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Esther Perel Is Fighting the “Tyranny of Positivity”

Within the first 60 seconds of our conversation, the psychotherapist Esther Perel introduces me to a concept she calls “enforced presentism.” It’s a feeling you might know well from the pandemic. “You can’t think two days ahead,” says Perel. “Everything is in the moment, and you’re dealing with this chronic unpredictability and stress.”

You might expect Perel to be better equipped than most to deal with such turbulence, given her experience in navigating romance and relationships, surely one of the most troubled and anxiety-inducing human experiences. Over the last four decades, she’s become one of the world’s most renowned relationship therapists, writing two bestselling books about couples, desire and sexuality, Mating in Captivity, and The State of Affairs, and hosting two podcasts, Where Should We Begin? And How’s Work? (Both invite listeners into sessions she conducts between people who are romantically or professionally connected.)

But Perel says her pandemic got off to a difficult start. First, she was scared. Then, she had to come to terms with the fact that, according to the covid classifications, no matter how she thought of herself, she was technically elderly. In the next phase, she coordinated a yoga group with friends on three continents. She started going on hikes and walks. She recorded seasons of both of her podcasts.

“Then, one day I woke up and I said, I want to create a game,” she remembers. “I want to create a happy project. I can’t deal with the loss, the sadness, the grief, the uncertainty—those existential aspects. I also want to deal with the part of us that keeps us connected to playfulness, to curiosity, to the unknown.”

That turned into a card game (also) called, “Where Should We Begin? A Game of Stories”. Filled with thought-provoking prompts—think “I’ve always wondered if it’s normal to…” and “The last promise I broke was…”—it’s meant to facilitate connection by getting people to tell stories that they might otherwise hide behind conversations about the humidity. More importantly, it’s as an antidote to the fog of enforced presentism, and a buffer against the atrophied social skills we might all carry into the world as it lifts.

Here, she talks about entering back into the world, the proliferation of the term “trauma,” fixing our work-as-identity problems, and why we need to retire the idea of the soulmate.

GQ: Based on what you’ve seen in your work—and just anecdotally or personally—what are the things, relationships-wise, that people have most been struggling with in the last 18 months? What do you think will continue to be issues as we re-emerge into a sense of normalcy?

Esther Perel: Big crises always operate as relationship accelerators. Especially a pandemic and a disaster says, “Life is short. Life is fragile. Things could end any moment.” People articulate the awareness of mortality—we usually try to not be too aware of it. So you instantly begin to sharpen your priorities and you start to disregard the superfluous and the unimportant and the misguided.

You begin to say, “What am I waiting for? Let’s move in together. Let’s have the babies we’ve been wanting to have. Let’s get married. Let’s move.” Or: “I’ve waited long enough. I’m out of here. This is no longer sustainable to me.” It goes in those two directions. It’s what I want and what I no longer want.

So at this moment, most of my colleagues, we are talking about the avalanche of disruptions that have taken place in relationships, and the consequences thereof. I would say there’s been a lot of different kinds of disruptions. Collapse of boundaries: people have never worked as hard, and they have had to turn their house into a gym, a restaurant, an office, a school, all of it, while sitting on the same chair. That’s been a real challenge for people.


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