Perel counseled that personal relationships need “a little bit more anxiety” than the usual model of security allows. She’s not talking about having an affair—she has said she’d never advise one—but rather ensuring that the relationship contains two key elements: Ritual and risk.
Both of these will be familiar to entrepreneurs and founders trying to create a new company culture. On the one hand, there is a sense of shared jeopardy, of striving towards an ambitious common goal, and doing so as a team. Managed well, this type of culture can produce people’s best work. In a relationship, it could mean creating a situation in which not everything feels stable: A new activity undertaken together, a trip that pushes the boundaries of comfort, a night when one person goes out dancing and the other doesn’t ask when they’ll come home, but welcomes them when they do.
But an all-risk environment needs to be balanced with ritual to give a sense of rootedness. At work, that might be mixing cocktails together at the end of a hard week, or regular check-ins about what went well and who excelled. For couples, love rituals might include reading the newspapers over Sunday breakfast, taking a favorite walk, or watching television while eating lasagne.
Perel had started the evening by outlining the way in which modern romantic love is pressurized to cover all the emotional needs that, once upon a time, might have been fulfilled by a community.
A person asks of their partner “what once an entire village used to provide,” Perel said. “I want you to be what traditional relationships have always been about: Economic support, family life, companionship, social status,” she explained. “But I also want you be be my best friend, my trusted confidant, and my passionate lover to boot. My intellectual equal, and my co-parent, and the one who is going to help me become the best version of myself,” she said. “All of this for the long haul—and the long haul keeps getting longer.”
Not only does one relationship have to carry the weight of all our hopes and dreams, it has to do so while adhering to a strict structure laid out in romantic literature, film, and television: A monogamous twosome that forms out of a serendipitous “rightness,” likely produces children, and never ends.
That’s where a certain level of insecurity—an early start-up energy—can be healthy: “To actually think that your partner doesn’t belong to you, and at best they are on loan with an option to renew,” Perel says. “And if you can tolerate a little bit more of that, you will put in more effort.”