00:00 Michael Port: Welcome to Steal the Show with Michael Port, this is Michael. Today’s guest is Esther Perel. And she wrote a groundbreaking first book called, “Mating in Captivity,” which introduced Americans to the inherent conflict between emotionally safe but boring intimacy, and thrilling but potentially risky eroticism, love, and lust. And ever since Esther, who’s a couples therapist, has been recognized as one of the world’s most original and insightful thinkers about couples, sexuality, and the peculiar paradoxes found in modern marriage. She’s fluent in nine languages, like most of us. And she brings a rich, multi-cultural perspective to her practice, to her many publications, and in her lecturing around the globe. And she’s currently at work on her new book, “The State of Affairs: Cheating in the Age of Transparency”, which is a fantastic title.
01:01 Michael Port: The New York Times, in a cover story, named her the most important game-changer on sexuality and relationships since doctor Ruth, and her two critically-acclaimed TED talks have reached almost 10 million viewers. You’ll find Esther very often featured in the media, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Fast Company, and Vogue. And she’s been a guest on many radio and TV programs, including Oprah, the Today Show, and the Colbert Report. And now, Steal the Show. Now, Esther and I met when we were both speaking at a conference last year, and we shared a cab ride, and a very lovely conversation about giving speeches on the way to the airport. Welcome, Esther. Great to reconnect.
01:49 Esther Perel: It’s a pleasure to be with you.
01:50 Michael Port: So, I wanted you on my show because it’s about performance in all aspects of life. And I put a heavy focus on performance in public speaking, of course, but I also address performance in various high-stakes situations like job interviews, and negotiations, and sales pitches, and other interpersonal scenarios, and various dynamics in relationships that have elements of performance, including sexual relationships. Now, here’s… Interestingly, when I was originally titling my book, Steal the Show, I was thinking about using From the Board Room to the Bedroom in the tagline. But then when I researched it, I found that it’s part of a title of one of your speeches, Pursuing Passion from the Boardroom to the Bedroom, so I quickly dropped it. But it’s a perfect description of what we’re doing here.
02:38 Michael Port: So, when I reference performance, I’m referring to authentic performance that is in service of your audience with a goal of delivering on a promise to them, and an audience can be one person or 1,000 people. So, let’s discuss performance in the bedroom as it related to intimacy and connection, as well as how performance influences your intimate and erotic experiences in the bedroom. No, excuse me, in the boardroom, because I think that this is an area that you know more about than pretty much anybody. So, since sex is always the hottest topic, let’s start there.
03:13 Esther Perel: It’s so interesting, Michael, because I’m… As you’re speaking, I’m thinking about the word performance, right? And I’m thinking the idea of a role, a part that you play, right? A delivery of a certain persona, of who shows up to do this performance, who is the character… There is no performance without a character. Yet, when you talk about performance in the realm of sexuality, it is usually reduced to the ability to function. So it has very little to do with the person, unfortunately. It has to… It is very much narrowed down to getting the job done, being able to do it. And as long as we look at sexuality as something that you do, we actually narrow it and limit it versus sexuality as an experience, as a place you go, as a trip you take inside yourself, and with another. And then the… A sense of performance takes on a whole other meaning.
04:16 Michael Port: And that’s one of the reasons that we hear the term performance anxiety so often. It’s just the idea that you can’t do the act. And so it’s…
04:27 Esther Perel: Yes. And you can’t make your body do the act, actually. That you can’t… Even not just your body, that you can’t make your genitals generally do the act because nobody talks about performance anxiety about one’s hands or about one’s ability to kiss or about… One talks about performance anxiety literally from the genital point of view. So, this is to show how limiting it is. And generally, by the way, we focus on performance anxiety in men, as well, less in women.
04:57 Michael Port: Yes, of course, because men have to do something to produce something, which often is anxiety-provoking for them. So, let’s go… Let’s talk… Let’s go into this idea of character. Because a lot of what I write about for performance in all aspects of life comes from the work that an actor does. And I think that if non-actors understand some of the work that an actor does, I think they can bring that into their regular life. And one of the things, of course, that an actor does is play lots of different roles. And we do that, too, don’t we? We play roles as a father, as a lover, as a friend, as a colleague, etcetera. So, let’s explore this more, this idea of playing different roles authentically in all aspects of your life. So, of course we have the different roles that you could play in the bedroom to create extraordinary experiences, but then, the different roles that you might play in the boardroom, at work.
