We all know how difficult dating and relationships can be. Even if you love your partner to the moon and back, at the end of the day, you’re still two entirely different people. You grew up differently and were raised differently, and as a result, your brains are wired differently.
This is one of the reasons why navigating a healthy relationship can be so challenging for everyone, no matter how well-adjusted you are. Lucky for us though, we’ve had the pleasure of interviewing one of the world’s leading experts on relationships: Ester Perel!
Over the years of our conversations, Esther has dropped so many gems that my team and I wanted to compile them in a special mashup episode. Here, we will revisit her wisdom on the most significant obstacles people face in relationships, what most people get wrong about dating, why even happy people sometimes cheat, and SO much more.
This special episode will surely be an enjoyable, engaging, and thought-provoking read about the many relationships that we all experienced. So, without further ado, let’s dive in!
Psychotherapist and New York Times bestselling author, Esther Perel is recognized as one of today’s most insightful and original voices on modern relationships. Fluent in nine languages, she helms a therapy practice in New York City and serves as an organizational consultant for Fortune 500 companies worldwide.
Her celebrated TED talks have garnered more than 20 million views and helped people worldwide navigate their relationships. Her international bestseller Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence has become a global phenomenon translated into 25 languages. Esther Perel is also a New York Times best-selling author of, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, a book that took a provocative look at relationships through the lens of infidelity.
Dr. Perel is also an executive producer and host of the popular podcast Where Should We Begin? — a podcast for anyone who has ever loved — where she gives her perspective on the invisible forces that shape the connections, dynamics, and conflicts in relationships.
Relationships are a vital part of our daily lives. However, they can also feel like the most challenging aspect of our lives, especially if we’re struggling with the decision of staying with our partners or leaving. So why are relationships so difficult? In my interview with Dr. Perel, she offers four reasons for this scenario:
If a relationship goes wrong, one factor could be indifference. Indifference can manifest in not putting in the effort to make the relationship work. It’s when a person doesn’t care about what their partners feel, think, who they are, and what they’re about.
“When you are indifferent, you degrade the other person and make them feel that they’re less important to you. This treatment goes against our essence as persons, which is about connecting to others. We want to matter to someone and to be taken care of. We want them to consider our wellbeing and what’s good for us.” – Esther Perel
Sadly though, this prolonged sense of not caring can lead to coldness. When coldness creeps, the sense of estrangement follows, and that leads to complete disconnection. Once there’s disconnection, then neglect happens.
As Dr. Perel has established, neglect in relationships can start from indifference. They don’t want to spend time with their partners and take them for granted. This behavior is also contrary to how people act when they’re still in the dating stage. As she explains,
“People put all their best when they’re dating. Then, once they seal the knot, they go into complacency and laziness. It’s an amazing thing that many think that relationships can simply live on [their] own.” – Esther Perel
In worse cases, neglect can also include violence. Many neglectful partners may also be abusive, which adds to the deterioration of relationships.
Violence is a major threat to any relationship. It’s not just about inflicting punches or wounds on our partners. It can also be through lashing out at them, talking to them with a tone, or even dismissing them. It can be in the form of passive aggression, aggression, or even resentment. But why is it so easy to be violent to our partners?
“It’s hard to be violent with other people because you can’t get away with it. If you talk harshly at work, you’re gone. If you show aggression with the police or on the street, you’ll get punched. With your partner, you have that sense that they’re going to be there always. They’re just going to take any kind of violence because you’re family.” – Esther Perel
Dr. Perel is saying that it’s easy to be violent with our partners because we’re confident they won’t leave us. They’re family, someone we live with, and they know us well. We always think we can get away with all kinds of behaviors that may hurt them.
I want everyone to stop and reflect on that statement. Are you more violent with your partners and nicer to strangers? Whatever answer you may have, it may be the key to saving a fragile relationship from freely collapsing.
The last challenge in any relationship is contempt. For Dr. Perel, it’s the primary factor that leads to the end of any relationship.
“Contempt is the killer of them all because, in contempt, there’s the degradation of the other person. We make them feel they’re nothing.” – Esther Perel
Contempt is when we put our partners down to feel superior. We make fun of them, diminish them, or make them feel worthless. These feelings make both parties feel like there’s no point in building anything with each other and that they should look at divorces as the easy way out.
Having a long-term relationship isn’t easy. It takes commitment, understanding, and love. Just like any other relationship, they’re prone to have obstacles that may tear them apart if not handled well. It’s important to remember that these are problems that can be resolved through honest communication or through help from trained professionals like psychologists or marriage counselors if you feel completely stuck.
If I ask you about the usual misconception of people when they’re dating, what would you answer? Is it that people can’t date without being financially stable? Is it about being complete before meeting someone? Whatever reason it may be, the thing is, many of us use compatibility indicators when dating someone. We look at the similarities in our age, education, or religion. None of these are bad on their own, but the problem is that we can’t determine chemistry from a checklist, and all those seemingly important details can be liabilities down the road.
That’s because there’s more to relationships nowadays than just our partners. Dr. Perel explains this by looking at how relationships have changed over the years.
