The Couple Whisperer

Esther Perel’s irresistible new podcast puts you in the room with couples in therapy.

Esther Perel uses conversation, knowledge, intuition, and creativity to make incisive interpretations that, at their most elegant, are not only helpful but artful.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images for Summit of Greatness and iStock

There are so many things about getting older that are not a surprise. Not the mounting responsibilities, the earlier bedtime, the detailed knowledge of bars welcoming to small children. What has completely knocked me out: Interpersonal drama gets wild. If you have the good fortune to believe that your parents are boring, it is because they wanted you to. I don’t know if it is possible to convince anyone of this until they live it for themselves, but people only get more interesting as they age. I know! It’s like an entire culture built around an obsession with youth might lead you to believe the opposite!

For many people, their later years are when they pair off, which is what makes them appear so placid and plodding. But people do fascinating, shady, brave, inexplicable things before they share possessions, houses, cars, taxes, health insurance, and children—all of which can be lumped into the dramatic category known as “stakes.” Imagine what they do when they are legally, financially, and emotionally bound to one another for life. To find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real, get into a committed relationship. With age, one may get less drunk, adventurous, and beautiful, but life only gets more.

As proof, I offer up the absorbing podcast Where Should We Begin With Esther Perel, in which listeners are invited to eavesdrop on couples’ therapy sessions. The series arrived on iTunes Monday, having spent some months exclusively on Audible, where the second 10-episode season will debut later this month, along with Perel’s second book, the sure-to-be-splashy The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity. Over the summer, I listened to all 10 episodes in a hurry, and then I listened to them again, awed by Perel’s insight and creativity and by the interpersonal tangles that snarl under the covers of high-functioning middle age. The couples Perel sees—gay, straight, cross-cultural, with children and without—are sometimes struggling with outwardly dramatic issues (adultery, sex addiction, trauma) and sometimes struggling with the private problems of the settled and the staid (impotence, infertility, sexlessness, the baseline neglect that can accrue with time). Where Should We Begin makes them all fascinating by treating them not as matters of plot, but of character.

To deliver these characters, the exceedingly urbane Perel—a Belgian psychotherapist who speaks nine languages, the child of Holocaust survivors, and a polished and popular TED talker and author—has chosen the podcast, a format that allows listeners to shamelessly absorb the nitty-gritty details of others’ love lives without feeling exploitative. Perel’s lilting accent underscores her chic sophistication while establishing a distant auditory kinship to Dr. Ruth, another non-American sexpert who was able to speak honestly and openly to our puritanical squeamishness (though, in Perel’s case, without the Yiddishkeit). By denying us the couples’ faces and obscuring identifying details, Where Should We Begin preserves some mystery while requiring us to listen closely—which sounds like one of Perel’s general prescriptions for fomenting desire.

Each episode follows the same format: a condensed and edited one-time, three-hour therapy session, preceded by at least one intake call, with spare voiceover from Perel occasionally used to elucidate her in-the-moment thinking. “People come in with a story. At the end of the first session, I want them to leave with a different story because a different story is what breeds hope,” she remarks, as good an encapsulation of her general approach as any. The couples she sees are stuck: stuck in their relationships and their respective roles, their grievances, their hurt, their dissatisfaction, their passivity, and practiced at seeing the situation from their vantage, however painful that vantage may be. Perel uses conversation, knowledge, intuition, and creativity to make incisive interpretations that, at their most elegant, are not only helpful but artful. Listening to these sessions is deeply provoking. None of the patients will be exactly or anything like you, none of their problems exactly or anything like yours, but there will be patches of overlap, flashes of recognition. Listening, you will find your perspective on yourself, your relationships, your intimates and their relationships, shaken up, even as you get caught up in the couple who are actually talking. It’s a listening experience that encourages you to be curious, both inwardly and outwardly.

The series begins with a couple that seem snoozily familiar, caught up in the most banal of plots, and makes them interesting. A long-married husband and wife with three small children, a diminished emotional connection, and an unsatisfactorily routine sex life are thrown into crisis when the husband is caught cheating. A year later, peacefully co-habitating but not having sex, the wife remains furious and numb, the husband blithely eager to get past it. This is all so prosaic that the women keeps asking, “Isn’t this normal?”

“Between what is normal and what is hurtful, I think we are going to stick with what is hurtful,” Perel says, beginning to weave her web. Her style as a therapist is gently activist. She listens closely, and then she interprets. Her sessions are musical, in a way: She asks a question, hears an answer, finesses that answer, repeats it back, then has the partner say it to his or her partner, then has the partner repeat it back, each permutation adding insight and comprehension. Her touch is so deft she routinely asks specific questions that elicit immediate, detailed, even tearful responses: She has touched a nerve that only she knew was there. She succinctly describes ambivalent emotions with so much exactitude that you realize there should be a word for them. The wife in the aforementioned couple, for example, “vacillates between hurt and indifference, using that indifference to cover up the hurt” —i.e., the thing that’s going on every time you say “I don’t care!” but feel awful. Perel swats conventional wisdom away with common sense that is not so common: Time will not heal—it’s what you do in that time that matters. Sex isn’t “natural” but something you have to learn. Strictly as a marketing tool for Esther Perel, the podcast could not be more successful: I would happily accept her as my self-help overlord.

To hear Perel at her most creative, start with the third episode, “Speak To Me In French.” The couple featured both have sexual trauma in their past and met in college when they were part of the purity movement. They didn’t kiss until they were engaged and have had trouble connecting sexually ever since. When Perel blindfolds the female partner, who goes unnamed as most of the participants do, and suggests the male partner, Scott, use a different name, it turns out he has a whole character he already plays at home from time to time: “Jean Claude,” a confident Frenchman who turns his wife on. Perel proceeds to conduct half of the session by translating Scott’s middling French as they work through both of their pasts—Scott’s feeling that sex is dirty, his wife’s desire for that dirtiness and her own fear and fury that this might mark her as somehow “too much.” It climaxes with Perel singing Edith Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,” a song so thematically appropriate the woman breaks down in sobs. In moments like this, remarkably common in this remarkable podcast, Perel is, in the truest sense, a magician: someone who uses words to cast a spell that saves something from dying.