9 Things I’ve Learned From Eavesdropping on Couples Therapy Sessions

Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

In the middle of troubling discussions on grief, betrayal and regret, relationship therapist Esther Perel always manages to make her clients laugh. No matter how tense the room or heartbreaking the problem, she’ll find the perfect thing to say: something kind, wise, true, and miraculously, something funny. Then the couple, from the depths of frustration and despair, will laugh. Just like that, the tone will shift from hopeless to hopeful.

Esther Perel is a genius.

In her new podcast, Where Should We Begin, Perel invites us into her private therapy sessions so that we may, in her words, “learn, explore, and experience alongside the couples who have been gracious enough to let us in.” The first season premiered on Audible in June, but it’s currently re-airing, week by week, on the Apple podcast app. Each week the clients change, but their sessions revolve around a common theme: seemingly inescapable ruts, problems that sit like unwieldy roadblocks in their paths.

Perel has an incredible skill for understanding people; it’s fascinating to witness. Every episode I’m bowled over by her ability to reframe a problem and find a way forward. In just the first five episodes I’ve learned so much. Below are some of the most memorable lessons.

1. “Time” doesn’t heal you — it’s what happens inside the time.

In the first episode, “I’ve Had Better,” a woman struggles to build back trust and affection for her husband after he’s been unfaithful. When Perel asks her how she intends to move forward, the woman says, “time.”

“I’m hoping that the time will just put things in place,” she tells Perel, going on to explain how just two months ago, she was uncontrollably angry at her husband, but she wasn’t anymore. So maybe, to regain feelings for him, she just needed to wait.

“But you’re not that angry because you’re numb. And that’s not necessarily where you want to stay,” Perel points out.

“How do you fix that? I’m assuming just time, right?” the woman replies.

“No,” Perel says. “Time never exists in its own. It’s what happens in it. You have to give it meaning. You have to shape it.”

2. There’s a difference between understanding someone mentally and understanding someone emotionally.

With that same couple, Perel listens as they go back and forth, explaining their respective concerns, and she can tell it’s a conversational pattern they’ve followed before.

Perel cuts in: “I can see the two of you talking. And most the time you wait for the other one to be done and then you start to give your version and you don’t hear each other and nothing is absorbed…That is not communication.”

The woman disagrees: “I understand him. I totally understand him.”

“But there is understand mentally,” Perel says, “and there’s a way in which you feel that the other person connects to [your view] and cares about it. And at this point, neither of you really has had the experience that the other person actually GETS IT, connects to it, cares about it. You may go over the conversation again and again, but you need a bridge.”

3. You can reframe your differences as “roles,” and then support each other in those.

In the second episode, “Motherless Women,” two women are struggling with an imbalance in their marriage: one puts more energy into the children, while the other feels their relationship has become a casualty of that; she feels abandoned.

“Here’s what I want to suggest to you,” Esther says, after hearing them talk at length about what they wish the other felt, “because you actually could take those differences and make them work in a much more complementary way. You [to the abandoned wife] need to say, ‘I can think about the connection between us…I can hold the focus on the couple because I know that you’re focusing on the girls and on the family.’ And you [to the mothering wife] need to say, ‘And I thank you for focusing on the couple, because that way I don’t forget it.'”

Esther encourages them to change their language: Instead of both wondering why the other is thinking about that, they should thank each other for fulfilling their respective roles. She says that acceptance of each other’s natural talents (within reason of course), will help them find emotional equilibrium.

4. If you’re stuck getting in the same argument over and over, change your approach.

In episode three, “Speak to Me in French,” a couple struggles to connect sexually. After hearing their story, Perel gets the sense that the two of them had been having the same conversation for years.

“You need a new perspective, yeah?” Perel says. “Otherwise it’s going to be one more interesting chat but with no movement and then you start to feel more hopeless each time.” She then suggests they either do the session with foreign accents, different names, or blindfolded.

“I will change names,” the woman says, “but I’m also kind of curious to blindfold, because I people-please a lot by getting people’s facial reactions… and if I was blindfolded, maybe I would be able to hear things in a different way.” The man, who is bilingual, decides to speak in French, and Esther spends the session translating his words for his English-speaking wife. The arrangement inspires new levels of honesty throughout the session.

