esther calling

‘Being Open Recharged Our Marriage. Why Is There Still Insecurity?’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Esther Perel is a psychotherapist, a best-selling author, and the host of the podcast Where Should We Begin? She’s also a leading expert on contemporary relationships. This column is adapted from the podcast — which is now part of the Vox Media Podcast Network — and you can listen and follow for free on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen.

This week, Esther Perel spoke with a couple navigating the early stages of an open relationship after 17 years together.

The Introduction

Her: I have always been, until recently, the person supporting the family and always driving the whole family forward. I realized that I just wanted to not have that role anymore.

[Esther: Couples often organize around a certain balance. Or a certain imbalance vis-à-vis child care, division of labor, breadwinning material, providing, and vis-à-vis the freedoms that they each have and the responsibilities that they owe each other.]

Him: For many years, I feel that I didn’t do much because I was a stay-home dad and just taking care of my daughter. Now I wanna do things.

[Esther: This couple was organized for a long time, almost two decades, around her being the primary breadwinner. Her taking care of him in a motherly fashion, but that type of emotional caretaking is a sexual block.]

Her: Recently, when he found a full-time job, he decided he wanted to change his life.

[Esther: And each of these two people through work found a muse and a life charge that directly changed their emotional construct and led immediately to a complete redesigning of their sexual relationship.] 

Him: After a long time of just being co-parents and kind of roommates, we were doing phenomenal.

Her: This last year, our sexuality, I think it was like this. It’s totally different.

[Esther: Through this whole new erotic charge that exists between them, they are completely a different couple from what they have been for the prior 17 years. So much so that it also brought in the presence and the question surrounding other lovers.]

Him: Now I have involved somebody else.

Her: It’s been very hard to realize that he’s developed deep feelings for somebody else.

Him: This is not ideal for her. But it has really nothing to do with her. It has more and more to do with me wanting to wake up and start living.

The Call

Esther: What would you say is one of the most important positive changes that have occurred in your relationship? What’s working well? What gives you hope?

Her: I think that one of the most powerful changes in our relationship has been our sexuality. That’s a very important topic for me. I grew up in a family and in a society where pleasure, just for pleasure, was not something that you would do or something that was acceptable.

Esther: Which country?

Her: Ecuador.

Esther: Religion?

Her: Catholic. So I think that I grew up with a lot of shame around that topic. But with a lot of curiosity as well.

Esther: And the messages were what?

Her: You don’t wanna have sex before getting married, or touching yourself and exploring your own sexuality — that’s animals. That’s not something that we even talk about. When I must have been maybe, I don’t know, 6, 7, 8, I think I was in my bathroom — you know, in that age where you’re, like, exploring your body. And my father — it was lunchtime and they were yelling, “Hey, food is ready, come down,” and they must have known for some reason that I was there in my bathroom. So when I came down to the table, my father said, “Show me your hands.” He smelled my hands and said, “What are you doing? Go outside with the dog.”

Esther: You were young, but you remember it like it was yesterday.

Her: So hopefully that story expresses a lot, right?

When I met him, it was great. But because of many situations, I think our sexuality, it had different periods. But this last year, it’s totally different.

Esther: And what unlocked it?

Her: I think it started like maybe two, three years ago when I, at my job, I decided to take this leadership training. I think it also had a connection with a manager that I had at the time. She was so inspiring as a woman. She’s beautiful. She’s very feminine and she’s also super intelligent. For some reason, I thought those things could not combine well. But when I met her, she got me this inspiration somehow. I started feeling that I wanted to be more authentic with myself and being more authentic was going to help me be a better leader at work. So I started relating that also in my personal life and I wanted to explore my sexuality suddenly. But our relationship was not in a good place. We were not having the conversations that we have now.

Esther: And what unlocked that? Remember the question: What’s a positive change that occurred in your relationship? You can join in this question because it seems like you met somebody you didn’t know before.

Him: Yes.

Esther: A woman that enters into her power and into her sexuality and into her leadership, and with the support of other women — it’s kind of an offer you can’t refuse.

