rules to live by

Esther Perel’s Advice for Giving Advice (and Hosting Dinner Parties)

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Leeor Wild

It’s a cardinal rule in therapy that practitioners aren’t supposed to tell their patients what to do or how to live. Instead, it’s their job to sagely guide them toward a new perspective. That hasn’t stopped thousands of people from trying to get advice from Esther Perel — over 6,000 couples applied to appear on the new season of her podcast Where Should We Begin?, which is now part of the Vox Media Podcast Network — nor did it stop us from asking her about the etiquette rules she lives by.

It’s hard to imagine a dinner-party conversation, no matter how TMI, that could force Perel into an awkward silence. But just in case it happens, she has a secret weapon: her music box. She cranks this steampunk-esque object — she showed it to me over Zoom — to coax guests into singing at the table. Of course, there’s also her very own card game, Where Should We Begin? A Game of Stories, designed to prompt players to share anecdotes and truths about themselves. Other personal policies of note? Ghosting is okay when it’s beneficial for both parties, bringing a first date to a group hang is a good idea, and don’t send Edible Arrangements as gifts. You can do better: “I’m Belgian,” says Perel. “I will cruise the city to get you a very, very good piece of chocolate.”

The couples on Where Should We Begin? are always onetime sessions. What’s it like getting people to open up to you on a onetime basis as opposed to counseling your regular patients? 

The original idea of a onetime, three-hour consultation came from what I did in my clinical practice: intensives that could last half a day or even a whole day. Spending three hours with us is the equivalent of four 45-minute sessions. My producer chooses the applicants, and we need to feel that there are two people who are really open and ready to do it. There can’t be the slightest hesitation. Often, one partner submits an application, convinced they’ll never hear from us, and is totally surprised when we call them back. Then they need to go tell their partner, By the way, I sent in an application for Where Should We Begin?

What kinds of relationships are you still excited to explore on the podcast? 

Stories and situations that we’ve only addressed once but that are rich and have many facets. There isn’t one story of infidelity. There isn’t one story of a breakup or changing the structure and sexual exclusivity of a relationship. There isn’t one story of conflict. It’s like novels, right? People continue to write love stories; there are hundreds of them. Today, I’m doing a three-hour session with a couple where one person clearly wants to leave and the other is doing everything possible for that not to happen. You know in advance it’s going to be a very painful session. This new season, we had a couple where one person saw his father being shot in front of him, and we explore how much his dad has influenced his life, his marriage, and his fatherhood. Before that, we had a session with a sperm donor and how that has impacted his life because he gave sperm not just to the person he’s with.

How do you care for yourself after a long day of unpacking other people’s relationships? 

I have activities that completely take my mind off work, like playing tennis and guitar; you can’t think about anything else or you miss the ball or a string. That’s one kind of restoration. The other is being with family and friends and socializing in situations where I’m not responsible for anything. The antidote to a session where I feel very responsible for the people is to be in social situations where I don’t have to make decisions: dancing, singing, playing. I’m very happy to be a guest. You tell me where we meet and what we’re doing.

What is your No. 1 rule for a successful dinner party?

One big dish that has it all inside where we can all eat from the same pot. Start the party with a good question for the table, and don’t just stay stuck talking to the person next to you. Invite a beautiful mix of friends and new connections so there are some people who know each other very well and others who are there for the first time. Combine familiarity with curiosity and novelty.

What’s your No. 1 rule for starting a conversation with a stranger?

A good question opens the gate to a thousand stories. The whole game Where Should We Begin? is about these kinds of questions: a rule I secretly love to break, a risk I took that changed my life, a phone number I need to delete, what I learned about sex that was the biggest crock of shit. I no longer have a dinner where at some point I don’t pose a question to the whole table.

What is your No. 1 fashion rule?

Not to leave my house if I’m not comfortable in what I’m wearing or if I’m trying to make something fit conceptually or physically that doesn’t sit well with me. For me, comfort is, This is me. It’s an experience of self-recognition. Sometimes I’ll put on something beautiful but it’s not me. I need to leave the house feeling that the clothes and I are one.

What is your No. 1 rule for sending a gift?

I am definitely much more of a spontaneous and personalized gift giver than a calendar gift giver. It’s hard for me to give a gift because it’s your birthday, but it’s very pleasurable for me to be somewhere and to suddenly see something that reminds me of you and get it for you.

What are your go-to drinks?

Water and red wine.

Would you ever send somebody an Edible Arrangement?

Never. The majority of times that I get gift baskets, there’s nothing appealing in them. It’s a bunch of crackers, dried fruit, and weird cheese. But I will go into a real cheese shop and get you a fantastic piece of cheese, or I will go into a bakery and bring you the best flan I’ve known in town or the best croissant — things like that. And definitely Belgian chocolates.

