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On this episode of Unlocking Us

I’m talking to Esther Perel, psychotherapist, New York Times bestselling author, and podcaster, about relationships in the pandemic and beyond. She blew my mind around some patterns that Steve and I have discovered over the past months in lockdown. We also talk a lot about paradox and straddling the tension of two competing ideas that can both be true. It’s maddening and inspiring. And you’ll hear in real time how I’m wowed, impressed, and completely Esther Perel-ed before it’s all over.

About the guest

Esther Perel

Psychotherapist and New York Times best-selling author Esther Perel is recognized as one of today’s most insightful and original voices on modern relationships. Fluent in nine languages, she helms a therapy practice in New York City and serves as an organizational consultant for Fortune 500 companies around the world. Her celebrated TED Talks have garnered more than 30 million views, and her best-selling books, Mating in Captivity and The State of Affairs, are global phenomena and have been translated into nearly 30 languages. Esther is also an executive producer and host of the popular podcasts Where Should We Begin? and How’s Work? Her latest project is Where Should We Begin: A Game of Stories.

Show notes

The State of Affairs by Esther Perel

“I’m a person of the world. Music from all corners of the world enters into my vein. And . . . I don’t need to understand the words to know what they say.”


Brené Brown: Hi everyone, I’m Brené Brown, and this is Unlocking Us.


BB: Ooh – whee. Let me just tell you, I’m talking to Esther Perel who is a psychotherapist a New York Times best-selling author and podcaster, and I am officially changing her name into a verb, because I literally get Esther Perel-ed during this podcast in real time. [chuckle] She blew my mind. I’ve always followed her work, she is completely dedicated to helping us navigate the complexities of modern relationships, romantic relationships, family relationships, workplace relationships. She gets it. She gets what it means to be human. She makes things accessible. I just feel like she’s one of those people where everything she says is like profoundly moving and I need to write it down. In this episode, however, she blows my mind around some patterns that Steve and I have that… I don’t know, while aware of them, I wasn’t sure exactly what was happening.

BB: So, what an incredible episode. I cannot wait to dive into this with you. I can’t wait for you to get to know Esther better. She’s just amazing. And we’re going to talk a lot about paradox and straddling the tension of what seems to be opposites but are not. We’re going to talk about how two competing ideas can both be true, which makes me crazy, but that’s what it means to be alive. Welcome to Unlocking Us, I’m glad y’all are here.


BB: All right, before we dig in, let me tell you a little bit about Esther. She is a psychotherapist and a New York Timesbest-selling author.  She’s recognized as one of today’s most insightful and original voices on modern relationships. I think that is absolutely true. She is fluent in nine languages, she leads a therapy practice in New York and serves as an organizational consultant for Fortune 500 companies around the world. Her celebrated TED Talks have garnered more than 30 million views, and her best-selling books, Mating in Captivity, which that is such an amazing title, and The State of Affairs, are global phenomenon translated into nearly 30 languages. She is an executive producer and host of the popular podcast, Where Should We Begin?, and How’s Work?. Her latest project is, Where Should We Begin, A Game of Stories with Esther Perel. Let’s jump in.


BB: Okay. I might, Esther, be smiling too big to even talk right now, it is just so comforting and exciting to see your face.

Esther Perel: So, when you came on, you know I had you in minimized version and it was like your small face was just entering into my heart expanding and I said like, “Oh my God, I haven’t seen her.” I haven’t been near her, we used to just kind of crisscross into each other’s orbits and it’s a real pleasure. I’m really moved. I’m not only excited, I’m moved.

BB: Of course she has the right word.

EP: No, no, no, no. [chuckle]

BB: No, I am moved too. I feel emotional to see you.

EP: That’s it, that’s it, yes, same. And I was thinking, when’s the last time I saw her? And everything goes back two years, like 18, 19 months, that’s even like where the clock stopped somehow, then I wind back from there. I kind of want to say last year, every time I say last year, it’s actually two and a half years ago.

BB: Yeah, we’re going to talk about that.

EP: How have you been? Can I just ask you that first?

BB: Yes, that’s what I was going to start with.

EP: I asked first.

BB: Okay. I have been holding on. Yeah, it has been stressful and scary and disheartening. At the same time, I feel very close to my family right now. I’m going to use the word that I want to talk a lot about today with you. It has been a very difficult, paradoxical experience, the last 18 months. It’s been the hardest season of my marriage, and Steve and I have been together for 30 years, by far the most difficult season of our marriage, and also, we probably are closer in some ways, and know each other better in some ways than we’ve ever known each other in three decades. But also the most difficult. It’s been hard. I think there’s something about straddling the tension of contradictions that is exhausting.

EP: Has it changed over time? Is your answer evolving, or do you feel like you felt similarly a year ago, or do you think in the beginning, and then there was that phase… I have phases at this point.

BB: Yes, I think I went to war with uncertainty. It, of course, won.


BB: Yeah, I thought I could beat it down. And I’ve learned to move with it, but almost kind of like riding a wave, sometimes I’m right on top of it, and we’re riding together and there’s me and uncertainty, are moving together in this kind of rhythmic way, and sometimes it crashes over me and takes me down. So, I’m on that ride.

EP: You have this definition somewhere of vulnerability as comprising, emotional exposure, risk and uncertainty, and I thought, this is actually not just the definition of vulnerability inside of us, this is actually a definition of the world we live in. It’s no longer just an individual experience, it is really a collective experience. We are in a phase of prolonged uncertainty, with no end in sight whatsoever, we are dealing with risk and trust, and risk and safety, and we’re struggling that whole thing, and then we are trying to remain connected in the midst of all of that. And what is the emotional exposure that that connection invites us to do? And I just thought your triad here is just a perfect description of the world at large, and not just of the individual psychology.

BB: I don’t like that, Esther, I do not like this. I think you’re 100% right, but I don’t like it on a macro level because I like to think of myself as trying to learn to be vulnerable emotionally on a micro level, but then when I’m trying to be vulnerable in a vulnerable world, that’s really scary, right?

EP: Yeah, yeah. Let me ask you something, do you… Pre-pandemic or in your life in general, do you live with a sense that you somewhat control your destiny? Do you live with the notion of, “I have a sense of agency over my fate. I make the decisions, they carry me,” that you can kind of pre-determine certain things? Or did you, even before that, live with that notion of uncertainty that everything can just change from one day to the next?

BB: I think I straddled the paradox of, “I have a profound sense of agency and shit happens.”

EP: Yeah.