5. The “bad boy” stereotype is often misunderstood.

In the same episode, the woman expresses that she likes “bad boys,” which her husband is decidedly not. He says he doesn’t want to be the type of person who carelessly does whatever he wants.

“A part of why sometimes a woman likes ‘the bad boy,'” Perel counters, “is not because she likes the man to be a predator. But it’s because ‘the bad boy,’ as you described, knows to take care of himself perfectly well, thank you, and so he frees her from having to feel responsible for him, for having to worry about him, from having to experience his anxiety. And because he can let go in his pleasure, it frees her up to be in her pleasure.”

The woman immediately sighs in relief at being understood, and goes on to explain that his inability to get out of his head and pursue what he wants is part of why she can’t get out of her head, either.

6. Our culture of shame, or outright abuse, can cause many people to think of themselves as separate from their sexual desires. 

In episode four, “The Addict,” a couple that’s been married for decades is on the rocks after the husband admits to cheating on her for the entire length of their marriage due to a secret sex addiction.

As the wife fails to grasp how he could do this, Perel explains how a duality of character can exist. “He tells us about an experience that many [abused] boys have. They live with tremendous shame and a tremendous sense that they’re damaged…It internalizes a sense of dirty/bad and that begins to be the split between the ‘good’ me and the ‘bad’ me.”

She points out how shame learned at a young age can incite a kind of split in a person’s personality, and she encourages the woman to wrap her mind around the idea that her husband could be both the man she thought he was AND the man who cheated on her.

7. Feeling ashamed for hurting a person is different than feeling empathy for that person.

The same couple, despite having gone over all the details and motivations of the husband’s cheating, is not getting through to each other. Then Perel asks the wife, “How much does he talk about what he did to you versus what happened to him?”

“I would say he talks more about what happened to him than what happened to me,” the wife replied.

“Correct. I’m sensing that. That is off-balance,” Perel says. She goes on to explain how it makes sense that, after all the years of solitude in his sex addiction and deception, the husband would be eager to talk about his own journey, but that he needed to also step out of himself, and care for his wife while she grieved.

Perel continues: “The problem is that if you go to her and you say ‘I can’t believe how I treated you,’ you have to be able to not say, ‘I feel so bad about me for having done this.’ It’s the difference between ‘I feel so bad about myself’ versus ‘I feel bad for you.’… Your wife is more isolated than you, and she needs not an apology, but an acknowledgement of her experience.”

8. Language has power. Using different words can shift an entire narrative.

In episode five, “Impotent is No Way to Define a Man,” a couple struggles with sex due to the husband’s erectile difficulties. Perel, however, is put off by both of their use of the word “impotent.”

“You have this elephant that’s been between the two of you for a long time,” she says, “with a complete over-focus on your performance…and all these ugly words that are completely shaming and emasculating — you know the word ’emasculating’ does not exist in the feminine? That’s a plague for men. So change the language. Because it’s crippling…Language shapes the experience. If you keep repeating ‘you are impotent, you are impotent’… you end up reinforcing the very reality that you’re trying to undo. It’s not useful.”

She explains that sex is about so much more than genitals — skin, touch, sight, feel, eye contact — and that their focus on his penis is stalling them.

9. You can gain confidence by seeking pleasure for yourself, not just by pleasing others.

In the same episode, Perel begins to see that the husband has never learned to ask for what he wanted, nor even consider it, and his inability to pursue his own pleasure was keeping him from being truly intimate.

“There is no bigger turn-on than confidence,” Perel says. “You have not had much experience with asking. Knowing what to ask, and then trusting that you will receive, and then enjoying receiving. It’s a new language…And you’re going to learn a question that was never asked to you as a child: What would you like?”

She tells him to experiment with using phrases such as “I like” and “I would like” and “this feels good” — what she calls the “therapy of indulgence.” It’s from that place, Perel explains, that he can gain the confidence to make sexual experiences with his wife two-sided. “You’re very good at taking care of other people,” Perel says to him, “you may not be good at letting other people take care of you.”

If you can believe it, the above only scratches the surface. Perel has a true gift for seeing people, and it’s made me rethink how I approach tricky conversations in my own life. If you’re into this kind of thing, give it a listen — not only because Perel’s an infinite well of wisdom, but because it’s incredible to bear witness to someone be so ridiculously good at her job.

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman is the Features Director at Man Repeller.

More from Archive