November 18, 2021
EP. 85 — Esther Perel
Psychotherapist, author, and podcaster-extraordinaire Esther Perel joins Jameela this week to discuss how our expectations of marriage have changed over the past 100 years, why you aren’t feeling sexy after the pandemic, why polyamory still feels taboo (even though it shouldn’t!), why infidelity isn’t necessarily a death knell of a relationship, and more.
You can follow Esther on Twitter @estherperel and on Instagram @estherperelofficial
Check out Esther Perel’s podcast – Where Should We Begin:https://whereshouldwebegin.estherperel.com/
You can find transcripts for this episode on the Earwolf website.
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85 — Esther Perel
Jameela [00:00:00] Hello and welcome to another episode of I Weigh with Jameela Jamil. I hope you’re well. I am OK. I’m feeling a bit better this week. I want to thank you for all of your lovely messages about some of my more personal intros about what I’ve been struggling with of late. It’s not only your kindness that means a lot, but also how many of you are going through the same thing. Now while I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. It really does make you feel less alone, and I’m just grateful to you for sharing that with me because it’s never an easy thing to do, even though it should be an easy thing to do. And it shouldn’t be something that we consider taboo or difficult still. But our society has continuously failed us, so that’s why we’re still a little bit behind there. But it is a magical part of sharing the way that you feel is that you never know who you might find a community with. And so I appreciate you for that. And speaking of mental health, which is why I’m sort of loosely referring to, I can’t fucking believe who I’ve got on this podcast this week. I love her so much. I think she’s so cool and I’m so excited for you to hear our conversation. I have the excellent Esther Perel on my podcast. She is a psychotherapist and she is someone who I guess her work in relationships and sex and love have really, really kind of, I don’t know, made her world famous icon in this area. And so I decided to put a load of questions out to you guys and see what it is that you’re curious about at the moment and then kind of pull together which ones came up the most and then used those as my line of questioning. And I do that because especially when I’m interviewing an expert, I want to know what you want to know about, not just what I want to know about. This is our communal learning experience. And so I hope that yours is a question that kind of got loosely answered in this episode. But regardless, she’s so fascinating, and her way of talking is just so like, it’s she’s intimidatingly good. You’ll hear me being shy and weird as I was with Jane Fonda and a bunch of other people, maybe even Adam Buxton last week. When I get overwhelmed with someone else’s excellence, sometimes I am turned into a dithering child, so I apologize if for the first five minutes I seem a bit shy and a bit posh, I do calm down. I promise. In this episode, we talk about our expectations on what marriage is and how it’s changed over the past 100 years. We discussed polyamory and why it’s still unreasonably feels taboo and how it offers creative alternatives to the heteronormative family structure. I tell everyone about my living arrangement and family structure and relationship not in too much detail, but just in enough for you to realize that I live a bit weirdly a bit unorthodoxly, but it kind of works for me. We talk about infidelity and why it’s not necessarily the death of a relationship. And generally, we just get to hear from an icon who has seen it all, who has just something so comforting about her, the way she talks about things like the nuance that she brings to every single subject. She’s so enlightening and fair and makes you feel like maybe just maybe everything is going to be OK. She has a new season of her amazing seminal podcast, Where Should We Begin? It’s out now on Spotify. Go listen to that, but not until you’ve listened to this. This is me absolutely losing my shit for the absolutely extraordinary Esther Perel. Esther Perel welcome to I Weigh. How are you?
Esther [00:03:43] Thank you so much for having me. I’m fine. How are you?
Jameela [00:03:46] I’m good. I’m it’s very surreal to have you here on the podcast. I’ve been watching you online for such a long time. I’m a really big fan and a huge, huge admirer of not only your work, but your way. I think is incredibly inspiring the way that you put so much complex information across to so many different people in such a relatable way, but also the fact that I consider you to be a monarch of nuance.
Esther [00:04:14] That’s a beautiful compliment. I think this one I hold it so close to me.
Jameela [00:04:23] Good. I’m a big fan of nuance and I feel as though I feel very safe in your work to find all the different shades of gray between the black and white that are in our society sometimes forces us to live within. How are you? How have you been?
Esther [00:04:38] I am good. I’m really, you know, some days you feel like you wake up somewhat inspired like this. You feel full inside and you have feel like you will have a lot to say. So I’ve come to you very full.
Jameela [00:04:54] Oh, great. Lucky me, I know it’s been quite a year and a half for the world. But as a psychotherapist, specifically one who you know can be known for your work in sex and relationships and love, et cetera. What has that been like for you? Have you been working nonstop throughout this pandemic to support people? Did you take a break?
Esther [00:05:14] I have done both. I mean, I think like most of my colleagues, I have worked harder than I have in a long time. We threw ourselves into the work. We were in some version of first responders, the front lines, but without being in the hospitals or in the streets or in the packing rooms. And there is a tremendous demand for mental health services at this moment. I mean, we’re just beginning to see the after effects of this 18 months in terms of anxiety and depression. I think what’s very important for our experience as therapists in the past 18 months is that we are going through a parallel process as our own patients or clients. We too are living with prolonged uncertainty. We too have experience, grief and a sense of loss over the world as we know it. We, too, are experiencing ambiguous loss. We too sit in our bedrooms with stories of pain and suffering, you know, filled the room the whole day and then at night the bedroom has to become a bedroom again. We’ve never been more physically apart and more intimately connected. And you know, so much so that I created this whole conference right now, that’s going the Great Adaptation, how we can stay grounded when the ground is moving because the therapists have had to adapt in terms of boundaries, in terms of disclosure, in terms of self-care. It’s been intense.
Jameela [00:06:49] Yeah, I can imagine that that is the case, not just for mental health workers, but all all frontline responders. They’re taking on everyone else’s issues as well as still navigating their own. It must be quite taxing. Can I ask you what you have found to be one of, you know, some of the greater themes that have come up in this last year and a half? What do you know to saying there to be some of the themes, just because a lot of the people who listen to this podcast, much like myself, are all kind of struggling to navigate this new world, this new world that feels like a still a kind of mish mash of the problems that existed with the old world. A lot of us are still kind of struggling to find our feet, and so in order to make people hopefully feel less alone, I was wondering if you could tell me some of the themes that you think keep recurring.
