Why you should care
Because your workplace could probably use a few lessons in relationship dynamics.
I’ve never met Esther Perel but I know her immediately on hearing her. Like 10 million others, I have been enjoying the benefits of her insights since her relationship podcast Where Should We Begin? started airing last spring. Through her counseling sessions with real-life couples, Perel has become famous for encouraging forgiveness in the face of adultery and empathy in place of anger. Her TED Talk, “Rethinking Infidelity,” has amassed 9.7 million views; her 2006 book, Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, has been translated into 24 languages.
So engrossing are the recorded sessions, I have come to think of the 60-year-old with the soft voice and gentle French-Belgian accent as my own personal therapist. Even though I’ve never shared a single intimacy with her, her podcast offers some really helpful advice.
Her tactics can be surprising: She’s not afraid to tell people to “shut the fuck up” and once conducted a session in which she asked a sexually inhibited husband to adopt his sensual alter ego Jean-Claude, translating his strangled Franglais into some kind of sense. She also advocates far more stroking than I will ever be comfortable with. Nonetheless I’ve become her biggest fan.
What is universal, global or simply human? What does it take to have a thriving relationship?
My experience is far from unique. “The podcast creates a virtual village where you listen deeply to others, but in fact, you’re standing in front of your own mirror,” Perel says of the way the show has been used as a bridge to start conversations closer to home. Perel is the people’s therapist.
When we meet over lunch in a Clerkenwell restaurant, Perel has just arrived from New York, where she lives with her psychologist husband. In person, she is petite, friendly and engaging, exactly as you would hope a therapist might look, while also embodying the saucy confidence of a woman who knows how to make men listen. When she wants a waiter she calls out “Sir!” with a throaty urgency, and they all jump to attention. It’s no great surprise to discover that 45 percent of her podcast audience are men.
Perel didn’t set out to become a global spokesperson for the cuckold. Born in 1958, she grew up in Antwerp, studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and spent 25 years as a “cross-cultural psychologist” before being catapulted into the business of sexual healing.
“What I studied had nothing to do with the subject I’m talking about now,” she explains. “I looked at how relationships are changing worldwide in response to large cultural changes — from collective to individual, from agriculture to production and consumption, rural to urban, family to individual; that whole shift.”
It was only “by fluke” that Perel wrote Mating in Captivity. “I had never done anything on sexuality. It was the last thing I thought about in my work. But the interest has always remained — looking at how we relate and how relationships translate cross-culturally; what is specific and what is universal, global or simply human? What does it take to have a thriving relationship?”
Romantic couples fascinate her because “they are the most isolated unit,” she explains. “It’s the relationship that has changed the most in the last 100 years … piled up with a level of expectation that is unmatched.” But the issues faced by couples reflect those we face in other walks of life — from the school gate to the boardroom.
“I work with pairs of all sorts,” she continues. “I work with relationship systems. Typically when you think of a couple you think of two people, but in fact it’s a complex social system and it’s never just two people, it’s a whole community.”
In addition to the podcast, Perel is working with businesses and brands, forming a bridge between chief financial officers and chief executive officers and “translating” between individuals when relationships break down. As with any human relationship, the themes of jealousy, betrayal, frustration and bitterness can be as pointed in the workplace as they are within the home. “I’m doing a whole series of co-founder relationship counseling,” she says of her most recent study. “Did you know that 65 percent of startups fail because the relationship between the co-founders goes bust?”
I did not. “So that’s an example of how I enter industry,” she continues. “I talk to brands about desire. I work with co-founders, I work with sales teams and I basically talk about relationships. Although I don’t use the word ‘affairs’ in a company. I just say ‘betrayal,’ ‘sidekicks’ — whatever the word for affairs is in the business world.”
Perel’s expertise makes her a valuable commodity in today’s climate, where inclusivism, gender awareness, bullying and diversity have become corporate watchwords. “For many years, if I was to go to work for a company, relationships were soft skills. Now it’s the bottom line,” she says of the shift in workplace cultures.
This focus on our emotional lives, says Perel, is a product of our freedoms. Where once we might have been governed by a sense of duty or responsibility — to a partner, religion or boss — modern society has offered us unprecedented choice. And while this is a positive step forward, it has also made us very flaky.
People are bringing a consumer mentality to romantic relationships … and the same thing is happening at work.
“What we have today is an unparalleled freedom,” says Perel. “And so, we have the ethos of work entering the dating world: where you commodify people and look for a set of attributes. And you have a workspace infused with a level of emotionality that never belonged there.”
At work, as in our dating habits, the issue now is loyalty. And in the modern world, few are prepared to commit. Most millennials, says Perel, will enter the workplace with, at best, a two-year plan in mind, and most expect significant incentives to stay.
“Staying power is not in fashion today. It’s not a virtue. It is not a value — so you need to make the staying worth it. People are bringing a consumer mentality to romantic relationships — ‘This isn’t the deal I signed up for, this is not the relationship I want, where is my ROI [return on investment]?’ — and the same thing is happening at work.”
