Full Transcript: Esther Perel on Modern Love and Relationships at SXSW 2018

Esther Perel

Relationships are going through a complex cultural shift. Expectations on intimate partnerships are at an all-time high, yet we lack the tools and resources to reach this new Olympus. Join iconic couples therapist Esther Perel as she shines a light on the state of modern love, the importance of erotic intelligence, and how listening to the stories of others helps us navigate our own relationships.


“Relationships, people, they are your story. Write well and edit often.”

Below is the full text of Esther Perel’s talk at SXSW 2018.



You’ve just entered my office and these clips are from the podcast: Where Should We Begin?

I’m Esther Perel, and I am a couples therapist. For the past 35 years I’ve been helping couples and people navigate the challenges of relationships. And until not too long ago, there was no such a thing as a couples therapist.

Basically you got together with somebody you married, and that was it: you were stuck for life. If you didn’t like it, well you could concern yourself with an early death. It was till death do us apart. Not as we have it today as till love dies.

Never before has the survival of the family dependent on the happiness of the couple and this has made the couple such a central unit. Also the unit of relationships that is probably undergoing the most changes in a very short amount of time.

Never have we invested more in love and never have we divorced or broken up more in the name of love. I imagine a world in which we can experience our relationships with a sense of vitality and aliveness and vibrancy.

Because I live with one perennial truth. The quality of your relationships is what determines the quality of your life, and the bonds and the connections that we make with other people that we established with them gives us a greater sense of meaning of happiness of well-being than any other human experience.

So let me ask you just for a moment. How many of you are in a relationship at this moment – a romantic relationship, let’s put it like that? And how many of you would like to be in a relationship?

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And now I would like some more light on the house for the next question. How many of you would like to be out of the relationship that you’re in at least sometimes? You can leave the lights on at this moment. So we we can actually really relate to each other too, do here what we’re talking about.

Relationships at this moment are undergoing such a massive shift. The norms are literally changing under our feet, and we have to make up the rulebook as we go.

You know for a long time, our relationships were pretty simple because they were dictated by rules. Religion had clear strictures, and it had structure and it had incentives and it had prohibitions. And social hierarchy was also very clear and it told us how parents had to talk to the kids, how children had to respond to adults, how husbands had to talk to their wives and how wives didn’t have to answer their husbands.

Things were clear. All the decisions were made for us – the big decisions. Who was going to be the breadwinner? Who was going to wake up at night to feed the baby? Who has the right to demand for sex?

What you did is what you father did and at this moment we have unraveled this system, and we have created a world of options and choices and unprecedented freedom. But as a result, we have to negotiate everything.

It’s all up for grabs. It’s no longer clear who’s going to be the breadwinner. In fact, whose career is going to take priority at this time, who’s going to wake up tomorrow morning to feed the baby? Who’s responsible for anything sure initiating sex next time? Who’s going to plan the date?

What gender should I be dating? How many people should I be dating at the same time? Should I tell them about the others? Am I ready to have children? Do I even want to have children? Should I move east? Should I move West?

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Where am I going to go on vacation next? Are my needs getting met in this relationship? Am I happy, am I happy enough?

All these big decisions that have burdened the selfs like never before we have to figure it all out and because of that, conversations have become the heart of relationships. We have to talk about stuff that we’ve never talked about, that we don’t know how to talk about, that we don’t have the vocabulary to talk about, and most of the time we’ve even never said it to ourselves.

Are we up for the right people? So I want to unpack this conundrum with you. And the way I think is this: I’m imagining you sitting there saying so what is she going to tell me? What are we going to do? You know and I’m going to tell you right up front so that you can relax in your anticipation. I do not have three easy steps for what you need to do.

And I don’t feel bad about it, because as you may have heard I have an accent which means that I’m not from here. And one of the things that non-Americans sometimes say is that for some reason Americans think that every problem needs to have a solution, and I don’t have a solution because many of these things are not a problem that we have to solve. But these are paradoxes that we need to manage.

And for me to understand the confusions and the pains that we are experiencing in our relationships at this point demands that I kind of put it in context: How did we get there? What has happened? What have been the big social and cultural shifts that are directly entering our sheets at this moment?


So allow me to take you on a quick tour in history. For a long time as social animals we lived in tribes. We lived in villages. We lived in communities, and in those villages we were told what to do and things were clear. In return for allegiance and for obedience I would get a sense of belonging, I would get a sense of continuity, I would get a sense of identity.

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I got a lot of certainty. I got very little freedom, but I was never alone. And we moved to the cities and in our urban lives we are for the first time so much more free, but also so much more alone.

And for the first time we are turning to our romantic partners to help us with that aloneness to help us transcend that existential aloneness. We still want all the same things that traditional marriage was about: we want family life, some of us; we want companionship; we want economic support; we want social status but now I want you also to be my best friend and my trusted confidant and my passionate lover to boot and all for the long haul and the long haul keeps getting longer.

What we have created in a romantic ambition is one person to give us once an entire village used to provide. As I have sometimes said you don’t solve this problem with Victoria’s Secrets. And since there is no victor secret we all know where the responsibility has lied.

This shift from the collective life where we had belonging but very little freedom to where we have a lot of freedom, but everywhere we talk about relationships today we hear about the fact that we no longer have a deep sense of anchoring and belonging and rootedness like we used to have, and that we are facing a modern massive epidemic of loneliness which in America today has become the number one public health crisis more than obesity.

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