If a bus is coming and it is either going to run over your spouse or your baby, who do you choose?
This is not an example of a question that dynamo couples counselor Esther Perel would bring up in a session. But we do hear a woman ask this of her wife in a cathartic moment of Perel’s groundbreaking new podcast, “Where Should We Begin?”
We begin with a man and a woman trying to reconcile a year of infidelity.
We begin with two women whose marriage seems threatened by their love for their own children.
We begin with a vivacious young couple struggling to process their individual experiences of childhood sexual assault without ripping apart the fabric of their relationship.
We begin with lies. We begin with impotence. We begin, remarkably, with couples who both seem entirely present and invested in the conversations.
The premise of the podcast is simple: couples meet with Perel for a full-length counseling session, which Perel records. Names and some personal details are excluded. Everything else is explicitly, unapologetically available. Except for the invisibility of the speakers and the occasional intoning of gentle mood music, it feels like you are with them in the room.
Perel is something of an anomaly: a professional helper who has begun to achieve celebrity without compromising on ethics or trading on shock value. Though she has the kind of chiseled blondness, structured wardrobe, and intentional charisma that have made some of her peers into television personalities, Perel is a psychotherapist, not an entertainer. The child of two Holocaust survivors, born in Belgium, and educated at Hebrew University, Perel has risen because of the dynamism of her work, not her looks. She was a couples therapist for thirty years before charging into the public consciousness with a Ted Talk invitingly titled, “The Secret To Desire In A Long-Term Relationship”. The talk has since garnered close to 10 million views, and Perel has achieved a status somewhere between erotic icon and folk hero.
Maintaining desire over a decades-long relationship may be where many couples wish to begin, but Perel’s methods range from resetting the conversation with gentle questions (“Give me a sense of your social landscape” ) to encouraging couples to don masks and adopt alter-egos—”Jean-Claude”, the ravishing Frenchman who makes an appearance in the young couple’s episode is a highlight you have to hear to believe.
Except for Perel’s expertly psychotherapeutic tone of voice, nothing that is said or done in any of the episodes is predictable. Perel says that this range of possibility comes from the fact that couples are willing to do anything they can to get better. She says that when people come to her office, “I feel that people have given me the permission. They trust me. They trust me and say, ‘Take us out of this mess. Help us.’ And I feel that that permission emboldens me. It allows me to say, ‘We’re going to play together.’”
Whether it is natural earnestness or the options afforded by Perel’s quasi-casting call, which yielded 450 applicants, every patient in Perel’s office is erudite and massively appealing. And Perel, who presides over all, is by turns meltingly compassionate, genius, and comical. It is clear by minute two that each couple is enchanted by her. Every couple of minutes the tension of the session is broken by entirely unexpected peals of laughter from all three parties after an unexpected comment by Perel. Though the laziest comparison would be to a reality show, Perel occasionally has notes of Judge Judy, saying to a couple, “It’s very rare that I just make a blanket statement like this: Your communication is terrible!” This comment, which might have ended the session, resulted in raucous laughter from the couple.
“The myth that sex is natural has done harm to so many people because it presumes that you should just know,” Perel tells one couple. Rather, she says, “It’s an art”. This type of tweet-length wisdom is part of Perel’s allure. But with one-time, brief counseling sessions, how does Perel avoid what I would call ‘haircut syndrome’— a seemingly life-altering experience with a professional that washes away after one shower, leaving you even more secure than before? Part of the answer is that Perel intentionally only meets with couples once, and for three hours that are edited down to fit the podcast. “They come to me because they want to discuss something in particular that plagues them, that haunts them, that they would like to change and have a deeper understanding of,” she told Vogue. “They are really coming for a conversation with me.”
Perel says that those who download her podcast experience “compulsive listening”, which is a remarkably exact description. The series appears free (through July) on Audible every Friday, is as un-put-down-able as a podcast can be, and thankfully, doesn’t force anyone to choose between a spouse or a child.
Where should we begin? What is important, Perel seems to argue, is that we begin at all.
Jenny Singer is a writer for the Forward. You can reach her at Singer@forward.com or on Twitter @jeanvaljenny.