Him: I don’t know what happened to us as a couple. Throughout our 20-plus years of marriage, we’ve had really beautiful times and we’ve had a beautiful relationship all along. But at some point, I was not doing anything with my life and she stopped seeing me as a lover. She would see me as basically just a roommate and the guy who needed to do all these chores. I was a stay-home dad. And we were —

Esther: Just to make sure: “I wasn’t doing anything much with my life and I was a stay-at-home dad.” That’s not one and the same in my book.

Him: True. I wasn’t doing much in addition to that. Maybe I should go back. I’ve never felt like I belong anywhere. I always somehow belonged to two different groups. My mom was a single mother. My mom and my dad loved each other, but they decided not to get married or be together because my father was much older and belonged to a very different world. He was well known and —

Esther: In Ecuador.

Him: In Ecuador. Relatively wealthy and belonged to a higher social class than my mom. My mom had been his secretary. That’s how they started. That’s how they got together. So they belong to different worlds.

Esther: And your dad had other partners?

Him: No, my father had a wife and I have siblings from my father’s side.

Esther: And your mother was a woman he met after he divorced [his wife], or she was the woman that led to the divorce from [his wife]?

Him: I’m not sure, but I think that my dad and his wife were no longer together — or they were technically married — but with my mom, it was what collapsed the whole thing. So I had a family on my mom’s side, a family on my dad’s side. They were very different families, and I felt like I was somewhere in between, but not belonging to either group. At some point, my mom had to migrate to the U.S. She had a business and went bankrupt and had to leave the country. Came to New York, and then I came with her. It was a very different world, very interesting and rougher than what I was used to. And I discovered, like, a new self. I became somebody else.

[Esther: He’s describing, and at the same time, he’s not really naming. What I’m gathering is that his father had the official marriage to a woman, and then he had his love story with another woman, his secretary, with whom he has the love child, which is this man. And there is a major class division. There is what is official and what is not official. And then there is the option of having the other woman in another country, which makes more space for everybody. So when he talks about all these worlds, I’m trying to fill in the gaps at this moment of what worlds we may be talking about.]

Esther: Tell me if I follow this. You don’t belong completely to his world. You don’t completely belong to her world. Then you come to the U.S. and you enter a third world in which there is also a different language. How do these three tracks — these three identities, these three stories — relate to the big change that happened in your relationship? Because there is a change for you sexually that also became a change for the two of you.

Him: True.

Esther: Right?

Him: Yeah, absolutely.

Esther: All right. How do these stories connect with this story?

Him: At some point, I go back to Ecuador to live after I graduate from high school. We meet at college, we start going out, and I get a great job in Ecuador and I’m making a lot of money. We are doing great. We’re a young, successful couple, and my mother, who still lives in the U.S., becomes ill with cancer. I leave everything behind. I quit my job. I came here to take care of my mom. And after years of doing basically nothing, just taking care of my mom, she passes away. Then we learn that we’re expecting our daughter like a month later. So I become a stay-home dad. My career is done. When my child is, I don’t know, 8, 9, 10 years old, I feel that my wife doesn’t see me. I’m a total loser, I don’t have a career. Then one day I meet this woman and she looks at me, she sees me, she’s so interesting. She talks to me about movies and we started, you know. Then she invites me to sleep over, to sleep with her, but I say no. That was the end of it. The next day, I tell myself, “I’m gonna find a job. I’m gonna leave my wife. I’m going to go find her and I’ll have a new life.” Then I Google for a job. I apply for one single job, and I get it. Then I start going out, watching independent movies with these other women and nothing really happens.

Esther: I’m curious. Why do you wanna leave her suddenly?

Him: I want to leave her at the time because I feel that she doesn’t see me. She doesn’t see me as a man.

Esther: But neither do you.

Him: Correct.

Esther: She sees you the way you see you, as far as what you’re telling me.

Him: Absolutely. Absolutely. I have nothing to show her. I mean, I am invisible myself.

Esther: So explain to me, and you may already have explored all of that, the two of you. You go to a leadership program and you meet a woman who becomes a mentor for you. She’s powerful, she’s feminine, she’s a leader, she’s self-possessed, she’s confident, and she gives you permission without having to say anything. And you understand that when you unlock the power within, it also often unlocks eros, the life force within. You go and basically your invisibility is a little bit like the death of eros. It’s not just invisibility, it’s that you feel that you’ve been dealing with dying people, and then you feel like you’ve been dealing with your daughter, and then you realize that something inside of you has been dying steadily, and then suddenly you have a scream. I wanna live, whatever that includes, work or possibility, other options, just other lives, other ways of being in the world. You both bring this energy to each other in a very new way for the first time. And you have, what, a good year?