Esther [00:07:34] Oh there some major things that I think we are really experiencing quite on a global level, everybody to their own degrees. But you know, it’s hard to find your own bearings when you live in a time of prolonged uncertainty and you don’t know when the uncertainty will end. So that’s the shaking around. How do you ground yourself on a ground that is itself shaking? And that’s not you’re doing. That is the social and economic upheavals that is climate change and his racial reckoning. That is a pandemic that is a kind of a crisis of purposelessness. You know, all of these things, we all have experienced a sense of grief about loss of not just loss of lives, but loss of the world as we know it, loss of plans. You know, you spent 18 months in a state of enforced presenteeism. You cannot make plans for tomorrow, just today, and you have this domestic gravity that keeps you grounded in one place and you can just like are choking. You know, interestingly, when people look at adaptation, that was one of the things that really stood out in my in the conference this weekend was understanding that people adapted in two directions. And this is true for you, me and therapists and patients and clients. And, you know, regular people, either people looked to adapt by becoming grounded, by sitting on a yoga mat, meditating, holding on to their routines and to their rituals, looking for calmness and stillness. Either people adapted by wanting their sneakers, going in to nature, going for a run, wanting movement, wanting to release, wanting to de-clutter to travel, so people either grounded themselves by going still either people grounded themselves by going into motion. It really is interesting how this polarity has affected our entire experience of how we have adapted in the past two years.
Jameela [00:09:30] Yeah, I came to a complete standstill. I don’t know about you or anyone else listening, but I froze. I froze like an iceberg. Yeah, and I just. But it didn’t feel bad for a lot of the time. It actually felt good to stop moving for a moment because I was in too much, too much transition to the point where I was never stopping to take care of myself or to check in with myself or to process my own growth. And so that part of it was good. But after a while, I recognize that perhaps it was time to. Perhaps it was time to go outside and leave the house.
Esther [00:10:01] You know, it’s interesting when you say you froze because what happens when you freeze? You know, one of the ways I understand it is I think we have a set of fundamental human needs. And one of the main ones is that we need the anchoring, we need the stability, the security, what you describe. But we also need the exploration, the curiosity to change the movement, the adventure and what happened is that for those of us who froze, it became everything was geared towards standing still and being secure and not taking any risks, etc.. But after a while, survival starts to feel a little deadly. It has no energy, and so people started to feel like I need to play. I need to dance, I need to go into nature. I need to be able to be curious. I need to discover something new. I need to meet someone new. I need something that brings, you know, freshness into my life. And that’s when they began to, you know, over months. Then that’s when they said, I need to go outside and what you just said.
Jameela [00:11:08] Yes, absolutely. I know that that sex and love and relationships are an area that so many people ask you about. And when I mentioned on my podcast that you were coming onto the podcast, I could only have my story up for about 20 minutes because my inbox got so flooded. But so many people have so many of the same questions for you. And I think, you know you’re talking about the pandemic and the kind of, I don’t know, recognition that perhaps you’re about to lose something being an accelerator for the entire for many people in the globe. Can you talk to me about how that acceleration has had an impact on people in relationships because we’ve seen huge shifts? And, you know, I think it’s widely spoken about now. Many people, many people have, you know, gotten together now on, you know, on the apps, maybe with people that they would never have considered before. But a lot of people broke up. A lot of people got divorced.
Esther [00:12:03] Yeah, yeah, yep. Yeah.
Jameela [00:12:04] It’s been a very intense moment of transition.
Esther [00:12:07] Yep. Yep, yep, yep. So I think that the easiest way for me to explain accelerator is that when there is a crisis, when there is a disaster, when there is an upheaval, it creates a reprioritization. People suddenly say what really is important to me. And that combined with a sense of mortality. Life is fragile. People are dying. And when life is fragile and mortality hovers and is kind of around you, you basically say life is short. If life is short, I don’t have much time to lose. What am I waiting for? And then they either do beginnings, what am I waiting for? Let’s move in together. Let’s have children together. Let’s travel together and let’s, you know, meet people that I would otherwise not meet or I’ve waited long enough. I’m out of here. I don’t want to deal with relationships that are not satisfying anymore. It’s what I want and will strive for and go for, and it’s what I no longer want. And that makes beginnings and endings. So there is data from prior disasters that there is often more babies and more divorces in the on the heels of of a pandemic or a disaster or a crisis.
Jameela [00:13:26] As it’s so fascinating to me and it makes so much sense when I look around at my friends relationships and everything that’s that’s now occurring all around me. And and how much change even I’ve gone through. My relationship has gone through. My career has gone through my mentality. I think a lot of us can relate to that.
Esther [00:13:42] Do you see a lot of relational ambivalence.
Jameela [00:13:46] I think I don’t see relational ambivalence now. I think now it feels like everyone’s starting to really fine tune their instincts. I think maybe we’ve had the time and space. Some of us, those of us who, you know, have been lucky enough to have some time, we have had to fine tune our intuition and start to actually listen to ourselves when the chaos of the world shuts. And you’re just left alone in your house with your own thoughts and your own feelings. It’s, you know, it can be quite overwhelming for a lot of people, especially if there’s a lot you haven’t dealt with. But I think that it’s been. Even though there’s been pain, even though there’s been sadness suffering break ups, divorces, et cetera, broken homes, you know, even though I hate that terminology, I think that it’s overall been a moment of awakening that can only be for the better in the long run, because now we’re living more honestly, more authentically. We’ve been so confronted with the truth that we can’t really run away from it. When we were talking on the phone, you mentioned limnality to me. And I nodded at you because I felt too embarrassed in the moment to tell you I didn’t know what liminality was. And I wanted you to explain it to me if possible.
Esther [00:14:58] So I said that we are in a period of liminality, which means that the world order, as you know it, is no longer reliable, but you don’t yet know what is the new world order into which in the one we will go to. And so we are in transition and that transition, that liminality, that nascent state, you know, when it’s when we talk about it in the process of falling in love, it’s super exciting. But when we talk of it in the process of post-pandemic it is much more unnerving. And so there is a the way that looks and says there is a lot of relational ambivalence in the moment, but the ambivalence is allowed in the state of liminality, as this is transitioning, I’m asking myself, Is this good enough? Is this what I really want? Should I stay or should I leave? Can I make my own decisions? Do I know in which world this relationship is actually going to exist? Do I want to have children? Is this a world in which I want to bring children? It’s that those questions are liminality in these moments, so not here anymore and not clear where there is going to become.
