Esther Perel, the famed Belgian relationship therapist, has a clear objective: “To take sexuality out of the realm of smut and make it a subject of public intellectual inquiry…a serious subject that doesn’t mean titillation or condemnation, which is what it is in [America].”
Perel, who is fluent in nine languages and the author of two New York Times bestsellers, isn’t just accomplishing this mission—she’s defining it.
In her most recent exegesis on extra-marital affairs and infidelity, The State of Affairs, Perel unpacks our paradoxical desire for both eroticism and commitment without a trace of judgment. “One of the most uncomfortable truths about an affair is that what for Partner A may be an agonizing betrayal may be transformative for Partner B. Extramarital adventures are painful and destabilizing, but they can also be liberating and empowering,” she writes. “Understanding both sides is crucial, whether a couple chooses to end the relationship or intends to stay together, to rebuild and revitalize.”
This tempered approach informs all of Perel’s teachings, from her viral TED talks and extensive writing to her podcast, which documents real-life relationship therapy sessions. ”Her persuasiveness rests on her ability to unpack gnarly emotional matters in a rational and analytical manner,” Anne Quito writes for Quartz. “You’ll never get a step-by-step prescription, let alone a listicle, from Perel; complexity is her milieu and métier.”
In an interview with Quartz, Perel reflects on how her personal history informs her success and the importance of shattering relationship expectations both at home and at work.
1. What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?
That the quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives. Often people get stuck in this feeling of surviving or being “not dead.” That’s not enough. I want people to have a sense of aliveness and vitality in all that they do—and that starts with the way they connect with people in life, in love, and even in lust.
2. What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute to your success?
Traits? Endless curiosity, generosity, chutzpah, and the constant rejection of dogma are some of my signature traits. But more importantly, I was a child of sole Holocaust survivors. In Belgium, I grew up in a refugee community, surrounded by people who lost everybody and everything. Within my own family, I was a symbol of revival. My life had to be big. It gave me a clear purpose: I had to make up for all those who didn’t have a chance to live.
3. If you could make one change to help women at work, what would it be?
The most effective way to change discrimination on all levels, which includes gender, is to have diverse teams, diverse boards, and diverse consultants. But if I could make one change to help women, I would start by focusing on men to help them rethink manhood today. The lives of women will not change until men understand and adapt to the changing definition of modern masculinity in our culture.
As a society, we recognize that women have been blazing their own paths over the past few decades, breaking the glass ceiling and rewriting the rulebook. However, we must also recognize the parallel shifts needed in the lives of men. Gender equality at work must be matched with gender equality at home.
4. At the start of your career, what do you wish you had known? What, if anything, do you wish you had not believed?
I think I have suffered from the same impostor syndrome that many women struggle with. Also, working in private practice, I experience gender bias more subtly: the bias against working on relationships as being a women’s concern, the devaluation of what they call in business “soft skills.” I’ve never really understood what is so soft about it. What’s up with the tendency to feminize our need for connection and relationships? They are human needs.
In the beginning, I thought I had to be an expert on everything: eating disorders, addiction, domestic violence, schizophrenia, etc. Today, I go deep on my one topic, I know exactly what I don’t know, and I reach out to those who know more than me from a place of confidence, rather than insecurity.
5. When in your career did you feel most despondent, and what did you do to turn it around?
I’ve written two books: Mating in Captivity and The State of Affairs. During the writing process for both books, I feared not being able to deliver a final manuscript with the depth that the topics deserved. I knew I would not publish them until I felt they were ready, but there were times when I was seriously scared. I don’t know if I turned it around so much as I powered through.
It’s also hard when my critics publicly attack my work without willingness to engage in healthy debate. My response to that is to invite critics into dialogues and discuss their objections directly with me; to seek understanding instead of judgement.
6. A key part of success is building strong professional relationships. What practice do you use to cultivate them with your colleagues?
I am a collaborative person by nature, and I know that all I’ve achieved has been done with the help and input of many others. I always give credit where credit is due. I reach out to people outside of my discipline and consistently travel into new worlds. I am truly interested in people and their stories and experiences. Whenever I am granted an opportunity, be it organizing a panel at a conference or making an introduction to a publication, I really enjoy bringing colleagues to the table. I’ve actually created an entire online learning community for therapists and coaches to share the work of others to my community. The platform is called “Sessions,” where every month I talk with a trusted colleague and introduce their expertise to people who may have never known they existed.
7. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
It’s hard to pick just one, so let me share two stories from two important people in my life.
There was a moment with my older son that often stays with me. I was upset at something, and I started “kitchen sinking” him, meaning I was piling up all kinds of things he did that upset me. He was maybe 12 and he said, “I understand you are upset about the fact that I did not call, but you don’t have to use this to unload all the other things you don’t like about me.” Wow: sharp, well said, and to the point. Now I try my best to stick to the point, one point a time—and not just with my son.
Then there was another time with my father, years earlier. He was a survivor of the Holocaust, and he always told me the most important thing to look for in people is their sense of decency—not their money, not even their education. “Don’t be fooled,” he said. And indeed, it is often people with no fortune, no fame, and no fancy degrees who exhibit the most powerful acts of compassion and bravery.
8. If there’s one thing men can do to improve women’s life at work, it would be…
Pay attention to the power structures within your companies. Compensate based on the value someone brings to the table, not the hours one puts in at the office. Don’t schedule team meetings at 8am when school drop off is 8:15am.
The mountain I’m willing to die on… is filled with sunflowers and overlooking the Mediterranean.
I wish people would stop telling me… that I should slow down.
Everyone should own an… an Italian espresso maker, the ones with the top that screws on.
This interview is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more interviews with industry-leading women here.