Him: Yeah. Something like that.

Her: Yeah. His relationship with job has a lot to do with this unlocking of myself.

Esther: Yes. Because if he becomes more active and engaged and productive and self-sufficient, you don’t have to mother him.

Her: Exactly.

Esther: So you have one part of your sexuality that is shut down because you’ve gotten a series of very clear messages about how your sexuality is primarily a duty and marital and reproductive. He doesn’t ask for too much because he doesn’t think that he deserves too much because he doesn’t think he’s done enough with himself. And when he starts to become active and productive and feels like he has something, as he says, to show for, there’s a surge inside of him similar to the one you get when you take your leadership course that says, “I’m a man and I’m a sexual being and I want to feel alive.”

Her: Yeah.

Esther: And it frees you up.

Her: Yes, absolutely. So, a lot of other things happened, I think.

Esther: Fill the gaps. I’m fishing with a broad net.

Her: I met him when I was 19, in October of that year. The following year, around May maybe, they killed his dad.

Esther: They killed his dad.

Her: Yes.

Esther: “They” is who?

Her: People that broke into his apartment. He used to live with his dad and this horrific thing happened.

Him: I guess they had just managed to escape jail, and they found a house, broke into the house and found alcohol, got drunk, and then decided to try to find something else. Then they found us. They wanted money. My father had a gun. They found the gun and, pressuring my dad for the money, ended up shooting him, I think accidentally or stupidly. It was not deliberately that they wanted to kill him, but they did.

Esther: In front of you.

Him: In front of me. Then they wanted to kill me. Then they wanted to run away with things that they were stealing, but they didn’t know how to drive. So I offered that I could drive them. I thought that that would be my way out of the situation — if they could use me, they would keep me alive. So they did. At some point they stopped and I convinced the guy who was in the car who had the gun to let me go. So, of course that changed my life. But in any case, after that —

Esther: Hold on. Just stay with this for a moment. It’s okay. You see it while you tell it: You’re very visible to yourself when you tell the story, having just talked about having felt invisible afterwards. If you are invisible, nobody can take anything away from you. There’s a reason you didn’t do much for many years. If you don’t do anything, nobody can steal it.

Him: After they didn’t kill me, they left me somewhere very remote, I think that it was something like a factory. I was walking towards the factory and these Doberman dogs came. There was like five or six of them — many dogs that are very, very substantial, very aggressive, came running back to me and barking. Then I stopped turning around and just yelled at them. And I just wanted them to come. I felt that I was going to kill them all. I had enough for the night. I would just kill them all. They just stopped, looked at me, and went back to the factory. And then I just walked away.

Esther: Not that you thought of anything when you screamed, but if you think of it now, what do you think was in the scream?

Him: “I’ll destroy you.”

Esther: Mm-hmm. I have nothing to lose.

Him: I have, yes, nothing to lose.

Esther: I just lost my dad.

Him: Yes.

Esther: This is all happening while your dad is lying on the floor in the house.

Him: Correct.

Esther: And you went back from there to your house?

Him: Yes. I knocked on somebody’s house. They called the taxi and I went back home. The police was there already. Somebody had heard sounds after we left. But it was too late. But my family were waiting for me. I make it back, back to the —

Esther: They don’t know where you are and if you are dead.

Him: They don’t know where I am. All they know is that my father is dead and I’m not there. And when I get back, people see me and it’s the biggest party ever. People are just crying of how happy they are to see me. It’s a celebration. I’ve never felt so loved in my life. And seen. It made me feel that I belonged with them. When I met this other person very immediately, I was not thinking, I wanna go out with her. I was thinking, I want her in my life. I want to be family with her. I want her to be part of my world. She’s there for me. Literally she looks me in the eye and says, “You’re my project. I’m gonna help you.” And she does. I have a hard time letting her go because she’s alive. I would do anything to bring my father back, but this person is alive. Why would I lose people that are still here?