Jameela [00:16:24] In watching a lot of your TED talks and reading your work like I, I noticed that you kind of talk about a time before now, you know, in the last maybe like two decades or three decades where we used to marry for different reasons, we used to couple up together for different reasons. They were different emphasizes on what a marriage or relationship should be, what monogamy was, you know, monogamy used to be for the whole of your life. And now it’s just monogamy with one person at a time. Do you feel as though you have been around to kind of watch that transition of what relationships used to mean versus how they are now? There is a sense that they are more disposable because marriage is something that is more of a choice. It’s more about romance, it’s more about love and spontaneity rather than necessity like it used to be. What’s it been like watching that transition?
Esther [00:17:18] There’s a lot of things happening to marriage, to romantic relationships, married or not, you know, on the one hand, just to name a few, and it’s more than three decades. But if we want to make it that we watched it, you can see it. If I look at my parents and if I look at my grandparents. So you have at least a bit of a progression. I like to think of it in about a 100 year thing. But fundamentally, some of the big changes are this people used to marry about 10 years younger than they do today, which means that when they married, married marriage was a cornerstone. They became adults as they married, they started their life together. Today, it’s a capstone. They’ve already gotten their relational experience. They’ve been sexual nomads for a decade to have their jobs just sometimes even have a place to live already. And the capstone is basically, do you find a partner to do the crowning, the stabilizing of all these things that you’ve already set up? You know, you already have developed your personality and you choosing me is a recognition of who I am. It’s not that I’m going to become with you. Are we going to become together. So that’s one thing. Number two, yes, we used to definitely have a conception of marriage that was a lot more economic. If there was love, if there was affection, if there was sexuality, so be it. But that was certainly not what kept it together. And what was the goal. The only thing that keeps modern marriage today together is the happiness of the couple. So, you know, it’s not the case, it’s not excommunication from the church. It’s not, you know, ostracizing from the families. So the couple really has to do well or there is no family, and that means that the couple really has a sense of on the one hand, you see, you know, it’s disposable. It is more disposable than it was because we can leave marriages to be at one time you know, you enter and you only leave at death. So we can leave and we can leave more when women have economic independence, we can live more when there are laws that protect her from not losing her children. We can leave, so we need it to be really good if we were going to stay in it.
Jameela [00:19:27] I agree. I think it’s wonderful. I’m not. I’m when I say disposable, I just mean the way that it can perhaps be considered. I know that with different generations, they have different feelings may be around. You know, I know that my maybe my parents’ generation have more of a feeling of like, you know, people should suck it up. They leave too easily. They don’t fight for the relationship. And then young people have it like younger people. The newer generations are just like, Why should I? I mean, a lot of them are choosing not to be in relationships at all because they’re like, Why should I settle for anyone who doesn’t make me happy
Esther [00:19:54] Or in a relationship with more than one person? I mean, there are all kinds of new constellations as well, but in all of realm, relational expectations, romantic expectations are at an all time high.
Jameela [00:20:07] So will you explain that to me and also just before we move on, I just want to point out something you said that James and I were watching earlier where you talk about the fact that the shame used to be getting a divorce and now our greatest source of shame in modern relationships is staying in a relationship in which you’re not happy. That’s the thing. That’s the place where we carry the most embarrassment. I thought that was really fascinating. It really resonated with me.
Esther [00:20:30] You know, this thing about the shame about staying in the shame about leaving. There’s some incredible episodes in the podcast Where Should We Begin? Where you see the couples, and especially because they’re couples from all over the world and that grapple with these questions that you may call relational ambivalence as well. But from a cultural point of view as well, it’s not the same. You know, in every part of the world, it’s a different story. It’s a different story in Europe, in the Middle East, in Africa, in India. It’s, you know, the freedom of the self is different, the extent to which I can do what’s right for me. So when you say I’m not staying in the bad relationship because I’m unhappy in it, you know you have one of the expectations is that marriage should make you individually happy. If you talk about that with parents and grandparents. You know, they would say, what made me happy was my grandchildren, my children, my extended family. There were a lot of other things that we had not much to do with how my partner responded to me. That was not the only source of happiness. So what is unprecedented expectations? It’s very simple. If you go back 100 years, it was economic security. If you go back 50 years, it was having a place for belonging, for affection, for intimacy. And if you go into your generation, it’s a person who’s going to help me become the best version of myself. So we’ve gone from a production model to a service model to an identity model of romantic love.
Jameela [00:22:02] Indeed.
Esther [00:22:02] And for him to have heard to them to make me become the best version of myself is a new Olympus. It’s a new mountain to climb. And on the mountain, as my colleague Eli Finkel says, because it’s his image that I love so much, he says, You know, when you go on the top of the mountain, the view is beautiful, and the relationships of today that do well are much better than the relationships of the past. The problem is that the air is also thinner, and not everybody gets to the top of the mountain.
Jameela [00:22:31] Yes, very, very true. Do you feel as though it is unrealistic for maybe my generation, more so even than the next to believe that we should find, because I find this a little bit overwhelming? This belief system that I was raised with that we are supposed to find everything we want, everything that we need and crave in our lives. All has to exist within this one perfect person. I personally, you know, I it’s we have a really interesting relationship model and that we live with a bunch of our friends, we live with three of our best friends. And so we find that naturally, the parts of ourselves that maybe we can’t meet in each other kind of get sated with our friendships. And so we have we don’t rely on each other for every single thing.
Esther [00:23:20] That’s right.
Jameela [00:23:21] Because I would find that impossible pressure to live up to to be someone’s everything. And yet I feel like movies and literature and songs taught us that we will find everything in this one capsule perfect capsule of a person.
Esther [00:23:32] The romantic ideal is at an all time high. But research will tell you that that’s not the way it really works, and that in fact, what you are doing is what is called diversification. You make sure that you have your needs diversified among a group of people. And that in itself improves the relationship, and I tend to agree with that. I think that one person for everything, one person to who is going to give you what an entire community should provide is often unrealistic. The more you put all these expectations into one person, the more likely that a relationship will crumble under all these expectations because it’s a tall order for a party of two. What you do is a beautiful idea. You can do it by living together. You can do it by having other friends. But the notion is that you are surrounded by a number of people who are all intimate relationships, friendships, collegial, mentorships, creative partners. These are intimate relationships we think we reserved the word intimate just for romantic partners.
