Esther Perel on Masculinity, Power, & Relationships at Work

I am so honored to bring to you this conversation with a personal heroine of mine: Esther Perel. Esther is truly a thought leader in the space, with a perspective on modern relationships that is refreshingly original, insightful, and pretty un-American.  Recently, she’s been stretching the bounds of her work beyond the bedroom, which is the focus of this episode. Can we apply something like couple's therapy to co-workers and how easily does it translate? In this episode, Esther shares how to bring the relational intelligence from our romantic lives (things like trust, empathy, vulnerability, etc) into our most difficult, stressful work relationships and creative collaborations, especially in the context of patriarchy and the #MeToo movement.

Esther’s work practically saved my relationship with my husband before we got married– and her work really helped us see what sustains desire between two people over the long-term.  Her celebrated TED talks have garnered more than 20 million views and her international bestselling book Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence became a global phenomenon translated into 25 languages. Her newest book is the New York Times bestseller The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity. Esther is also an executive producer and host of the popular podcast  called Where Should We Begin?

I know you will find this conversation fascinating and applicable to your life.

Highlighted Excerpt 1:

Majo: Let’s talk about co-founders. It’s a deep, intimate, turbulent relationship...

Esther: 65% of startups fail because of relationship breakdowns.

Majo: Co-founder breakups.

Esther: Yes.

Majo: It’s huge. Can you share a story, maybe the first time you did co-founder therapy?

Esther: First, let me draw a bridge. When you work with the subject of relationships, what determines it is not the specific content. In a family at home, we may have a certain argument around childcare. You are over-functioning, I am under-functioning. You feel you’re doing way too much, I feel that there is nothing I can do that is good enough so why bother anyway. The more you do, the less I do. The less I do, the more responsible and resentment you have. Transpose this. In a company, it’s not about childcare. But let’s say, you’ve been one who has been looking for funding, and going to talk with investors and taking on the big meetings, and you feel that I feel that you kind of show up when it’s a big deal, but for the rest I let you do most of the stuff, I do less, the less I do, the more I think you’re a control freak, etc, and that we should revisit our equity share. The dynamic of over-functioning and under-functioning is a relational dynamic. You can apply it to all contexts. Once you start to think patterns and form, rather than content, you can take your relational expertise to other places.

Highlighted Excerpt 2:

Esther: The patriarchy doesn’t just hurt women.

Majo: Right.

Esther: It’s a system that doesn’t do well by a lot of people, everybody included. So, that notion requires honesty on both sides. Women have drunk the same Kool-aid. They’ve internalized the same ideas about what is a man and what man ought to be, and they do have concepts of real man. I often say, “emasculated” only exists in the masculine, not in the feminine.

Majo: Why do you say that?

Esther: Because there is an idea that [as a man], you are born a woman and you become a man. That all over the world, there have been rituals in all the civilizations where men have to go and make their transition into manhood, to prove that they are real men, to shed the femininity inside of them, the boy inside of them, the weak inside of them...that masculinity therefore is the fragile identity that constantly needs to prove itself and constantly is tested. It doesn’t exist on its own as a solid entity. We need to talk about male power, but I think it’s far more interesting to talk about males feeling of powerlessness.” It’s that feeling of powerlessness turns into control over others. It’s not the power itself.

Show Notes

  • Esther shares about her childhood as a bold and extroverted girl, her experience as an immigrant and the daughter of Holocaust survivors, and getting by on the goodwill of people willing to help her. [2:48]

  • Esther turns the table on Majo and asks why she felt pressured to focus on her career over relationships for so long. Plus, how Esther became a “disciple of people” and learned to navigate uncertainty while writing her first book. [7:43]

  • Why Esther enjoys taking on difficult and taboo subjects, and her non-prescriptive approach to finding solutions. [11:35]

  • The major problem with our current culture of experts. [15:43]

  • Bringing her expertise to the context of work: Esther shares her insights as a cross-cultural therapist, and the big shift she’s seeing toward reliance on relational intelligence as the core of company success. [19:59]

  • Why do 65% of startups fail? Co-founder breakups. Esther discusses the deep, intimate, and often turbulent relationship between company founders. [26:10]

  • Majo shares two true scenarios with Esther for advice on how to navigate relationships. Scenario 1: A woman being constantly triggered by her male manager who refuses to listen to her advice. [30:51]

  • Scenario 2: A woman feeling disempowered by a male CEO who favors his own ideas over hers. [38:24]

  • On difficult conversations, what’s missing from the #MeToo movement, and how we reshape and redefine relational thinking through communication (not policies or rules). [43:23]

  • “Patriarchy doesn’t just hurt women.” On polarized systems, masculine vs feminine, and the honesty required on both sides. [46:30]

  • From the bedroom to the boardroom – more resources on translating the personal to the professional. [49:39]


Learn more at

“The Masculinity Paradox” on November 10 in NYC –


by Carolyn Pennypacker Riggs


Bianca Wendt, an award-winning art director and graphic designer based in San Francisco and London. Learn more about Bianca and her work here.

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