#464. How to Keep Friendships From Imploding | Esther Perel
Dan Harris: This is the 10% Happier podcast. I'm Dan Harris. Hey, Hey. If you're listening to this show, odds are that you are interested in getting happier or at least being less unhappy. The human animal engages in all kinds of endeavors – both wise and unwise, scientifically validated or thoroughly debunked – in order to boost happiness or reduce its opposite. But often in this pursuit, we overlook the variable that is probably the most important when it comes to psychological flourishing, and that is other people. As my guest today once told me, and this is an utterance that has genuinely changed my outlook on life, the quality of your relationships determines the quality of your life. Okay, so it's easy to hear this and to immediately have your mind go to family relationships or romantic relationships. But today, we're going to talk about the kind of relationship that I suspect many of us may not approach as intentionally or systematically as we do family and romance. And that is friendship. Friendship can be a massive contributor to mental health. It can also, when it goes pear-shaped, be the source of abundant misery. My guest today is the legendary Esther Perel. Her resume is beyond impressive: psychotherapist, New York Times bestselling author of books such as Mating in Captivity, TED-Talker (with more than 30 million views), fluent in nine languages, host of the popular podcasts Where Should We Begin? and How's Work? And she's got a new project which is called Where Should We Begin - A Game of Stories with Esther Perel. It's not exactly a board game, but it's a game that you can play with friends or family or whatever, and it's actually pretty cool - I've got one at home here. In this conversation, we talk about how the pandemic has impacted our friendships, her contention that love and commitment and intimacy don't just belong to the world of romantic couples (that's a quote, actually), her view on what makes friendship unique in good ways and tricky ways, what to consider when determining whether to confront a difficulty with one of your friends, how to conduct a self assessment of yourself as a friend, how systematic we should be about cultivating and maintaining our friendships, how to reconnect with old friends in a way that is likely to actually work, whether or not we can have platonic friendships across the gender spectrum, how to handle friendships when you're in a romantic relationship – including friendships you share, friendships with those with whom your partner doesn't get along, and friendships with exes. So, juicy stuff here. Heads up, there are some brief references to sensitive topics including suicide. Also, you will hear some occasional background noise on her end, she was recording at home in New York City.
Dan Harris: Esther Perel, nice to see you. Welcome back to the show.
Esther Perel: Pleasure to be back. Number three.
Dan Harris: Yes, number three. You have a good memory. I'm curious as a starting point, you are well known for a number of reasons, but perhaps most prominently for being a psychotherapist who has a specialty in working with romantic partners, couples and married couples, and other kinds of couples. And yet, you are currently really interested in friendship. Why?
Esther Perel: I think that my interest in friendships is not new. I have always been interested in friendships and I have done friendship therapy. I have had many times where someone talks to me about a friendship that is struggling and I say, would you like to bring your friend for a session? Or I have worked with people who were suicidal and I gathered around them a group of friends that were going to hold that person and make sure that they don't collapse and that they're there to support them and do a bit of a watch on them. I've always thought that love and commitment and intimacy don't just belong to the world of romantic couples. But I think that the pandemic, that two years of living in isolation, has really changed a lot of things about our friendships: those who suddenly emerged as closer friends that we had not really been that close to because they happened to be physically in proximity to where we were; those we lost touch with; those who kind of moved and suddenly they're not coming back; and friendships and the importance of them for those who didn't necessarily have family around so that it becomes a family of choice. So from different angles, the immediate and the more ongoing, my focus on friendships has become very central.
Dan Harris: You've written that friendship is a uniquely free choice relationship. Which is interesting and I never really thought about it that way, that you don't sign any contract in the way you often do when you get married.
