Why do couples struggle to keep desire alive? Therapist Esther Perel knows

The New York Times bestselling author will unpack her 30-year study of modern love at two intimate gatherings in SA

20 October 2019 - 00:00 By emma jordan
Conversation has replaced rules, duty, structure in today's relationships, says psychotherapist Esther Perel.
Conversation has replaced rules, duty, structure in today's relationships, says psychotherapist Esther Perel.
Image: 123RF/Peter Bernik

Esther Perel's TED Talks have garnered more than 28-million views worldwide. The psychotherapist and New York Times bestselling author focuses her attention on relationships and desires and over the last weekend in October, along with poet David Whyte, she'll be hosting two intimate gatherings in Joburg and Cape Town where she'll unpack her study of modern love.

"What we're going to have is a very rich conversation that straddles psychological, and sociological language that probes, together with poetry, the complexities and nuances of love and longing and desire," she says via video from her office in New York.

The daughter of Polish refugees, Perel grew up in Belgium and has spent over 30 years studying and uncovering cross-cultural psychology. She moved into the public eye when she published her first book Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence in 2006.

Psychotherapist and best-selling author Esther Perel is coming to SA to share her wealth of experience with us.
Psychotherapist and best-selling author Esther Perel is coming to SA to share her wealth of experience with us.
Image: Cindy Ord/Getty Images

The book, a study examining the relationship between love and desire, the erotic and domestic, was the first to really ask the questions no one was asking: why do people not have sex after marriage? What are the complexities between stability and excitement, danger and predictability?


Her next book The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity was published in 2017 around the same time she launched her ground-breaking podcast, Where Shall We Begin - a fly-on-the-wall series in which listeners are invited directly into couples' therapy sessions.

We hear intimate confessions of addiction, adultery, obsession.

There's pain, there's pride, there's sometimes joy and reconciliation, but ultimately it is what Perel calls "a mirror through which to identify your own situation and then to begin to have the conversations you need to have - even if your issues are different issues".

Ahead of her SA tour she launches her third series of Where Should We Begin, entitled The Arc of Love. It's the same format - listeners are privy to intimate couples' therapy sessions.

This time the series runs as six sessions, inviting listeners to journey through the life of love - starting with a couple in their 20s and ending with a couple in their 60s who are going through a divorce.


Perel is at pains to point out that she's not interested in basic infidelity or sex. What fascinates her is the couple as a microcosm of society. How socio, political and cultural impact plays out on the bigger scale through the choices individuals make, and the relationship they have with each other and their bigger communities.

Things have changed, she says. Historically there was structure and community was predetermined. "You didn't need to talk much," she explains. "You didn't need to discuss whose career mattered more, who was going to wake up to feed the baby, who had a right to demand sex, if the children had a right to decide to go to soccer practice.

"My parents didn't have a conversation about that because I just didn't have a right to decide - they decided. Once you begin to shift and you make the individual and their free choice a central element then these conversations become necessary because everything is a negotiation. You negotiate all the time. Conversation is what has replaced rules, duty, structure."

This was especially clear in SA. "Everybody knew exactly which community they belonged to, it was ascribed," she says. "The community gave you your sense of identity, your sense of belonging, your sense of continuity. As we urbanise, identity becomes self-defined and that is an entirely different way of putting the human being in society.

"And at this point a lot of that is shifting, sometimes more and sometimes less, and in the same couple you can have one of each: one [person] who comes from the model of society where things are still structured and clear, and there is less individual freedom but you know exactly what you need to do.

"And the other one comes from a place where there's a lot more individual freedom but it also comes with a lot more uncertainty and self-doubt."

How to make things better? Dialogue. Sometimes the easiest and the hardest thing to do.

It's not surprising then that she says she hopes to create a "public square conversation" discussing the stuff people don't typically talk about outside the walls of their homes. And sometimes not even then.

In November she'll be shifting her attention out of the bedroom and into the boardroom with a new podcast. Entitled How's Work, it is, she says, essential listening for anyone who has ever had a job and it will be another game-changer when it comes to negotiating relationship challenges in everyday life.

Esther Perel and David Whyte will be in Joburg on October 26 and in Cape Town on October 27. Talks limited to 400 people. Tickets:


David Whyte and Esther Perel will be presenting Love At The Crossroads - where love, poetry, sex and commitment meet as a fundraiser for the non-profit Vuleka school.

Date: Friday, October 25

Time: 7pm

Venue: FNB Conference Centre, 114 Grayston Drive, Sandown

Tickets: R500.

Contact: Brandon at


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