The talk was about trauma and intimacy. But the presentation was vintage Esther Perel — warm and playful, erudite and provocative, enhanced by her rich soufflé of an accent (which sounds French but is in fact Belgian). Alluding to the Mexican poet Octavio Paz and the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, she asked: “What if accessing the erotic is the catalyst that helps the recovery from the trauma?”
Though the audience, at a conference last summer, was full of professionals, many follow-up questions seemed suspiciously “asking for a friend”-ish. Several were about infidelity or relationships in the time of Covid, two Esther Perel specialty subjects.
“I’ve been married for 23 years, and twice her podcast has made an enormous difference to me at crisis points,” said a therapist in her 50s who asked that her name not be used because of her own professional profile.
Ms. Perel, 64, hardly needed an introduction — she is the world’s best-known relationship expert, so familiar that her fans stop her on the streets of New York — but the host of her talk, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, author of “The Body Keeps the Score,” made one anyway.
“Esther is an amazing person,” he said, a “master trainer, therapist, speaker, podcast host, author.”
During the pandemic, her work took on a special resonance as people stuck at home turned to her YouTube videos and to “Where Should We Begin?,” her couples therapy podcast, for advice on how to navigate relationships in a time of uncertainty. Among the questions she addressed: Why, when we were with our partners all the time, weren’t we having sex?
But even before 2020, it would have been hard to exaggerate Ms. Perel’s reach. Her two books have been translated into 30 languages and have together sold nearly a million copies in the United States alone. Her podcasts, one-off couples counseling sessions for romantic and business partners, are regularly ranked in the top 100 in the Apple charts.
Her “Where Should We Begin?” card game sells for $40. She is in high demand as a speaker at such non-psychotherapy-related events as Workhuman Live 2023, sponsored by a software company, for which she is scheduled to give a keynote address in April. She won’t reveal her fees for such events, but says she gives some speeches for free or asks that the fees be donated to charity.
Elizabeth Chambers, the ex-wife of the disgraced actor Armie Hammer, recently revealed that Ms. Perel had been their couples counselor for much of their 10-year marriage.
Zachary Taylor, the director of Psychotherapy Networker, a trade journal that operates as a kind of town square for the psychotherapy community, called Ms. Perel a rare “crossover breakthrough artist.”
“It’s not common for therapists to reach this level of celebrity, and when they have in the past, it caused a bit of a rift in the community,” he said. “Esther has done the opposite.”
Alluding to “Team of Rivals,” Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about how the 16th president worked with his competitors, Mr. Taylor said: “She’s the Abraham Lincoln of psychotherapy.”
Sex as an interesting cultural conversation
Ms. Perel in person is like Ms. Perel in public — intimate, engaged, vivacious, with an air of continental sophistication. She speaks in perfectly formed paragraphs and deploys what feels like a thesaurus’s worth of synonyms. (English is in fact her sixth language. She speaks nine languages and conducts therapy in seven of them.) She comes across as both racy and maternal. She invites confidences. When you talk to her, it is hard not to fantasize about hauling in your own partner for a little impromptu couples therapy.
We were in a bar (empty, because it was daytime) at the Soho Grand Hotel in New York, near the apartment Ms. Perel shares with her husband, Jack Saul, a psychotherapist whose expertise — in individual and community trauma — came in handy during the pandemic.
They have been married for more than 35 years. After agreeing to an interview on the condition that he not be asked about their marriage, he proved to be a terrific cheerleader for his wife. “You can’t believe how many people stop her and say, ‘You’ve changed my life,’” he said.
Ms. Perel said she hadn’t planned for her life to turn out this way, exactly.
“I did not decide to be a public figure,” she said. “It wasn’t a goal, or something I set up.”
But if you see her trajectory as an evolution rather than a strategy, you need to start with her childhood among Holocaust survivors — among them her parents, Poles who met each other the day their camps were liberated — in Antwerp, Belgium.
The community could be divided, roughly, into two groups, Ms. Perel said: those who talked about their experiences, and those who didn’t. And there were two kinds of talkers, “the people who emphasized the victimization, and the people who emphasized the heroism and the resilience,” she said. Her parents belonged to that last group.
“They didn’t just survive, and they didn’t just fight to live,” she said. “They were going to live life at its fullest. And in that sense, they experienced the erotic as an antidote to death.” One night a week, they took the train to Brussels to go ballroom dancing.