BB: Yeah, I think there was both. Okay. I know people use your name as a verb, I feel like I’m being Esther Perel-ed. Okay. Let me flip it to you…

EP: No, but I’ve listened to you so much this year, and every time I said, “And how is she doing?” We both try to translate, we try to put the words to the experience, we try to give clarity, to give reassurance, to give meaning, etcetera. I mean, I’ve really listened to quite a few of your interviews, that accompanied me too, and I would say, “How is she doing? Where does she come from?” Like, is this a sense that for the first time in her life there’s this notion that you don’t have the reins on anything, or does she actually come from a history where that has always actually been the case? She has a sense of agency, but she’s prepared at any moment, and I really think that those of us who experienced bad things at some point in our life and in the world we’ve lived in, had a certain preparation, even though we hoped it wouldn’t happen, we had a sense that this stuff happens.

EP: You think you know the world you live in, and from one day to the next, it just can topple, but there are other people who I’ve always looked at and I say, “Oh, these people seem so rooted, they know where they belong, they know why they are here on this earth, they don’t question their existence all the time,” and those people, I feel like they really thought that they can control stuff. Of course it’s those, it’s just imaginary, those people in my head. It’s two different stances, it’s not personalities per se, it’s a stance in the world.

BB: What is your stance? Complete agency and control? Or bad shit happens?

EP: No, I come from a family that lost everything and everyone, as a Holocaust survivor, so I grew up with that notion all the time, that from one day to the next, everything can disappear. And I live with that sense of dread constantly, but it’s masked by also a sense of optimism and kind of an erotic charge at life, and if I’m here, if I am this miracle child that wasn’t meant to be, I better do something with it. I better give it meaning and vigor and robustness. But internally, no, no, I have… A little bit like you. But in my version, I live as if I can take charge but I constantly feel that at any moment, somebody up there can smile at me and say, “Oh, you want to see?”

BB: Oh God, yes. I’m glad you talked about where you come from. I want to start with asking you, if you’ll tell us your story? All the way, if you’ll tell us your story from baby Esther.


EP: Well, maybe to kind of go into what I just described. Baby Esther came 12 years after my brother, and so, in effect, baby Esther was considered a bit of a miracle child that my parents wanted and were hoping for, but wasn’t coming. And for many, many Holocaust survivors, having a child was a sign that one still is human, that one can still procreate, that you haven’t killed off all the Jews, that there is a way to rebuild, that there will be a name, that there will be continuity, that there will be.  There will be, and not just there was. So I think that baby Esther, basically, was born with that. You have a mission, you were not meant to be, but you are here, and there is all this weight put on you that you are so special, which as always gives you, on the one hand, you are so special, and on the other hand, it’s a heavy burden.

EP: And I think I’ve lived with that awareness all along, that if I was going to have to do something important. I didn’t know what, but it was a sense of, don’t waste a life when you are living the life that so many people couldn’t have. Baby Esther was filled with energy, I think I’m a sublimated hyperactive, basically. [chuckle] But at the time, you could just be outside and play ball and be on the bike, and so nobody thought, you know, “She can’t sit still,” it was just, “She likes to be outside.” I was very physical and very active, and that’s a little bit later. Little child Esther, and prelatent child Esther, I would say, is very imaginative. I spent a lot of time doing imaginative play, story-telling. It’s really a direct line to what I do today, all the way straight to the podcast. And I told stories, I ran a tennis club where I was the owner, the players, the audience, the people that came to watch, and I had all these intrigues in the clubs, and I was every character, and I spoke out loud while I was playing against a big wall behind my house.

EP: I ran a Hit Parade program on TV, and I was the jury, the singer, the writers, the audience, the present… I played all the characters and I stood with my guitar in front of my mother’s commode and performed all the roles. So I was heavily into imaginative play. Always curious, very, very curious, very sensitive to rejection, very sensitive to rejection, partly because I had absorbed that larger story of the rejection that my family had experienced, and as a result I always thought, “I will find a way for the doors to not close on me. Somehow I will be invited in.” This theme, really, I find that it re-emerges everywhere, but it’s not just rejected because I was rejected, it’s rejected because I carried a legacy story of rejection of my people, and then that translated on to me.

EP: We were the immigrant family on the block, I lived above my parent’s store, I worked in the store since I could talk, and it was like the parents with the accent and the customers, everything that one often hears. And I would say that around adolescence, I began to really want to travel and leave. The world had to be bigger for me. I did my first trip in the US when I was 17, after high school, and I hitchhiked across the country for almost two months, and I saw America like I will never see it again, because I was ignorant and open and grateful for the kindness of all strangers.

BB: Wow!

EP: And then I went to study, and I think I always knew I was going to do psychology because I was fascinated by human beings, I was fascinated by the suffering of human beings, by what makes you want to continue, by what makes you wake up.  I would always ask my parents, “What made you want to wake up the next day in the concentration camps? I mean, how did you do it? How did you… ” And wondering, “Would I have been able to do it? What would I do if I was in dire circumstances? What’s my real strength? Not what I show to people.” I spent a lot of time talking about these things to my friends as well as by myself. And then, I really thought family therapy was going to be where I landed because a system, a family system, it’s just endlessly fascinating, and never twice the same story. And so, since I loved reading books, I knew that seeing patients and working with different people and entering other people’s lives, worlds, hearts, aches, will satisfy that same curiosity and that same ability to enter into other people’s experiences. So it was a very natural thing for me to become a therapist, which I still am. Here I am 40 something years later.

BB: I have goosebumps because maybe this is true for all of us in some way, but you make it so clear that a whole world already lived in you when you were born. Like a whole world of legacy, of expectation, of sorrow, of grief, of pain, of hope.  I mean, it’s like there was a whole cosmos in little Esther as a newborn. Has story always been important to you? It feels like it’s a thread in your life.

EP: Story has been a central theme for me, yes, because… And I’ve actually, I just had a thought, which I’ve never said out loud, but it’s beginning to make sense for me. Because there was such a massive disruption in my family, I had no grandparents, no uncles, no aunts, no nothing. My parents came from a family of nine for him, and a family of seven for her, and they both were the youngest. I knew the story had been severed, the narrative was cut and deliberately, and so we lived in two kinds of homes. Clearly, we would say, “Do you have parents who talk or do you have parents who never talk? Do your parents tell, and do your parents not tell? And what do they tell?” So the only way we could know where we came from, what was our history, what was the bigger story behind us, was literally through the parents telling, through their story-telling.

EP: And I happened to have had very, very good storytellers. My parents would talk and my friends would sit around the table and just listen because they had understood. Naturally they had a way of talking that basically put their denial system in place so that when it became too horrible, they just didn’t go there. So they told stories that were accessible to us.  We didn’t choke when we would listen, we were in awe.   We were like amazed, we couldn’t believe what we were hearing. But we were not running away because it was so unbearable. So the storytelling is part of what created continuity. What creates continuity in all communities that are uprooted, dismantled, broken, everybody, there’s nothing unique in here about… It happens to be my personal Jewish Holocaust stories, but every community worldwide, storytelling binds you to people, binds you to the past, binds you to the transmission, etcetera.