Esther Perel: Well, for a change, let's start, because one of the beautiful things is that friendships can start very, very early on in your life and it is one of the first free choice relationships that children have. You don't choose your family. You don’t choose when your parents decide, or your mother or your father or whoever decides to have another child and then a sibling comes along. Friendship is free choice. You decide who you like to play with, and very early on, people will make sure that you get to see those people that you like because you can't get to them alone yet. But it is a place for freedom, autonomy, choice, etc. And it fluctuates. Suddenly you can say, I don't want to play with that person anymore. So you get to say yes and you get to say no. With a romantic partner, which comes in adulthood, you do choose - in the West, we choose our partners. But it still is a very different relationship than your friends. You get to be more friends with somebody than they are sometimes with you. Friendships are a network of generation. Some of them are tied knots. They accompany you throughout your whole life. And some of them are kind of new stress. You know, you'd moved in the neighborhood temporarily and the people next door became your friends for a while but it didn't graft itself to anything bigger and it kind of fizzles out. It is very rare that a romantic relationship doesn't end with a major statement that says we are done, we will no longer be together. But a friendship you never know sometimes when is the last text that you will be writing, but that text became the last text and you don't necessarily know why. Unless there's a real fight crisis, something has happened, often they fizzle out without you even being in charge of it. It kind of is a sense of atrophy inertia that sets in. So it has a lot of unique features, friendships. I can say many other things but that's just to start.
Dan Harris: I'm so intrigued by the fact that you actually do couples counseling for friends. And just to bring up another thing you've written, that friendship can be as complex as a romantic relationship. We think of these as sort of blithe and easy but they're not.
Esther Perel: You know, it's interesting. I have been asking people sometimes about lost friendships or breakup in friendships and what's fascinating is how much they linger in people's memory. I mean, these are not small experiences: the friend who let you down; the friend who wasn't there when you needed them; the friend who chose to remain friends with your partner when you broke up and not with you; the friend who knew about the affair and never told you; the friend who owes you money; the friend with whom you went into business. These are very loaded because you have expectations because there is a sense of loyalty, there is a sense of fairness, and there is a sense of reciprocity. You expect to be treated as a friend. Everybody has a code in their head of what they think is a friend. There's not a single person you can ask sometimes what is the definition of a friend who doesn't have something to say. What is it like to be a friend to somebody? What is it like to have a friend? How do you make friendship? What is a friend? Everybody knows it because everybody has lived an entire life history with people who they called: you are my friend; you are no longer my friend; I thought we were friends; would you be willing to be my friend; are we friends for life? We are surrounded by stories of friendships throughout our lives.
Dan Harris: I find that I can get my feelings hurt in friendship, not infrequently, from not being invited to a thing that everybody else is being invited to, to not feeling like the reciprocity is there with somebody who I would like to be friends with. What are your thoughts on how to handle that?
Esther Perel: Well, having your feelings hurt in friendships is because friendship is a love story. We tend to think of love story as romantic stories. Friendship is a love story and a love story comes with boundaries, expectations, loyalties. Friends provide community and continuity in an ever changing world. They’re often the witnesses of our lives that accompany us when lovers come and go, but the friends are there to stay. The friends will go with us to our job changes, some family rifts, the deaths, the recovery, I mean, and when the friend doesn't call you, it instantly says am I important to you? Do I matter? Does it make a difference if I'm there or not? I thought we were friends. It's interesting, I did an episode of two men who are friends – who thought they were friends – who grew up together like every day, every day, every day. And the whole thing is that each of them projects that the other no longer particularly has some room for them in their life or a need for them in their life - it's totally not the case. That both of them are walking around hurt, thinking that you'll find other people in college who are much more to your liking than me, and you seem to have gone off and try to do business and you are thriving in your work world and you really don't have much time for friends anymore. And each of them is living with rejection because that's what happens when you're not invited and your feelings are hurt, you feel rejected, you feel abandoned, you feel like I would never do this, I thought I was important to you, I thought we have a story and suddenly I'm edited out of the story called Our Friendship. And that hurts. So then the question is, what do you do? Do you tell the person? It's a very challenging thing. That's why this friendship therapy became so interesting to me. Like, sometimes it feels so much more difficult to tell a friend than it would be to tell a sibling or a colleague or a romantic partner. I really wondered why I wasn't invited. Then you have to admit I'm insecure and lonely and vulnerable. Maybe do I care about you more than you care about me? Is this that you have better friends than me? When I was young, I loved to connect my friends to each other. But then I became always afraid that the friends I would introduce to each other would become tighter and I would suddenly be siphoned out. But I couldn't resist the pleasure of introducing them. And at the same time it came with a bit of an anxiety of what if they can do this perfectly fine without me? So it's very raw, it's very tender, the kinds of feelings of rejection and exclusion and who is in and who is out that friendships elicit in us, evoke in us. Have you ever told a friend when you feel the slight at you? What do you do?