Esther: That’s a very beautiful and profound question, but I’m gonna add another one to this very powerful, traumatic, devastating, and complicated story. Because you’re living in these stories, you start to repeat the same stories, even though I have a sense that most of the time you talk about how your father was killed, but you don’t tell so often the story of how you found your way back home. Is that true?

Him: Yeah. To the few people that I’ve told this story about my father, I don’t think I’ve told that story.

Esther: Right. So you are coming back. You are celebrated. You feel visible and seen. You feel that you belong, and you’re very clear about which world you belong to. When the two of you have this renewed passion for this whole year and the sense that your relationship has really moved into a whole other phase, and you are working and you feel like you’ve become unstuck and you are taking charge, but not over him, and you are feeling unleashed, I have the sense that for the first time you belong here too.

Him: Yes, yes, yes. I’ve never felt with such certainty that I want to be with my wife forever until this last year.

Esther: Instead of having two worlds where you don’t know which one you belong to, as has been the story of your life, you now want to live in a reality where you have two worlds in which you belong to both.

Him: Yes. And they can coexist.

Esther: They’ve always coexisted. But you didn’t belong to both.

Him: Yes. I didn’t belong to either one, I felt.

Esther: Right. And now you want two worlds that you belong to both.

Him: Yes. Yes.

Her: It makes sense. I can understand it, but it’s not connecting with how I feel. My emotional health right now — it’s very unstable. I’m not in the right place.

Esther: To what?

Her: To completely accept the state of our relationship. When I’m with him, I feel comfortable and it’s amazing and there’s so many aspects of the relationship now that are working really good.

Esther: Such as? Because this is back to the first question, right? What has changed? What are the positive changes that you’ve made? I know you’re coming with a dilemma: You opened the relationship at a certain point, and you, after some explorations, felt, this is not what I want, or at least not right now. So you’re not aligned anymore, right? But you were saying a lot of good changes have happened. Like what? Start by saying what changed about him that changed about you that changed about him that changed about you.

Her: Getting that job was him becoming brave about doing something that for many years, you didn’t want to do.

Him: I was afraid to try.

Her: You were afraid to try. You were afraid. You thought that you would never be able to find a job. You acted like you were not successful and you felt like such a failure all the time that you were acting as a failure all the time. So it was so easy to not see you or to see you as a failure, which was definitely not attractive. When you found this job and then somebody else offered you an even better job, you became this attractive person for me. Plus at the same time, in therapy, I realized that I had had that caretaker role for so many years since your dad passed away, and I was so tired of that role. I was so ready to leave it and throw it away and not see it again. That was my opportunity to drop it and break it. I didn’t want it, and I don’t want it anymore now either. I wanted us to be a more egalitarian couple because I was reading a lot about that and I didn’t feel that that was happening before. Because a lot of the domestic responsibilities were always on my end, so it was not a balanced, fair relationship where we would share equally.

Him: You mean like —

Her: The domestic boring stuff at home.

Him: But I would cook and do the dishes and chores.

Her: Before.

Him: When? When was that?

Her: I felt that —

Him: I think what you mean — because I was the one executing all these chores — but you were the one making decisions. So you felt that you were responsible to pay the bills and to be on top of things, and then you had to tell me what to do because I had no responsibility on my own, or initiative. I needed somebody to tell me what to do. I felt that I couldn’t think for myself because you would’ve wanted it your way anyway.

Esther: Yeah. And under this regime, what was your sexual relationship like?

Her: Oh, it was horrible.

Esther: Meaning?

Her: It was — I didn’t want to, I didn’t feel like it. And he would just complain that it never happened, that he would count how many times. In the last month, we’ve only had sex maybe one or twice.

Him: Is it fair to say that I would complain? Because I remember months would go by and I wouldn’t say anything, and then I would have a conversation. I would say, “Let’s talk about this.” But we needed to have a conversation.

Her: But the conversations were not like the conversations we have now about sex.

Him: Yeah. No.

