Thursday, April 15, 2021

Esther Perel: Couples Therapist Extraordinaire

According to New York Magazine’s Maya Binyam, one Esther Perel is “today’s most famous couples therapist.” At the least this signals excellent marketing acumen. What it tells us about therapy today is not quite as encouraging. 

Happily, Binyam presents a balanced picture of Perel, one that tells us a great deal about why couples counseling has garnered the reputation of being one of the least effective forms of therapy. One does not know how effective Perel is as a therapist, and will not opine further on the matter.

In many ways, Perel is not doing therapy as much as she is doing psychodrama. She is into storytelling, a strange new therapy fad, one that has even been promoted by one Jordan Peterson, of all people. This tells us that these therapists believe that retelling your life story will improve your life or your marriage or whatever.

Dare we mention that the work of a scriptwriter has nothing to do with any form of treatment. Perhaps, we should mention the salient point, that if your therapist is teaching you how to tell new and different stories he or she is leading you down what Shakespeare called: “the primrose path of dalliance.” It is wasting your time and not solving your problems. Happily for her, Perel does not believe in solving problems, so we cannot accuse her of false advertising. Of course, therapists and scriptwriters are not really the same thing, so perhaps we can.

Binyam explains:

Today, Esther Perel identifies as a scriptwriter, the person who propels a plot forward when life’s main characters are otherwise paralyzed by self-doubt. But when she speaks to her audience, a population of millions, it is from her position as America’s preeminent couples therapist.

And also:

Most arrive at her office looking for a way out, but by the time they leave, they will have surrendered any fantasy of a quick fix. In Perel’s treatment of relational conflicts, there are no solutions, only paradoxes to manage. 

Her observations are studded with the seductive certainty of mantras. Sex “isn’t something you do, it’s a place you go”; love “enjoys knowing everything about you,” but “desire needs mystery”; and envy “is a tango between two people,” while “the dance of jealousy requires three.” Like anyone who has found community among strangers or felt alone in a crowded room, she believes our relationships determine the quality of our lives.

Nothing quite like sprinkling your conversation with mindless platitudes. Did you ever not know that jealousy involves three people? Did you ever think that love should involve knowing everything about the other person? If you did, you are not going to have very much success at love. As for whether sex is a place you go, it isn’t. Unless, of course, you are garnering your talking points from Dr. Seuss.

Anyone who thinks that these pseudo-profundities manifest surpassing wisdom needs help.

Among the intriguing parts of Binyam’s portrait is this description of having lunch with Perel:

When we meet for lunch, she speaks with the conviction of someone who has been rehearsing her lines for years. Anyone who has gone to therapy will recognize the trappings of the profession in her speech. She is prone to repetition, and her advice is so crystallized as to sometimes seem premeditated. In response to more than one of my questions, she recites phrases from her books and lectures word for word. Perel’s greatest trick, perhaps, is that she still feels present. Her most well-trodden sound bites are uttered conspiratorially, like she’s letting you in on a secret. 

Take a deep breath and notice what Binyam is saying. Perel does not engage with her. Perel does not converse with her. Perel does not interact with her. Perel sounds like she is reciting lines from a script.

If you want to know what is wrong with so much therapy, the reason lies in that paragraph. Far too many therapists are incapable of relating or interacting with their clients. Their attitude is defiantly alienating. They lecture them or drop nuggets of pseudo-wisdom to make them feel like they have gotten their money’s worth.

For Perel, it’s all about the psychodrama. That is the basis for her training and that is what she is selling:

 She completed 700 hours of training in psychodrama, a form of therapy in which patients use props and improvisation to dramatize their memories.

“I felt like I could use theater, I could use poetry, I could use music,” Perel says. “Therapy is an art for me, not just a science or a method. For that, you need to be able to use many different tools.”

In truth, therapy is not an art. Life is not an art. Art is an art, but that is quite different from conducting your life as though it were psychodrama. 

Naturally, Perel holds to the correct political opinions. She offers this commentary on Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky problem. It contains a glaring non-sequitur, one that shows a feeble understanding of human psychology, to say nothing of human erotics.

She wondered how a country so promiscuous could be so quick to clutch its pearls. And how a man, having orchestrated missile strikes across three continents, could proclaim himself powerless when presented with the sexual interest of a 22-year-old intern whose touch, he rationalized, was a necessary balm for his occupational distress.

It was not a balm for his distress. It was a reward for the exercise of his power. A very minimal understanding of male sexual desire would have yielded that truth. And would have told her than men who exercise such power find it to be a turn-on.

