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Esther Perel Reflects on Cultural Shifts in Relationships

By Evan Silvera | August 16, 2018 | People Lifestyle

Noted psychotherapist delivers the latest on the ever-changing roles that love and relationships play in our lives.


Esther Perel—Belgium native, relationship expert, psychologist, The New York Times best-selling author, wife and mother—hosted a talk “The Future of Relationships” at The Surf Lodge that explored the state of modern love and cultural shifts in romantic relationships. With more than 20 million views on her widely acclaimed TED Talks and 30-year practice in New York City, Perel is one of the leading voices in the evolving conversation about sexuality. Here, Perel shares her insights into the complexities behind marriage, intimacy, dating apps and more.

What is the top question or concern married people come to you with? What's your advice?
ESTHER PEREL: After my book, The State of Affairs, and my podcast, Where Should We Begin?, a lot of people ask me if cheating necessarily means the end of the relationship. And the truth is: it depends on the couple. For many couples, infidelity doesn’t mean the end of a relationship because it can act as a powerful alarm system. The shock of an affair can jolt a couple out of complacency and make them realize what they stand to lose. Instead of breaking up, they make up, and get to work on fixing the relationship.

You recently spoke at Surf Lodge, which has a big millennial clientele. How do millennials' relationship concerns compare to older generations?
EP: Exclusivity means something quite different if you marry your first sexual partner vs. if you choose someone after 15 years of sexual and relational nomadism. Today, we're inundated with choices and we're desperately seeking "The One" for whom we are willing to turn off all our apps. This raises the stakes.

Do you think dating apps have hurt or helped millennials' search for a partner?
EP: Technology and dating apps expand the possibilities. They help people meet others who they never would have met before. But they also flatten the human experience to one dimension. In real life, relationships are iterative, back and forth, and complex like a dance. Dating apps, text messaging and all the digital tools we have today are great for "staying in touch," but they don't actually allow us to "be in touch." One of the top things I recommend to people seeking to enter and stay in relationships is to get out of the app as soon as they can. Pick up the phone—or better yet see each other in person. There's no real replacement for human experience.

How are relationships going through a complex cultural shift? Is monogamy dying out?
EP: Marriage and monogamy are concepts that are shifting before our eyes today. For example, it used to be that when you married, you had sex for the first time, now you marry and stop having sex with others. Monogamy used to be one person for life; today it is one person at a time. Plus, on top of all of this, we have new gender norms: as women have become more economically and socially empowered, we've become equal partners in love as we are in life. And there are so many more types of couples and people in committed relationships: you can be trans, gay, in your 60's, a 40-year-old new parent and more. When you take all of this together, you can see we are rewriting the relationship rulebook as we go. Right now we are outgrowing a one-size-fits-all conception of marriage, and we’re trying to create new definitions that fit our life needs.

How have relationship expectations changed in recent years?
EP: Many people I speak with, in my practice and in life, expect one person to give you what a whole village used to provide. They're looking to their partner for identity, belonging, support, while also promising adventure, excitement and entertainment. That's a tall order for a party of two. We also live in the era of “The One": romantic ideal, a suggestion that it's possible to find a soulmate, a one and only. In this romantic union, we believe that we are also “The One” for our partner—unique, irreplaceable and indispensable. We're driven by a conviction that once we find our "soulmate" all our needs will be met and we will be forever satiated. Our grandparents never had these expectations. This is new territory, and sometimes we don't have the tools to reach this new Olympus.

Photography by: Photography courtesy of Esther Perel