Jameela [00:24:43] Yeah, someone to play Grand Theft Auto with him when I want to leave me alone. Yeah, it’s amazing. Yeah, I believe.
Esther [00:24:52] Are they mutual friends?
Jameela [00:24:54] Mutual best friends. Yeah, that they were actually my friends originally and then. Now he has become best friends with them. So it’s like we just live in this little family.
Esther [00:25:02] And are they partners or they’re three
Jameela [00:25:04] No they’re three single boys. And we all just have this really unusual we’ve all been living together for six or seven years and it just works and we’re so happy. And so the dream for us is to one day like, you know, earn enough money that we can build a little commune and just kind of all eventually extend out into our own little houses in the same area. I’ve always believed in this might be wrong, that it takes a village not just to raise a child, but to keep a relationship. Sometimes for me anyway.
Esther [00:25:32] I can’t agree with you more. I happen to think very much like that, too.
Jameela [00:25:37] That’s so funny. Yeah I just don’t want the I don’t want the pressure. I don’t want him to have the pressure. And and it just it feels modern, but I don’t think it is modern. It feels modern now.
Esther [00:25:47] Or it feels actually very traditional.
Jameela [00:25:49] That’s what I was going to say.
Esther [00:25:50] It’s the way it used to be.
Jameela [00:25:52] We’ve lost our village mentality, and I think we were craving that on a kind of spiritual level. So we kind of started building out our little village and having more and more friends come and live near us and just outsourcing because being a human being continues to become increasingly complicated. You know, in this world, this ever increasingly complicated world, and so you need as much support as you can get, and you shouldn’t feel embarrassed for needing that or for craving that.
Esther [00:26:16] And when you say that to your friends how how is it received? I happen to think that it’s a beautiful idea and I in this model or another. But the concept itself, the principle is, is, is very, very pertinent. So when you speak about that with your friends, how is it seen?
Jameela [00:26:35] I think everyone at first finds it quite unusual, but when they see that we’re really happy, I think they I think that they like it for us, it’s not for everyone, for sure. Some people need the privacy of just an insular relationship. But anyone who sees our dynamic in the house or even just our dynamic with one another, recognizes that this is clearly just really suiting us. It makes. We never get old to each other because there’s just, you know, time together, even in the house, especially in a lockdown just still felt sacred because the rest of our time was shared with other people. And we’re so happy and we feel like a team and we’re witnessing so many more things together. And also, we have then ability to take space apart and not feel responsible. I think that there can sometimes be a a toxic part of relationships that I’ve experienced in previous relationships, where you feel as though you are obligated to entertain another person even when you have nothing to give. And so when I’m, you know, I struggle with my mental health, he struggles with his mental health, we need space and time and not always at the same exact moments. So it’s so wonderful that if he wants to go and have dinner with someone or be playful or something, there’s people downstairs, he can go and do that with. And I can be left alone in my room and vice versa. He can disappear into his studio for three days and and I have other people to sate my sort of intellectual needs. And I think that that, you know, it’s not we’re not in sexual or romantic relationships with these people, but it’s almost kind of like a modern day friend, polyamory. How do you feel about polyamory, because it’s a question that came up a lot.
Esther [00:28:08] It’s partly what you just described, you know, polyamory is one version of re-creating community. Polyamory is a way of understanding that there are multitudes of intimate relationships that are love relationships that are friendships that we have very much used the word intimacy and love, only to apply it to romantic relationships and in a rather traditional model, rather than understanding that these feelings can exist in various different relationships. So, you know, we have changed constellations a long time. What you describe is a communal structure. You could call it polyamorous if you want and say, I love these friends deeply. No, it’s not erotic or sexual, but that’s not the point. And you could you could apply those words. I think that the typical notion when people think polyamory is to very quickly imagine it as the kind of a romp and that is so far from reality, you know, it is a way to create alternative family building. It’s really but once you start to look at it with children, it’s like it’s an alternative family building. It’s redefining the concept of family. It’s understanding platonic co-parents. It’s understanding triads who are raising children together. It’s it’s actually very rich and creative in rethinking about what can family be. How can family be more of what we wanted from family because family has not been given the opportunity enough to rethink itself. However, we have blended families, we have gay families, we have single parent families, we have commuter families, we have a lot of new models of family constellations. And I see polyamory as part of that very same thinking about how do we redefine relationships that are not just connect defined by the bloodline?
Jameela [00:30:13] Why do you think it is that polyamory still feels like I even felt myself, even though I was talking just about friendship polyamory I felt myself blush when I said it. Why? Why is there still a societal kind of feeling of either like reticence or discomfort when we discuss polyamory, when we admit to wanting polyamory? What does that threaten in our society?
Esther [00:30:34] Let me date myself for a moment.
Jameela [00:30:36] OK.
Esther [00:30:37] Because I often look at analogies, right? And one analogy when I think about how people respond to conversations about monogamy or non-monogamy is what it used to be to have conversations about virginity. The conversation about monogamy and nonmonogamy today is quite parallel. It was a time not too long ago I was still there that if you ask me about the witness I witnessed that one, you know, I’m just part of the beginning of, you know, the democratization of contraception where virginity, you know, was the thing are you still? Or are you no longer? And that was the first boundary sexual boundary that people were continuously negotiating. The other analogy a little later for me was the first people in my classroom who had divorced parents. And you when you do where the two of them and everybody knew and they were the different ones. That is over. We talk about divorced families, we don’t we don’t deny the profundity and the pain that is in the experience of dismantling families, but we don’t go around saying they divorced. So that changed, and the conversation about polyamory is a timing issue, too. And at this moment, it’s oh, it’s very different. It’s shocking. It’s taboo. It’s changing some of the fundamentals around boundaries, the way that the heteronormative, you know, patriarchal coupling kind of was established. And so it feels very radical and give it time. And then it will become, you know, like the commuter families, like the blended families. These were very new, you know, blended families, a 70s, 80s thing that’s not so long ago. I don’t know when you were born, but I was just a young. I was in college, you know, and I’m thinking, Wow, you know, gay families, you know, parents, gay parents in a playground that is very recent, you know, recognized on top of it, married, you know, so I think that this it involves the feeling of taboo. It involves, you know, how can you love more than one person at the same time, you can just the same way that people do with children. But it seems so inconceivable because your romantic partner is supposed to be this unique kind of love that cannot be replicated twice. But it does. And then it’s, you know, it is a bit of radicalism in its it’s and it’s subversive. It breaks the old order and that’s what makes it all uncomfortable. It’s scary. It makes me feel like I may lose my partner if my partner falls in love with somebody else. It’s deeply scary, you know? And because it demands that we begin to think about the feeling of security as poly secure and not that the poly relationships are the opposite of secure, that they are, by definition, you know, avoidance of intimacy. They are a different ways to experience intimacy, and it’s not for everybody, for sure. But if you ask me, why are people so uncomfortable? It’s a lot of those things for very good reasons.
