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The rules of relationships are changing *fast*—here’s what Esther Perel says you can do about it


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Photo: Getty Images/ Hinterhaus Productions

At one point during my conversation with psychotherapist and relationship guru Esther Perel, she pauses to ask, “Is any of this resonating with you?” It seems she has mistaken my silence for disinterest, when in reality, it’s taken every ounce of self-restraint to refrain from screaming, “Yes!” after everything she says.

Most particularly, I’m spellbound by the way she’s effortlessly articulated the overarching reason every single one of my 30-something friends seems to be working through *the most difficult relationship of all time*—whether they’re married with kids, newly wed, engaged, or simply dating. “Relationship rules are shifting under our feet rapidly, and we have to continuously make the relational rule book up as we go,” she says.

“Relationship rules are shifting under our feet rapidly, and we have to continuously make the relational rule book up as we go.” —Esther Perel, psychotherapist

The old romantic relationship model, wherein responsibilities were baked in (e.g. breadwinner vs. child-rearer), offered a lot of certainty, she explains. “You had very little freedom—but you knew what was expected of you,” Perel says. Now, she tells me, there are no clearly-defined roles with specified duties and ideas about how each person needs to behave. As a result, options are endless. And this has led to massive uncertainty and self-doubt. “Everything is up for negotiation in romantic relationships now,” she says. “Whose job is more important, who’s going to plan the next date, which vacation we’re going to take, which coast we are going to live on, etc.”

I think specifically of a friend who is in mid-negotiation with her husband, currently a stay-at-home dad, over who has to bring home the bacon long-term. Her high-powered job enabled them to afford a baby, and yet she doesn’t necessarily want to be the one who has to provide forever. It’s an ongoing deliberation. I also think of how annoyed I am when the boy I’ve just started seeing asks me what we should do on our date. “It’s your job to plan,” I think. But it’s not.

To cope with this relatively-sudden shift in relationship dynamics, Perel tells me that one skill that has always been important has become mission critical: communication. The most common relationship advice she doles out, in fact, has to do with becoming more successful in this realm. “Listen. Just listen,” she says. “You don’t have to agree. Just see if you can understand that there’s another person who has a completely different experience of the same reality,” she advises.

“Listen. Just listen. You don’t have to agree. Just see if you can understand that there’s another person who has a completely different experience of the same reality.”

Perel then goes on to tell me that while assumptions regrading who does what in a relationship are dissolving, overall relationship expectations are reaching unprecedented highs. “The person for whom you’re going to stop swiping is basically needing to be this extraordinary person,” she says.

This phenomenon is partially due to the misconception that there are a million fish in the sea. (“There are not a million others,” Perel deadpans.) The new shopping-like mentality that emerges is problematic, she insists. “So many people go on a date with a list. It’s like they’re going to assess a product. ‘Are you meeting my needs?’ It’s like a market economy applied to romantic life. And I think that in itself is going to make it much harder for people to find someone to partner with, let alone to fall in love,” she says.

Perel continues in her lovely, lyrical, brilliant way: “In a way, the older the people get, the more they go to their dates with a list. Rather than go to their dates with their hearts and their curiosity and their willingness to see what emerges and what is drawn out of them. Suddenly they’ve realized they meant to sit there for an hour and now they’ve sat there for three hours and they didn’t see the time pass. That’s how a story starts. At this point people don’t go to the story. They go to the farmers market.”

“Why is it that the marriage has to be the most important, and everything around it an accessory?”

Holding out for an Idris Elba-Amal Clooney-Fred Rogers mashup isn’t the only expectations-related issue, either. Perel tells me that, nowadays, people are overburdening their relationships by believing they will be able to fulfill their every need, want, and desire. “‘With you, my beloved, I’m going to find a partner, a lover, a co-parent, an intellectual, an equal, and someone who is going to help me fulfill my dreams,'” she says, describing the way people now think. “‘I will never feel alone again. I will never fell abandoned. I will never feel rejected.'”

This is a relatively new model, Perel says, noting that in traditional societies there were communities built up around individuals—comprising family members and others—that allowed people to spread out the burden of their needs. She suggests taking your cues from history by cultivating myriad meaningful relationships rather than putting your all into just one. “Why is it that the marriage has to be the most important, and everything around it an accessory?” she asks.

To get started, steal her healthy hack for prioritizing girl time—which, by the way, is something she, despite all her talk of romantic relationships, insists you need. “It’s very important for people to understand that their friends are going to accompany them through life,” she says. “They are not just there for the transition period [before a romantic relationship].”

FYI: You can hear Perel speak IRL at the Surf Lodge in Montauk, New York, this weekend

As obsessed with Ms. Perel as I am? Find out why she says sex gets better as you get older, even though you may need to get real about the married variety

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