And it was rather obviously a balm for being married to Hillary Clinton. If you had been married to the dowager duchess of Chappaqua, you would need some healing balm too.

Now, you will recall above that Perel suggested that love enjoys knowing everything about you. It made no sense, but who am I to say so. In truth, Perel herself explains that love is possessive while desire involves mystery.

And she also manages to say that compromise is a democratic ideal-- it is not an ideal, of course-- and that it makes for lackluster sex. Oh, really.

There is no such thing as a marriage that does not contain trade-offs, negotiations and compromise. As for really hot sex, it requires a large quantity of trust. If you want to manufacture desire, as the Freudians have been wont to do, then you should add to the mix that Freudian theory sees taboos as the basis for desire. Only what is forbidden is ultimately desirable. Of course, being mysterious and being forbidden are not quite the same thing. And Freudian theory does not quite recognize the fact that sex has something to do with procreation. Nor does Perel, from the evidence presented here.

And although democratic ideals like compromise make for a healthy marital union, they simultaneously make for lackluster sex. “The grand illusion of committed love is that we think our partners are ours,” she wrote. “In truth, their separateness is unassailable, and their mystery is forever ungraspable. As soon as we can begin to acknowledge this, sustained desire becomes a real possibility.”

In truth, we are separate from everyone, not just from our paramours and our innamorati. It takes far more than separateness to produce desire. After all, separateness can be evidence of indifference.

And Perel is nonchalant about infidelity, because it can be woven into any number of stories. Unfortunately, if you tell people, from your position of superior wisdom, that infidelity can breathe new life into a partnership you are encouraging infidelity. Doesn’t she understand that many of the plot lines involving infidelity end very, very badly? Apparently, she does not.

Infidelity, the book suggests, isn’t a betrayal that always necessitates a relationship’s demise; like all sexual plots, it is a story that contains a multitude of possible endings and can be harnessed to breathe new life into a partnership.

When two people sit down to consult with her, they are each telling a story. One thing is certain they will not be conciliating or reconciling while they are offering conflicting narratives of their lives. 

 In her experience, when two people sat down to tell a story, they rarely began in the same place. No one was completely reliable, least of all the therapist, who, like anyone trying to hold up their end of the relational bargain, was bound to make mistakes.

And Binyam continues:

Because these sessions aren’t ongoing, Perel refuses to recognize her podcast work as therapy, but she insists it’s “riveting storytelling.” Indeed, despite the proliferation of therapy-themed podcasts, which have grown so populous as to compose their own mini-ecosystem, nowhere are the theatrics so captivatingly quotidian as on Where Should We Begin? 

Now, these sessions and the podcasts that derive from them can be intensely entertaining. If your goal in life is to become the entertainment, they might be for you. If you want to solve problems and perhaps put your marriage on a better footing, they are not.

So, here is a one one-hour session, as described by Binyam.

A recent episode of WSWB?, for example, features a husband and wife who are technically separated but confined together in quarantine. During our interview, Perel refers to them as “the couple from hell.” They are so insistent on belittling each other that I wonder if I’m not meant to find their fighting entertaining. (Honestly, I do.) Stripped of its theatrics, their story is typical: Their union is disintegrating in the shadow of an affair. She lodges white-hot accusations against him; he responds in the detached tone of a third party. They are actors from different plays competing for the same spotlight. Toward the end of the session, Perel admits that perhaps they aren’t destined for a grand finale. “You’re going to need to learn to stay away from each other and navigate being together apart,” she says.

Does this exercise in storytelling solve their problem? Not at all. Does it manage their crisis? Not at all. The intervention failed.

When I ask if she knows where the couple is now, she says they have almost certainly separated. “In the end, you’re interested in change,” she tells me. “You’re interested in people not being stuck in the stories that no longer serve them in their lives.” Perel may be an expert narrator, but unlike most celebrities who have made a career of performing psychology, her strength is in never professing to have all the answers. For every ten mantras, she makes a misstep, which she readily admits. Either she speaks too soon, or doesn’t say enough, and it is often her lapses in judgment that feel the most narratively compelling, like when an actress, inspired by a whim, goes off script and, for a brief moment, gives in to her compulsions.

When you pull back the curtain, Binyam seems to be saying, you discover that it is all pretense and all theatre. One thing it is not is the real life of real people.

At the least, if you feel that your life is lacking in drama, you now know where to go.


KCFleming said...

Man, that was good!

Sam L. said...

My life lacks drama, which is exactly, or close enough, to how I like it. No "sturm und drang" for me! That's why I live in my secret underground hideaway.