That sounds infinitely better than an Edible Arrangement. I’m curious about your top dating rules. What’s your No. 1 do and your No. 1 don’t?

My No. 1 don’t is don’t just go out alone with the other person in a noisy bar where you’re trying to have a conversation that resembles a job interview. Do integrate your dating life into your real life. If you have plans with friends to go do something, bring the date with you. Have them in the midst of a social situation. You’ll learn a ton more about them that way, rather than interviewing each other. Experience something together.

What is your No. 1 rule for couples in a fight? What constitutes good argument etiquette?

In my book, it’s not if you fight but how you fight. Fighting is part of robust relationships. There’s a certain place I think it’s best not to go: If you start fighting as if the other person means nothing to you and you can therefore hurl whatever you want at their face, you’ve crossed the line. Always remember this is the person you’re going to wake up with the next morning. Don’t just go for the jugular.

Is it ever okay to ghost someone?

There are situations where you’ve had the conversations, you’ve said this is over, and the person continues to reach out. I would not call it “ghosting” in that case because there are times you really can’t engage. I wouldn’t call it “ghosting,” though the behavior may be the same. If you’re trying to be nice and not cut somebody off and you’re actually stringing them along, then in that case it’s better for there to be no response. Ghosting at this moment is an avoidance of an uncomfortable or fraught situation or conversation that needs to take place. Ghosting is different from disengaging. When I ghost, I only think of me; I’m not thinking about your interiority or how it will affect you. Whereas if I cut off contact with somebody because communication is not doing us any good, then I’m actually thinking of both of us.

What’s your No. 1 rule for giving advice?

I would say my first rule is restraint. Wait until you know exactly what’s going on, then ask yourself, Is it useful advice, or is it more important for the person to figure things out and for me to be there for them while they do? I’ve worked a tremendous amount around infidelity; people have lots of advice and opinions about what you should do with the person who hurt you or what to do if you’re in love with someone else. Everyone projects themselves onto the situation thinking that what works for them works for the other, but they’re not the ones that live with the consequences of the decision.

Often, we give advice not only because we think the person needs some ideas, which, of course, happens — I do plenty of that — but sometimes we give it because we can’t tolerate our own passivity at just listening without doing something about it. I do give advice and think it’s important, but sometimes we cut people off with advice rather than letting them find their way. How many times have people told a friend to leave that person they’re still with two years later? Obviously, your advice isn’t so useful. It doesn’t mean it isn’t good, but the timing isn’t good. The person can’t hear it, they can’t absorb it, and the more you say it, the more they will be embarrassed that they haven’t followed your advice and they may start avoiding you. Advice has a life of its own. It becomes a character in a relationship.

How do you feel about telling white lies?

If you tell a white lie because you’re thinking about the other person, that’s one thing. If you tell a white lie because you’re trying to excavate yourself, that’s a different story. Changing plans is one kind of white lie. Not telling everything about your cheating is a different story. Not telling your partner when you think they look terrible or if they’re not interesting to you anymore — what will it look like for the other person to live with that knowledge? Honesty is not just about confession and truth; it’s also about thinking what it will be like for the other person to sit with the information. There are two different cultural definitions of honesty: We value blatant, direct conversation, but the majority of the world doesn’t think like that. Indirect communication, keeping face, not shaming each other — those pieces are part of honesty too.

On that note, how do you feel about gossip? 

When I wrote The State of Affairs, I spent a few weeks reading up on gossip. It’s a whole field of research. Gossip is a very structured type of social communication. It exists in every relational system all over the world and has often been used for social control. It keeps people in line: what’s acceptable, what’s not, what women can do, what fathers can do, what children should and shouldn’t do. It’s a megaphone for the rules of co-living and what we do with transgressors. But gossip is also judgmental. It simplifies. The fear of gossip makes people act in certain ways. When we talk about gossip today, we’re talking about cancel culture and the intransigence that goes with it. Sometimes, we can’t be flippant and we have to realize that lives and reputations are at stake — not just of the person themselves but of all the people associated with that person. When you attack somebody, they have children, they have parents, they have siblings, they have friends who are all suddenly guilty by implication for knowing them. So restraint and not jumping on the bandwagon are sometimes more prudent.

How do you gracefully cancel plans?

Make it clear that the meeting was as important for you as it was to the other person so they don’t feel dismissed and devalued. That makes all the difference. If I know the other person also regrets not seeing me, then I know I matter. An apology is important, but the focus shouldn’t be on the reason you’re canceling, like your car broke down. That’s all fine, but the important thing is to say, “I really wanted to be there,” too.

In addition to your card game, what’s your favorite party game to play and why?

I have a music box. I have plenty of different kinds of music. I play it and people sing along and we dance together. I love to bring it to the dinner table. Nobody knows what’s happening when I start to turn that thing.

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Esther Perel’s Advice for Giving Advice