Letters From Esther #30: Appreciating Otherness in Relationships

Esther Perel and Mary Alice Miller

Shall We Begin?

When I think of love, I associate it with the verb “to have.” When I think of desire, I associate it with the verb “to want.” In love, we seek safety, security, comfort, familiarity, and reliability. We want to know and to be known. We seek to neutralize the tension that comes with otherness, to minimize the distance between you and me. We want to be an “us.” 

Desire, on the other hand, thrives on otherness. We want novelty, someone on the other side of a bridge who makes us want to journey away from where we are to a place we’ve never been. Love enjoys knowing everything about you. Desire needs mystery. If love works hard to close the gap, desire is about reopening that space and bringing it to life. Modern love seeks to reconcile the tension between love and desire, together and separate, known and unknown. 

So much of my work exists within these paradoxes. This question of “can we desire what we already have” has been central for me for as long as I can remember—and so, too, for some of the greatest philosophers throughout time. And it’s not a coincidence that many of the issues people speak to me about so often come back to this. If we want to appreciate the person across the table from us, to see their light and spark, to revel in what made them so attractive to us in the first place, we have to intentionally stand back to see them more clearly. Only then can we appreciate our partner’s fundamental otherness—the persistent mystery in this person whom we love and know so deeply.

It’s not always an easy exercise, trust me. My husband is also a psychotherapist, but where I often deal with pleasure, he deals with pain. There is overlap in our work, but his expertise is in trauma, and it informs his work as a painter as well. When I see him in his element—speaking on stage or painting in his studio—he is no longer my husband who didn’t clean the dishes this morning. I can see him through the eyes of the people in the audience. And even as I gesture for him to lift his microphone closer to his face or try to telepathically remind him of a talking point, a little voice pops up: he doesn’t need you right now.

You would think that message would hurt, but it has the opposite effect. When we allow ourselves to see our partner in their flow state, to see that they are self-sufficient—whether it's working on their car or in the yard or making their colleagues laugh at a holiday party—we allow ourselves to find the stranger within the person who has become so familiar to us. It’s enough to make us want to get to know them all over again.

Let’s Turn the Lens on You 

Try this exercise, adapted from the work of my colleague Hedy Schleifer:

  • Come together with your partner. 
  • Close your eyes for 30 seconds. 
  • Open them and look at your partner for a solid few minutes as if you are looking at them for the first time. 
  • Who is this person outside of how you define them in relation to yourself and your own needs? 
  • How does this person show up in the vast expanse of the world outside of your relationship?
  • What do you want to know about that person?

More From Esther

“Security and Freedom”  / a newsletter

From the moment we are born, we straddle two sets of contradicting needs: the need for security and the need for freedom. They spring from different sources and pull us in different directions. And the issue today is that we want to reconcile this tension in our romantic relationships.

“When Transitioning between Stages of a Relationship, Practice Adaptability” / a blog article

Adaptability in couples is about responding to life's changing circumstances with good communication and a lot of flexibility.

“Six Essential Practices to Improve Listening Skills in Relationships” / a recent article

The qualities that make a good listener may seem obvious, but they can be quite nuanced. It’s a delicate balance of receiving and reciprocating—taking information and giving attention and care. The way we listen shapes the conversation as much as the way we speak or respond.

Conversation Starters

A compendium of highly recommended sources of inspiration and information       

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