06:01 Esther Perel: So, interestingly an actor knows something rather intuitively. When he or she is preparing to play a part, is preparing to be a certain character, the person thinks “Where does this person live? What does this person wear? How does this person speak? How does this person move? How does this person relate to the world around them?” And he has or she has, the actor has the experience of putting him or herself in character. And that means, What shall I put on? How do I sit? What will my body feel… ” The ritual of entering into the character is explicit and obvious. Whereas when we live our lives, we typically don’t think about it nearly enough. We sometimes know that we need to dress a certain way when we go to work, and there’s a certain way when we go to play our sports, and we know that we need to take our rackets and our balls, and our accoutrements that are part of the ritual of preparing for going to this activity.
07:10 Esther Perel: But we think about it more as an activity than as a character. And when it comes to intimacy and sexuality, it is remarkable how little actually people know how to enter in character. You ask them “Who shows up in your intimacy? Who are you as a lover? What is the experience of your partner of you as a lover? Do you have any sense of how you are experienced, how you are felt by the other person that you are with?” And remarkably people have zero idea, very little understanding. So, when I say, “It’s not what you do, it’s who you are and who you bring,” I do the same analogy as you do. I say, when an actor does XYZ or sports will be another or a musician, everybody understands the ritual, the entry into character that will help deliver the performance. There is no performance without a character who has integrity and authenticity.
08:12 Michael Port: Do you feel that people gets scared of the idea of entering into different parts of their personality to develop characters, to amplify different parts of their personality to create characters that create different experiences in the situations? Is it scary?
08:32 Esther Perel: No, I don’t know that it is so much a fear as it is not knowing how. I need to provide language the same way as I think when you train people to be on stage, you provide a framework and then a vocabulary, so that people can make sense of what they are experiencing. So for example, I say in a relationship, there is often a tension between one person who is more in touch with the fear of losing the other, and one person who is more in touch with the fear of losing themselves. Some of us are more afraid of abandonment but some of us are more afraid of being obliterated. And that would present us very differently. We will therefore speak differently. We will feel a different permission to say certain thing, to want certain things, to feel certain things versus others. In sexuality I will say, “What do you seek to express in sex? What parts of you do you connect with? Is sexuality for you a place where you can be really playful? Is it a place where you can abdicate responsibility? Is it a place where for once you’re not the one taking care of everybody else but others take care of you? Is it a place where you can be safely aggressive? Is it a place where you can relish the surrender? Is it a place where you can feel that you can more playfully take control? Is it a place where you can finally ask for what you want without having to fear the consequences? What do you experience and express the… ”
10:11 Esther Perel: And when I when I give people that kind of a language, it’s actually quite remarkable, people know immediately who they are, who is their erotic creature. Is it a place where you can… Where you are shy or bold? Where you… We have erotic creatures, they… I call them erotic creatures but not in the narrow sense of sex but as in a life misvibrancy. We know the broader kind of meaning of the erotic. And once you give people these characters, you can call ’em archetype, you can call ’em creatures, they understand their performance and they understand what they are trying to experience through their performance. I can do it in the bed, I can do it in the bedroom. But I think often people don’t have the categories even available to ask themselves “Who am I when I enter this place?” When you enter the office, when you go to work, who are you? [chuckle] Who are you? Not what do you do and what do you say, who are you?
11:12 Michael Port: Do you find that archetypes are a way in for people that if you define these archetypes, if you give them some structure that people can walk into those types of roles using archetypes?
11:31 Esther Perel: I rarely use the word archetype from myself. I have to say it’s a little more abstract than I want. Sometimes I just say, “Do you try to get the attention of the others or do you wait for other people to notice you? And if you are the first then you try to get attention, how do you try to get the attention? Is it because you try to outsmart people? You try to be more provocative? You wait till everybody is done and then you throw in your little comment. Is it because you’re… ” In what way is… Does your seduction. Because look, the essence of performance is an experience of seduction. You seduce the audience, you seduce the viewer, you seduce your co-workers and you seduce your lovers. And the seduction is that you make people want to be with you. You make people enjoy themselves in your presence. It’s not just that they enjoy you, it’s that they enjoy themselves with you. And that experience of seduction, is essential in performance. It has very little to do with accomplishing a goal, with meeting an objective.
