Esther Perel Wants You To Think About Work The Same Way You Think About Dating

Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor By Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex writer and editor. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Washington Post, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
mindbodygreen Interview with Esther Perel

Image by mbg Creative x Ernesto Urdaneta / Contributor

World-renowned psychotherapist and mbg Collective member Esther Perel is best known for her monumental work around understanding sexual desire in the context of long-term romantic relationships. (She teaches a whole class on erotic intelligence here at mbg.) So why did she just come out with a podcast about work? Her new podcast How’s Work? explores the underlying dynamics that shape our professional relationships—and why they can affect our mental health and sense of identity just as deeply as our romantic ones. We caught up with Esther to understand why work has risen to take up an unprecedented amount of space in our minds and, more importantly, why creating healthy relationships at work requires the same level of introspection and self-awareness as creating a healthy relationship with a romantic partner.

Why are you focusing on work relationships these days? It’s a less sexy topic than, well, sex!

Interestingly, to me, there are two places today where people turn for a sense of identity, belonging, purpose, fulfillment: romantic relationships and their relationship life in general—home and work. Those are the two pulls. People are working more. People are working often all the time. Work goes with them home. Work travels with them in their pockets. So I'm looking at the same multitude of relationship dynamics, but I'm broadening the context. Work and home are the two places that we turn to for the most important things in our lives at this point.

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Are we thinking too much about work? Is it taking up too much head space in our lives?

It’s not about thinking too much. We’re thinking very differently about work.

When I ask the new generation how many of them are living and working in the place where they grew up, the number is very low. But when I ask their parents, the number is usually about half. And their grandparents? Most entered a company and stayed there until they retired. So they talked about their work very differently because they were going to be there for life. They didn’t need or want a job that gives them a sense of belonging because they belonged to the community that they lived in. They were not uprooted people who traveled across the world to go get a job somewhere else. They did not think about their job as a place for purpose, for meaning, and for self-fulfillment.

So it’s not that we think more about work. We think differently about work because we bring a new set of expectations to work. We bring a new vocabulary to work. Your grandparents did not talk about transparency and emotional intelligence and trust and empathy and vulnerability in the context of work. That existed in the context of family, if any. So that’s what’s changing. Emotions have entered the workplace. Our expectations of work are very different, and work has become a part of our identity project.

If I say the quality of your relationships determines the quality of your life, that is true at work and that is true at home. If you don’t get along with the people you work with, it is insufferable—even if you do interesting things.

So work is now becoming part of our identity in a way it hadn’t been. Is that a good thing? Is it good for us to be thinking about work this way?

It’s part of the secularization of the world. What people used to look for in community and in religion is now being sought in romantic love and in our work life—in places where work is more than just survival. There are still people who work to put food on the table. That’s still a part of our reality too. But in places where people are thinking, what I’m doing, what do I want to do, how long do I want to do this, do I like what I do, am I happy at work, you'll see that needs haven't changed, but the places where we go to satisfy those needs, to meet those needs, have shifted.

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Do those work relationships have a significant effect on our stress levels and how we feel about our jobs?

Our stress levels depend on a lot of things. I have worked with people who couldn’t go to sleep because someone—a colleague or a boss—was poisoning their lives. And often, your relationships at work mirror some of your personal relationships.

You have a relationship to authority that you learned in your childhood growing up, at school, in your family, in your community, at church. But you learned authority, primarily through family. You come to work with a legacy around [the concept] of authority, and sometimes you’re going to have with your boss or manager a projection of what you experienced in your family, consciously or unconsciously. That relationship legacy around authority, around being included or excluded because you had siblings [may affect your behavior around] how much you seek to collaborate with others versus how much you tend to compete, around how much you say what you think versus you just swallow it and you hold it in and you hold it in until you explode, how much you think you’re always left out even if you’re not left out.

So, we’re bringing different types of baggage into the workplace?