EP: I also think that I understood early on, and this came back in the pandemic very clearly, that freedom in confinement comes through your imagination. When you are physically incapable of leaving, the only place that you can live through is your creativity, your mind, your imagination, the stories you tell in your head can make you think that you’re sitting with the person that you haven’t seen in 10 years, or that you’re talking to the person that you lost. That notion that your mind, your imagination, it is really not just the mind, it’s the imagination part of the mind is what allows you to feel free even when you are captive.

EP: Like this year, like my parents for five years, and stories, imagination that goes hand-in-hand. And I am trained in narrative therapy, I do think of people’s lives as a story, people’s relationship as a story, people come in talking to me as a story, Where Should We Begin? the podcast is really built on that notion, people come in, they tell you a story, and hopefully by the end of the session, they will leave with a different story or the possibility of a different story, because language shapes the experience. Which was a notion for me, that I forgot that I cared a lot about. And I think languages, I speak a few and so that too, really, you tell the story differently in a different language. I’ve never spoken as much about this, but it’s really true that story is there from the beginning, if you don’t tell the story, you’re left with gaping holes.

BB: Oh my God, I have so many thoughts. Let me just pause for a second and just take in what you’ve just said. I just feel like I don’t know that I’ve ever heard anything more important in my life. So let me just take a breath for a second.

EP: And this is from one storyteller to another.

BB: Yeah, no, I…

EP: Because you are a storyteller too.

BB: Yeah, I have a very profound reverence for story.

EP: Our data with a soul.

BB: Yeah, data with a soul, that’s it.

EP: I never forgot the way you said that in one of your first TED Talks, and I said, “Oh, this woman is music to my ears.”

BB: Yeah, no, that’s what I’m hearing a symphony right now from you, and so I’m just sitting into it. Someone made a joke one time and said they were going to start calling my podcast the pause cast, we don’t pause very much in the real world anymore, and… What you just said is so important. It feels like I need a pause to think about it. I want to ask a bunch of questions. I want to walk into what you just said a little bit. This is not the first time I’ve heard someone say, especially talking about Holocaust survivors, and I think it’s true of other experiences of collective trauma, that there are people who tell the story and people who do not tell the story. I have friends who have told me, “My parents were in concentration camps. The rule was, we never spoke of it.” Is that a bearability question? Is that like on a level of catastrophic dehumanization and genocide, the Holocaust is an example, slavery is another example. We see examples around the world. Unfortunately, it’s like, we’re not learning. How would you describe the difference between people who carry and share the story and those who just can’t. Is it a willingness issue, or a capacity issue or both?

EP: Neither.

BB: Okay.

EP: I think one of the primary reasons not to tell is to protect the children, to protect the others.

BB: Say more.

EP: I don’t want you to be contaminated by this. I don’t want you to think that the world can be so in-human. I don’t want you to suffer from the suffering that I went through. The primary reason, and I think this is true for many people who don’t tell the story, it’s not the thing we emphasize, we typically think that there’s something inside the person who experienced the pain, the suffering, the loss, of why they don’t want to tell, but when people experience massive psychic loss, psychosocial trauma, large scale collective trauma, disasters and all of that, and particularly when there have been tortured, de-humanized war, all of those, same with the veterans, one of the prime reasons for the silence is to protect the people around from the evil, from the gross, from the disgusting, from the cruel. Then when people tell the story, there’s another distinction in the storytellers, there are those who emphasize the heroic and those who emphasize the victimization. Those who tell a story of survival, and those who tell a story of woundedness among the survivors.

EP: And by the way, when I say those, those, really, it’s not like the world is divided in two camps, but it’s a continuum where you look at. And that is a very interesting thing. Did people describe what they went through to talk about the human spirit, the way that they fought, the way that they fought to stay alive, or did people primarily emphasize on what had been done to them and that created the different legacy onto the children. One of the main experiences of a lot of children of survivors, and I think that that may be so for children who have parents who have went through major life events, is that you ask yourself, not just “Would I have been able to do this? Would I have survived?  How would I have done this?” But you also say, “My problems are not really worthy of problems.”

BB: Oh my God, yes.

EP: No problem. Nothing you’re dealing with is important enough, because how can you compare with Auschwitz?

BB: It’s a comparative suffering.

EP: Yes, how can you compare with just fill in the blank of whatever, the specificity of your story, and so you start to feel like you don’t really have a right to be unhappy or to suffer or to have problems because they are miniscule in comparison to the big issues. The jail, the poverty, the hunger, the freezing cold, whatever the things that people experience all over the world, and it’s really… Once you start to actually say, it’s a fantastic thing that people can feel about small things, not that different than they feel about big things, or in other words, I’m going to give you an example. We are the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I, at the time, worked with my husband, Jack, and a group of actors, and we did a play after 9/11 where we did theater of witnessing. Where we collected stories of people who were not being heard, the doorman in Chinatown, the chaplain who collected the human remains at the ground, not the fireman and not the policeman, everybody else in the community. I was living in the community, my children were at school two blocks from the World Trade Center, and we would play it in front of the audience and the audience would respond and we would incorporate this into the next.

EP: And a lot of people were busy with the comparative of suffering at the time. Haiti versus New York, it was all over. And when we would perform things, and especially when we would perform with other groups of victims of political violence and torture, they would tell us, “There’s two things you cannot miss when you tell our story, one is you have to bring in the humor, because humor has helped us a great deal and two, small things bothered us just as much as the big things, because the small things made us continue to feel like we were still normal people.” And that gave me the permission to then think, “Oh well, my small things then they’re okay. I don’t have to spend another two years in therapy to ask permission to, sometimes not feel good.” [chuckle]

BB: Yeah, I write a lot about comparative suffering because I see it all the time, even when I’m teaching a university class, I’ll see someone kind of silencing their own story because it doesn’t measure up to the story. And I remember after Hurricane Ike, my friend who’s a therapist called and said, “How are you doing?” And I said, “Oh, I’m good. We’re so lucky. Everyone’s okay, and we won’t have power for six weeks, but we’re good and the neighborhoods torn up and we can’t open the door because there’s a tree in our front yard… ”

EP: But we’re good.

BB: “But we’re great.” And she’s like, “Yeah, that sounds terrible. How are you?” And I said, “Oh, we’ve got so much to be grateful for compared to so many other people.” And she goes, “Yeah, I bet you do. So how are you doing?” And I was like, “I’m fucking losing my mind, the kids have strep throat, the house is full of mosquitoes because we have to sleep with the windows open because it’s 100 degrees outside. I’m sick, Steve’s taking care of people and bringing home I don’t know what!” And she goes, “There we go.” And I remember in that moment thinking, I had no compassion and empathy for other people, or very little at the time, because I wasn’t owning my own pain during what was happening. Does that make sense?