“We have more complicated relationships today than 50 or a hundred years ago. We have lived in traditional societies where relationships are codified by our community. … We know that we should get married at this age, have kids, or go to church on this specific day. … The thing is, we don’t have any of that now. What we have right now is the identity economy, which is focused on ourselves. This includes our relationships.”– Esther Perel
Dating today is less about wanting a life together, and more about having experiences that satisfy us and our senses of self, even if it’s temporary. As she further explains,
“As we shift our focus to ourselves, we become more of a consumer. The problem with consumer life is we forget to make choices. We always think that we could get better, … and that’s the same when dating and choosing our partners. We’re always asking if the partner we have now is the best there is. … We don’t know if the person is the best for us. What we can do instead is to choose partners who have shared mission and values with us.” – Esther Perel
Dr. Perel’s words shed light on why many of us struggle in relationships. We are always on the lookout for someone better or more exciting. When we lose our desire for someone, we move on to another person to be with. However, just as she says, there are many people we can love, but there are only a few we can make a life with.
In my conversation with Dr. Perel, we discussed why people who are happy in their relationships still cheat. In her years of working with her clients and researching extensively on the topic, she was able to come up with answers on this subject matter:
“For a long time, I thought affairs only happened in troubled relationships. If you have everything you want, there should be no reason to look elsewhere, right? Then I began to hear more people come into my office and say, ‘I love my partner, but I’m having an affair.’ This is the same way when people would say, ‘I love my partner, but we have no sex.’ I realized it isn’t because of their partner that they had affairs.” – Esther Perel
Cheating may be one of those issues in relationships that always seems complicated and complex to grasp at first glance. However, it often boils down to something far more straightforward: We don’t like hurting our partners, but doors open up when we feel that something’s lacking. To continue, Dr. Perel says
“ The scenarios I described earlier led me to look at infidelity from a dual perspective. Betrayal and hurt are at the heart of affairs, but there’s also longing for an emotional connection, intensity, sexuality, and reconnect.” – Esther Perel
What Dr. Perel is explaining here is that, at its core, infidelity isn’t really about sex, and neither is it about us as people. Instead, it’s a symptom that something has gone wrong in our primary partnership, like the lack of desire stemming from our daily lives or painful childhood experiences. Her words challenge us to be more empathic to our partners so we can stay connected over time and deal with our disappointments. These disappointments can’t disappear from human relationships, but we can use them as an opportunity to learn more about our partners and why they’re behaving in that manner.
Contrary to popular belief, desire is not a spark or spontaneous combustion that appears out of nowhere. Instead, desire is a complex interpersonal process involving both partners in a relationship.
For couples in long-term relationships, there are many reasons why this can fizzle out over time, as shown in high rates of divorce and infidelity. Yet this doesn’t mean that sustaining a relationship isn’t possible.
“Men’s desire in a long-term relationship goes down gradually. He can remain interested in the experience itself, and he has a partner to do it with. Meanwhile, women’s desire wanes quickly because they care less about sex. What they want is romance and seduction in the relationship, which are what often disappears in the long-term relationship.” – Esther Perel
So, what’s the secret to sustaining romance and seduction in relationships? Dr. Perel says it’s all about being confident.
“If you ask yourself, you may answer that what turns you on is doing the stuff that gives you pleasure. It’s doing things that keep you alive and vibrant. It’s what keeps you feeling good about yourself and gives you confidence. You feel you’re in your element, and you’re willing to take risks. That’s seductive and desirable. … You’re not being needy because desire is not about that. It’s about wanting. That’s contrary to what love is, which is about needing someone else. Though love can lead to the powerful experience of caretaking, it can be a very powerful anti-aphrodisiac, too.” – Esther Perel
But what if you’re too busy being in your element that you forget your partner? This is where Dr. Perel reminds couples of the importance of consistent calibration.
“Think about your relationships on occasion. … We need to understand that some of us are better takers and need to learn to give. Some of us are consummate givers, and we need to learn to take, too.” – Esther Perel
So if you find yourself in a difficult situation where you’re busy and your spouse wants to be intimate, remember what Dr. Perel advises. This may mean you have to stop what you’re doing and be present with your partner. That’s why, as I’ve said, desire needs work. It’s not a spark that comes out of thin air. It is an ember waiting for fuel.
Guys, you may have been in your relationship for a long time, and maybe you feel like the spark is gone. But as we learned from Dr. Perel’s episode, it’s not about rekindling that initial love — it’s about always creating a desire for one another to stay together in the long run.
I’m genuinely appreciative of all Dr. Perel’s words that are insightful and eye-opening, especially since she helps couples continue loving one another even if they married years ago.
More of Dr. Esther Perel’s fantastic work focused on long-term relationships, infidelity, and conflict in couples is documented in Episodes 929 and 285 of The School of Greatness, so do check them out. You can also visit her website, subscribe to her YouTube channel, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter for more advice.
Also, if you know someone having relationship problems, share this full episode with them and make a difference! The full interview is also available on Apple Podcasts. We’d also like to know how this conversation with Esther Perel inspired you! Take a screenshot of this episode and post it on Instagram. Tag us both — Esther Perel, @estherperelofficial, and myself, @lewishowes — and let us know your key takeaways today.
I’m super pumped to share this one with you and hope you find it as valuable as I do! Whether you’re in a relationship, a marriage, are currently looking for a partner, or just want to learn how these principles can help you improve on an individual level, Episode 1,236 is for you!
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