12:44 Michael Port: It’s interesting because one of the principles of performance for the actor when developing the characters identifying the goals that that character has, what they want to achieve, and then the actor will find lots of different tactics to use to try to achieve that goal. And the writer if they’ve written a compelling script, puts lots of obstacles in the way so that that performer has… Has a lot to fight against. It creates a lot of tension, and then it’s compelling for the audience. So…
13:16 Esther Perel: You’ve just defined one of the most important erotic equations. Which is that attraction plus obstacle equals excitement. So, the concept of obstacle is essential in building tension.
13:32 Michael Port: So, how do you keep that alive in a relationship where you already know you are committed to each other for life?
13:41 Esther Perel: So what? The fact that you know that you’re committed doesn’t mean that this is a done deal.
13:46 Michael Port: Yes.
13:46 Esther Perel: That this is a foregone conclusion. That your partner is there to stay. That you don’t have to do any effort anymore. But it is how people interpret it. Now, that I finally romanced you, and I finally seduced you, and I finally conquered you, I have you and I don’t have to do any of this effort anymore. It shouldn’t have to be so complicated. And I’m saying, first of all don’t ever think that your partner belongs to you. At best they’re there on the loan with an option to renew.
14:15 Michael Port: Actually when I was younger, when I got divorced, I said, “It really makes sense.” If you did marriage as in a seven year contract, and there is a right of first refusal but you’ve got to sit down and say, “Listen, here is the deal. Do you have… I earned another seven years.” Because I think every single day we have to earn what we want. And when you talk about the relationships, “Okay, now I’m committed. Now, we’re married. Now, I don’t have to do anything anymore.” People in business think about their leads and their clients that way. “Well, to lead I gotta seduce them to become a client. All right, now we booked the business, now we don’t really have to do too much. We’ll just keep taking the cheques, and we’ll go seduce other people to get more business.”
14:58 Esther Perel: Right. And at the same time, I also say if people treated their partners, the way they treat their clients, at least the ones that they’re trying to get, I would be out of a job. So for example, what is the performance when you are… When you enter a high stake situation? Right? The board meeting, the new clients. You are focused. Which… Now, everything I’m gonna say is gonna be also for the actor. You are really focused. You are paying attention. You are creative. You are often seductive as in charming, playful, responding to the cues of the other. You’re not just thinking about you. You’re thinking about the feeling that you are inducing in the people that you’re talking with. Right? I entered a store this week, and the first thing that the sales woman did was compliment me on all kinds of things that I was wearing.
16:00 Esther Perel: And I thought, “What a smart thing.” She didn’t sell herself first by saying, “What do we have to offer you in the stores,” she first made me feel like I’m a woman with a good taste. Like I’m a woman who knows myself. Like my pocket book, my jewellery, my this, and she engaged with me. She didn’t just say this is nice, where did you get it. And then of course, I said, “But this is an old bag,” and she said, “But it still is a beautiful bag.” I mean, by the… I felt so good about myself, I was ready to buy half the store.
16:31 Esther Perel: You understand? She didn’t make me feel like I really need her because I came in such bad shape. [chuckle] She turned it around, it was so clever. And that seductiveness, that ability to make the other person feel radiant. Right? Radiance is the essence here of a good performance. Right? That comes with confidence.
16:52 Michael Port: Now, let’s say you’re in the boardroom, and you’re trying to make a presentation to people that really influence your future. And if they say yes, this is gonna make a big difference to you. And if they say, no, you’re kind of just where you are and you’re spinning your wheels a bit. So, you take these big risks, and you get rejected. And then you feel like a failure. One of the… One of the things we find is that folks often won’t take big risks, they won’t go out on a limb to seduce others because they are afraid of being rejected. And if they show how much they want something, if they demonstrate how much they care and they don’t get it, and what does that mean about who they are and what they’re capable of. So, how do we encourage people to take more risks, to be more seductive, to go after what they want with more assertiveness without as much fear of rejection?
18:00 Esther Perel: But I think that the fear of rejection can also be the fuel. It is the difference between an artist and a professional. An artist lives this all the time. It’s not just that their skill is being rejected, it’s their entire self. And that’s what they’re putting on the line all the time.
18:19 Michael Port: And that’s… You know what’s interesting Esther is that, when I was an actor 20 years ago, and I was a working actor, I was making a living. I quit in large part because I was too immature to be able…
18:32 Esther Perel: To be rejected.