Her: Anyway, it’s no point other than just remembering the positive change. I think we’re doing things differently at home about that. I’ve changed my perspective about that and my role. It’s like, “Okay, I’ll let you decide.” Also, whenever you need to take responsibilities, let you do things the way you wanna do. So all of those aspects, I’m really enjoying about this relationship, except that I never imagined that it would happen with an open relationship.

Esther: And there’s a part of you that says to him, “I took care of you all these years, I finally resigned, and now you go and you bring other people to take care of you.” It’s like, I don’t wanna share. Yeah?

Her: Well, yeah. I thought that he could take care of himself.

Esther: So you think that he found somebody else to outsource the role you used to have?

Her: I think so. Partially, yes.

[Esther: Throughout the session, I come back to the question, which is, what are the positive changes that took place in your relationship? Because I have a sense that they could so easily go back to the fraught time, to the time when things were completely stuck. But then comes the conversation that she just brings up, that the good positive changes are being questioned because they’ve come in the context of his requesting to also switch to an open relationship. So I need to go and find out what are the conversations that they have had and what is the conversation that they want to have now.]

Esther: How mad are you at the role you had for all those years?

Her: How mad am I?

Esther: I mean, I just planted the seed, but maybe it’s not mad.

Her: No, it’s not mad. I just quit. It was enough for me because it was damaging me. So I also wonder, when I realized about that, how hard was that to hear, when I said that I didn’t wanna have the mother role anymore? I always wondered if it hurt you enough for you to accept that role from somebody else.

Him: It sounded good on paper, but when we started acting differently and then you would remind me, “Oh, well, now you’re responsible,” I realized all that you did for me and I appreciate it. So it was a process for me to feel that I have to be my own person, be responsible for myself.

Esther: Hence the attraction of someone who says, you’re my project.

Him: I’m sure that it had to do with that originally, but not necessarily at this point. At this point it has to do, I think, with so many other factors, one of them being that you and I — we have a relationship that allows me to be one person that I am, which is this Spanish-speaking person that grew up in Ecuador that went to Euro school. That’s me. But it was interesting because when I met this other person, I started remembering my experiences at the high school in Queens and all these other sides of me. I’m also that person.

Esther: My American love story and my Ecuadorian love story?

Him: Absolutely. Yes. The love stories are very different in different cultures. We have one, and this other one allowed me to feel that, oh, I belong here too. I have a place here.

Esther: That’s part of why I suggested before that you are very eloquently describing how you lived in different worlds in which you always felt you belonged to none. And that at the moment that the two of you were able to jump-start a new story together, you decided, I will again create different worlds, but this time I’ll belong to both. 

Him: Yes. Because this time I have control over them. I initiated them rather than me just being taken from one place to the other. So, can I ask a question? How do you explain that if we have this open relationship, we are doing just so well, sexually, but also we just get along — we laugh, we watch movies, and we talk about music.

Her: I think because we’re doing well in all of these other aspects, and that gives us satisfaction. So we want more of that. We want to keep that strong because we know that just the fact of being open and having somebody else has the potential to destroy the relationship. If we don’t pay attention to our relationship the way we are, we will lose ourselves.

Him: We will lose each other.

Her: Yeah. I mean, ideally I would like to feel that individually we can do this and not have to rely on a third person to make this happen for us. What if, let’s say tomorrow she dies. So our relationship is gonna be like, to the floor? Or if she moves to some other state … I feel like we’re depending on this other person, or this other relationship, for us to be that good.

Esther: On our toes. That’s what you’re saying?

Her: Yeah. Exactly.

Esther: When we are on the verge of leaving.

Her: Exactly.

Esther: We’re losing each other. In the presence of loss, we discover what we have and we suddenly fight for it with love and fear.

Him: Yeah. I don’t feel that we are about to lose each other at all. I think that we are very stable right now. I was saying, I don’t feel like I want to leave you at all. I don’t see leaving you ever. I can only speak for myself.

Her: I don’t feel that stable emotionally. It’s one day at a time and sometimes even one hour at a time.

Esther: Say more. What is shaking you?

Her: It’s hard for me to explain exactly, but I have this feeling of — I feel confused at times. I feel uncertainty. I just feel uncomfortable.

Esther: With?