EP: Yes, if you talk to yourself and you say you have nothing to complain about, it’s very unlikely that you will respond to other people with, “What do you have to complain about?” Or you say, “You have something to complain about because yours is really worse, and I have nothing to complain about.” It goes in two directions right? Either it’s, “If I don’t cry, what the fuck are you crying?” Sorry. “What’s the matter with you? Lift yourself up and continue.”

BB: Get your shit together.

EP: Yes, pull yourself up, but the other version of the denial is if you see people who are really weaker than you and worse off you then you, then you can really experience vulnerability because they are below you in a way, you see them as more helpless, below in the sense as more helpless, and you feel like you can be there for them. But you don’t know how to do the same thing with yourself, you don’t know how to take that part of you that feels also sometimes weakened or fragile or brittle and apply the same kindness, the same gentleness, the same… In French, we have a beautiful word, bienveillance, it’s like benevolence, caring benevolence on to yourself. With yourself you say [snap] And with patients like that, you often have to ask, “If you were doing this to a friend, how would you be talking, and how is it that that friend doesn’t come back home with you?”

BB: God Almighty it’s… Two things come up for me when you say that, one is the danger of ranking suffering, and two is this whole idea of talking to yourself like you would talk to someone you love and respect. Which is really hard.

EP: The danger of ranking suffering is something you come across a lot when you do couples therapy or family therapy for that matter. Family members compete. Couples often compete who does more? Who does less? Who’s more deprived? Who lost more?

BB: Oh, hell yes.

EP: Loads of competition. So that is kind of daily breakfast.

BB: When parents don’t share, whether it’s something as catastrophic as the Holocaust or a traumatic upbringing with poverty and violence and whatever their experience is, when they don’t share in effort to not contaminate, which I think is a really strong word that you use there, and I felt that word when you used it, does that actually stop the spread of the experience?

EP: It’s a great question. So some parents do not speak to protect. Some parents do not speak because they don’t want to relive. Some parents do not speak because they feel shame. Sometimes they feel shame for what they experienced for how they were made to feel, sometimes they feel shame for how they survived for what they had to do to still be here. Sometimes they don’t speak, and this was actually one of the first ones that my parents would often tell me, because they didn’t believe that people would believe them. That what they were telling was so unimaginable, indescribable that nobody could believe them, and so for the first decades, they were quiet, they didn’t talk about that. And then sometimes people don’t talk because they want to focus on rebuilding life and the focus is really on that. So now, before I go back to your specific question, then what do people do, and that is a very, very important thing, especially with the period that we are in now, is that they come together with other survivors, they understand collective resilience in a very, very intuitive way.

EP: None of them ever went to therapy, this was not their culture. They come together, but they don’t come together to sit in a circle and talk about what they went through.  They come together to be in a circle with people who’d kind of have enough of an idea of what they went through because they went through something quite similar, so they don’t have to talk about it, and instead they can play cards, they can eat cake, and they can do all kinds of remembrances of other things. Very, very clever, very clever. It creates enough of the familiarity and the continuity without having to dig into the muck. Now what happens to the second generation? So these are a few of the reasons of what happens in the telling and not telling, we could spend an hour just on that, and this is true in families in general, when there is… When you sense something, you sense something that was never told, so it depends. One thing would be to say, “Did my parents describe what they went through?” Not just in the camps, it’s also when they come back to Belgium, it’s when they went back to see if anybody had survived, it’s a lot of different pieces, but there’s a different thing between that and the parent who doesn’t tell that they actually had a family and that the whole family perished. That they actually had two children, that if they can’t attach to you, even though they wanted you, you child, it’s often because they are so afraid if they get attached, they will lose you again.

EP: And so they’ve become this kind of remote aloof parent, that’s one story. I mean there’s many. Another version is, you don’t know, so you fill in the gaps, in general, when we don’t know, we fill in the gaps. It’s like Swiss cheese and then you start to invent all kinds of things, you start to imagine things. And you have no idea if it’s true or not, and often you imagine worse than what may be. So the good thing is sometimes to be able to go to talk to other people. Some of the most interesting work I did on this was large groups, 100, 200 people with families, but the parents were not with their own children, children were with other parents. So that the parents could talk but they didn’t have to deal with the fact that they were talking to their own kids and the children could ask questions and they didn’t have to worry that they were going to re-traumatize their parents. They’re very, very powerful large group communal settings where people came to fill the holes, so to speak.

BB: Wow.

EP: To me, it was one of the most generative experiences in terms of telling the stories in a way where you can ask and somebody can answer in a safer way than if it’s done just in the family, afterwards, you can go in the family. “Oh, I was born in that haystack with you when you were in hiding, and I already had a sister and I didn’t know that I already had a sister.” Something doesn’t make sense when I calculate the numbers… The stories were often…

BB: Missing big pieces.

EP: Yes, yes.

BB: One thing I thought of when you said how genius it was to come together and play cards or eat dinner or have a potluck. I think about some of the research on what it was like for soldiers coming back to the United States, just the PTSD, the difference when they got on ships with each other and traveled for several weeks together back. And they told each other stories and they played cards as opposed to, you’re on the front line in a war zone and 24 hours later you’re shopping at the grocery store with your partner and your kids. And there was just no being with people who had gone through the same kind of trauma and no place to put it. The other thing that this brought up for me is I’m really curious about this. Tell me about the phenomenon, I hear this a lot when I interview people, about people in a lot of pain, who when they try to express their pain and their experiences of shame or their experiences of not feeling loved, their perspective of their parents is, you have no idea what it’s like to grow up in a hard time. Like we gave you everything compared to what we have, and I can’t believe you have any issues with the way we raised you. Does that make sense? Like this…

EP: That’s another form of the competition for greater victim.

BB: Oh. Got it.

EP: That’s actually the same. It’s like, “What do you have to complain about? If you only knew what I went through.” So this is a variation of the, what you call suffering comparatives?

BB: Comparative suffering, yeah.

EP: The very interesting thing is this, the parent who says this, “You have no idea what I went through. At 10 I was going with the newspaper every morning. I’ve worked in an elderly house. I worked in a cafe, I swept the floors. I, I did all these things, you have it so easy,” is that that parent wanted the child to have it easier than them. I see quite a few parents who, they tried so hard to have their kids not have to deal with what they had to deal with, whatever it was, irresponsible parents, addicted parents, parents who they the children had to take care of them materially, etcetera, but what’s important is they then find themselves in the can of an ambivalence stance, on the one hand, they wanted the kid to have it easier, and on the other end, they go and they say to the kid, “You have it so easy, you don’t try hard enough. You are lazy, if only you knew,” but at the same time, they then come back and they try to give the help that the kid needs to keep it be easier. It’s this constant loop. I don’t want you to suffer the hardships that I suffered, and then I put you down for not having suffered enough and for thinking that life is owed to you, when in fact, I’m the one who taught you that by giving to you because I wanted everything for you not to feel what deprivations I had experienced.