18:33 Michael Port: Exactly. Now, as an adult all of my work is exactly as you’ve described. It is my heart and soul, my intellect, everything. And everyday it’s critiqued by somebody and I’m okay with that. It just took me a few years to get there.
18:52 Esther Perel: Right. And I think I would say the same. People say, “You’re still nervous when you get up there to talk?” I said, “You bet.”
19:01 Michael Port: Yeah.
19:01 Esther Perel: The fact… And then the more they say, “But you, you do so,” I say but that puts even more pressure on me because the fact that I was able to do it so well yesterday, gives me zero guarantee that I will be able to do it well again today…
19:14 Michael Port: Yeah.
19:15 Esther Perel: And so, that fear actually nurtures me. It really makes me not complacent. It makes me respect my audience. It makes me say, “I’m gonna give you everything I got.” And I may not get it. Not everybody may like it. Not, but I…
19:34 Michael Port: So, do you find that you prepare even more for presentations now that you’ve become so well known for presentations than you did when you started?
19:46 Esther Perel: No. I am not actually someone who prepares in the traditional sense. I have a real ritual, talk about a ritual of entering into character. I prepare a talk by taking my folders, it’s all handwritten. I have to see my own handwriting, to recognize my words, my text, my ideas. And I shuffle papers, and I put them together but I will never look at them throughout the whole talk. It’s really the act of tactile shuffling of the papers and my eyes focusing on certain words that makes me… That grounds me. And I need to feel that my head is filled up and I have a place to start. I don’t necessarily know where I’m gonna go but I know how I’m going to engage this audience. So, what I do is I ask about who are these people. What are the questions they bring with them? Why am I here for them? Why did they pick me? I get a sense of the relational engagement that I have and that will help me begin in a way that has nothing to do with how I started the one yesterday. And from that place, the ideas may come out in disorder or in another order, it doesn’t really matter. I know where I wanna get at the end but it may… It will never be twice the same talk.
21:03 Michael Port: Very interesting. And it demonstrates that your focus is not on yourself but on them. Because performance is not about us ultimately when we’re on a stage. We have great experiences, we may love doing it, we get great fulfilment from sharing our ideas but if we’re gonna connect with the audience, it’s about them. And it sounds like that’s what you’re doing. You’re really focusing on them and their needs.
21:29 Esther Perel: I do. I do it as a therapist and I do it as a supervisor, and as a trainer, and as a lecturer. It’s very much… I am in flow when I talk. When people say, “That was a great talk.” I say, “What did I say?” I don’t remember what I said.
21:45 Michael Port: Interesting.
21:46 Esther Perel: It’s so… It’s what came out. So, but that’s not… I understand that some people need the paper in front of them, they need the slide. For example, I cannot do a talk with a PowerPoint because I feel constrained…
22:00 Michael Port: Yes.
22:00 Esther Perel: The PowerPoint is gonna tell me where I need to go but where I need to go today has nothing to do with yesterday. So, why are you forcing me a reality that isn’t the one I’m currently in.
22:10 Michael Port: Sure.
22:11 Esther Perel: So, it’s very much an immersion for me, it’s true. But that’s one style. I don’t think that… I know people for whom that would be very nerve-racking.
22:19 Michael Port: Sure. Well, what’s wonderful about you as a teacher, and I think most great teachers are like this, is that they recognize that there’s more than one way to create a result, and when you’re speaking it’s an art. It’s a creative form and there’s lots of different ways into it. And each one of us would be well served by finding the way in, that is the most effective. And sometimes that takes some time trying different methodologies, different practices until you find what really works for you. And it seems like you’ve done a great job at finding what works for you.
22:52 Esther Perel: So, this is a very powerful observation because here’s what happens in many relationships. People no longer look for a better way to perform. What is the definition of stale relationships? Be they at work or at home. Is that people have become repetitious, narrow, and rigid. And they repeat the same thing for the umpteenth time with the strange idea that, “If I say it one more time, you’re finally gonna get it or do it.”