Ms. Perel studied education and theater at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. To help support herself, she did improvisational puppet theater for children and ran workshops for teenage girls using movement and drama therapy. This led her to a master’s program in expressive arts therapy at Lesley College (now Lesley University) in Cambridge, Mass. Initially she planned to return home, but she was hungry for further training and stayed in the United States.
She has a way of collecting mentors, and mentees, and studied with the pioneering family therapist Salvador Minuchin. For decades, her clinical practice focused on mixed couples — interracial, intercultural, interreligious — and couples in cultural transition. She wrote papers; she spoke at conferences; she taught at symposiums; she conducted workshops. Her reputation grew. She and her husband had two sons, now both adults.
It was the late 1990s. “And then one day comes the Clinton scandal,” Ms. Perel recalled. What struck her was how it was also a scandal for Hillary Clinton — and a Rorschach test for attitudes toward fidelity in marriage. Publicly humiliated, Mrs. Clinton faced a stark choice: Should she stay, or should she go?
“I thought it was such an interesting conversation, culturally speaking,” Ms. Perel said. “In America the dominant culture is that if you have been cheated on, you better leave. The ‘I’ is central. But many societies believe that family preservation is more important.”
Soon afterward, she was batting around ideas with Rich Simon, the beloved-in-the-profession founder and editor of Psychotherapy Networker. “He asked me, ‘What are you thinking about these days?’” she recalled. “And I said, flippantly, ‘I’m thinking about Americans and sex.’ And he said, ‘Why don’t you write about it?’”
The result was an article, “Erotic Intelligence: Reconciling Sensuality and Domesticity,” published in the magazine in 2003.
The theme was simple, but subversive in a culture that idealizes the notion of a spouse who fulfills all your emotional, intellectual and sexual needs in perpetuity. Ms. Perel argued that the things we want from long-term relationships — stability, security, total intimacy, continuity — can run counter to exciting sex, which is fueled largely by mystery, danger and uncertainty.
“She is one of the few people to combine training in couples therapy, which is about intimacy and sharing and openness, with sex therapy, which says that creative tension is required for eroticism,” said the couples therapist Terry Real. “She’s also blisteringly intelligent — and a feminist who has a deep understanding of masculine psychology.”
Ms. Perel was hardly the first to point out that long-term closeness can dampen hot sex; among other influences, she cites the psychoanalyst Stephen Mitchell’s authoritative 2002 book, “Can Love Last? The Fate of Romance Over Time,” in her work. But she turned out to be the right person to bring the ideas to a general audience. The Utne Reader magazine reprinted her article; book offers quickly followed.
“I had half a dozen agents calling me within a week,” Ms. Perel said.
She signed on with the agent Tracy Brown, who had read the Utne article when he wandered into Barnes & Noble in Union Square on his lunch hour. The subsequent book proposal — and Ms. Perel’s stylish presence in the sleepy offices of New York editors — generated a brisk bidding war.
“You always look for the things she brought to the table, but rarely do you see all of them in one person,” said Gail Winston, executive editor of HarperCollins, who bought the book. “Her mind is so sharp, and she is so charming — empathetic, sexy and very, very funny.”
The book, “Mating in Captivity: In Search of Erotic Intelligence,” was published in 2006. “It had a slow on-ramp, and then it became a best seller,” Ms. Perel said.
In 2013, she gave her first TED Talk, on “The Secret to Desire in a Long-Term Relationship.” She had the audience at “So, why does good sex so often fade?” It was as if she had peered into people’s bedrooms and validated their complex feelings about lust and fidelity. The talk racked up a million views in a week, Ms. Perel said. (The figure is now 20 million and counting.)
“And that is when the switch occurs,” Ms. Perel said. “I said, ‘I’m not just going to talk to professional audiences. I want to talk to regular people, and I don’t want to just be confined within the four walls of my office.”
The Esther Perel brand
The world, it turned out, was as eager to listen as she was to talk. Ms. Perel’s second book, “The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity” (2017), makes the case that infidelity can, counterintuitively, have positive effects on a marriage — and that couples recovering from cheating need to pay as much attention to the longings and needs of the guilty party as to the hurt and betrayal of the injured party. (Often, she says, people cheating on their partners are not sick of their partners — they’re sick of themselves.)
Ms. Perel gave her second TED Talk, on this juicy topic, in 2015. Judging from their reactions, many members of the in-person audience found her message something of a relief.
