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Esther Perel
Photograph: Courtesy Karen Harms

Couples therapist Esther Perel on her new book the State of Affairs

Couples therapist and Mating in Captivity author Esther Perel talks about love, fidelity and Hollywood sex scandals

Written by
David Goldberg

With a deluge of dating options, there’s no better place to flirt and fall in love than in NYC, but it’s how relationships endure—and often fall apart—that fascinates Esther Perel, the storied couples therapist and author of Mating in Captivity. Before Perel speaks about her new book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, at the French Institute on December 11 at 7pm, the NYC author chatted with us about dating in NYC, the scandals bringing down many male celebrities and more.

What are you seeing people respond to in the new book?
What is clear is that relationship norms are shifting underneath our feet and that we are making the new relationship rules as we go. Relationships have become much more complex than they ever were, and we need new conversations to navigate the challenges, the ambiguities, the intricacies, the power dynamics that regulate them. In the old code, things were often more clear—our relationships were ruled by duty and obligation and clear rules. In the fluidity that we live with today, it’s a whole different story. That’s the conversation. The book lends itself to a conversation about modern relationships as a whole. What better way to understand loyalty, trust, commitment, freedom, self-actualization, all the things we want today in relationships than to look at one of the worst crises that people can experience—betrayal and breaches of trust and infidelity? One lends itself to the other.

Without familial support, and with higher rent, it seems harder for couples to make it in NYC.
Today, relationship expectations are at an all-time high. You’re looking for the one-and-only with a level of devotion that is unsurpassed. And couples are more under-resourced in cities like New York, where they’re struggling for the basics. Couples do better when they have a whole village around them. They need the diversification, and other people to turn to for these needs. In New York a couple is a social welfare state of two. We want the survival needs, food, shelter, and we also want the self-actualization. In New York you do have ethnic communities and migrant communities that are very communal and collective in their approach. This is more of a class issue than a New York City issue. If you go to the Colombian neighborhood, the Syrian neighborhood, and the Lebanese neighborhood, people still live very much in the collective style.

When you move in with your significant other, you’re very aware that you may have to stay on as roommates even if you break up.
That used to be the same thing under communism, by the way. That was the lay of the land. In the Soviet Union, when you divorced, you basically built a wall in your own house, because you had nowhere to go. The government gave you one apartment and not two [laughs].

We haven’t made much progress [laughs].
In New York, you are highly aware that the making of a couple is not just a romantic story, but a highly economic story. But I don’t know that today that it’s that different from anywhere else. The majority of families need two income-producing people.

Have you seen things about coupling in New York that seem more positive in the long run than in other places? 
The most beautiful thing about coupling in New York is the diversity. I’ve worked on the subject of intermarriage since the ’80s. One of the things we know is that the rates of intermarriage rise once you have mobility and migration. In New York—in a beautiful way— you’re never a foreigner, because everyone else is too. So the sense of belonging and the sense of being able to reach out to people who are very different from you is really quite unlimited. Couples in New York are often more mixed and much more interestingly mixed. People don’t necessarily ask you too much about your past, which for a lot of people is highly freeing. You can make yourself anew. That’s why people come here; everybody’s a refuge of something. Nobody’s wondering if you came from whatever dirt property you had from the country that you came from. You can have a level of anonymity. You can create families of choice. Not everybody wants to be part of the family they were born into. I was one of those—I came here, I swam in fresh water, I had absolutely nothing, and I created a whole life. Now, I can have a gathering at my house with twelve people from ten different countries, and I know that it’s not like that necessarily in Europe, where people still keep more of a divide between the foreigners and the locals. In New York, there are no locals. We’re a mix of everything, and I think that’s unsurpassed.

What affairs reveal is how vulnerable our sense of self is, especially when going into a relationship. How do we enter one without losing our identities?
Our sense of self is created in relationship. It doesn’t exist on its own. We are relational beings. We become more of who we are by virtue of who we are with. It’s not just that we lose who we are because we’re with someone else. All relationships straddle separateness and togetherness, freedom and commitment. That notion that we lose ourselves in relationships is a real curse of the individualistic ethos. Rather, a relationship is also the place from which you strive. It’s the place that gives you the backing and the strength to take more risks. It’s not an either or. Either I have you and I lose me, or I have me but it precludes me being with you. What is true intimacy but an ability to hold onto myself while I’m with you?

A relationship can change your sense of self.
Yes it does. It’s not a loss of who we are, but a new context from which to develop who we are, nurtured by the power of the relationship. It’s a very strange thing that people today are afraid that the relationship is going to be an abdication or a surrender. And if it is a surrender, it’s always a negative thing. It’s a beautiful thing to surrender as well, but a surrender doesn’t mean a loss of self. It’s a momentary loss, a momentary giving of yourself in order to receive an experience that is completely different.

I know so many creative people who are trying to make it. It’s as if the relationship is the prize when you complete your identity, rather than having a relationship as a foundation to build on the rest of your life.
That’s the fundamental difference between the cornerstone and the capstone model. But, what is important in a place like New York is that you are often defined by what you do, rather than who you are. And what you do isn’t who you are. Who you are is beyond your work, even if you’re very creative in your success. It’s how you behave in the world, how you act towards others. What others mean to you. What you mean to them, and that gets a little lost in big places where people come to achieve.

And that’s all relational.
That’s all relational. In the end, you may be a really successful person. With all the male icons right now [accused of sexual harassment], we can see. In the end, it is your relational accountability. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been running the most popular interview show on TV for god knows how long. It doesn’t really matter how successful you are and how powerful you are. There is a certain culture and conduct of respect that needs to be maintained, and for the first time, this news cycle is holding us accountable on a relational level, and not just on an achievement level.

I hope this is a lasting change.
It’s a very important moment of correcting the curb that has not happened enough in this society, whereby the only marker is not just achievement and power and success, but where we are reminded that there is an equally important marker, which is your relationship to others, and your sense of decency and accountability to your relationships with those you work with and those you meet. And that correction is hugely important in a city, in a culture and in a country that has prized achievement and power at the expense of everything else.

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