Jameela [00:33:56] And also, it’s just such a misnomer to believe that that someone can’t fall in love with someone else. And that that’s unrealistic. You don’t have to be in a polyamorous relationship to fall in love with another person or to desire another person not to be with another person, you’ve given a lot of unbelievable talks on infidelity that have really, you know, I think, changed a lot of my friends lives and the way that they look at maybe infidelities that have happened in their own past or in their own current relationships. It’s this feeling that if I don’t let them see what’s out there, then they’ll never leave. I just don’t think that’s realistic. If you look at the statistics on infidelity, do you know? Do you know what I mean?
Esther [00:34:38] Say more.
Jameela [00:34:40] So what I’m saying is that I think that we shouldn’t look at it as this sort of gateway that we currently look at it to as someone leaving you or being dissatisfied by you. I think that people will always, when they’re not happy in a situation, will seek outside whether that a quote unquote allowed to or not. And I think what could be amazing about the concept, I’m personally, I think I consider myself still too, if I could name it, maybe insecure or jealous, and so is my boyfriend to be intimate outside of our singular relationship together. But I think it’s an amazing notion. I don’t I don’t think it’s. I’ve watched it serve a lot of my friends who have recognized that it does take multiple different people to sate their appetite. And actually their relationship with one person is preserved for longer because they’ve been able to stray outside and have those different needs met. Sometimes the bond you want with someone, the union you have for someone can last longer. If you are both allowed to seek outside of your relationship for the something that you’re craving that the other person just might not be able to give you.
Esther [00:35:53] Mm-Hmm. Mm-Hmm. So but for that, you need to live in a period where you believe that your needs are central. When you live in a country or in a culture or in a historical time, where your individual needs are not the center of the universe, then you think differently. So this comes to really a very important thing we need to both say is there isn’t a one size fits all. There is a clear sense that we have so many needs that we bring to our relationships today because there has been a dismantlement of our traditional communal structures and of our religious life. So in a secularized society where there is very little community relationships at the center of everything. And so we will look for ways to create community within our relationships. And you may and they may be platonic. They may be like yours. And and for other people, they may also be erotic and. Interestingly, there’s something very rich about that, about the possibility of rethinking and redefining the boundaries, the expectations, the the the the soul of relationships. And I think that that’s what makes it very, very interesting. If you look at friendship, it has changed a lot, but not that much. If it looks at sibling relationships, it hasn’t changed that much. There is nothing that has gone through such a massive transformation than our romantic relationships. It’s just an extreme makeover, and that is a fascinating moment. So your friends who are also deciding to respond differently to the experience of infidelity, you know, to not instantly think that that means it’s the end of a relationship that that’s that is the thing that defines the fate of a relationship. On the contrary, to understand what it meant and what they want to do with it and how they use it to redefine their relationship, all these steps and to have the choice of it because women never had a choice to do anything about that, they just had to accept. So this the way we deal with our relational aspirations and our experiences of betrayal in relationship and our expectations of boundaries in relationships. And all of these things are in a very, very creative time.
Jameela [00:38:31] Yeah, there’s a huge transition, even just from when I was a kid. My understanding of of relationships and marriage, whether you know, you were supposed to do these things to meet other people’s expectations, and now it’s all about our own individual expectations, I think it’s incredibly empowering. It’s making it complicated. It’s making me wonder if marriage will even exist in 20 years time. I have no idea because people are transitioning and they’re growing and they’re accepting that as they grow, they sometimes grow apart. And that’s OK. But I do want to talk a little bit about your feelings around infidelity. As again, that was something that came up a lot with the audience. When I mentioned you, a lot of people wanted to know about, you’re more about your philosophy that infidelity doesn’t have to be the death of something. It can be a kind of rebirth, a new beginning. Will you explain that a little bit?
Esther [00:39:26] Yes. Yeah, it’s both. And and I, you know, sometimes when I have a very short time to answer such a complicated question
Jameela [00:39:33] Huge question
Esther [00:39:36] I kind of want to say if you listen to the episodes of Where Should We Begin that are on infidelity, you will get such a sense of how diverse the stories can be. It’s really not one story, the story of infidelity and and each one of them is a completely different situation of of betrayal, of a breach of trust, of rejection, of falling in love, of deception and of lies, all of what goes in there. For some people, it is a death. That is it. It just this like none salvageable, sometimes because the relationship was already dying on its own and sometimes because the egregious ness of the betrayal is just too big. And for some people, it’s an alarm system that jolts you out of a state of complacency out of a state of ennui, out of a state of indifference, and basically says if you don’t pay attention to each other, you can lose each other, you know, very fast. Pay attention and reengage with each other and bring back some energy here and bring back some attention, etc. So what used to be the case is that men had the permission to roam. They were not called cheaters. They were called men and women did not and could lose their life, their children, their livelihood, everything. So it was very genderized as well. How we conceptualized infidelity. Infidelity is very different when marriage is supposed to be, you know, people used to cheat because marriage wasn’t about love and sex. Now people will sometimes cheat because the marriage didn’t deliver the love and sex that it had promised. That’s a very different story. And on top of it, it always was painful, but it is even more painful now because I wait 10 more years. And because when I meet you, you’re the one for whom I’m going to delete my apps and you’re the one who’s going to make me feel like I met my soul mate. Or I’m your soul mate, and you’re the person that is my one and only in all of these words that go with it. So when you betray me, it feels like it’s shattering. And on top of it, if we have only the two of us because most people don’t do what you do, Jameela, they don’t just not live with friends. They lose their friends when they become a couple. The couple is often more and more isolated and in straight relationships, demand even more so. So if it’s just you and me and you did all of that to me. I have nowhere to go and I can’t talk about it because I’m ashamed and embarrassed that this happened to the person who did it doesn’t talk about it either, and the person to whom it was done feels like they can’t talk about it. If I still love my partner and I want to stay, I’m going to be shamed. You know that I’m weak and I’m not standing up for myself and I’m letting myself be walked all over. Or I’m going to be ashamed because, you know, he’s done this before or she’s done this before, and I’m still here, et cetera, et cetera. So I don’t talk about it. And so I have a double secret the secret of what happened and the secrets of not being able to talk about what it does to me that it happened on both sides. And this whole muck is what I wanted to to delve into is that infidelity is not black and white. It’s not just a story of victim and perpetrator. It’s really complicated. There’s so many variations to it, and it’s so painful that we need to be able to slow down and come up with views that are more helpful.
