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28 November 2019updated 23 Jul 2021 11:14am

Listening in on real couples’ therapy sessions

By Anna Leszkiewicz

The Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel has been working with couples for more than 30 years. Her podcast, Where Should We Begin? lets listeners eavesdrop on real sessions between real partners. They’re not her usual clients, but the chosen few of 1,500 couples who applied online to partake in a one-off, three-hour session (condensed to about 45 minutes).

Some are the ordinary problems of married life: our sex life has stagnated, we clash on parenting styles, one of us has had an affair. Some are totally unique, such as the recovering porn addict diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s, who spends his family’s life savings on in-app video game purchases when a new medication triggers the re-emergence of his compulsive behaviours. Some couples are easy to root for: they clearly seem happy and loving underneath their difficulties, such as the two women struggling to keep their romance alive while looking after their two young children. Some are not. But Perel treats every couple with the same nuanced, balanced approach. I was surprised to find myself wiping away tears while walking my dog when one session between a woman and her husband  – who, after a debilitating accident, was struggling to control his rage around their children – ended with an addendum: the woman wrote to update Perel, saying that she had fled the house and the relationship with her children just 15 minutes after another outburst became abusive.

These sessions rarely solve problems between couples: as the title suggests, they are more a starting point than an end point. But Perel’s empathetic, clear-sighted, practical and surprisingly funny approach is revelatory. It makes for engrossing, compulsive listening. 

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This article appears in the 27 Mar 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Guilty