23:23 Michael Port: Yeah. One of the actors’ principles that applies to non-actors in this particular situation is the concept of saying, “Yes and.” It’s a fundamental improvisation technique. So, if you and I were doing an improv scene and you ran in and said, “Oh my God, I broke my leg. I’m in so much pain.” And I said, “No, you didn’t. You’re fine.” Well, it’s over. It’s done, I stopped the action. But the performer’s job is to move the action forward. So, if you ran in and said, “I broke my leg. I’m in so much pain.” And I said, “Oh, that’s terrible but you know what? Your hair looks fantastic.” And you say, “Yeah, I know. I was at the hair salon. I was getting my hair done. The colours were… I mean, I was getting it colored. The fumes were noxious, I passed out, fell on the floor, broke my leg, and I… ” Now, we’ve got somewhere to go. So, I try to apply this concept to other areas of live. So, instead of playing the devil’s advocate, instead of poking holes, we say, “Yes, and how about this? Yes and this.” What do you think about this concept in the board room and in the bedroom? Do you think this concept of saying “Yes, and” can help move the action of your life forward?
24:29 Esther Perel: Yes, I think it’s a gorgeous concept. When you say no, especially in the context of a relationship, “I broke my leg, blah, blah, blah” or anything at work, you are basically doing the first thing that begin to break down a relationship. It’s the invalidation. You invalidate, you put down, you disqualify, you do all kinds of things that basically make the other person that they don’t matter. And we are creatures of meaning, and the most important thing is that we want to feel that we matter. When you say, “Yes, and” You validate me, I feel I exist, I feel my story has currency, I feel you’re listening to me, I feel you’re building upon what I said, and I don’t feel like you’re being defensive because when you are defensive, what I try to do is get through to you. And in order to get through to you, I’m gonna say 55 times the same thing.
25:20 Michael Port: Yeah. Right. So is that…
25:22 Esther Perel: It’s like a drill.
25:23 Michael Port: Yeah. Exactly. Has there been a time in your life where you… When you look back, you wish you had said yes? It would have given you a bigger opportunity or platform or better experience in some way, but instead you said no.
25:37 Esther Perel: I will go back to the thing you described before when you talked about how difficult it was to experience the rejection as an actor. I would say that where I said way to many no’s is that I had a very critical inner voice for a long time, and I was saying, “But, no.” To myself so much of the time. I was invalidating, the minute I wanted something I would say, “But, no.” To my… I didn’t need the chorus, everybody else would say, “Yes, and.” But I, to myself, was saying, “But, no.” And that was the end of that.
26:08 Michael Port: Yeah. Right.
26:10 Esther Perel: And finally, I began to turn this around, and the ‘but, no’ became ‘maybe not, but maybe yes.’ And then from there, it became a ‘yes, and’ and it totally changed. It’s like the same anxiety, instead of being something debilitating, now becomes a certain kind of a fuel, it’s a fuel for striving for more. Not everything is perfect but I don’t longer don’t sleep for three weeks when it’s not perfect.
26:41 Michael Port: So, you’ve become comfortable with the messy aspect of rehearsal, performance, creativity, it doesn’t have to be perfect?
26:52 Esther Perel: I do the best I can. I know I poured myself into it, and sometimes it comes out really with that magic, and sometimes it was okay. But when it was okay, there is tomorrow, and so the same thing is at work, you… It’s fine to know that you can come back and do it again. If you are in that board meeting or in that room, and you don’t wanna take the risk because you don’t want to experience the rejection, it is a way of life. It’s a way that… It’s a choice certain people make. You also will not be noticed, and you will not be ignored. It goes kind of, you’ll be a feature, and the day they need to clean up and they have too many people, you’ll be the first ones to go. If you are a person with a very strong voice but it’s not the correct voice that a company needs at this moment, you’ll also be able to go. You’ll be out of there, but you’ll be probably desirable to someone else who needs exactly that voice, and ultimately art comes when there is a fit. It’s the same in a therapy relationship. You need a fit, the fit between the therapist and the client, between the company and the worker. When there is a fit, the best of you comes out.
28:09 Michael Port: So, how do you know when the fit is not right, and it’s time to leave? Because it seems to me, I’ve experienced this myself, that there are times when you make choices in your life that put you into situations that may not be the best for you. And at some point you’ve got to make a decision, you’ve got to decide, “Is this fixable, can I improve this or is it time to go?”
28:39 Esther Perel: So, the beautiful thing you just said, is that you said, “Is it fixable? Is there something I can do?” Most of the time, that line is not the first one that is available to people, and certainly not in intimate relationships. People do not come for couples therapy to ask how they can improve themselves.
29:02 Esther Perel: They come to couples therapy to tell you what’s wrong with the other.
29:06 Michael Port: Yeah. [chuckle]
29:07 Esther Perel: Fix him.
