The internet is crammed full of advice on how to fall in love - but what should we do when there are problems in our relationships? One woman finds the answers in Where Should We Begin?, a groundbreaking therapy podcast from Esther Perel.
‘Life changing’ is an expression that’s bandied around pretty carelessly, often attached to a serum or flavoured coffee or a new autumn coat.
I’ve listened to every episode multiple times. Each follows the same format: a one-off couples counselling session with Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel, condensed down from three hours into one.
It’s a space for the anonymous couple to share their most intimate stories - from infidelity to sexlessness, emotional insecurity to loss - in the hope of finding a way forward. And for me and 10 million other listeners, being right there in the room with them can be deeply thought provoking, regardless of your own relationship status.
I first heard about the podcast in the summer of 2017 when it was featured on This American Life, and downloaded it as something to listen to on my walk to work. I was soon tuning in every morning, but that stopped abruptly after an episode about a cheating husband made me cry so much that by the time I reached the office, I looked like Edvard Munch’s The Scream. I switched to listening at home in the bath.
It’s hardly surprising that Where Should We Begin? can trigger such emotional reactions. After more than 30 years as a therapist, Perel is incredibly skilled at understanding people and delivering razor-sharp insight. But the podcast’s real power is in how it draws you into the stories, inevitably shaking up your perspective on your own behaviour and relationships.
As Perel says, it’s an interactive experience which allows listeners to “learn, explore, and experience alongside the couple”. There’s no doubt that I’ve learned more from Where Should We Begin? than any other piece of culture. And that includes Judy Blume’s Forever.
One of the most obvious but profound lessons has been to listen closely to what people say. From the very first episode I was blown away by Perel’s detective-like ability to pick out key words and spot clues that hint at underlying issues. But often when we talk to our friends we’re too busy preparing what we’re going to say next to actually bother to hear the words they’re saying. A malady summed up by one of my favourite quotes, from writer Russell T Davies: “all dialogue is just two monologues clashing”.
Thanks to Where Should We Begin? I have started making an effort to slow down and properly listen when someone I love talks to me. It has made me more connected to their lives, and I’m a far better friend as a result.
I’ve also experienced jolts of recognition during many episodes - often despite not really relating to the couple having therapy or sharing their problems. Take S1 Ep3, titled Speak to Me in French. A young husband and wife visit Perel because they feel their partnership is lacking and they want help in creating a new sexual relationship.
When the woman admits she wishes she had a “bad boy” (which her husband most definitely is not), Perel’s response struck at the heart of why I broke up with my ex Harry. She said “part of why sometimes a woman likes ‘the bad boy’ is because he knows to take care of himself perfectly well, so he frees her from having to feel responsible for him, for having to worry about him,” she said. “And because he can let go in his pleasure, it frees her up to be in her pleasure.”
As I heard these words, it became perfectly clear that this was what caused things to break down with Harry. I’d been cast in the role of the carer, and that is about as far away from lust as you can get. It was the kind of breakthrough therapy that evangelists rave about, and I’d got it after just three hours of listening to a podcast. Needless to say I spent the next 10 minutes scrawling in my iPhone Notes.
As a people pleaser with a deep-seated fear of conflict, S1 Ep9 - Trauma Doesn’t like to Be Touched - also resonated with me. Hearing Perel explain to the man who felt his needs were not being met that he had “learnt not to talk because of fearing the consequences of what might happen if you do” hit me hard. She explained he must speak up in order to get what he wants out of life, and I knew it was advice I needed to heed.
I began asserting myself more, and calling bulls**t (a very Perel word) when some of my more overbearing family members asked too much or steamrolled situations. And rather than irrevocably upsetting the apple cart, I felt this change in me actually improved my relationships.
By the time the podcast’s second series came out last October, I had wanged on about it enough that my boyfriend was a fellow devotee. In S2 Ep3, called Ms Entitlement and Mr Sacrifice Out On a Date, a couple in their 50s discuss how having different world views and priorities is taking the fun out of spending time together. Perel guides them towards less rigid perspectives by getting them to notice the pattern and change their approach, and my boyfriend and I vowed to try it.
The next time we got stuck in the same old dispute about moving abroad, I channeled Perel and avoided being immediately defensive. We managed to reframe the problem and look for a solution together, and it felt like some kind of religious awakening.
One of the biggest lessons we can all relate to is understanding the awful, lasting power that our choice of words can have. In S1 Ep5, called Impotent Is No Way to Define a Man, Perel unpacks the term impotent, but what she says is applicable to any insult.
“Language shapes the experience. If you keep repeating ‘you are impotent, you are impotent’ you end up reinforcing the very reality that you’re trying to undo. It’s not useful. Change the language, because it’s crippling.”
There is endless advice out there on how to fall in love, but there is remarkably little on how to rebuild and repair relationships when things go awry. Where Should We Begin? is a rare gift, and there is something special about having the words between your ears that allows you to absorb the intimate details without feeling exploitative. Perhaps it could only work as a podcast, which is arguably the most personal medium for sharing such stories.
Perel is a detective, a magician, and a genius; allowing people to understand and to be understood. The podcast is not perfect - she sometimes sings to her clients and she recommends a lot of stroking, neither of which I’m into – but it has caused me, and millions of other listeners, to be more curious about our relationships.
I know that listening to Where Should We Begin? can’t protect me from relationship troubles and bad break-ups. But it has taught me that there is always something we can learn from love – even, and perhaps especially, when things go wrong.
This feature was originally published in October 2018
The third series of Where Should We Begin? is available now, estherperel.com/podcast
The State of Affairs by Esther Perel is out now (Yellow Kite, £14.99)