I asked a top couples therapist for 3 things people don't realize about strong relationships
- Marriage can be challenging, and couples therapist Esther Perel has seen it all.
- Perel shared insights on how to handle every potential stage of a relationship, from dating (there's no such thing as "the one") to cheating (it doesn't always mean the person is unhappy with their partner).
- This post is part of Relationships 101, a series which aims to help us all be happier and healthier in love - and to stop fighting over who should take out the trash.
I first met Esther Perel in 2017, at a launch event for her new book, "The State of Affairs."
Perel has been a couples therapist for years; she previously published the bestseller "Mating in Captivity." I was impressed by how much energy she still had as she talked about intimate relationships, about our fears and feelings around them.
At one point, she acted out a hypothetical person's reaction when they find out their partner has been unfaithful - which couldn't have been easy, given that the person was having many different reactions at once. (The punchline: "F--- you; f--- me!")
A few months later, Perel visited the Business Insider office to record a series of videos in which she answered all our burning questions about modern romance - from dating to marriage. Three points stood out to me as most insightful:
1. There's no such thing as 'the one'
Perel said many people who use dating apps feel paralyzed by indecision: How do you know you're choosing the right person from among the millions of options?
Perel's answer: You aren't, but you are. "There is never 'the one.' There is a one that you choose and with whom you decide that you want to build something. But in my opinion, there could also have been others."
And now that you've chosen this person, you "come up with all the arguments to justify why that was the right person," Perel said. "There is no one and only. There is the one you pick and what you choose to build with that person."
2. Empathy and understanding are the best ways to resolve conflict
According to Perel, the two most important skills in a strained relationship are the ability to show empathy for your partner's experience and to take responsibility for your contribution to the problems. She called them the "saving grace" of any rocky relationship.
Empathy, Perel said, is all about being able to "acknowledge what the other person is going through; to validate that the other person is going through this, that it makes sense that they would be feeling this way." It's harder than it sounds.
Taking responsibility means shifting the focus from what the other person is doing wrong to what you might be doing wrong.
Perel said, "It's so easy to focus on what's missing in the other person. It's so easy to go critical. It's so easy to think that if you were different, my life would be better, rather than sometimes to switch it around and think if I was different, my life would be better. And maybe if I was different with you, you would be different with me."
3. Cheating doesn't necessarily mean something is wrong with the relationship
Perel acknowledged that when someone strays, it's generally assumed that there was something wrong with their relationship. And yet she called this a "deficiency model" of infidelity, because it doesn't account for other motivations.
"Many times the people who stray are also hoping to reconnect with lost parts of themselves," she said.
Maybe they've always been a goody-two-shoes and long to rebel, or maybe they've gotten so caught up in taking care of the kids that they haven't properly attended to their own desire for stimulation. These aren't excuses for infidelity, but different ways of looking at the reasons for cheating.
Perel said: "Often when a person goes to look elsewhere, it isn't so much that they're looking for another partner as much as they're looking for another self. It isn't so much that they want to leave the person that they are with as much as they want to leave the person that they have themselves become."
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