BB: God we’re kind of back where started in a way where…

EP: You get this one?

BB: Oh no, I get it as a parent.  I get that I am parenting my two kids in a way that I would have killed to have been parented, and I get that it is imperfect, and I will probably need to hear hard things as they get older about things that affected them. But the only way that I can really navigate that is because I believe in paradox, that I believe both things can be true. I believe that I worked really hard to overcome some of the ways I was parented and do it differently, and that I did it imperfectly. I can straddle the tension of both of those things being true.

BB: I want to read this to you and I want to get your thought on this. Are you a Carl Jung person? Are you Jungian in nature?

EP: I’m not a Jungian in nature, but I have read Jung and respect him tremendously.

BB: Yes. So this quote, “The paradox is one of our most valuable spiritual possessions, only the paradox comes anywhere near to comprehending the fullness of life.”

EP: So paradox is both and.

BB: Yes.

EP: It’s thesis antithesis. It’s the ability to straddle contradictory beliefs, attitudes, feelings at the same time without having to think that it’s an either/or, this or that. Which is when I said there are those people and those people… I keep wanting to say I speak as if it’s binary, but it really is a tension. I am interested in that tension between those two polarities. That’s the paradox. Look, I think that is one of the things we share a lot. I wrote Mating in Captivity to explore the paradox between love and desire, between our need for security and our need for adventure, our wish for commitment but our longing for freedom, our quest for togetherness, but our hunger for separateness, for safety and excited. The whole book was examining that tension of these two fundamental sets of human needs that we have from Ulysses on, the journey and the home.

BB: (laughter) Yeah

EP: So I think in paradoxes all the time, all the time. It’s the tension that fascinates me, I think a lot of the way that I change the story that people bring to me, like if you listen to Where Should We Begin?, you’ll see that people come in with a story that is, I’ve often either/or, shall I stay or, shall I go? Shall I have a kid or shall I not have a kid. He wants this and he wants that, and my work is about taking those polarities out of their corners, making them looser, so that they can become more intertwined with each other. In a couple, it’s a fascinating thing what happens to a paradox, it’s called to split the ambivalence.

BB: Okay, wait. Say that again. It’s called what?

EP: Splitting the ambivalence.

BB: Okay, what does that mean?

EP: So, when I say a couple, it doesn’t have to be a romantic couple, it can be any polarized relationship, could be two nations, it doesn’t matter, since I work more in the small system. For example, one person says, “I want to have a kid,” or, “I want to get married,” or, “I want to move,” whatever, “I want X,” and the other person says, “No, I don’t want.” When they position themselves, it looks like one person has no doubt, they are 100% sure that they want X, and the other person has all the doubts. One person says, “I don’t want a kid,” as if that’s the whole picture, when in fact, the person who says no, may say no because there is context. The context says we’re too young or we’re too old, or we’re not economically secure, or there are things that are making them say, “No, I don’t want this.” That doesn’t mean they don’t have a longing for it, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a desire somewhere at some point, but the splitting of the ambivalence makes each person take up half of the equation, polarize against the other, and it becomes an either/or when in fact, both people experience both needs inside of them. Security and adventure, you can’t have one person who likes adventure and excitement then change in novelty and the other who only wants safety, etcetera. Why? Because if the one that wants safety only wanted safety, they would not have chosen you.


BB: Wait, this is so uncomfortable. I’m getting ready to get hysterical. This is…

EP: Who do you want to invite into your office right now? [chuckle]

BB: No, I’m just telling you right now, I just showed this to Barrett, “Hot, put down AC.” It’s getting uncomfortable, it’s getting uncomfortable in here. Okay.

EP: You understand? If you only wanted freedom and adventure, etcetera, etcetera, you wouldn’t choose the other person. By definition, your choice of the other person who represents the part of you that is being often denied or pushed out or dimmed but is there. So instead of people reconciling the paradox inside themselves, what they do is they split the paradox and they take half of the story and they put the other half on the other person.

BB: Oh my God. Okay, stop. Yes, it’s so funny, I didn’t understand this. I can’t believe that… Splitting the ambivalence. So I’m always the certain directive, “We’re going to do this, we should do this, we should do that.” And then I’m like, “Steve, you’re the parade rainer. You’re always like, ‘Well, what about this? And I’m not sure about this,'” and I always say I’m the microwave he’s the crock pot, it takes forever. But the minute he says, “Okay, let’s do it.” I’m like, “I have a lot of fears about this, I’m not sure we should really do this.”

EP: Right, and the only way you can be so certain is because you have somebody else articulating the part of you that is being disavowed.

BB: Stop it. Stop it. We have to cut this whole place.

EP: Somebody’s laughing behind you.


BB: I know. Someone’s laughing behind me right now, but when anybody that knows me, listens to this, everybody will be laughing because… Oh. Okay.

EP: And you see, when you talk about the slow cooker and the microwave, and the this and that, that is already the story, and that is how the story reinforces the roles. So now the roles become, you’re the certain one, and instead of seeing it as a role in response to Steve, it becomes a personality. You’re the certain one, and now you are the one who always has to be certain because he’s taken up the quota of the person who can ask questions, who can doubt, who can wonder, who can deliberate and the more he deliberates and the more you feel like you have to be certain, and the more you are certain and the more he needs to strengthen the deliberation because… this is splitting the ambivalence, it goes on and on and how it… It’s a fascinating dance that takes place in relationships. I think it’s what takes place in partisanship as well, the opposite of paradox is polarization.

BB: You have blown my mind. I’m so… I like… Because when I say that the pandemic was the toughest season in our 30-year relationship, but in some ways we’re closer, I think what happened was the level of uncertainty…

EP: You could not remain so certain anymore.

BB: No, no, and he got…

EP: And it had to create an adjustment in the relationship because you needed space to be able to say, “I’m scared, I don’t know, I’m not sure, what am I going to do?” And all those expressions of uncertainty, and for that, you needed to know that he, A, can handle it, won’t collapse from it, won’t say, “Oh, you’re stepping out of character,” and so he could actually finally step out of his character, and it probably created a much needed adjustment. And when it works well, it really gives a new breath of fresh air to the couple.

BB: How did you know that? This is like… This is crazy talk. How did you know that?

EP: I don’t know, I just… Because it’s the way this works, because these are roles. Roles are interdependent parts that people play, and when you loosen it a little bit and it takes… Did you hear that? It’s very funny, I’ve never seen the show, Ted Lasso. Do you watch this?