“I know what you’re thinking,” she told them. “‘She has a French accent; she must be pro-affair.’” Her eyes glinted wickedly, and she paused dramatically. “You’re wrong. I am not French.”
And no, she is not really pro-affair.
“A lot of people have positive, life-changing experiences that come along with terminal illness,” she writes in “The State of Affairs.” “But I would no more recommend having an affair than I would recommend getting cancer.”
As Ms. Perel’s profile grew, requests — to speak, to write, to give keynote addresses, to hold seminars around the world — poured in. She hired Lindsay Ratowsky, who formerly worked as Jessica Biel’s executive assistant, after meeting her at a party. They became business partners in a new company, Esther Perel Global Media.
“The question was, how can we take these ideas and distribute them in different channels and through different outlets and for different audiences?” said Ms. Ratowsky, now a consultant who helps clients develop and expand personal brands.
They hired new employees and revamped Ms. Perel’s website, adding online courses with titles like Rekindling Desire, which people can view for a fee, and other content. Focusing on other things, Ms. Perel cut back her clinical practice to two days a week.
The field of couples therapy is crowded with institutes and formal techniques, but Ms. Perel has resisted embracing a particular ideology.
“I decided I wasn’t going to create a school where I teach ‘the Esther Perel method,’” she said.
In 2017, she started Sessions, a multidisciplinary training platform for therapists, coaches and counselors, who pay a monthly fee to watch Ms. Perel in conversation with colleagues from different backgrounds and therapeutic approaches. (Members of the public can pay to tune in to a live annual training conference.)
Attuned to the zeitgeist — “she’s just savvy about the culture,” Ms. Winston, the book editor, said — Ms. Perel branched out into podcasting, recording the first episode of “Where Should We Begin?” in 2017; its sixth season will start this summer. In March, she announced a new podcasting deal with Vox Media.
In the podcast, Ms. Perel counsels couples — gay and straight, monogamous and polyamorous, and from different backgrounds and ethnicities — struggling with issues like trust, desire, fidelity and lingering childhood trauma. The sessions are intense, emotional and nonjudgmental.
In an increasingly confessional culture, the podcast is a voyeuristic window not just into other people’s problems, but into the therapeutic process itself.
“The idea of a therapist being a blank slate has really shifted,” said Dené Logan, a marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles who is mentored by Ms. Perel as part of a monthly supervision group. “There’s so much hunger for people to feel that the therapists are doing the work with you.”
Responding to the emotional upheaval of the pandemic, Ms. Perel began posting free monthly workshops on YouTube on topics like the bewildering dissolution of boundaries and how not to go crazy when confined to a house in which two adults are working but there is only one desk. She has continued the workshops even as we are (maybe) coming out of this long period of turmoil.
“A major piece of the pandemic was the loss of the erotic,” Ms. Perel said. “We had to choke that part of us that is curious, spontaneous, improvisational, that goes out, that looks at happenstance, that has a joyful encounter with the unknown.”
Therapy behind open doors
Traditional couples therapy training often involves watching videotapes of therapy sessions, or observing them, with the patients’ permission, through one-way mirrors. But showing the sessions to a general audience is a relatively new phenomenon, and anathema to old-school psychotherapists for whom patient privacy is sacrosanct.
Ms. Perel’s general celebrity and tendency to push boundaries mean that she is not everyone’s cup of tea, though you would be hard-pressed to find a therapist eager to criticize her publicly.
“Because it’s such a big field, there are obviously people who are envious of her,” said the couples therapist Ellyn Bader, who belongs to a small group of peers who meet regularly with Ms. Perel to discuss their work.
“There are people who think therapy should be extremely private and behind closed doors,” she added, “and there are people who are glad she’s making therapy more accessible to the masses.” (Dr. Bader is among the latter group.)
Listening to the podcasts, you might wonder if the couples — carefully selected from hundreds of applicants — end up feeling exploited or misrepresented. On the contrary, said one woman who was featured on an episode of “Where Should We Begin?” in which she and her husband discussed opening their marriage: She wanted to, and he didn’t.
“She’s so conscientious about the words she uses, and so careful about communicating in a way that is accessible,” the wife said. (No names are used on the podcast, and the couple spoke on the condition of anonymity.) “It’s transformed our marriages and our lives.”
Her husband agreed.
“It was just insight after insight after insight,” he said. “She has such a great ability to pick up on things you didn’t know you were thinking.”
Though, he added, “I did leave feeling like I wished Esther was my therapist.”