Jameela [00:43:10] Yeah, and you also talk about the fact that there are many different forms of harm in a relationship that don’t always just come in the form of infidelity, there can be emotional abuse or neglect or many different kind of ways of hurting someone else’s feelings. And so sometimes the person who has cheated on is not always, I think you said, the victim of the relationship. Sometimes they are in many ways the
Esther [00:43:33] I said that the victims of the affair is not always the victim of the relationship.
Jameela [00:43:35] Yes. Yes, that was it. And I thought that that was very profound because again, when I trace back through some of my friends or colleagues, relationships who’ve broken down. When I when I rewind before the events, I can also see how those things have happened. And obviously it’s a terrible way to break someone’s trust. But for some people, it can be a desperate act that doesn’t come from a place of malice that doesn’t come from a place of wanting to hurt or reject the other person. It’s a it’s a spontaneous moment of desperation. And I don’t think that that always has to be looked at as malice. But I think because in our society, it has become so demonized any act of infidelity. We sometimes I wonder if people are. Some people seek to end the relationship because they feel embarrassed in front of other people about staying after an infidelity, even if they want to, even if they still love that person. They feel like a fool. They’ve been made a fool out of. They’ve, you know, they’ve been lied to, and then they have this most egregious act of any relationship has been committed against them. They are weak to stay. I don’t think it’s weak to stay.
Esther [00:44:46] A touch it as strength.
Jameela [00:44:48] I agree.
Esther [00:44:48] It’s often a strength. It demands resilience. It demands perseverance. It demands hard work to actually stay and turn things around and sometimes even come up with a relationship that was even better than the one you had before. But it all depends on the context. There’s so many different kinds of betrayals and infidelities and and lies. I think that it’s very difficult to come up with a one thing, but what is a one thing is this idea that it’s weak to stay. And I would like to challenge that. Sometimes it’s actually the opposite. It is a sign of strength and a sign of belief in the strength of the relationship and its ability to weather a crisis. So, you know, people, then there, sometimes we say, Well, do you do then say that it’s no. I’ve often said, you know, it’s like everybody knows that if you get sick and you have a life threatening disease, you may think this thing has changed your perception of the world. Would I therefore say you should get sick? No. But I do. Or that it’s good to get sick? Not at all. But the fact is that there is good that can come out of this crisis, where people realize that they could have lost everything they built everything they fought for, everything they adore for this and then take a minute before, take a moment, slow down and check. Don’t just do it because you’ve been told that this is the most important betrayal in all relationships at this moment. Why? Because it is the one that shatters the grand ambition of the romantic ideal.
Jameela [00:46:35] Yes.
Esther [00:46:36] And that’s the Western story that is not the case in modern-
Jameela [00:46:40] I know, I know. I mean, James and I have been together for a very long time and we’re best friends and we talk very openly about a lot of these things. I think even the fact that we can watch your videos together says that we must be in like a fairly a fairly OK like on ok ground because they’re very exposing videos. But we had a conversation I think
Esther [00:46:57] Did they make for good conversations?
Jameela [00:46:58] Amazing conversation and and reassuring conversation. I’ve only introduced him to your work recently, and so I’ve been kind of like just on the sofa. We sit there together with our dog, just watching your talks or watching your interviews with other people, and it’s been really, really profound. I think we’re going to listen to your podcast together. But on infidelity, I remember saying to him and he was very shocked by this, but it was like three years ago. I was like, If you ever cheat, you have like a drunken affair or something like a one night stand. Just don’t tell me, don’t tell me anything about it, but please just identifying inyourself was that something I did because of alcohol? Should I therefore not drink so much when I go out? Or if you do it, will you? Will you identify? Are you not happy in this relationship or do you need to talk to me like that? Like, address the problem in the relationship that would have made you stray in the first place. Don’t just blow my brain up by filling it full of details that I don’t need to know. Maybe it’s a bigger affair than maybe you come to me and talk to me about this thing you’ve been doing and explain to me why. If you can avoid it, don’t fill my head with details that I don’t need to know that I won’t ever be able to unsee or unhear. Don’t don’t leave me with those images and and don’t do unnecessary harm to me where I’m left with all of these thoughts that then even if we were to end our relationship and I go into other relationships, I will lose my sense of trust in other people. If you want to end this
Esther [00:48:25] And he found that strange?
Jameela [00:48:26] He found it very strange because it was me being very open. It wasn’t like if you ever cheat on me, I’ll cut your dick off. You know, I just it was one of those things where it’s like, shit happens. Maybe it’s a sign you’re not happy. Maybe you need to address that with me. Or maybe you need to keep it to yourself and do some work with a therapist.
Esther [00:48:41] And it’s also take responsibility for why you for what you did. Own it. Be accountable, take responsibility.
Jameela [00:48:49] Exactly. That’s what I mean. Go to a therapist. Sort this out and don’t make it my problem until it needs to be my problem. And if it’s something that I’m doing that’s pushed you towards doing that, then we need to talk as a couple. But don’t just just I wanted him to feel as though that’s not something that has to be the death or the end of us. It’s just something that we have to deal with in a very careful way where I’m never given any explicit details of someone else’s boobs. Because otherwise I’ll throw all of his games consoles off the balcony. And I know that’s unusual, but I genuinely believe that like we have something so strong. I mean, I have no idea. You never know until it actually happens. But I do. I do feel as though we’ve built something that is strong enough to fight for. And I consider that the desire to fight for that, at least just for myself, noble not better than anyone else. But I consider that something that means that we’ve built something very real and and I feel very hopeful about it, and I feel as though shit happens. I might change, my behavior might change.
Esther [00:49:45] What was his response?
