"Do you want to play?"
Esther Perel asked this about 30 minutes after we met, on a hot and sunny June morning. We were sitting at a terrazzo-topped table, finishing breakfast in the well-hidden outdoor patio of a SoHo restaurant. It had only taken me about two minutes after we sat down to tell Perel much of my life story, all of which came spilling out from the most gentle, if incisive of prompts from her — essentially, "what made you want to write this piece?" My answer could have been a simple one ("I've missed doing interviews"), but instead I just kept talking, explaining how I rarely got the chance to write anymore, even though my love of storytelling was what got me into media in the first place, and how it all connected back to when I was a disaffected 19-year-old, setting off in a truck to drive cross-country and marry someone I'd known less than six months. Anyway.
It was the definition of an overshare, but then Perel has been listening to people tell her their most intimate secrets for years now, first as a renowned couples therapist (her 2006 book Mating in Captivity is an international bestseller, and her 2015 TED Talk "Rethinking Infidelity" has been viewed more than 17 million times), and more recently as a podcast host of first the relationship-oriented Where Should We Begin? and then the professional-oriented, How's Work? In each of her podcasts, Perel — who had never really listened to the medium prior to working in it — looks for the truth behind the performance, and helps people understand what it is they're actually looking to fix within their relationships, their careers, and their lives. And she does this by taking the disparate narratives that people offer up to her, and finding commonality, and a way forward — even if it's not always the one people expect to take, even if it's not a path that they'll be walking together.
"People come in and they're often stuck in a story," Perel said, explaining that no matter how much self-awareness people might have (or think they have), that doesn't always translate to how they interact with a partner or coworker, and that "self-awareness is only half the piece of relational awareness."
Listening to Perel — whether via one of her podcasts or a TED Talk or in real life — is a powerful, provocative experience; she speaks in beautifully constructed paragraphs, spinning her own stories, offering the kind of insights that feel both profound and familiar, exactly what you want a therapist to sound like.
But being listened to by Perel is even better. Whenever I spoke, her eyes trained on me and it seemed as if all her senses were on high-alert, like even her ears rose a little in attention. I didn't only feel like every word I said was being heard, but that it was also being seen, its contours felt. Of course people want to tell her everything — it feels like she could make sense of any story, no matter what it contained.
What makes Perel such a good listener is her almost palpable interest in determining what — or who — is in front of her, in figuring out a new story. It's this type of curiosity that is often missing in many people's daily interactions, and its lack is often what leads people to feeling unmoored, as if they're skimming along the surface of each other — bored.
Perel thinks this is where most relationships turn sour. "You start to actually rely on your assumptions, and you stop being curious. One of the things that happens in my office is I help people become curious again — that's the stories," she explained. "What happens on the podcast is I help you listen differently so you can be curious, so you can go and ask your partner: What do you think about this? Or you ask yourself. Same in my gatherings — it's people who actually think they know each other extremely well, but when you have the right questions, you realize there's so much more to learn."
What are the "right questions"? Well, that's where Perel's new game comes in — the one she invited me to play. Sharing a name with her podcast, Where Should We Begin? is a card game of sorts — or, "a game of stories" — that can be played by two or more people, and comes with a specific set of instructions that can be followed to the letter or used as more of a foundation for a variety of improvisations. The important thing to know is that it comes with two sets of cards — Prompt cards and Story cards — and that it is by drawing a combination of these that you will find yourself — maybe on a hot, sunny June morning in a SoHo restaurant's secluded garden — telling a virtual stranger what kind of lie doesn't really feel like a lie.
"Ok, it's not lying when... I have a thing about when I want to enter a place, I don't really like to be told it's sold out, or it's closed, you know?" Perel said, laughing. "One time — I think it actually was one of the first times I was in New York; I wasn't living here yet — there was a big exhibit, the Picasso exhibit at MoMA. And I arrived, and a friend of mine from Belgium was there, too, and there is a line around the block and I'm thinking I will never enter. This has happened to me at MoMA, and it's happened to me at The Met in different variations. And I'm thinking, I'm not coming back here. I don't know when I'm coming back here. I'm going, you know, I want to see this exhibit. So I literally, you know, come back and I say to the woman, 'I left my child inside,' with a very thick French accent. And of course, we went in."
"This has happened many, many times," Perel continued, delight lacing her voice, "where I can't believe sometimes what the thing that comes out of my mouth is. One time we went to see another exhibit at The Met. I was with my husband and it was also the last day or so. And so we arrive in the room where the exhibit starts and there's a group of tourists and I just stick to them... I don't think it's lying when you really want to get in somewhere, and you're being inventive and imaginative and people like the story."
I drew my own card about lying, too: What is a lie I'm tempted to tell about myself? (My answer was that I'm occasionally tempted to give a fake name to people, for no reason at all, other than, I suppose, maybe not to be so seen all the time.) And, in fact, there are many Story cards about lying — and about sex (those are marked with a pink symbol so they can be more easily sorted out if you want to play with an all-ages crowd). But then too there are cards that make you think about what is the first thing you see when you look in the mirror, what is the last thing you faked, who is your latest crush, what moment of being bullied still sticks with you, and so on. It's a game for everyone who, as a kid playing Truth or Dare, always chose Truth — not because they were scared to take on the Dare, but because they wanted to see what would be asked of them, they wanted to see if their friends were as curious about the world — about each other — as they were. It was also just more fun.
"In therapy, often people are often very serious," Perel said. "One of the most important things to do is reconnect them with the playfulness and the humor, because play is healing. And play connects people. And so instead of always talking about play, I wanted to create an experience of play."
"One of the first things you said was, 'I like storytelling,'" Perel reminded me, as we packed up the game's cards, done for the day. "You are a storyteller. I'm a storyteller. And I think storytelling is the oldest way that people bond."