‘Tinder won’t last,’ declares Esther Perel with disdain, forking asparagus dusted with Parmesan into her mouth. ‘I’ve yet to find anyone who tells me that dating on any app is fun. Nobody tells me that it’s playful or mischievous – it is utterly uninspired, devoid of imagination, seduction, charge or excitement. It’s just romantic consumerism.
‘And when people do go on a date, it’s like a job interview,’ she continues, in her gloriously rich, buttery European accent. ‘I am continuously giving advice about what a first date should look like – people have forgotten how to go on a first date.’
If anyone can teach us the art of dating properly again, it’s Esther. The 60-year-old Belgian-born psychotherapist is easily the most prominent relationship expert of our age, with bestselling books, two TED Talks (29 million views and counting) and a phenomenally popular podcast, Where Should We Begin?, behind her. Now a bona-fide celebrity, she is known worldwide for her ability to solve almost any relationship or sex dilemma – and to tell us where we’re going wrong when it comes to dating.
Part of the problem, she continues, is that we have waylaid the ancient arts of seduction and flirting. ‘I go up in the elevator, 22 floors, to my office every day, and I look around and think, my God, this elevator used to be such a prime place to chat, to meet, to seduce, to say: “What floor do you work on? Can I bring you a coffee?”’ she sighs. ‘And people on aeroplanes used to talk to each other. Spending six hours talking to someone that you’ll never see again used to be one of my great pleasures. Now, they stick you in a pod [we clearly fly different classes], and everyone puts their headphones on. A certain kind of desocialisation is taking place that is making it harder for people to be spontaneous, to improvise, or to even have face-to-face conversations.’
It’s a stiflingly hot late-summer day in New York, and we’re in the genteel, expansively mirrored restaurant of the SoHo Grand Hotel. While I limp into the restaurant, wilting in the heat, she arrives crisp and glamorous, a neat, petite vision in cream linen.
We last met a little over five years ago, when Esther had already written her first book, Mating in Captivity – whose counterintuitive proposition, born of years of clinical work with clients, holds that intimacy is often an impediment to sustaining desire in long-term relationships – and had recently delivered her TED Talk on the subject. She was working on her follow-up book, The State of Affairs, which would take a similarly provocative approach to the subject of infidelity (‘Affairs are either a death knell or they are a powerful alarm system. They either break or they repair. The fact that I say that it can be reparative or that good can come out of it, doesn’t mean it’s good’), but Where Should We Begin? was not yet even a twinkle in the media landscape’s eye.
Five years on, she still spends two days a week seeing private clients, but she is now a household name. ‘Yesterday, my friend took me to her yoga class, and I had to register my name,’ she says. ‘Afterwards, the woman running it came up to me and said, “I need to tell you, you taught me what I can actually ask for in my relationship.” To hear that really moves me.’
The premise of the podcast, whose third season is available later this month on Spotify, is simple: Esther doing therapy sessions with real (albeit anonymous, hand-selected) couples, all skilfully navigated with her even-handed and blame-free – but sometimes tough-love – style, but it seems radical in its revelation of deep intimacies before a vast audience. Listening feels deliciously voyeuristic, like putting a glass to the door of Esther’s surgery. And that, she believes, is its appeal.
‘People have always had a deep curiosity for what is happening in their neighbours’ house, but back in the day, in the village, you could hear everything – every fight and every reconciliation,’ she says. ‘Now, with the level of isolation and space between people, your best friends can break up and you didn’t even see it coming.’ Moreover, she says, in a time ‘where people are constantly posturing fabulous lives, you’re left wondering, “Am I normal? What’s wrong with me? Am I the only one going through this?”’
The podcast can be downloaded all over the world – including parts of the Middle East, where her books are not permitted to be published – a point of great pride for Esther, who speaks nine languages, and treats clients in seven of them. An impressive 40 per cent of her listeners are men.
As the podcast frequently elucidates, sex (or the lack of it) – the topic that sends so many of Esther’s patients to her door – often turns out to be merely a symptom of something far more deep-seated. But we have, she says, come to see sex as the barometer of the health of a relationship.
For the first time in history it has become not merely a function for procreation, but a defining factor in marital happiness. ‘And, for the first time in the history of marriage, the survival of the family depends on the happiness of the couple,’ she says. ‘In your grandparents’ day, possibly your parents’, it didn’t matter if the couple got along or not – you were stuck for life. Today, you not only leave because you’re miserable, but because you could be happier.’
She doesn’t take a position on the rightness or otherwise of this. But she points out, ‘We still want everything we wanted from traditional marriage – a family, companionship, social status, economic support, but we also want that person to give us mystery and transcendence… It changes the meaning of couples’ therapy completely too.’
