Feelings are the new rock stars. Or at least Esther Perel is a rock star. The psychotherapist who specializes in couples therapy and who rose to prominence more than a decade ago with her first book, “Mating in Captivity,” had hundreds of people lined down the halls and up and down stairwells waiting to get into her South by Southwest keynote speech Friday afternoon. The crowd was so massive that those standing at the end of the line were encouraged to head to overflow conference rooms to hear the engaging Belgian therapist discuss the state of human relationships. (I thankfully took the volunteer’s advice and had a front row seat at the large monitor.)
The wry and perspicacious Perel requested the lights remain up after stating with some questions about who in the audience was in relationships and following up with asking how many of those who raised their hands were in relationships that they wished they could get out of (at least sometimes).
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Scheduling Perel, part of the health track at SXSW, was an inspired move. The festival has long been home to tech innovators and innovations, a hotbed for creating social tools but not necessarily a place dominated by actual person-to-person communications, social warmth or vulnerability. Giving Perel this platform and seeing how many people showed up hungry to engage were encouraging signs that maybe the existential dread of feeling isolated that Perel discussed is at its tipping point. The therapist noted that she had spoken at a different tech conference recently that welcomed all of the big thinkers responsible for the architecture of much of our future but none was tabbed to discuss the future of human relationships.
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“How can that be?” Perel said. “It is almost irresponsible, especially when we know the qualities of our relationships determine the quality of our lives.”
Likely heartened by the turnout and more than aware of people’s longing to connect, Perel encouraged attendees to talk to strangers, get their heads out of their phone and find inspiration in each other.
Below are a few more of Perel’s pearls:Relationships are undergoing a massive shift and rules are changing. Religion had clear structures and dictated social standards. All the big decisions were made for us. But the options, choices and freedom we now encounter have led to never-ending negotiations. Because of that, conversations have become the heart of relationships but we don’t have all the tools. While Americans may be accustomed to quick-fix culture, Perel said she has no easy three-step solution to our current predicament. A quick tour of history followed human relationships as they evolved from the safety and rigidity of tribes and villages where everyone had rules and roles that led to belonging and identity, to the place we are now where people unfairly demand our romantic partner serve as every solution in a long haul that is getting longer and longer.Regarding the unfair expectations energizing romantic stasis: “You don’t solve this problem with Victoria’s Secret, and since there is no Victor’s Secret, we all know where the responsibilities lie.”We are facing a modern epidemic of loneliness. It is the number one American health crisis in America,ahead obesity. Perel turned the word “intimacy” into the phrase “into me see,” explaining that people enter relationships wanting contact and connection to be made to feel that they matter. Relationships require the balancing of safety and adventure and the need for care versus need for space. One partner is often more scared of losing the other, while the second partner may be more afraid of suffocation. “Soul mate” is an interesting concept to Perel because for most of history it meant god, but not in Western secular society. “We look to our partners to give us transcendence and meaning and ecstasy and wholeness. Add that to a romantic consumption culture and you are in trouble.”A revolution is under way that is giving women power and their voice, unlocking boxes that define masculinity and feminism. But the role of men in the equation can not be ignored. “Patriarchy doesn’t just hurt women, it hurts us all,” Perel said, adding that the systemic dismantlement of men’s emotional lives in order to create this idea of the powerful ideal male has been toxic, leading to competitiveness that has actually made men more vulnerable but worst partners.We need to create more whole people beyond binary gender constructs. When paradigm changes happen, it gets messy and difficult. More than ever we need nuanced conversation. Fake news isn’t just politics. We use social media to create these false constructs about the kind of couples we are, which leads to a disconnect. Are we the only imperfect ones? Of course not. “It is part of a collective yearning or social ill.” Perel created her podcast as a way to recreate a virtual village where people can see themselves in others’ problems and learn to communicate. “How often do you show up in your relationships and how often do you not show up with emojis?” “Relationships are your story. Write well and edit often.”