Her: With the open marriage. Yes, I totally understand these other aspects that are working, but I wonder how real they are. I feel like, yeah, this is amazing, but in virtue of what? Does this need to be here forever so we can be like this? I don’t know. I’m having trouble trusting this. And I feel insecure.

Him: I am not using this other relationship to make our relationship work.

Her: That’s how I feel, though.

Him: But I’m not.

Esther: Hold on. She just told you, “I feel insecure.” Stay with that. Do you understand it? Do you know what she’s talking about? Because you’re bringing it back over to you.

Him: I think that she feels insecure.

Esther: She’s right here.

Him: Yes. I think you feel insecure because you start from a different place and, or a different premise. I think that somehow you feel that love comes from one bucket, so if I’m giving love to somebody else, it has to come from your bucket. At some point, maybe that bucket’s gonna empty or that other relationship’s gonna grow to the point that I would just go away and I would just choose that or the other person. But that has nothing to do with you.

Esther: Question mark.

Him: Sorry?

Esther: Put a question mark. And now check with her.

Him: Yeah. What do you think?

Her: Well, it has to do with me. There’s certain decisions that you may take with her that will affect me. Right now I don’t understand what’s the role she has in your life. Can she be your close friend, where, you know — can you remove the romantic or can you remove the physical contact?

Esther: I may be totally off, but as I’m listening to you I’m trying to understand when you say “I feel insecure,” and he talks about him, you talk about her. But I wanna stay with you. In the situation in which you walk around with resentment that you have to be the decision maker, CEO of the house, and that you’re not particularly interested in him and then we’re all sexually shut down: I don’t see him enough of a man with confidence, with whom I can let go because, after all, the pleasure and sexuality is about letting go. And the letting go, you can only do when someone can actually receive you. For that, you need to experience him as sturdy and somewhat strong, able to withstand the force of your desire. There is no insecurity there. And also there is almost a false security that he depends on you. He needs you, so he ain’t going anywhere. No fear of abandonment there. Then, he becomes more independent, more separate. This is a new relationship. He doesn’t need you in the same way, so he can finally want you. Part of why you were not responding when he would come with his calculator about how often you had sex is because this was not a conversation about desire — this was a conversation about caretaking and needs. Needs is not an aphrodisiac. Desire is an aphrodisiac. But when you have an adult man here and an adult woman there who is in full expression of her desires, then all these other feelings come up.

Her: True. Why is that?

Esther: You tell me. They’re your feelings we’re trying to decipher.

Him: Do you have a pill that we could just take? It will be fine.

Esther: I mean, first of all, tell me how you understand what I’m saying and where it lands on you, both of you.

Her: I guess these feelings are relatively new for me. I always considered myself someone that was not jealous. And before we started to change in our relationship, I trusted him completely.

Esther: For what?

Her: Developing feelings for somebody else.

Esther: That he would not.

Her: That he would not. Yeah, I trusted him.

Esther: But you didn’t see him in a sexual way.

Her: We had our ups and downs. We’ve been together for years, you know.

Esther: I’m not saying you didn’t have sex with him. When you see somebody in a sexual way, when you eroticize them, you connect them to their freedom. And when you connect somebody to their sense of freedom and exploration and discovery, that’s the part that becomes curious about other things and other people and other experiences. When he’s at home weeping, feeling shitty about himself, and he’s completely impotent in life, then there’s not much to worry about or to be jealous about.

Her: True.

Esther: You don’t have to worry about him falling in love with somebody else. He doesn’t like himself enough to even think anybody would be interested. You can have monotony or jealousy — you pick.

Her: I guess, yes.

Esther: But it’s not a bad feeling. You’ll decide what you wanna do. This can be a phase, this can be a new relation. But there are words that belong to the conversation that you are not bringing in, and one of them you bring in now is insecurity. But what is that insecurity? That insecurity is that when I don’t show you anything about me, I don’t have to worry about will you be interested in me, but when I bring you what I think is the best of me sexually, erotically, then suddenly I have to question, am I enough?

