How I Get It Done: Esther Perel

Illustration: Lauren Tamaki

Esther Perel is one of the most influential and well-known psychotherapists in the world. Through TED Talks, best-selling books, a podcast (Where Should We Begin?), and her clinical practice in New York City, she explores the one subject she believes interests every human: relationships. Her new book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, is out this week. She lives with her husband, Jack Saul, a psychotherapist and director of the trauma-studies program at Columbia. Here, she shares how she gets it all done.

On her morning routine:

I wake up at 7 most of the days. The first thing I do is say good morning to my husband. We listen a bit to the news, snooze for about 20 minutes, and then I get up. We sit, we chat, we have breakfast together, and then I go to exercise. I generally exercise with friends. I run with a group of girlfriends, and we swim. We have a weekly yoga class. And we go to dance class, mostly salsa and African. The motivation comes from not making someone wait for me.

On her work space:

My office is on the 22nd floor of a building in the Flatiron district. It has a beautiful view that reminds me every day that I am in New York. I have the golden dome of the MetLife building right outside, so every day at sunset it’s just pure golden light — it reminds me of the light of Jerusalem, where I used to live. It’s a psychotherapy office so there’s very little on my desk. It’s not cluttered, and it doesn’t allow you to be distracted by too many things. The rest is a big couch and armchair and books. I think people feel comfortable when they enter the room. There’s an enormous amount of light. It’s sun-drenched, actually. There are a series of orange and red and yellow pillows, silk pillow covers I brought back from Cambodia. All the artwork is from people I know.

On compartmentalizing:

Clinical days are clinical days. There is nothing else. I walk in at 8:30 or 9, and I walk out at 6 or 7, and I have not opened my phone once. It’s a tech-free day, no boops or beeps. I’m completely immersed [in my clients]. For the last two years, I didn’t take on any new couples, unless they had something to do with the topic, so I could stay focused. I also only read stuff that related to my book. I am so happy to finally be able to read a novel. I am reading the Elena Ferrante trilogy. That’s the first thing I plunged into.

On being interested in the topic of infidelity:

It is not about affairs. People ask me, why do you write about affairs if you believe in the strength of relationships? There’s no better way to understand what holds people together than to examine relationships at their worst.

On the best and worst parts of writing a book:

My favorite part is writing the cases, writing the stories. I like to take complex ideas and translate them into simple, accessible language. I think that’s one of the things that I probably do best. The worst part is that I’m a majorly associative thinker.

I start in one place, and ten minutes later I’m completely somewhere else. I need an editor that functions like a GPS, and tells me all the time, “Recalculating, recalculating!” I have no shortage of content. I have no shortage of ideas. But when I’m in front of a page or a screen nothing frames me. I have enormous respect for editors.

On her appeal:

I think it’s a combination of things. You could say it’s the accent. I know my thinking is very male-friendly. My books and my podcasts and my YouTube videos are watched by quantities of men who then bring it to their partners. My view is nonjudgmental. My views are cross-cultural, so I’m not talking to just Americans. They are inclusive, so when I talk about sexuality, I take a rather inclusive perspective that integrates the changes that are occurring around sexuality, identity, gender fluidity, all that. When I do the podcast, I have gay couples, straight couples, trans couples. A couple is a couple.
I say things that are complicated — complex, not complicated — but I can say them in simple language, and sometimes very succinctly.

On trying to have normal relationships when you are a relationships expert:

If you’re an artist, you go into the city and look for colors, for life, for shapes, for beauty, for themes. I think it’s not different for a therapist. You use that lens. It’s the lens that helps you see movies, helps you read a book. People don’t come to me to talk about their mechanical problems in their cars. I like the lens! I like the intellectual repartee I have with my husband about our work. And from my sons, what can I learn about their cohort, their generation? I’m voraciously curious and a little bit of an anthropologist wherever I am.

On her free time:

It’s a little difficult because I’m at the beginning of a book tour and I have 32 talks scheduled in the next six weeks. I bike a lot. I bike every day in New York, all the time. I’m a Belgian girl, after all. I meet friends. I go to museums. I go for walks. I travel a lot; I took a month this summer and I went to Berlin and Greece. I like to be away.

My free time, when I have more than a day, is often about being away from my life. I don’t want much TV at all. I was a consultant on the Showtime series The Affair, so I did watch that. I throw dinner parties. I’m no gourmet cook, by far, but I can put together a nice meal — simple, good food, like tagines and fish stew and lemon chicken. I love to see live performances. As a good boomer, I am going to see Paul McCartney tomorrow night. Not that I ever listen to him, but he’s my generation. I should at least see what became of him.

How I Get It Done: Esther Perel