Jameela [00:49:48] He was. He said yes, but I think he was surprised by it and then I think had to go into a period of investigating what he would do if the shoe were on the other foot. And I think he’s still kind of undecided, but we’re still working through it. And I think I think we would, we were talking about it after watching one of your videos that we would if it wasn’t super egregious and harmful and manipulative, I think we would try to work through that going forward. And I really appreciate you putting that discourse out there because you hyper normalize the fact that there can be there can be life after death.
Esther [00:50:19] But you did. You did more than that, Jameela. What you did is that you had the conversation or a conversation or a few with him in a calm state about something that could very well happen. And and that’s very different than what happens in many relationships where people only talk about this after the shit hits the fan. Because it’s as if having a conversation about it in and of itself implies that there is something missing in the relationship rather than we’re mature and we understand the world we live in and this is this is as much as I know about myself at this moment. No, I haven’t experienced it, but I have a sense that I do not want you to clutter my head with the details that should stay in your head. And there’s something very self-protective about it for you. And it makes sense for you. It’s not the answer for everyone, but it’s very clear. But the more important piece is the fact that you had the conversation, and many people do not have these conversations, especially people, in heterosexual relationships. That’s so that’s the piece that I want to commend on. It’s not so much the particular strategy that works for you because that one is yours. But the act of having the conversation with him feeling because that in itself makes the relationship more intimate too, is the fact that we can watch these videos together. We can talk about these things together, so they become, we don’t. That’s what it means not to have secrets, too, is that we acknowledge those things. We talk openly about them and it makes us feel closer.
Jameela [00:51:59] Yeah, absolutely. I don’t believe in fantasy. I never have. I never used to read fantasy as a child. I don’t watch a lot of fantastical films in particular. I think that there’s way more wonder in reality. I think the reality of human, the human condition, the human brain, human tendencies, behaviors. That’s where I’m so much more drawn in. It’s it’s more than my imagination could ever conjure what people are actually capable of for better or for worse. I know I don’t have you for much longer, but I have to ask this again, a giant question of you. But when it comes to maintaining a long term relationship, especially in after what’s happened in the last year and a half, I would say 70 percent of our questions were people just asking you for some advice on how to maintain the desire. They’ve had a very unsexy year and a half. Some of them.
Esther [00:52:59] Yes. Yes.
Jameela [00:52:59] Some of them have a very an especially sexy and they’ve gotten bull gags and dildos and butt plugs, and that’s been wonderful. But but some people are really now struggling with how do we repair the mystery that has maybe been lost in a year and a half or in the last 10 years? You are the master of this. So what’s your best advice for it?
Esther [00:53:21] I mean, even the research has backed that up is that for a lot of people, it became much less engaging and for a few people, it became more imaginative. But here’s the thing. I was going to ask it to you, and that would be a way of entering into the question when when one of you goes upstairs to read and the other one goes downstairs to be with the other people and play? Do you also make sure that some of the things that you do together when you say that secret time of hours that you do things that are exciting, that are novel that puts you outside of your comfort zone that involves an element of risk?
Jameela [00:54:04] What do you? Do you mean just kind of in our experiences or do you?
Esther [00:54:10] Yes, yes.
Jameela [00:54:10] Yes. Yes. Yeah, we do. We we enjoy being a team.
Esther [00:54:12] This is the key piece to keeping the relationship alive. It’s not just to do things that are familiar to you, and this is also the work of Eli Finkel, that it’s not just to do the things that you enjoy that make you cozy and comfortable. During the pandemic, when I said we put all our effort on the security side, the stable, the side, and we completely had to neglect the adventure discovery, the risk, the exploration, the erupting, the spontaneous, that whole side of us had to be shut down. It’s not surprising that sex became really uninteresting. And when I see that there needs to be a bit of a distance between us, so so that there is a bridge to cross and to be able to desire to want and needs to be a certain, a law, a certain space that you need to look to to to enter. You didn’t have that during the lockdown. You were on top of each other in this monotony, in this daily repetition, in this collapse of role, in this complete loss of boundaries, in this disappearance of specialty, everything took place at the same table with the same clothes all day long. There was no distinction between activities, rules, people. No rituals, no boundaries. What do you expect is going to happen to your sexuality? It’s blah. It’s really deflates us. It’s big because sex doesn’t come just from from beginning to create arousal. Sex comes from a feeling of aliveness inside of you, from a sense of vitality, of vibrancy, of curiosity. And when you’re doing the same thing day in, day out for 18 months try to especially to not have anything too new well, there is not much curiosity. There is a lot of anxiety and not much curiosity. So how do you recover that? At this moment I think there’s a lot of people who are spending a lot of time away from each other. They’re just going back into their world. They’re reconnecting with all the friends they lost because we lived in pods. We didn’t have community, whereas a few people who stayed and all the secondary and tertiary people that are part of our worlds, were gone. It’s about reconnecting with creativity. It’s about doing more new things again. Travel is a big piece for a lot of people being curious, exploratory discovery. All of that energizes us. And then this is where I created the game. Where Should We Begin the card game. Because I thought of this, I said, so I sit in front of my partner of what am I going to say that is new. That can be. I thought, how do I make people bring that curiosity inside their houses? And that is playfulness, playfulness and imagination. I mean, sexuality. The central agent of our sexuality is in the imagination, and I’m not talking about positions, talking about the imagination of how I see myself, how I see you, that way of staying interested in somebody you’re living with day in, day out, playing game. But not playing a game just like that. It’s a game that involves me asking you questions, you telling me stories together alone or with a group of friends. But where I’m listening to you talk about something that I haven’t heard never knew about you. And so you once again become somewhat new, somewhat mysterious. Oh, I’m paying attention wow. That starts to become fodder for the erotic energy. And so I created one game. There are many other versions of it, but it was a way of creating a storytelling game between partners makes me look at you with new eyes. And that new eyes becomes a part of my attraction and my re-sexualizing of myself. It’s not just attraction to you, it’s you know how I feel next to you. That’s a major point. The other one, if you allow me, is a question you can do to all your listeners. Sit face to face with each other and just start. I turn myself off when or I shut down when or I extinguish my desires when, which is very different from what turns me off is, or you turn me off when and just go back and forth. One per statement. I turn myself off when I just do email before going to bed, when I overeat, when I feel bloated, when I drink too much, when I don’t take time for myself, when we don’t play enough together, I turn myself off and then do the same one in reverse. I turn myself on, I awaken myself. I energize myself is not what turns me on is and you turn me on when and you’re going to see that the thing is a range of things of which only a few are sexual. I turn myself on when I go in nature, when I play guitar, when I go dancing, when I pamper myself, when we stroke each other, when we do long kisses without doing anything else. And it’s not just a kiss that leads to this, that the five minute before the real thing and then it’s over. You know that do it with each other and you’ll get a whole range of the things that dull you and the things that excite you and go with those.