I won’t call it “baggage.” I really would call it education. Legacies. I like to call it the relationship dowry. It’s what you learned, and it’s familial and it’s cultural.

I like to start with simply, what are the messages and the narratives you received around relationships, period? Because the world is more clearly divided in cultures that are more collectivistic and cultures that are more individualistic. … Do you come from a collective perspective? Do you come from a perspective that fosters interdependence? Do you come from a perspective that emphasizes loyalty? You know, in South Africa, many of the people I worked with, their success, their job was not just their own. And this is true for every first generation in America. Where you are is not just for you. You are going to give back to your family. You are going to be taking care of the members of your family. Your income is not your income. It’s a collective income. So that changes your expectations. That changes your sense of obligation to others. That changes your sense of how much you’re entitled to do for yourself without thinking about how it affects others. Because the foundation of thinking relationally is to think about the relationship between self and other.

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I was going to ask you, what makes a healthy company culture. But it sounds like you think it has a lot to do with what you’re bringing in as opposed to what the company culture is.

It’s the meeting of the two.

There are cultures where you teach children from age two, and you say to them, “Use your words. Tell me what you want. Tell me what you need.” But that’s very different from the cultures where you teach children to intuit the needs to others and what others expect from them. That influences how that child is going to be in the classroom. Everybody knows that those kids in the classroom are not the ones who jump with their hands up. And if you have a Western definition of social competence, these children would be at a disadvantage. If you have an Eastern conception of social competence, these kids would be perfectly normative.

And now these very same kids go to work. And if they take initiative, and you are in a company culture that favors the initiative, you’re going to think these are your high performers. But if you are in a company that also likes people to follow instructions, to march to the drum, to listen carefully to the orders that are given, then you want people that are more on the compliancy side.

It’s the match between the workers and the company culture. Is this a company culture where people get to speak their mind, where people get to say, oh, I have a different idea about how we can do this? Or, I went to lecture recently in a country where, when I asked a question to the audience, the entire group of the audience first turned to the professor. You can call him the boss. And then they watched to see what the professor thought about what I said, and then they decided what they could say. They got their cue from the authority. He would smile, and he would do a motion with his head, and he would basically say this is an okay talk, this is an okay question, you can all respond. I haven’t seen that in a while, so that’s why it’s so clear [in my head].

A company culture determines expectations, communication, boundaries, vocabulary, degrees of accountability, creativity, the balance between tradition and innovation or between stability and change—these are all parts of a company culture. Decision-making, feedback, all of that.

So to determine if I would have healthy relationships in a workplace, it’s a bit of both—understanding what the culture is at the company and kind of knowing what my dowry is, emotionally speaking.

Yeah. You enter a company like a you enter a country. It’s an immigration process. It’s an integration process. We walk around, and we see, ah, do people eat at their desk, or do people go out for lunch? Do people celebrate birthdays, or they don’t? Do you people acknowledge when new people come in, or you barely notice? Is there a ritual for the onboarding, and is there a ritual for the leaving? Which are the most important bookends of any relational culture, right? How people are welcomed and how people are let go, how you deal with loss, the addition and subtraction of new people—that is true for every family and every relational system.

You look around, and within a few weeks, you get a sense of what is the relational culture at this place. Do people congregate around the desk and schmooze and chit chat? Do people talk about what goes on at home, or nobody says anything? How do people dress here, how do people move here, how do people talk here? It’s like entering a new society. Instantly you get the sense of what is the culture, and then you get the sense of, do I fit this culture?

The Essential Guide To Sparking Your Erotic Intelligence
Learn how to spark your erotic intelligence and create the relationship you’ve always desired.
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The Essential Guide To Sparking Your Erotic Intelligence
Learn how to spark your erotic intelligence and create the relationship you’ve always desired.
With Esther Perel
  • A comprehensive overview of the history of sexuality, and how we’ve evolved to become content with less-than-stellar, passionless relationships
  • Proven approaches to help you better understand your own wants and needs, as well as your partner's
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