Therapy sessions are deeply, necessarily private. They happen in seclusion, on plump leather armchairs or comfortable linen sofas – perhaps, sometimes, even reclining on the classic chaise longue you associate with Freud and New Yorker cartoons. There is a tacit contract between a therapist and her client: whatever is said, whatever is divulged, whatever is whispered or yelled or mumbled through self-reflection, remains confidential. It’s just how therapy works; guaranteed privacy is part of the package deal, along with probing questions about your childhood, your relationship history and the general workings of your psyche.
And so it has always been difficult to truly grasp what goes on in a therapy session, to understand how it all works. There is still a veneer of shame about paying to divulge secrets to a qualified stranger, though of course there shouldn’t be. People are naturally intrigued about what goes on in a therapist’s office: what is said, what is asked, what is resolved. What do the very private thoughts of a friend, acquaintance or stranger sound like? What exactly does a therapist do?
Well, now’s the time to find out. Preeminent psychotherapist Esther Perel has just launched a podcast called Where Should We Begin? that invites anyone and everyone to eavesdrop on genuine therapy sessions. Perel is one of the most exciting commentators on the human condition working today. She wrote a global bestseller titled Mating In Captivity, a provocative manifesto on marital sex and our desire to keep wanting our partners for decades after our wedding day – a longing, she points out, that is essentially very modern.
Eighteen million people have watched Perel – elegant, cherubic-looking, with a curt Belgian accent – take to the stage for two lauded TED talks on relationships and sex. She just brought out her second book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, a fascinating and perhaps necessary conversation about the topic of infidelity. Incidentally, she got her master's in psychology in Israel, regularly consults for Fortune 500 companies and speaks nine languages fluently. She has been seeing couples as a therapist for several decades now, and dedicated the past eight years to exclusively dealing with people affected by infidelity. She is working on the frontline of heartache and knows more about human fallibility than most; that is why her observations are so important.
So how does Perel get around the confidentiality clause for these recorded therapy sessions? They’re all volunteers who responded to a callout for couples who wanted to get therapy, the trade-off being that their session would be recorded for the podcast.
“We had something like 400 couples apply for season one and more than 900 for season two,” Perel tells me. “None of them are my actual clients, but I see them for a standard 3-hour consultation and we edit that down to a 45-minute episode. Nobody has been able to enter the therapist’s office during a session like this before. It’s very powerful, that we’ve been able to do that.”
In the first episode, a Russian Orthodox woman and her Muslim American husband are trying to cope with his cheating. His infidelity has ruptured their relationship – Perel escorts them through the process of understanding that. In the second episode, we meet a lesbian couple with mismatched needs for affection. One feels neglected by the other, and claims that she invests all her love and energy in their children, to the point of ignoring her. The third episode introduces us to a young couple who met when they were both members of a Christian purity movement and so decided to wait until they got married to have sex. Now, this woman realises, it’s not the act of sex that repulses her, but her husband.
Each time, we listen in as Perel asks strategic questions designed to bring her clients closer to understanding one another, and themselves. It is an unprecedented, vulnerable peek into the process of therapy and it is utterly captivating. Perhaps the only comparable experiment was conducted by psychotherapist and author Susie Orbach, who released a book and BBC4 series called In Therapy. To get around the confidentiality hurdle and demonstrate how therapy works, Orbach employed real actors with a gift for improvisation to play out mock therapy sessions. The result was elucidating, but Perel’s podcast is more revealing.
When we speak, Perel is delighted by the ingenuity of her podcast and as always, endlessly fascinated by the way people behave and treat one another. She tells me a little about how she works: “There’s an episode where I speak with a man who is addicted to his infidelity; he’s been cheating on his wife since the day they got married 36 years ago. In the episode, you hear me help him move from shame to guilt. That’s an important transition because shame is still about him, shame is self-referential, shame is a form of self-loathing. Whereas guilt is a relational response for hurting someone else, it is an expression of conscience. When you move from shame to guilt, you take responsibility for your actions and it involves some compassion. I help people like this man move away from shame and become accountable for their actions.”
That’s just one example of the way a therapist works with her client to move them past the emotional state in which they walk into the office. The podcast, as you can imagine, is teeming with others. Therapy is a process of self-evaluation; it is the gradual co-writing of a manual for your own existence. It is, really, a privilege to listen to someone like Esther Perel at work.