BB: Oh yes. Of course.

EP: So they quoted me, a week or two ago, I had never seen the show and the quote they took is exactly this, “It takes two people to create a pattern, it takes one person to change it.” So you needed to change a pattern, you needed the permission, but it’s not even that you need it, you had no choice, you had to. You can’t just go on a normal code, but it wasn’t something that had been established in the relationship because of roles, and that’s okay. Roles are fine, it’s just… When they become rigid, that’s a problem. There was a new reality, that reality meant that there is this uncertainty, and that means that you too need the possibility of saying, “I don’t know,” but the person who’s always known, who begins to say, “I don’t know,” that is very scary.

BB: Terrible. Hateful. Hateful.

EP: And you want to know that the person next to you can do it. It’s like in order to let go, or your third dimension called emotional exposure, which is letting go, opening up, letting go, surrendering, you can only fall if this person stays steady. You need to know that this person can withstand your fall, your openness, your softening, your vulnerability, and that they can stay steady. If you feel that they’re going to fall flat with you, it’s this old game on the beach, where you can lean back if you feel that the other person’s hands are going to make sure that you don’t hit the ground, and for him to be able to have those hands must have felt so wonderful.

BB: It did, but I’ll tell you what happened that was weird and I was… Let me tell you something, I was ass high in your books during this period of time. I was just reading them constantly. What was interesting is… And I think I put a lot of pressure on Steve during COVID, because he’s a physician, he’s a pediatrician, so I was like, “You know what, we have to make decisions about our kids doing this event or going here, and I don’t know what the answer is,” and that’s not like me to say, “I don’t know what the answer is, I don’t know what to do.” And he caught me in the most incredible way, because what he said is, “I don’t know exactly either, but we can talk it through and figure out something together,” and so what his certainty was wasn’t, “Well, we’ll do this and this and that.” His certainty was the belief in our ability to come together and make a good decision in our values, and so what ended up happening is, it’s like we broke that thing that kept us in the corners, like we did the thing where we loosened those things in the corners.

EP: But you know, Brené, when you say the word, “I am certain, and it’s not like me not to know,” that’s very telling. So you asked me, how do I know?

BB: Oh God. [laughter]

EP: Because… It’s tempting because I know you get it so fast.

BB: I do. I get it really fast, it’s painful as fuck. Go ahead.

EP: To say, I am certain is also often to say, I can’t tolerate not knowing.

BB: Of course, yes.

EP: And when you come from medicine, especially pediatrics, you live in a more uncertain reality. You do the best you can, but you have learned to know how to live with the unknown. In the beginning of a pandemic, or the trajectory of a pandemic is filled with this unknown, and so he says, “I don’t know either, but I’m used to this, and I can tolerate living in that zone of unknown and this time it is actually what we both need, and from that place we’ll decide what we want to do with the kids and what they can do and not do.”

BB: Yeah, that is exactly what… It was… I remember I asked him and his…

EP: That’s a very definition. From now on you no longer describe yourself as the one who knows and the one who hems and haws.

BB: No.

EP: You can describe yourself as the one who has a harder time and gets very anxious when she doesn’t know, living with the person who actually has more tolerance for uncertainty and for not knowing.

BB: That is the worst bullshit reframe I’ve ever heard in my life. [laughter] I have been… Esther Perel-ed. [laughter]

EP: Reframe.

BB: I wish y’all could see her right now, not only, of course, is she beautiful, but she’s laughing hard right now at me.

EP: No, because reframe is one of the most beautiful things we can do with a story. And it opens up a whole new vista. This is bullshit or do you think it actually has some peace to it.

BB: No, it’s so painfully true and accurate, that it is… But it actually saved us in a way. And it was exactly what you said. I remember he changed his mind about something and I was like, “How dare you change your mind about letting one of our kids do something” and he said, “Brené, this is a pandemic. Every day, the calculus changes, every day we have to weigh social and emotional isolation with the data that we know about the virus. This is not something that is certain.” And I said, “Well, I can’t take it.” And he said, “I get it, but if we’re trying to make the best decision for our kids, you need to understand that this is a ever-changing calculus, that we really are just doing the best we can with the information we have.” That is like nails on a chalkboard to me, but I also respect him and know it was true, and so this is… Yeah.

EP: To be continued.

BB: Hell, no. [laughter] Okay, let me ask you this before… I don’t know what I’m going to go do, probably call Steve. Tell us about some of the exciting things happening in your life, tell us about your new game, tell us about your podcast. I know people are going to listen to this and be like, “Whoa.” You… I don’t know, you get things and are able to make them accessible to us in a way that’s so human and profoundly moving. How can people dig in and learn more about you and your work? Where do they find you? What do you have going on?

EP: So to get to the vault is, but what you will find there is, I would say that my work is dedicated to helping you navigate the complexities of modern relationships, particularly romantic relationships, but also family relationships and relationships in the workplace. Why? Because I think that our expectations of relationships are magnified more than ever, particularly because of the loss of some of the social structures, communal structures, religious structures, pre-established rituals, etcetera, so we turn to our relationships today, to our work relationships as well for meaning, for grounding, for belonging, for transcendence, for things that people often used to look for in the realm of the divine, which is actually…

BB: Oh yes.

EP: Yeah? You understand. It’s like… It’s actually a statement of a Jungian analyst Robert Johnson who really made me think about that, this notion of all these things that people used to look for in the realm of religion that have to do with wholeness and ecstasy and transcendence, we want them today in our relationships, because many of us no longer go to the traditional structure. So I’ve done it through the books, Mating in Captivity and The State of Affairs, but I’ve also done it through the podcast, Where Should We Begin? Which we are now producing season five that will come out soon.

BB: Congratulations.

EP: With some amazing surprises, including going back to some couples that I saw three years ago and really looking at what happened to them since and a few other surprises that I will keep a surprise. And then I started, during the pandemic in the beginning, in the month of April, May, really, at the start, I went and did a whole season of Couples in Lockdown, which was the best way I could use the fact that we were on Zoom and the fact that I was working with couples, but here we were, so I could go meet them in Lagos, Nigeria, and I could meet them in Sicily, but in my… through Zoom. And that made me feel like I can do something. I think that couples are isolated, I think that couples often don’t really know what’s happening in the neighbor’s house these days, and the isolation was ever more so during this last 18 months, and so everything I did was to try to bring private dramas into the public square so that we can have the difficult conversations that we need to have, and I created a second podcast that’s How’s Work? Which is the same principal, live, one-time, three-hour couples therapy sessions, but this time with people who work together and they are…

EP: We’re both out with Spotify, they’re also out in the open now, you can go binge on them as much as you want, and then I thought… And this goes back to the beginning of our conversation with my parents, where I would say, “What kept you going? How do you maintain hope in the midst of anguish like this? How do you stay connected to the erotic, aliveness, vibrancy, life force, vitality?” And that is play. I had received a video of the children of a friend of mine, and the kids had taken in this… They were confined in a tiny, tiny apartment, but the kids took the boxes, and with the boxes, they build a hut and with the hut they took a few books and the books were now the rocks in the river. That’s what I mean. Freedom in confinement comes to your imagination, and I thought this is not just true for children, this is really true for us. I’m going to create a game.  I want to create an experience that is playful, and not just talk about playfulness. We lost basically the connection to the erotic in the pandemic, the erotic in the sense of spontaneity, happenstance, curiosity, chance encounters, the stuff that makes you look outside because every person could be a potential contamination. So you were just closing off, closing off, trying to go safe. And then, people began to talk about being exhausted and flat and numb and without energy, or, what Adam Grant called, languishing. You know?