Furthermore, she says, ‘The whole concept of monogamy, of sexual exclusivity, is different when you’ve been sexually nomadic [a wonderfully adventurous-sounding term for being single in one’s 20s and 30s] for 15 years versus marrying at 18. How do we expect people to go from a hook-up culture to sleeping with one person for the next 60 years? We want connection and commitment, but maybe there’s another way to think about commitment that is more in line with the life experiences that we have now. Relationships take place in context.’
I ask if she’s ever surprised by the problems and experiences of her clients. ‘When you read a new novel, you’re not always surprised – you’ve read other novels,’ she explains. ‘But you can be transported, you can be moved, you can be in tears. So, I am moved, but I’m not often surprised, because I understand that people can be glorious and glamorous, as they can be petty and evil.’
Esther’s view of human nature no doubt stems from her upbringing in Antwerp, the daughter of Polish Jewish parents who had survived the Holocaust – both were the sole survivors in their families. They met on the day of liberation and went on to live in a community of fellow survivors. ‘They fell into two groups,’ says Esther. ‘Those who [were] afraid, untrusting, and then those who came back to life, who understood eroticism as aliveness, as an antidote to death.’ Her parents were in the latter group. ‘They were bon vivants – they didn’t survive for nothing.’
Esther studied at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, then, at 22, went to Columbia University in New York, where she met her husband, Jack Saul, a psychologist and academic, seven years her senior. ‘I was writing a thesis and somebody said: “Go and meet Dr Saul, he may have some good resources for you.”’ She flashes me the most wicked of smiles. ‘He expected an older Hungarian woman.’
They became friends. ‘Then, two years later, I was done with my studies and was supposed to leave the US, and we realised that we didn’t want to say goodbye.’ She pauses. ‘I’d had boyfriends who became friends, but I’d never had a friend who became a boyfriend. And here we are, 36 years [and two adult sons, aged 26 and 23] later.’ How have they maintained their magic for 36 years? ‘I try to learn from what I’ve learnt,’ she says. ‘Even when I am really pissed off, I still find him fascinating. Even when we don’t get along, I want to hear what he has to say.
‘We have given each other a lot of space and we’ve always enjoyed it when the other person could take a bigger bite at life,’ she continues. ‘We have friends that we see alone, of both sexes. We’ve always known when we should turn to each other and when we should turn to others who are part of our ecosystem.’ Have either of them ever been tempted to cheat? ‘We have what every couple goes through,’ she replies, graciously. ‘We’ve had loss, we’ve had illness, we’ve had death, we’ve had fights, but we know to resuscitate well and we know to have fun together.
‘And we change,’ she adds. ‘I turned 60. This idea that what works at 30 is going to be what works at 60 – no. And the relationships that thrive are relationships that know to continuously adapt, remain flexible and be dynamic, be supple.’
I tell Esther that we’re pitching her as ‘the woman who can solve any relationship problem’. ‘It depends what you define as “solving”,’ she demurs, shrugging on her blazer. ‘Sometimes I say, “I can’t help you. I’m sorry. I’ve done all I think I can do.” Sometimes I’m in front of a situation where I say, “This is really miserable. Do you want to live like this?” But I also know that for some people miserable is better than nothing.
‘Breaking up with kindness and resolve is not a failure,’ she says. ‘Sometimes to “solve” is to know when to get out.’
Emboldened by her story of meeting Jack, as we wait for the bill, I find myself making my own confession. The night before, I had made the uncharacteristically bold move of telling one of my closest friends that I have feelings for him, and, in a Richard Curtis moment in a speeding downtown cab, asked whether he’d been wondering, as I had, whether we should maybe give it a go?
Esther is all ears. I tell her that he said he’d been thinking about it a lot too, but that he believes that he behaves better towards his friends than he does towards his partners. He was worried, he said, that if things didn’t work out, we’d never get back to where we are now. ‘Very beautiful,’ proclaims Esther. ‘A little bit more distance with a little bit less expectation – because you are a friend and not my girlfriend – makes me less reactive and makes me treat you better. I think that is vulnerable and very honest.’ She commends the value he places on our current relationship too. ‘I think that solid, strong, deep friendships are the syrup of life,’ she says.
It’s so perfectly Esther. Wise, tough, even-handed, comforting and, dammit, correct – even if it’s not exactly what I wanted to hear.
The third series of Esther Perel’s podcast, ‘Where Should We Begin?’, is available on 10 October; smarturl.it/wswb. Visit telegraph.co.uk/stella to watch a video of Esther responding to readers’ dilemmas