Lifestyle"Technology facilitates life but degrades experiences": warning from couple's therapist

"Technology facilitates life but degrades experiences": warning from couple's therapist

Technologies are destroying our ability to cope with the unpredictability of fate and love.
Technologies are destroying our ability to cope with the unpredictability of fate and love.
Images source: © GETTY | Chesnot

5:08 AM EDT, October 29, 2023

According to well known couples therapist, Esther Perel, technology is undermining our ability to manage the unpredictability of fate and love, encouraging us to expect everything, including relationships, to proceed without a hitch. She advises: treat your partner like your clients, and all will be better.

During her speaking engagements, Perel often poses a question to her audience: "Who amongst you is in a relationship but sometimes wishes otherwise? Please, raise your hand." She reassures: "It's quite normal." and proceeds to raise her own hand. Evidently, many in the room share the sentiment.

"Intimacy is a storm of conflicting emotions: love and hatred, fascination and disgust, fear and excitement, contempt and jealousy," Esther explains with a smile.

This, she labels as relational ambivalence. It is due to this we sometimes find ourselves longing to be single, but the very next day we express gratitude for being in a relationship. We navigate this in relationships with parents, children, bosses, but we find it hardest to accept in romantic relationships. "Most of my work is not about solving problems, but managing paradoxes," says Esther.

A renowned couples therapist

Esther Perel, a high-profile therapist, resides in New York, runs a private practice, hosts a YouTube channel, authors books, and her TED talks have amassed over 40 million views. She manages two podcasts: "Where Should We Begin?" and "How's Work?" The latter explores work, while the former records sessions with anonymous couples—longstanding and paused relationships, young and old, straight and gay, monogamous and polyamorous.

She is a couples psychotherapist. She talks about technologies that destroy eroticism.
She is a couples psychotherapist. She talks about technologies that destroy eroticism.© Press materials

The participants discuss their issues, reveal intimate and unconventional details, while Esther provides assistance. Her profound understanding, empathy, and inspiration ensure her podcasts are also popular amongst people in satisfied relationships, attracting listeners from all generations, from Generation Z to Baby Boomers. Apart from individual therapies, Perel also leads a multidisciplinary online training platform, "Sessions," for therapists and coaches, and an online course for couples, "Rekindling Desire." As a relational specialist, in a professional and business capacity, she often presents at conferences – this May, we will have a chance to hear her at Impact24. One of her latest books, "Erotic Intelligence: How to Maintain Closeness in Relationships," was published in Poland this year.

Eros as a tool for healing

Esther holds the belief that the quality of our relationships decides our life quality. She helps clients reignite energy in relationships and views eroticism from a broader perspective. "Eroticism isn't solely about sex, but also pleasure, curiosity, spontaneity, play, imagination—the mystical sense of the world," she pens in her blog. Her parents were her biggest influencers—they taught her how to endure hardship and appreciate the simple delights of life.

Sala Ferlegier and Icek Perel, Esther's parents, were both born near Czestochowa. They were familiar with each other but hailed from separate social groups. Circumstances brought them together as they became the only survivors from their families during the Holocaust.

"My parents never doubted that life is worth living, that love can be rekindled, that families can be started anew, that life can bring joy. They made sure to instil this faith in me as a child, and it is from that well of strength that I draw from when I work with people who feel trapped in despair after a partner's betrayal, journeying with them through their stories of feeling that their life has been irretrievably shattered," she shares during an interview conducted at the 92nd Street Y cultural center in New York.

Sala and Icek managed to survive labor camps and reunited post-liberation. As they lost all family members, they were reluctant to return to Poland. Encouraged by a former campmate, they migrated to Belgium, where they had two children: Leon and Esther.

From a young age, Esther observed the lives of many survivors and promptly categorized them into two groups: those who "did not die," and those who "returned to life." The first group included individuals who harboured lingering fear of the world around them, and the second included those who found an antidote in eroticism and relationship building. "Eroticism and the connection with our vitality form a source of healing trauma, helping us contend with pain and suffering," she underlined in an interview with "The Sydney Morning Herald."