[Esther: I knew that they understood me because they had already had that conversation and they were living it. So she understood that when he saw himself as stuck at home without much confidence, there was not much to be insecure about. But when you reconnect to the erotic nature of another person, you’re also connecting to the side of them that is free, that is exploratory. And that, of course, means that they may look elsewhere. They may explore other things. That is what elicits the insecurity. There’s nothing bad about her or him in this. This is natural. And that’s why we start to talk about insecurity and jealousy, they are part of the conversation of erotic couples. All erotic couples have conversations about jealousy and insecurity.]

Her: Am I enough? That’s a very deep word for me because I think about my relationship with my mom and how my mom made me feel not worth enough. So that brought me to read about childhood wounds. This whole thing brings me back to those feelings a lot.

Esther: Yes, yes, yes. We’re getting there. We also live in a paradigm that says that the way you know you are enough is when you’re the only one. So if there is more than one, then there is a need for more than one. That means I’m there and I’m not enough.

Her: Mm-hmm.

Him: Can I ask a question? How is the relationship between me and your mom? If you feel that your mom didn’t love you, how is that related to me?

Her: It’s related to you because of your actions. I can understand where you’re coming from and how you feel about these two relationships and all that. But I also feel that that’s a hard job for me.

Him: Why is that?

Her: I used to feel like my mom didn’t think I was enough. I don’t know how to explain, but it brought feelings that connected to that part of my childhood. This is just to say that I need you to constantly remind me what I am for you. That I’m worth it.

Him: Do you feel that it would be only fair for me to take care of you a little bit now that after you’ve taken care of me for so long?

Her: I do. But I also feel that sometimes I don’t know how to let that happen. So it would be a new thing for me, like it is learning these new feelings that are very uncomfortable for me.

Him: I do feel that I want to make you happy 24/7 and I do feel that I want to make her happy 24/7 and I wanna make my daughter happy 24/7. It’s very stressful for me.

Her: Yeah. I wonder why you don’t focus on feeling happy yourself.

Him: I don’t know. Making other people happy makes you happy.

Esther: “I couldn’t save my dad, so I metaphorically save you, save our daughter, save my lover. If they need me, I can be there for them.” And at the same time, what you said before, “I didn’t have the choice between living in two worlds or more. Now I do.” But you always do come in multiples. But that’s a question for you, a question that she’s asking you is, “Why is one home not enough?” So when you say to him, “If we are gonna explore this, wherever this takes us, I am gonna need you to not just reassure me as a little tap on my shoulder, don’t be scared. But as in full affirmation of me as a woman with my desires, with my jealousy, with or without my own experiences, and I need to hear that loud and clear from you.” But not from the place that you just said, “I wanna make you happy because you need me.” You needed your father — in some weird way, the story you told is that your father had to be dead for you to realize how much your family loved you, and how much the element of loss is built into the narrative of love and belonging.

Him: After my father got killed, I spent years fantasizing about all the different possibilities of what I could have done to save him.

Esther: I’m sure.

Him: I was obsessed with that.

Esther: Yes, yes, yes. Of course.

Him: And when my mother became ill with cancer, I guess I saw that as an opportunity. I’m gonna save this one. And I just left everything behind.

Esther: How many years did you take care of her?

Him: I think four. So, yeah, I guess it’s not about me taking care of other people, it’s about what I need.

Esther: But here is your challenge. When she says to you, “Our relationship has not been about you taking care of me, that’s a new role for me, but it’s a new role for you too.” You don’t know how to take care of people who are not facing death. It’s a different kind of caretaking.

Him: Yes.

Esther: How do you take care of a woman who just woke up after decades? You’re gonna ask yourself every morning, “What does it look like to take care of a woman who is radiant?” Not the woman who is dying. You lived for years with a woman who was erotically shut down. I’m talking erotically, not sex — in relation to pleasure, to sensuality, to permission, to being able to give to herself. She was in full responsibility mode. So your challenge is taking care of a radiant woman who needs something very different. She basically just told you, “I need you to want me and make me feel like a queen.” That’s my words, but that’s my French translation of you.

Her: Your words were words that I had expressed as well before exactly that way. Remember?

Esther: Ah, bueno. La reina.

Her: The queen.

Esther: You understand? Not nurse, not secretary, not executive director. Queen. Whatever the word. But this is your opportunity. It’s a very different kind of caretaking. And whether you do that in the context of plurality or in the context of exclusivity, that you will decide as you go along.

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