Esther Perel Nails Exactly Why Relationships Seem Harder Right Now

Photo: Unsplash/Milan Popovic
If you've ever listened to Esther Perel's podcast Where Should We Begin?, you know that the psychotherapist and TED Talk star practices a form of radical compassion that gets results, in the most surprising ways. No matter how locked-in-battle the couple seems to be, by the end there's new light on the situation.

Prime example: Season one, episode three, where the Mating in Captivity author leads a young couple to talk honestly about a sexual impasse for the first time by encouraging the husband to put on his French-speaking role-play persona—to talk about his feelings, instead of his desire. It sounds like light comedy, a farce. But it's intense. (Prepare to sob.)

In every episode, Perel at some point will offer up an insight or guide the conversation in a way that seems wrong, and even off-topic. Why are we talking about this when it's clear that he/she is an entitled a-hole who needs to change?! But usually, it leads to an "a-ha" you never expected.

So it's no surprise that as she trains her expert eye on the state of current relationships in general, she has diagnosed exactly what's ailing us—and it's a good news-bad news kind of thing.

The (very, very) good news is that we're no longer in an era of marriage where, as Perel said recently at The New Yorker Festival, "The couple could be miserable for 30 years, you were stuck for life, you married once—and, if you didn’t like it, you could hope for an early death of your partner."

"What used to be defined by rules and duty and obligation now has to take place in conversation. And so everything is a freakin’ negotiation!" —Esther Perel

The bad news: Today we're living in "an absolute existential smorgasbord," she says. Without the rigid old rules that enforced the status quo—and with increased cultural freedom to express sexual fluidity and authentic gender identity—most of us are figuring it out as we go.

"What used to be defined by rules and duty and obligation now has to take place in conversation. And so everything is a freakin’ negotiation!" Perel says.

"We have urbanized, and we have moved, and we have taken on radical individualism and aspirational materialism, and all of those things have created a playing field in which relationships are undergoing rapid changes. We have no idea how to handle them. Rules have been replaced by choices. But at the same time we have massive uncertainty and massive self-doubt. Every second book about relationships these days is about belonging and loneliness."

In other words, with more freedom comes more talking. And it's tiring. As Perel says, "We are not just in pain for no reason." So give yourself—and your S.O.—a break.

The perfect couple-time activity in these trying times: karezza, which is basically hygge sex. And here's why you might not want to think twice about snoozing together afterward

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