Sex therapist Esther Perel on what bored couples could learn from her Holocaust surviving parents

as told to Conversations with Sarah Kanowski, edited by Michael Dulaney

A woman with blonde hair and a beige jacket wearing headphones and speaking into a microphone.
Couples therapist Esther Perel has helmed a therapy practice in New York City for more than 35 years.(ABC News: Edwina Storie)

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Esther Perel is a world-renowned sex and relationship therapist who works with couples reeling from infidelity and the loss of passion. She told Conversations’ Sarah Kanowski what her parents’ experience of the Holocaust taught her about finding the erotic in everyday life.

My parents are people who would never have married if it wasn’t for World War II. My mother came from an educated, ultra-orthodox Hasidic background. My father was rather illiterate. He had been to school for three years. They were not of the same class, but they met at the end of the war after they both spent five years in concentration camps.Listen to the episodeConversations draws you deeper into the life story of someone you may, or may not, have heard about.Read more

It happened that my parents had a very good relationship. My father adored my mother. He looked up to her and my mother loved being adored. So it worked really well.

“How did you fall in love,” I asked my father, “in the middle of the concentration camp?”

My entire community in Antwerp in Belgium — about 15,000 Jews — all of them were refugees, all of them were concentration camp survivors or hidden children. And my parents, in addition to that, spent five years as illegal refugees in Belgium before they were given permission to stay.

They were the only survivors of their entire family, and many families were created at that time. But many of these families, after they were done surviving and rebuilding, looked at each other and said: “We have nothing in common.” So they were not, by definition, good relationships, but they also didn’t allow divorce because they had already experienced the utmost of loss and they were not prepared to do that once more.

And I always noticed that the houses of my friends were dark, there was no energy in the house. You felt like people were on lockout — they were surviving, but they were not living. They couldn’t allow themselves to experience joy, because when you experience joy or pleasure, you’re not vigilant, you’re not on guard, and if you’re not on guard some bad stuff may happen that you were not prepared for. So they lived in an utter state of disaster-preparedness.

And then you had the other side. People who, for me, understood the erotic as an antidote to death: how do you stay alive in the face of adversity? You know, how do you maintain a sense of aliveness?

So my parents, they were bon vivant, as we say in French. They were not just there for no reason.

They have survived, and they were going to make the best of life. And that got passed on to me.

It involved music and dancing and gathering people and just really savouring the beauties of life.

But I don’t know why they were able to do that while others were much more drawn to the bottom and unable to mourn and feeling survivor guilt and lots of other things that people experience. That is not a unique experience. I describe this in the context of the Holocaust, but I really think that this is available for any other community that has experienced massive psychic trauma like that.

And I think it’s the same for a couple. When couples complain about the listlessness of their lives. They sometimes may want more sex, but they always want better. And that better is to connect with the quality of aliveness, of pleasure, of fun, of vibrancy.

I’m not [just] talking about the act of sex. Many people have done the act of sex for centuries and felt nothing. Women are experts at that. What we’re looking for is an experience of aliveness, of vitality, of renewal, connection, mystery… allowing our mind to subvert the limits we live with in reality, to bring us into a space that is boundless, where you can be playful.

That’s the difference between sex and eroticism, is that [it is] sexuality transformed by our imagination.

That’s what makes it erotic.Posted 29 Dec 201929 Dec 2019, updated 29 Dec 2019

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