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The Love Guru? Thoughts on Esther Perel

The Love Guru? Thoughts on Esther Perel

Caroline Moreau-Hammond reviews Esther Perel's Australian speaking tour and wonders why we're all looking for a love guru. ⁠
By Caroline Moreau-Hammond

Last week I sat down with roughly half of Melbourne's love-distressed population to hear Psychotherapist Esther Perel speak. Perel has gained international notoriety and pop culture status for her approach to modern relationships and sexuality, and her popularity seems to be at its tidal peak.

The air of the 5,500 seater concert hall was filled with equal parts hope and desperation as we waited for the 'intimate evening' to start. Her talk began with a series of questions. As the lights in the concert hall lifted, we were told, "If the answer applies to you, stand up." Her first question, "Who here has been dragged along tonight?", saw a wave of chino-clad men rise from their seats. Following her second question, "Who here is in a relationship and came with their partner this evening?", the chinos were joined by an accompanying wave of sundresses and heeled ankle boots. The real blow came with her final question, "Who here wants out of the relationship they're in?" A scatter of brave individuals stood. The internal screams of those who wished to stand, but didn't, were palpable. 

Using terms like 'relational ambiguity' and 'erotic intelligence', Perel explained the many shifts relationships have been subject to over the last 100 years. Armed with a clear concept for each generational and cultural shift, it was hard not to think, "Christ. She's cracked it."

I'm a very private person and will happily confess to having some grinchy tendencies. My equally grinchy friend and I stayed seated for the entire session and, during the enforced 'dance break', questioned whether we'd stepped into a vortex and landed on the set of The Ellen Show. 

As question time rolled around, a line of eager individuals took the mic. The questions ranged from "Should my partner and I open our relationship?", to "How do I get my partner to share with me more?", to "How do I get my partner to understand my point of view?". One overwhelmed woman tried to catch her breath, muttering, "You're a superstar" to Perel before mustering the nerve to ask her question. With each question, you could feel the asker waiting for Perel to deliver the blow that would change everything. That would allow the person to transcend themselves or encourage their leopard of a lover to change its spots. 

At this point, I thought, "Has anyone been listening to anything this incredibly eloquent woman has said over the last ninety minutes?" I don't say this out of a false sense of superiority. I'm no more capable of interpreting Perel's words than anyone else, and my romantic blunders could easily appear on an episode of "Where Should We Begin?". 

However, the frustration I feel is this: we live in a world of opinion and personality where critical thinking and autonomy have been replaced with expert instruction. So often, we look to those around us for answers, instead of ourselves. It's as if what someone else thinks is more consequential than our ability to navigate our own lives, because the guru knows best.

Take me to your leader

When we constantly seek instruction on what the parameters of our beliefs should be, our capacity to ingest and synthesise new ways of viewing an issue in an individual way becomes very limited. We're more interested in who has the latest hot take, over our own understanding of the world. I often wonder if this desire for quick answers and solutions is partly why so many people are consumed with trying to patch up relationships, instead of being in genuinely fulfilling ones. 

This desire for a guru is not new. Humans seem to have an innate tendency to look for guidance from higher sources. Without this, we wouldn't have Jesus, Musk, Paltrow, or Perel. I see this desire for external fixes and instruction as part of 'hacking culture', or the culturally pervasive belief that with the right information (and products), we can possess full control over our lives. It's why we're all counting our steps, controlling our houses with Siri, and putting therapists at the centre of the cultural Zeitgeist (Netflix's 'Stutz' is another great example of this).

While having Siri wake me up with soft jazz at 5.30 am every day, or knowing how many steps I've taken, might give me a sense of mastery over my own life, it does not make me a more inherently complete person. Neither does taking the advice of Perel. To suggest that one person can single-handedly give you the answers is to ignore the uniqueness and complexity that each interpersonal relationship carries. 

The irony of this is that, in my interpretation, the relational intelligence Perel advocates for is trying to discourage people from precisely this type of 'fixing' behaviour. Her work often explores the gaping chasm between what we want, what is possible, and all the crap we fill that chasm with to try and create a bridge. 

Perel claims she is not a 'Deus ex Machina', coming down from the high heavens with all the answers on love and relationships. However, as I sit in a crowd of 5,500 who have all paid upwards of $100 per ticket, this claim feels a little harder to swallow. While being the messiah of relational bliss might not be her aim, the crowd's questions sang a different tune. Whether Perel believes she has all the answers or not is irrelevant if people treat her as though she does. 

A moment that exemplified this came when Perel mentioned her 35-year marriage. Some audience members began to clap, and my whole body cringed. "Why are you clapping?" she asked. "You have no idea what my marriage is like." This signifies one of the many myths we believe about love, for example, that longevity equates to quality. More interestingly, it demonstrates how we reach for ideals above realities, particularly in matters of the heart. 

I often feel Perel's openness is mistaken for endorsement, particularly regarding non-monogamy and infidelity. Perel's idea that one partner can't provide everything is often taken as a recommendation, if not a suggestion, that non-monogamy is the only way to balance a partner's shortcomings. In doing so, we ignore Perel is merely pointing out how drastically our expectations of love have shifted in the last 100 years, and the need to find new ways to approach love in light of this.

Unsolving the unsolvable

I've been in therapy since I was 16. My relationship with men has been a predictably tragic cornerstone for someone of my demographic. Despite this predictability, I also know I'm complex. I make many mistakes (particularly in matters of love), and no amount of Esther Perel seminars will help me escape that, because that is the work of a lifetime. 

The following day, a friend who also attended texted me asking what I thought. "It says a lot that therapists are the rock stars of our generation," I responded. Perel arrived at an opportune cultural moment where the internet, globalisation, and the after-effects of the sexual revolution are all intersecting and creeping into our beds. She comes at a time when there's social cache in 'owning your trauma'. Wanting to interrogate your inner world is not only less shameful than ever before, but also a signifier of how evolved you are. It's as if the amount of Alain de Botton you've read indicates your worthiness as a potential lover. But don't forget, you can read Botton and Perel and still be an asshole. And that's okay. 

Relationships, whether friendships, romantic, or professional, are fucking brutal. I don't deny this. Anyone willing to put time and effort into genuinely working on this is worthy of hearty applause. However, I refute the idea that someone else can help you, more than you can help yourself. 

No winged cupid (or middle-aged Belgian psychotherapist) can save you. In love, we hurt people, and we get hurt. I accept this is part of living a life with meaning. In the words of psychoanalyst Jamieson Webster, "Sex and love press us up against the ways we attempt to organise their excesses. But they disorganise. If we start to fear we cannot offer adequate containment, we risk bringing desire under wraps, or even killing it, at our own cost." 

I don't believe life can be modulated or controlled. Between culture, personalities, and family histories, there are too many variables to ever expect matters of the heart to be orderly and pain-free. Or all this could be my grinchy-ness talking. Either way, I'm content with continuing to fumble through love.

If you'd like to read Perel (with a critical and discerning eye), you can find her books here.  

Caroline Moreau-Hammond

– Founder of Becuming