Esther Perel At IPG

Margie Nichols, Ph.D.by Margie Nichols, Ph.D.

“The bonds of wedlock are so heavy that sometimes it takes three to carry them” quipped Esther Perel, author of ‘Mating in Captivity,’ quoting Alexander Dumas.

Acclaimed psychotherapist Perel did a workshop for the IPG staff in September. We love her because she always has a fresh and unique take on things.  One of the great things about Esther, who is one of the most mesmerizing speakers ever, is that because she was raised in Europe she brings a cross-cultural view to things.  In ‘Mating in Captivity’ she talked about the sad-but-true fact that passion tends to die in monogamous egalitarian relationships.  When she talked to our staff a couple of years ago about the book, she intrigued us by mentioning that Americans are ‘divorce tolerant and affair intolerant’ compared to Europeans, for whom the reverse is true.

So when she came back last month, she spoke about her current book, working title ‘State of Affairs.’  These videos present some of her views, which amount to a revolutionary way for therapists – and everyone – to look at affairs, infidelity, intimacy,  monogamy, and transparency.

Esther begins by reminding us that for most of recorded history, in the West, the dominant model of relationship was monogamy for the wife and promiscuity for the husband.  As always, she gives us a socio/political lens to view our behavior.  And yet, in the popular culture and most of psychology, we behave as if our current norm of lifelong, egalitarian, monogamous marriage was a universal truth, when it actually only began with the Romantic Era.

And as a consequence, especially in the United States, ‘infidelity’ has become the worst transgression in marriage, a devastating tragedy from which no one could be expected to fully recover.  Perel critiques the ‘victim-perpetrator’ model we use as helpful to no one – not the person who has had an affair nor the partner who was deceived.

Perels allows us to see that, once we get rid of romantic notions, we can see affairs more fully and complexly.  If monogamy is not ‘natural,’ then it is not so shocking when it doesn’t work.  Perel describes monogamy/nonmonogamy as a continuum that starts with thoughts and fantasies and continues through a variety of actions, from flirting and ‘emotional affairs’ to sexual/romantic relationships.

Esther also challenges some other cherished notions, including 1) the affair is ‘always’ about the relationship and the other partners; 2) total transparency is always best and in fact EQUALS intimacy; 3) fidelity and sexual exclusiveness are synonymous; 4) partners are entitled to details.

Perel offers suggestions for therapists that may seem shocking to those who work in a traditional way (although not to IPG therapists).  Among them are the ideas that the therapist can keep confidential information one partner offers in an individual session, and that the therapist treat the affair as a complex, nuanced matter rather than a tragedy perpetrated upon an innocent victim, and that he or she work with couples while an affair is still ongoing.

(and we added one more clip of Esther at the end, a delightful short riff on erotic frustration)

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