The Beatles famously sang that “love is all you need.” Renowned relationships therapist Esther Perel isn’t convinced.
As she explained at the Summit Conference in Los Angeles last weekend, a soulmate used to be something you found in religion — up until the 18th or 19th century, depending on how you mark it — rather than romance. But that’s no longer the case: “With the secularization of the Western world, we are turning to romantic love to give us what we once looked for in the realm of the divine,” she said onstage. “Transcendence, meaning, wholeness, and ecstasy.”
Perel, who has a practice in New York City, would know: She’s the author of the bestselling book Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence and the new release The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, as well as host of the podcast “Where Should We Begin?,” where anonymous, real-life couples sort through their dilemmas of intimacy.
The pressure on love is, quite literally, a religious one. We not only want traditional things from our partners like economic support and possibly children, but deep psychological satisfaction as well. “We also want a best friend and a trusted confidant and a passionate lover and we want to be met at our most authentic, at our essence,” Perel said. We each want to be “able to experience in our relationship a complete rise of my authentic self recognized by you,” she added, prompting a wave of somewhat nervous laughter through the audience. To Perel, there’s something deeply dangerous about asking someone to “be my everything.” It’s a responsibility that a divine figure might be able to shoulder, but a mere mortal that you hold hands with? Not so much.
Some would argue that the era of looking for psychological fulfillment through a relationship is a net positive: Northwestern University psychologist Eli Finkel argues in his new book The All Or Nothing Marriage that the best marriages in America today are the best in the nation’s history, since they can yield not just economic security and companionship, but self-expression, self-expansion, and self-realization. But this comes with a warning, he told Thrive Global: You need to recognize how big of an ask long-term monogamy really is. (“If you’re gonna expect that much, be aware that you’re doing it,” he warned. “Be deliberate about how you’re gonna go in your life in light of those expectations.”)
In his book Love: A History, University College London philosopher Simon May is more skeptical, writing that, similar to Perel’s reasoning, love has had to fill the vacuum of meaning-making left in the West with the “retreat of Christianity” from much of public life. Love “is now the West’s undeclared religion — and perhaps its only generally accepted religion,” he writes.
And if there’s no religion to order our lives, it’s on us to do the organizing. To Perel, that’s the perilous promise of individualism: “There is nobody above us telling us how to do it,” she said. “There is no bells of the church to wake us up or … tell us what day to stop working and pay attention to our families and our children, no shabbat to tell us when we should be making love to our partners; it’s all on us” she said. The burdens on the individual self have never been heavier.
“It’s phenomenal to choose and crippling to have that much choice,” she added. So who do you choose? Not just someone you can share a love story with, she said — but someone you can build a life story with.