BB: Yeah.

EP: That was, for me, the loss of dare I, so I said, “I’m going to create a game.” You know, that game called, Where Should We Begin is a card game. Me, who never plays. I’m not a card game player one bit. But I thought, there’s a way of helping people with this social atrophy. To help them connect and to reconnect. You can play it with your partner, with your friends, with your kids, with people you’ve never met. It really… Actually really applies, you just take out certain cards that have a pin code, and then you can really play with everyone. And it was my happy project. My team got involved. We tested the card games. We used them on ourselves to tell stories. And it’s a storytelling game, where you begin to unlock the stories within. But de facto it also becomes storytelling that connects you to the people that you’re playing with. So…

BB: Beautiful.

EP: You know, relationships and any way that I can support people to be more confident in their relationships. And, the last thing was, I have a program called Sessions that is for therapists, coaches, all mental health professionals. And I really wanted to see, as a clinician… Like you say, I’m a researcher and you continue to do research. And I, no matter what else I do, I have two days a week, I see patients, I’m in my office, and I stay close to the trade, you know, And I thought, “How do I support all the other providers, all the service providers?” So, we have the annual event coming up soon, and it’s really that, the great adaptation. Which I think is part of what we’ve been talking about. How do we stay grounded when the ground is moving? Because therapists, clinicians, med doctors, Steve, all of the people who have been frontline and healthcare and mental healthcare providers, the burnout is enormous.

BB: Oh God, it’s huge.

EP: And it’s really the question, “How do you continue to support others emotionally, when you are under-supported yourself?” And when, for the first time, therapists are going through the same thing as their clients.

BB: That’s right, that’s right.

EP: So, that became another major piece. I said, “I’m going to really plunge back into my own community, and see what I can offer.” So, this is the upcoming Sessions Live.

BB: We are going to put all of this on the episode page at So, you can find links to the game, the podcast. If you’re a helping professional, how you can learn more about the conference on staying grounded while the ground is shifting as we speak. You’ll get links to everything. Are you ready, Esther, for the rapid fire questions?

EP: Let’s go.

BB: Okay. Fill in the blank for me. Vulnerability is…

EP: I love your triad. It’s uncertainty, emotional exposure, and risk. It captures it. I don’t have to go find my own definition, I refer to the work of Brené Brown.


BB: You’re called to be very brave, you personally, but your fear is real, you can feel it in the back of your throat. What is the very first thing you do?

EP: Oh, I’m a complete counter-phobic I tend to throw myself into the things that scare me the most, and then I go “aah.”


BB: So, throw then scream. Okay. What is something that people often get wrong about you?

EP: To go back to the very question. I look like I’m fearless, but I am actually am riddled with fears. And both are true.

BB: Yes.

EP: That’s the paradox. And I think that’s something you said early on in our conversation, too.

BB: Both things can be true.

EP: Yes.

BB: What’s the last TV show that you binged and loved?

EP: Oh, I don’t know yet if I love it, but I’m watching it right now because I’m going to be doing an interview with the main actors. I am watching Scenes of a Marriage. The new Scenes of a Marriage by Hagai Levi. And I was a massive fan of Bergman’s original Scenes of a Marriage. So, I can’t yet say, because I’ve only watched two episodes, I don’t want to speak. But that’s what I’m watching right now.

BB: Oh, I love it. Oh my God, I have goosebumps thinking about you commentating on that. Okay. Favorite movie or favorite film?

EP: Oh, I don’t have things like that. Favorite… I don’t know.

BB: What’s one that you really love?

EP: I mean, I could definitely say that Scenes of a Marriage was one of the movies that… You know, when you read that first book or you watch that first movie that shows you the insides of relationships…

BB: Yes.

EP: Like a real anatomy lesson. Oh my God, I was 14, 15-years-old when I saw it the first time. I was like, “That is love?”


BB: Okay. A concert that you’ll never forget?

EP: Oh, many. Genesis, Pink Floyd, Yes, SuperTramp. I mean, big concerts. The concerts you least forget are the ones when you are rained out.

BB: Oh, yeah.

EP: And it pours on you, and everybody stays under the umbrella while the music keeps going. You know? So, Pink Floyd in Munich was a big one like that.

BB: I wish I could have been with you. Oh, that sounds fun. Favorite meal?

EP: Oh, favorite meal is… It has nothing to do with what I eat. It has everything to do with being outside, in a garden, with a full moon, some candles on the table, and some fantastic people with whom I’m having an immersive conversation.

BB: Beautiful.

EP: That’s a favorite meal.

EP:: I can see the twinkle lights already.

EP: I mean, there’s lots of things I would love to eat, but it’s good food with no soul around the table. Nah. Good soul around the table and also good food, oh, heavenly.

BB: What’s on your night stand?

EP: On my night stand is a candle, water, my book. I’m currently reading… I will show it to you. It’s actually not a happy book, but it’s an incredible… I read in French, mostly, for pleasure, I have to say. Delphine Horvilleur, who is a magnificent French philosopher, a Rabbi, and it is really about living with our death. It’s a book about memory. But I would say this whole summer, I had one novel after another on my night table, because the pandemic made it very hard for me to read fiction for the last two years. I couldn’t leave my reality to plunge into the story of a character, and I knew this summer that I had turned the corner when I could just read one novel after another. I have my night cream and that’s about it on my night table. I’m looking at it.

BB: Yeah, I love it. Okay. Give us a snapshot of an ordinary moment in your life that gives you true joy. Just a singular moment that’s joyful for you.

EP: I’m sitting on the couch. We have a big red chair in the living room, and one of my boys comes and lays and sits all over me as if they’re still two-years-old.

BB: Yes.

EP: When they’re like this big man, and just kind of come to snuggle, and I’m thinking, “I did this well.”

BB: Oh God, I have goosebumps.

EP: They’re both back home for the moment, so it’s really… That’s like, “Oh, wow. You just want to come and lay on me like that, like you used to do when you were like this?”