29:09 Esther Perel: You take care of him, ’cause I certainly haven’t made to turn him around or change her or this or that. So, that in itself, the notion that the responsibility for change lies with me, that is one of the hardest things for people to own, and to be accountable for in the context of intimate relationships. At work, it goes both ways. Some people are very good at always pointing finger at everybody else, it’s their fault, the blame is outside, and some people have an ability also to take responsibility, and others are self-critical, so they put self-blame. It’s a continuum, between putting the responsibility elsewhere, owning it yourself or blaming yourself. You need that middle place.
29:54 Michael Port: Both my parents… I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this when we first met, but both my parents are therapists, my father… Yes, my father’s a psychiatrist, my mother, she’s retired now but was a clinical social worker, and she worked in… With children who were in the foster care system. Her work was actually much more emotionally difficult than my father’s work. But she has the kind of personality where, let’s say, I dropped a plate and broke it in the kitchen here in New Hope, Pennsylvania. She lives in Manhattan, which is about two hours away. She’ll blame herself for the fact that I dropped the plate.
30:30 Esther Perel: Right. [chuckle]
30:30 Michael Port: And there’s an interesting dynamic that we both have to work on because she feels so responsible for anything that doesn’t go right in my life or my sister’s life. And it’s a very interesting dynamic to play out. One of the things, when I… Yeah.
30:45 Esther Perel: I call it diverse grandiosity.
30:48 Michael Port: Explain that? What does that mean?
30:50 Esther Perel: I mean there’re many ways to look at this, you know. But one of the things is to say to people, “You are important, but you’re not that important!”
30:58 Esther Perel: It’s like some people think that they are grandiose and it means because they think they’re so fabulous.
31:03 Michael Port: Yeah.
31:03 Esther Perel: But some people are grandiose in the way that they think that they are the cause and the be all of everything that happens in other people’s lives. And you kind of want to say, “This is reverse grandiosity!”
31:13 Michael Port: Oh, that’s really sweet, that’s really sweet, and I imagine some of those folks care so much. That’s one of the reasons that, they have those feelings. They just care so deeply like I know my mother does. So, when I first got divorced, it was a little difficult as it often is. And I was having difficulty and I was seeing a therapist at the time. And he said, “Listen, Michael, just focus on the goal.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Listen, if you are trying to create a particular, say, custody dynamic. You have a goal. I want it to be this way. Focus on that, and make choices that will help you get to that, and ignore anything that will take you off that path. Meaning, if she says something that hurts you or you don’t like or you don’t think it’s true, just let it go because it may, if you pursue that path, it may not get you to the path that you want.”
32:17 Michael Port: And at that moment he said that I go, “Oh my God! That reminds me of what I used to do when I was an actor. Playing this role in order to achieve a particular objective.” And first thought that went through my head is, “Will I be authentic if I do that?” And then, the answer I discovered was yes, absolutely, because I’m not pretending to be something other than I am. I’m just making very clear choices about what I pursue, what I take in and what I don’t, and that made a big difference in that dynamic for me. It stopped being an emotionally charged relationship, which was one of the problems, and it allowed us, both of us, to focus on what we were trying to achieve.
33:00 Esther Perel: I think it’s great advice.
33:02 Michael Port: Yeah. You think this kind of thing applies to so many different areas.
33:07 Esther Perel: Yes, I think. But I would broaden it even. You asked me also when do you know that it’s time to go or that you can fix it? I mean, ending a job or leaving a company or ending a relationship, basically you end relationships. It’s a relationship with the company and with the people that are there or with the project that you’re in, and the… For me, the essential piece around ending goes like this: What was this relationship like for me? What am I taking with me? How will I remember it? How do I want to be remembered? What am I grateful for? And what do I wish for them? And what do I wish for myself? It’s those things that I call the goal.
33:54 Michael Port: Yes.
33:54 Esther Perel: It’s not just the custody or it’s not just the severance package, it’s this thing. When you leave a relationship well, you have a much better entry into the next relationships because by definition, we bring with us the default of the previous system.
34:13 Michael Port: Yeah, it really is lovely the way you describe that because the way you end a relationship is often even more important than the way you start it, ’cause it’s very easy to start well. That’s very easy. And…
34:24 Esther Perel: That’s correct. And there are a lot more rituals, and a lot more creative ways, and a lot more parties, and a lot more… There’s a whole system for starting, and there’s very little for ending.
