How To Foster Lasting, Healthy Relationships In Your Life, According To Famed Therapist Esther Perel

Fortune Well February 19, 2024


How To Foster Lasting, Healthy Relationships In Your Life, According To Famed Therapist Esther Perel

On social media, we may scroll through someone’s recent acceptance to law school, new dog, or engagement ring, but we aren’t really keeping up with them. People naturally drift apart, but it’s been more challenging to maintain relationships or meet that first work friend as our lives moved to the screen, whipping away our chance to run into a coworker on the way to lunch. Technology has a way of keeping people on our radar, but not in our lives. 

Esther Perel, renowned psychotherapist and New York Times bestselling author, acknowledges the modern factors that have made true connection that much more challenging. Perel—whose passion for wanting to “revive” over “survive” is largely drawn from her background as a child of Holocaust survivors, works as a counselor for couples and families—and sees the need for relational intelligence as an urgent matter. In a class on MasterClass, she examines our difficulty maintaining strong relationships—at work and in life—and explores the ways we can save them. 

“It is the quality of our relationships that will determine the quality of our lives,” Perel tells Fortune. “But relationships are harder to measure, harder to sustain, harder to evaluate in the way that we like to evaluate other work outcomes.” 

Compounded by the modern norms that suggest it’s easier to Slack someone than have an in-person conversation at work, or like and comment on a photo instead of having a phone call, Perel underscores that it’s not our fault if we feel absent from connection throughout our day. She further highlights the difficulty younger workers can have in the workplace, where certain “social mechanisms” never existed at all. 

“Relationships today are undergoing massive changes. The norms are shifting under our feet,” Perel says. “It isn’t necessarily clear, ‘What is the communication that we should opt for?’”

In her class of 12 lessons, Perel tries to answer that question and delves into a myriad of factors that can improve our relationships, from developing empathy to handling miscommunication, power dynamics, and boundaries. 

The first steps to cultivating meaningful relationships

First she asks people to think about how they show up in a relationship.

Building powerful relationships is about looking inward, Perel says.

Ask yourself, “What can I learn about the way I engage in relationships? What is the legacy that I bring? What is my unofficial résumé?” she says.

It’s imperative to understand how you show up in a relationship and what you bring to the table, including how your past experiences contribute to your ability to connect. 

Even experiences of giving, sharing, and asking for help can influence the way you show up in a new relationship. It’s important to reflect on your level of comfort while reacting to people and emotions. Understand how you may come across to others and how much of that is potentially influenced by your background, Perel says. 

“We often relationally get stuck into very repetitive patterns that don’t always show us under the brightest light,” Perel says. 

Some of these patterns relate to the sometimes subconscious expectations brought into a relationship—those that can “act like a filter for what we see,” Perel says. 

One tool to improve how you show up in a relationship is understanding the inherent “confirmation bias” you may bring. 

If you expect people to dismiss you, or often feel underappreciated, you may go into new spaces noticing this belief more often. You may disregard the times when that bias is actually challenged and look only at the situations that “reinforce” that association. 

Self-awareness is key to establishing relational intelligence, and Perel further outlines throughout the class how to maintain boundaries and communicate effectively. 

If you think of yourself as a people pleaser, for example, you’re trying to “protect your own turf” and do as you’re expected.

Perel tries to challenge this notion by encouraging us to change our habits and protect our time. If we can show up for ourselves, we can better show up for others.

Ages ago, boundaries were a given; they were dictated by the sun, Perel says. 

“Everybody knows that at the farm, work ends when the sun sets. You don’t have to make a decision,” Perel says. 

Now there is no break from where one routine ends and the other one starts. It’s difficult to put boundaries in place and dedicate time to the other things in our lives, but it’s imperative for our well-being. 

“Your whole life is in your phone, and you have to decide when you want to close it,” Perel says. 

No one anticipated remote work would be the norm for some, or for people to meet online maybe even more than they meet in person. There will always be a new norm that forces us to adapt in our relationships. 

“The constant changes that we go through, the liquid life that we live, demands that our relational skills be primarily able to change,” Perel says. 

And “that nimbleness” now may start with self-awareness.

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