The hassle of app date-searching

Despite being fluent in nine languages, Esther doesn't label any as her "native tongue". Her household was multilingual, with Polish, Yiddish, French, German, and Dutch in use. She studied in Jerusalem and moved to New York for postgraduate studies. She fell in love with the city and a gentleman named Jack Saul—a psychologist and scientist. Together for 40 years now, they have two children. When she met him at the age of 23, did she know he was "the one"?

"Jack and I were close friends for two years before we became a couple. I realized I had never experienced such a deep connection with anyone else, and no one had ever engaged me at that level," she discloses in "The Sydney Morning Herald".

In one of her speeches, she quipped that if she relied on an app to find a partner, using an algorithm would not have matched them. "Many of Jack's qualities contradict my expectations, but I was open to discovery. He would echo this sentiment about me," she disclosed during a speech at the SXSW technology conference in 2023. Many couples that Esther counsels meet via apps, and frustrations linked to their functioning are frequently aired in her office.

"People using apps often avoid intimacy. It shows up through sudden withdrawal from the relationship. We must endure many disappointments before finding a person who agrees to date us," she notes.

When we do decide to date, we are intolerant of uncertainty and pursue perfection—he needs to be taller, have a prominent job, specific interests, a perfect silhouette. Even a minor setback compels us to quit. One of her clients attempted to crack the app's algorithm to display better, more suited matches (he essentially wanted to understand why the algorithm perceived him as inadequate). This fixation with optimization restricts us from experiencing surprise and it's through encountering someone truly different that we discover our own identity.

The myth of romantic love

Although Perel acknowledges the significant role technology plays in her success (her podcasts and blogs wouldn't be as popular without it), she often comments on the detrimental effects it has on our lives, relationships, and social skills. The phone dictates everything: who to date, which route to take, what to listen to. But it is through real-life experiences that we develop our identities!

Technology simplifies life, but it leaves us unable to handle the unpredictability of life and love. It promises to eliminate conflicts and discrepancies, the same points which form the essence of eroticism. We desire consistency and smoothness, even in relationships. Moreover, we subscribe to the myth of romantic love, marketed to us right from fairy-tale induced childhoods, by pop culture. In our adult relationships, we expect our idealized, romantic partners to cater to a set of conflicting needs.

We yearn for paradoxes: stability, predictability, safety, dependability, protection, together with adventure, freedom, curiosity, intrigue, and excitement. We now expect a single person to fulfil roles traditionally filled by an entire village—to be our financial advisor (handling the household budget), conversation partner, companion, lover, cook, etc. One of Esther's most universal tips is: "Maintain meaningful engagements with the world, develop your village and valuable connections. Seek support and inspiration from diverse sources. Refrain from burdening your partner with every problem. Share responsibilities."

The struggle for balance between safety and adventure

With the evolving role of marriage—from pragmatism through romanticism to self-realization—work prospects have broadened. Work is intended to provide subsistence, a roof over our heads, and also fulfil psychological requirements like belonging and self-realization. Hence, corporate culture, staff soft skills, and relational intelligence are gaining relevance. As an expert in relational intelligence, Perel regularly receives invitations to conferences discussing building work and business relationships.

"Previously, we ended marriages because we were unhappy. Today we do it because we suspect we could be happier in a different relationship. We left jobs because there was nothing left for us to do, now we resign because we feel our potential is underutilized and we don't belong," she asserted at the HR-focused UNLEASH conference in 2018.

Indeed, in both personal and professional life, everyone seeks to fulfil basic needs for safety and adventure. Some people fear losing their partner in a relationship, while others fear losing themselves. Perfect relationships manage to strike a balance, combining safety and adventure. In personal relationships, we aim for security, but if we feel our partner is never going to leave, our motivation dwindles.

The same holds true in workplaces: if employees feel their jobs are secure, they may quickly become complacent. However, if the fear of being dismissed prevails, it can adversely affect their output. Striking this balance demands work, commitment, active nurturing, and development of relationships, both personal and professional. Esther concludes with a poignant analogy: "If you treat your partner like a cactus, merely tending to it occasionally, the relationship won't flourish. However, if you treat your partner like your valued clients, the bond will improve significantly."

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