BB: I told Steve the other day, my son’s 16, and I said, “You know what I miss?” And he said, “What?” And I said, “I miss the full weight of his body on me.”

EP: So, I had one of those heavy-weight lifter 28-year-olds yesterday on me like that. And then, the other one was sitting next to… And Jack was there. And then, when Adam left, the younger one came and laid on top of me like this, too. And I just thought, “Man, this is… Like, there’s nothing more. This is it. That’s fine. Satiated.”

BB: Satiated, yes. Okay. Tell me one thing you’re deeply grateful for right now.

EP: I mean, I think that this is going to come very obvious. I’m basically really grateful that I have an amazing group of people in my life. Friends. But my team, my friends, my husband. I really am well surrounded, I have to say. I see people who don’t have enough.

BB: Yeah.

EP: Who don’t have enough. I say, “Who can you call? Who knows about this? Who have you spoken to?” And I’m thinking, “You are famished. You are famished.” And when you are well supported relationally, you can go do a lot of things.

BB: God, yeah, I do. We take it for granted sometimes, don’t we? When we’re well surrounded.

EP: I actually… I don’t take it for granted, but I always ask myself, “Why is it so easy for some, and so hard for others?” And I do realize that a lot of my work involves my helping people to create community for themselves, to know how to reach out, to not be afraid, and I’m very directive about it. I have opened my office, I say, “I want you to bring someone to the next session that you would like to get to know more.” And I then do a… You know, Zoom has opened up multiple possibilities of things I can do in a therapy session that is just rich, unending. And so, I’m sitting, and the friends may be in another part of the country, and I say, “Your friend asked to invite you to the therapy session, because I asked him or her or them who is someone who you would like to get closer to? And you were chosen, and I really appreciate you joining us at the therapy session. I know it’s rather unconventional, but I think we’re going to make it an interesting hour.” And I know that this doesn’t end at the end of the session. So, that is a different way of understanding emotional support. It’s not one-on-one, it’s me helping you have more of others.

BB: Okay. We asked for five songs you can’t live without. You gave us six. I like that. Non-conformist always, Esther. Okay. So, you may have to help me with some of them. “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen. “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” Jacque Brel. Oh my God, that is… Is that the most beautiful song in the whole world?

EP: But now we can decide if it’s by him, by Nina Simone, or by Grace Jones.

BB: I didn’t know anyone sang it but him.

EP: Oh, yes. Oh, Grace Jones and Nina Simone both sing it, too. I just grew up with him, so… You know, he was Belgian like me. So, it’s very interesting. And then, we had St. Germain, “Rose Rouge.”

BB: “Me Vuelvo Guajiro?”

EP: “Me Vuelvo Guajiro.”

BB: By Tam Tam?

EP: Yeah. Yeah.

BB: “Bo’ee” by Idan Raichel.

EP: Idan Raichel.

BB: Okay.

EP: Raichel. Yeah.

BB: Raichel. And “Fallin’” by Alicia Keys. God.

EP: It’s unusually straight.

BB: It is. But I want you to tell us in one sentence…

EP: Yeah.

BB: What this mini-mix tape says about you, Esther?

EP: That I’m a person of the world. That music from all corners of the world enters into my vein. That I can sing it and play it, even when I don’t understand a word I say. I learned an entire English repertoire without knowing what the words meant as a kid, but I’ve sang it phonetically. That I made this little list with my younger son Noah, because he’s my musical interlocutor. He’s the one we talk in share music. I turned him on to some of these, he then feeds them back to me. There’s Acid Jazz in here, there is Salsa and Latin American music and Brazilian music. Which, I was in a Brazilian band for quite a few years way back. There is French chanson, because that’s what I grew up with. And then there is “Hallelujah,” because I think Leonard Cohen is the most transgressive of them all, the poet of them all, and because it’s meant to be an incantation and of praise and it’s complete hedonistic… And it has the paradox in it, the way that we described it. So, that’s what it says about me, multicultural, from everywhere. I don’t need to understand the words to know what they say, and it’s an incredible dialogue to share with your kids or a friend or someone.

EP: I actually wrote a letter to one of my childhood friends, asking him, “You who turned me on to so many bands,” because he was the real American rock person that I knew in Belgium, “What would you say were your main ones?” And he said, “Do you remember, we were 14 and we went to the first concert of Genesis? And then, we had that guitar solo.” And it was like I hadn’t spoken to him in two years, and he wrote me our history musically…

BB: That’s beautiful.

EP: Of our concerts. And I said, “Just that question from Brené, has been so wonderful to go back to” You know, it’s an amazing dialogue to have with people is the shared love of music.

BB: It’s beautiful. I am so grateful that we are sharing this time and space on Earth with you, I really am. That’s all I can say, that I am so glad in a big universal way, our paths have crossed many times, and I hope with more intention in the future.

EP: I… You know, the last time we spoke and we said we should do something we were both at South by… SXSW and I said, “I would love one day to talk together, because you and I talking together is like those songs put on the same list. We bring very different landscapes, very different metaphors, but they speak to the same thing.”

BB: It’s beautiful. Well, I will sing with you any time.

EP: Let’s do it.

BB: Thank you, Esther.

EP: My pleasure. Thank you so much.


BB: Let me just go on the record and say that I will talk with Esther any time about anything. I will sing with her, I will try to read in French with her. I just… She’s incredible. I’m so happy that we got to talk to her on Unlocking Us. I hope you learned from her, as well, and I hope you were feeling bad for me. While I was… While I was in the middle of the Esther Perel smackdown. You can barely call it a smackdown. Would you call it a smackdown, Barret?

Barret Guillen: I wouldn’t… I would’ve… I’d say you got Esther-ed.

BB: I got Esther-ed. Yeah, I did get Esther-ed. She Esther-ed me down. Oh, y’all can always count on some really good jokes from me. We have an episode page for every podcast. And so, if you’re looking for Esther’s books, her podcasts, her game that she talked about, which is really interesting, you can find all of that on Just go to the Esther Perel podcast page, or you can go directly to her website, which is She is on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, all of the handles are on our episode page. So grateful that you’re joining us on Spotify for both Unlocking Us and Dare to Lead. Y’all stay awkward, brave, and kind. Take care. See you next week.

BB: Unlocking Us is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown. It’s produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, and Tristan McNeil, and by Weird Lucy Productions. Sound design by Tristan McNeil. And music is by the amazing Carry Rodriguez and the amazing Gina Chavez.


© 2021 Brené Brown Education and Research Group, LLC. All rights reserved. 

Brown, B. (Host). (2021, September 22). Brené with Esther Perel on Partnerships, Patterns, and Paradoxical Relationships. [Audio podcast episode]. In Unlocking Us with Brené Brown. Parcast Network.

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