In her new podcast, "Where Should We Begin?", psychotherapist Esther Perel invites listeners to eavesdrop on real, raw sessions she's held with couples, who open up about their most intimate realities, from infidelity to child rearing to waning sexual desire. Some patients' names are removed, but their voices and stories (with permission, of course) are their own.
Perel, a superstar in the psychotherapy world (her TED talk, "The Secret to Desire in a Long-Term Relationship," boasts more than 10 million views), acknowledges where each partner is coming from in a way that's frank and nonjudgmental. In Perel's office, there's no sense that one party gets away with a misdeed—or is punished for it. The three work together to identify where things went wrong, but only in service of building a new, more functional relationship. Expertly, over the course of 45 minutes (that have been condensed from three hours), she enables longtime partners who struggle with the same fights over and over to hear and see one another in ways they haven't in years, maybe ever.
In one episode, a pair of married university sweethearts, both of whom were sexually abused as children and took purity pledges until marriage, describe themselves as the perfect match in every sense but sexually. The woman, who had assumed that she found sex unappealing, discovers that she does in fact want sex; it's her gentle, mild-mannered husband she finds unappealing. But after the husband tries role-playing a French alpha male who goes by Jean Claude and the wife puts on a blindfold (an opportunity she jumps at), the couple realizes that the parts they've been playing are not as immutable as they'd thought.
In another episode, a lesbian couple struggles with what appears to be an imbalance of affection; one woman spends all of her energy on their two young daughters, while the other feels neglected and sex starved. The possibility of divorce is brought up, but another story quickly emerges: Both partners are deeply in love, but they're not speaking each other's languages. All along, the parent spending more time mothering had trouble asking for help from her partner to take care of the kids so that she could tend to herself and, ultimately, their relationship.
From a listener's perspective, Perel's office is more fulfilling than the confessional and more entertaining than the dishy best friend, because the people telling their stories don't have the luxury of an empty seat next to them. The other side of the narrative is in the room to fact check.
Perel doesn't gloss over unhappiness or promise fairytale endings, but while partners might walk into her sessions feeling like there's no way forward, they seem to walk out empowered, armed with practical handiwork and with the sense that their relationship hinges on their actions. One couple struggling with intimacy in the aftermath of infidelity is prescribed a secret email address used only to pen each other notes and repair their broken communication channels. The lesbian mothers are tasked with putting together lists of the specific ways in which they want to be shown love. After a passionate kiss in Perel's office, Jean Claude and his blindfolded wife are encouraged to help each other into character when they're feeling disconnected.
"Where Should We Begin?" has something in common with TV's recent triumph Big Little Lies in that it captures the nuance, intrigue and simultaneous mundaneness at the center of one of modern love's prevailing mysteries: What's really going on with the couple next door? (Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, and architecture porn also help.) Both shows remind us what we already semi-know—that things aren't always as good, or as bad, as they seem. But rarely in real life do we get to decipher the codes that lie beneath the loving smile, the snide remark or the hand hold that composes a marriage's public-facing narrative. With Perel's podcast, you can.