34:37 Michael Port: So interesting. I… This is something that’s very, very important too, to me and Amy and all the people that work with us, that we’ve made commitments to each other. Say, like take my staff. We’ve all made commitments to each other but we also know that there may be a time when somebody wants to leave and do something else, and we also know that there may be a time when we’ve… The position that the person is in has outgrown what they are able to do at that time, and that things need to change. But what we’re often doing is we look for a way to create another opportunity for that person rather than taking away what they have. And maybe the opportunity is somewhere else, maybe it’s outside the company, but this way we’re ending stronger than we started.
35:28 Esther Perel: So have you ever thought… I think it’s a gorgeous idea, and for me it goes together with the performance of ending. It is a performance. We have a name for it in relationships, in intimate relationships these days. It’s called conscious uncoupling, which I think is a magnificent concept.
35:45 Michael Port: Yeah.
35:45 Esther Perel: Because, it really forces people to actually settle down for a moment as they leave. That means you look at the person that you’re leaving, and you say, “I came to say goodbye.” Imagine that you have a staff, and they’re sitting and they say, “This is our goodbye session. It’s not just a goodbye party where people drink, and talk, and they… ” They actually go around and they say, “This is what I will remember about you. This is what I think I learnt from you. This is what we will keep from the way that you were doing things. This is what I wish for you. This is what was difficult for me with you. This is what I hope you’d be able to do differently next time.” God, we would have a lot less HR work.
36:29 Michael Port: Yeah, well in the corporate world in the HR department they call it the exit interview. And you’re supposed to say what you didn’t like about the particular position, and you’re supposed to talk about what you didn’t like about the people you worked with. So, they supposedly can go fix it next time. That’s usually how it goes.
36:46 Esther Perel: Yes, I know but it’s a one on one…
36:49 Michael Port: Yeah, no, it’s terrible. I’m saying it’s…
36:51 Esther Perel: Who hasn’t dread an exit interview. That’s a performance. An exit interview is a play where you’re in character, where you have to… You feel certain things. I mean, this is really a scene with a goal.
37:03 Michael Port: Yeah, exactly. And not a scene that most of us wanna play because it’s often an inauthentic scene. It’s the flipside of our idea of performance authentically. And the way that you’re describing these ending rituals, really it seems like the word “Ending” isn’t even a word that applies anymore when you look at it that way. It’s just change.
37:26 Esther Perel: Correct, it’s a transition.
37:28 Michael Port: Yeah, my ex-wife and I have an amazing relationship now. I’m really close with her fiance who is a wonderful parental figure to my son. We spend a lot of time together, and we have a very connected relationship. It’s just different than it once was.
37:45 Esther Perel: Look, if you see divorce as the end of a family, then you create one set of meanings. If you see divorce as the reorganization of a family in which you’re no longer spouses but you’re still the parents of your son, and you still have your extended families, etc., etc. It’s a very different idea. People do not react the same way to the experience of reorganizing their family, then they react to the idea that they fail.
38:15 Michael Port: Yeah, let’s get back to lust.
38:19 Michael Port: I mention this because I think that two of the most important elements in relationships are respect and lust. Essentially… I saw an interview with Paul Newman once and he was asked, “What’s the secret to your long-term marriage? In Hollywood, it’s very rare.” And he said, “Lust.” And I thought it was great ’cause he was only half joking. And so, anyhow I wanted to talk about that because I think lust is sometimes scary. People… It’s referred to as one of the deadly sins as if it’s a terrible thing to want somebody to the point of lust. So, what are we so afraid of?
39:07 Esther Perel: Loss. Excess. Loss of control. Excess. Rejection. The bliss and the demise. The extremes. It’s all of that that goes into lust. Greed. It’s the intensity of it all. It is at the same time what we aspire to and what scares us, and we live with that paradox all the time.
39:32 Michael Port: That’s a beautiful, beautiful way to start to close up this show, this idea of paradox, because the performer’s paradox suggests that on one hand you have this intention to go out and do big things in the world to make a difference, to take risks. On the other hand, you have this intention not to screw up, not to get laughed at or rejected. And those two intentions they cancel each other out, they don’t do very well together. And the paradox, it seems for many folks, is that the greater this desire to go out and do big things, the greater this desire not to screw up, and then they cancel each other out. But if that desire is greater than the fear, then maybe you’ll start to move forward.