It seems to me that the most fetishized workplaces — the ones to which other businesses aspire and where millennials want to work — are those that “parent” employees with free food, gym memberships and constant opportunities for promotion. Perel, whose adult son works at a large tech company, prefers the word “mentoring” to that of “parenting,” but broadly agrees. In her mind, a free granola bar makes for an easy exchange.
“In return, the company owns you,” she says of the transactional business of loyalty. “They own you at the factory too. But what is striking is that we don’t think [the modern employer] owns us. We think we are free people. To me the illusion is not that you’re owned; the illusion is when you think you’re free but in fact you’re not.”
Few things have had such a profound influence on our work relationships as the digital revolution. I wonder if texts and emails have made us more aggressive. Digital communication is damaging because it “creates a 2D communication where you’re deprived of the senses,” Perel says. “And the distortion levels of the interpretation of texts and email is massive.”
She also blames our devices for nurturing other vices: namely, the frenzy for productivity that now governs our office — and out of office — hours. “The best thing you can say today is: ‘I’m busy. I’m busy and I’m behind.’ God forbid you’re not busy. … Those devices are created to feed this frenzy,” says Perel. “I look at orthodox Muslims, Jews, people who pray three to five times a day, who have to close their phones for 24 hours. Their businesses don’t go under, their lives are not different, but they have a way of stopping. And everybody who doesn’t do it like that is trying to meditate.”
It’s no coincidence that Perel’s fame has coincided with a period of huge social tumult in the west. With her emphasis on truth and reconciliation, her therapy room is the antithesis of fake news. There are no filters in her presence. But she is cautious of suggesting that we are about to enter a new era of emotional intelligence. The child of two Holocaust survivors, Perel has mixed feelings about society’s ability to self-correct.
“I know the world as both,” she says. “I know the world as evil and I know the people who braved everything to save one life, so I have never thought people are inherently good or people are inherently bad. I’ve always lived with the contradiction.”
And there’s much work to do. For Perel, the patriarchy is still a big problem. “By the age of 3 or 4, we begin to touch our sons less than our daughters,” she says. “We still raise our boys into the masculine code — stoic, without feelings, disconnected, autonomous, competitive, fearless.
“Women need to be able to experience more of a voice, but men need to be able to live a life where they can be powerful and have an open heart.” She quotes a colleague, the family therapist Terry Real: “Under patriarchy you can either be powerful or connected but not both.”
Perel wants us to be “relational” in our thinking; “where you live in a construct that is interdependent with others.” But she doesn’t imagine this will just happen. Despite the many efforts by businesses to ramp up their diversity efforts, Perel is dismissive of HR-generated change where “a consultant comes in, does a workshop … and it has no lasting ramifications.”
She’s also pessimistic about change from the top. “People don’t relinquish power or make life easier on others by choice,” she says. “It’s never been a model.”
Short of a revolution, however, I wonder if she has any advice for the small day-to-day inequities that might help us in the workplace. How would she deal with a persistent mansplainer, for example? And is it worth making a big fuss when a male colleague uses inappropriate language? Should you “call it out”?
Perel is a pragmatist. And getting in a flaming temper is not the way forward. “It’s not about becoming too aggressive [or] softening the woman’s voice so that she can be agreeable,” she says. “It’s about how can you be more effective in what you’re trying to do. And what you’re trying to do is tell this man, ‘This is a little off. I think you may want to rethink it.’ So, you bring a certain humor that allows him to save face and at the same time tell him exactly what he needs to hear.”
“Humor allows people to register a lot of things without going into shame,” she explains. “If you shame the person you’re not going to get anything.” Nevertheless, as I discover later, her tactic sounds a great deal more convincing when spoken in her French-inflected English than when barked in my Estuary honk.
Lunch is finished. “Sir!” has brought the coffees and Perel is leaving me for someone else. It’s not so much because she has read my mind or shrinked me that I am sad to see her go, but that she’s so great to be around. She has the kind of questioning, confident nature that makes you want to participate. And she’s funny.
Having dismissed so many traditional characteristics of a typical leader, I wonder what Perel thinks makes a good boss. She tells a story: “We had a person on my team, and his grandfather passed away. He wanted me to know that the most calls he received [about his loss] were from people at work. I just thought: ‘That’s who I want to be, that’s who I want our company to be.’ Because I heard another story of someone who was being demoted — or shown the door. And nobody in the building called them. Being brave is when you call the person who’s just been shafted.”
It all comes down to communication. To reaching out. “I think a boss or a manager who reaches out, who cares if you’ve done well, if you’ve not done well, if you have a good day, a bad day. Whoever introduces that concept of humanity is a good boss,” finishes Perel. “But they will also get a lot more in return. Because if you treat me like this … I’ll give you everything I have.” With or without the free snacks.
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