Jameela [00:59:23] That’s also really consistent with a lot of what you talk about, which is kind of self ownership and autonomy and and accountability of just not expecting someone else to make you happy, someone else to do all of the work, someone else to turn you on. It’s not saying that that person shouldn’t have some responsibility in those areas, but mostly, I think it’s very empowering to remind ourselves that there are many things that we can do to make ourselves happier or to stop getting in our own way and thinking of those. I’d never thought about that, but it’s so true. Bloating, overeating, all of these things that I do are my own personal turn offs that I can’t hold someone
Esther [01:00:00] When I’m worried about money or when I feel bad at work,
Jameela [01:00:03] when I’ve been on social media. But you know, when you feel like you’re endangered? Yeah, absolutely. Watching the news before bed, none of these things are good for
Esther [01:00:12] And sex in your relationship. It’s not going to just happen. It’s not spontaneous. Be very clear about that. It’s premeditated. You make a decision the same way that you decide that you’re going to cook a lavish meal. It’s a decision for which you have to go get the ingredients, you have to think what you’re going to pair with, what. How are you going to set the table? There’s a ritual involved. It’s not just, you know, at the end of the day, we turn it around and we just should be wet. No, it doesn’t happen this way. So then it demands really to be comfortable with each other and to just say, you know, I want to undress you.
Jameela [01:00:46] Some people have made fun of me for a clinical, a clinical approach I have to all relationships, which is that even friendships and work relationships, which is that I consider everything to be like getting a job, not because it’s necessarily like, you know, I don’t know labor, but when I go for a job, I, I plan to work even harder once I get that job to keep that job or maybe get promoted, right? And so I look at the same thing when someone has given me the privilege of a relationship be that friendship, work, love. I consider the beginning of their relationship not to be like, Oh, well, I’ve got, you know, I’ll put my feet up and not ever open my computer and never do my job. I consider it as like, OK, now I have to keep the job. Now I have to keep you interested. There are seven or eight billion people in the world and you are attractive to many of them. And so therefore, what am I going to do to, you know, and what are you going to do to to do the same for me? Like, how are we going to consistently show up in a way that makes us want to promote each other? And I know that sounds clinical, but it’s practical for me and it makes me feel like I’m it makes me feel excited about the relationship that there’s always like new parts to find new heights, you know, new lows, all of the different things I’m excited to, to see where we can get to as a couple and to keep working hard at that. And so is he. And so it’s a bit nerdy, but
Esther [01:02:11] I don’t see it as clinical at all. I think I I no what you’re saying is there needs to be an active engagement and that investment, you know where. This is my project. I cherish it. I want to nourish it. I want to lavish it. I want to desire it. I wanted to to to shine. And those experiences are essential to one thing that is something that I’m very interested in is the difference between the relationships that are dead and the relationships that they are alive. And what you’re saying is those are the things that I do to make my relationship be alive. And I think it’s beautiful.
Jameela [01:02:53] Thank you. I think that you’ve given some really practical and wonderful advice. I love the idea of asking each other those questions, questions we’ve never asked each other before. I love the idea of answering our own personal questions in front of each other. I think these are really wonderful, practical, simple and approachable tactics for anyone who’s listening to this, who just feels like you need to reinvigorate your relationship. It is possible just in the same way that you can go off and be sexy and spontaneous and madly in love with a new person. You can still do that with someone with whom you once had that spark. That spark, you know, existed for a reason. Maybe it’s dead forever, but maybe, maybe, just maybe it just takes a little bit of your imagination to reconfigure it again.
Esther [01:03:36] I had a woman who came home and wrote a note to her boyfriend and said, this evening we will be meeting at a very crowded party. We will be speaking the entire evening. And then we will each go home alone. This is during the lockdown. And then after this after dinner, he does the dishes, she gives him the note. She goes and changes and comes back. She says, My name is. And your name is and they sit down and they talk for I don’t know how many hours as if they’re meeting for the first time. And and basically as she’s talking to him, she’s telling him all the things that she likes in a man that she doesn’t like in a man, but it’s all him. And then after a few hours, she says, Would you bring me home? And she went to another room. And I thought in confinement or in long term relationship, our freedom comes through our imagination.
Jameela [01:04:49] I love that. I think I’d be too shy to do it, even though I’m a professional actor, but I love that. Esther thank you so much for being here today. I know that you have a billion people to go off and help and soothe and make feel seen and heard. I so appreciate you and I really look forward to getting to meet you in person one day. Thank you for today.
Esther [01:05:10] Same here. Thank you very much. It’s my pleasure.
Jameela [01:05:12] Loads of love. Thank you so much for listening to this week’s episode. I Weigh with Jameela Jamil is produced and researched by myself, Jameela Jamil, Erin Finnigan and Kimmie Gregory. It is edited by Andrew Carson, and the beautiful music you are hearing now is made by my boyfriend, James Blake. If you haven’t already, please rate review and subscribe to the show. It’s a great way to show your support. We also have a bonus series exclusively on Stitcher Premium called Ask Jameela Anything. Check it out! You can get a free month of Stitcher Premium by going to Stitcher.com/premium and using the promo code, I Weigh. Lastly, over at I Weigh, we would love to hear from you and share what you weigh at the end of this podcast. You can leave us a voicemail at 1-818-660-5543 or email us what you weigh at IWeighPodcast@gmail.com. And now we would love to pass the mic to one of our fabulous listeners. Here is an I Weigh from one of our listeners, I weigh my nursing career, my sisters and father who love me and depend on me and my devoted boyfriend. I weigh my trustworthiness, reliability, humor, my work ethic and the love I give. I weigh the work I’m putting in to better my mental health right now. I also just want to say that every time I read out someone’s I Weigh, they reach out to me on Instagram because it felt cool to hear it actually brought to life. And I love it when you do that. So keep doing that because it makes me really happy and a lot of the time I respond whenever I can.
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