40:24 Esther Perel: So, I would… In my language, I would describe it like this. I think we all have two fundamental sets of human needs. We all have a need for security, for safety, for predictability, for stability. And we all have a need for adventure, for novelty, for change, for mystery, for risk, for danger. We have it in different degrees, all of us, but we all straddle these two sets of human needs and they change in the course of our lives too. And some of us are definitely more on the side of risk taking and some of us are more on the side of the need for security. But it is not a problem that we solve, it is a paradox that we manage. Intimacy and sexuality, love and desire, security and adventure, risk taking and failure, they are all paradoxes that we manage. And that actually is part of the juice of life, to be able to encounter that paradox again, and again in different situations at different ages and with different people in our life is really one of the essence of mystery of the life we lead rather than to try to come up with a set of techniques to close it off and solve it or resolve it. I think that some people may never take risks and then one day they do in a place where they utterly didn’t imagine, and they surprise themselves. And then others have done risk taking for decades, and then one day they say, “I’ve had enough. I wanna just do it a little quieter.”
42:05 Michael Port: Yeah, sure. What’s so interesting about this is that one of the main concepts of performance is contrast. When something is the same, watching it is generally not that interesting. Even the most beautiful note on the violin when played for an hour will have you running out of the concert hall. And we have delivery contrast, we have content contrast, we have emotional contrast, and the more that we can work these elements into our performances, the more exciting they are for other people to watch. And it seems like what you’re saying is, the more we can work contrast into our relationships, the more exciting experiences we can create.
42:53 Esther Perel: Because this is absolutely true. Because the essence ultimately comes down to… In this context, the essence comes down to curiosity. If there is contrast, you elicit my curiosity to pay attention. To pay attention and to notice and to have acute perception, and that is intrinsically linked to change, that there is something new that will appear that I had not yet expected, and that is the motor of life. It’s that ability to regenerate, to create new things. So, contrast requires curiosity to notice it. The curiosity for noticing it makes me be much more attentive, and much more present, and much more focused and hence, more authentic. And that will let me see the novelty, and the novelty is the motor for aliveness.
43:48 Michael Port: What’s something that a listener can do today, tonight in their relationship that will create a little bit more of this novelty, something actionable?
44:01 Esther Perel: It goes from the very simple. When you go home tonight and you sit at a table with your friend, your family, whoever you’re gonna be with. Hopefully… Or even by yourself and you say, “I’m gonna pay attention and I would like to focus on three things. Either three things that will appear to me that I hadn’t really paid attention to, either three things that I haven’t been paying enough attention to, and I’m gonna track ’em. Three things about me, about my interactions, about the others, about how we sit around the table, about how we communicate, about how I touch, how I kiss, how I make love.” Pick your area and then write it down. And then tomorrow do it again and begin to notice how much we do automatic stuff without paying attention, and that is what the actor cannot do.
44:51 Esther Perel: When you stop paying attention like that, you go still and accidents happen and all of that or accidents in relationships means people grow apart from each other and that’s it. So, then one day they notice there’s an ocean between them. Bring yourselves to a level of presence by being curious and by paying attention, and you will feel a whole different energy. The energy of a body that pays attention is a body that leans forward, that is alert, that is awake. The energy of a body that doesn’t wanna notice anything is a reclined body that plops itself with its whole weight on a chair and just doesn’t want to pay attention to anything. It’s a completely different energy of the body, and that energy is sexual, it’s interpersonal, it’s professional, it’s the energy that every performance activates.
45:43 Michael Port: Esther, you are a wonder.
45:47 Esther Perel: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to talk to you.
45:50 Michael Port: Where can people find you online?
45:53 Esther Perel: So, you find me at www.estherperel.com. You find on my site, which I am still strengthening and rebuilding now, but you’ll find a lot of the things are already there as I am building my own text startup at this point, a number of new online workshops and courses. You find me on YouTube, on Facebook, on Twitter, and on Instagram. And I invite you to join me, to follow me, to link with me, and to be part of this conversation about relationships in a provocative and fresh way.
46:27 Michael Port: Esther, thank you so much for being with us today. I really appreciate it.
46:30 Esther Perel: It’s a treat. Thank you, Michael.
46:32 Michael Port: So everybody, keep thinking big about who you are and what you offer the world, and I love you very much because you are somebody who stands in the service of others as you stand in the service of your destiny. Bye for now.