Dan Harris: I may have told a friend, but I can't think of a time when I have actually done it. So maybe, but I can't remember one. And I guess when you're describing that, maybe the move is to say to somebody, hey I felt hurt that you didn't invite me to this or maybe you don't want to be friends as much as I do. I went right to thinking, well, that kind of thirst may be unattractive to many people, and so it might actually doom the friendship even further.
Esther Perel: That's possible. That sometimes can happen. Sometimes, you know, you see, it's interesting. We've never traveled together. We used to go and listen to a lot of live music, what happened to us? You know, it'd be really nice to go and do another ski trip together. And then you watched, what is the response? I think also what happens is as we get older, sometimes when people are partners, then the question becomes how do you stay friends without it having to become instantly a dyadic arrangement rather than a one on one? But yes, sometimes if you say that you'll actually get the truth in your face. Then the truth is the only reason you still see this person is because you're the one who has been making all the initiatives. And that, in fact, when you look at it the last three years, it's always you inviting them and you have yet to be invited there. It's a very painful moment when you realize, looks like this thing is not thriving very much; it's not alive and I am putting all the effort in and they're not really coming back and do I want to do that? So there's a lot of little moments of reckoning like that. And sometimes it's sitting with someone and just saying, you know what, everybody does evaluations all the time. The only people who actually never sit down and say, how is our friendship doing? How do you think we’re doing? Do you think we’re just limping along here? Or, I have a sense that I'm the one who's doing all the work. But you're right that the consequence of the conversation is always the possibility that the relationship may show its true weakness.
Dan Harris: But you would recommend that we gather that data rather than walk around haunted by the suspicion.
Esther Perel: If you are walking around haunted by the suspicion, then sometimes I say you can stop the haunting by just finding out. Sometimes if you say it's not haunting, it's just something that lives inside of me, but it doesn't plague me particularly then I say we leave it as is. It's the context that will determine what would happen if this friendship ended. And if you tell me, I would rather it continue as this than have none, then don't say anything. Then try to do other things to make sure that the person stays in your life. The confrontation, for its own sake, is not important. It depends on what will be the consequences of telling. Every time you speak about something, before you speak, my first question is what would be the consequences of knowing?
Dan Harris: How do you go about and how would you recommend we go about the process of making, cultivating friendships and then maintaining them? How deliberate are you about this?
Esther Perel: It's interesting, the question about how much does one deliberately invest in friendships. I could probably speak at it a lot from a personal point of view. First of all, when you are a foreigner coming to a new country as I was, you have to be deliberate about making new friends. And when you then go back home - I went home for many years with many friends who had never been here, and so I knew my life there and I knew their life, but they had never seen my new life. And I traveled for ten years to meet my best friends who didn't come. And I would say to her, you know, you've never come to New York, you've never come visit me. But I would say it jokingly. I have friends that have come here hundreds of times to have dinner with me; I have never been to their homes. I know that. But I'm not the only one who hasn't been to their homes. But what happens if you find out that other people have been and you have not? So now the plot thickens, right? So sometimes if it's a thing that comes easy to you, building community, introducing people to each other, then it's a wonderful way to enrich your life. I think that, like all relationships, they are like plants. They need water. If you don't watch them, some of them can kind of exist on a long term basis with very little. And every time you water them, they flourish so that they’re like relationships where you see people once a year, but every time you see them, it's just like yesterday because it's just living inside of you. The extent to which you need to write or call or be in direct contact with friends, that depends. There are people you see twice a week and you’re not nearly as close to them as people you haven't seen in five years. It's very interesting when you begin to dig into what makes a friendship and a lasting friendship and on what does it hold and on what does it rest? It is clear that there are friendships that are historical, that if you met them today, you probably would not become friends with them but they a part of your life; they are part of your story. Whereas the friendships that you make later on, you know instantly who you click with and who you want to see again. And because it isn’t built on, we are in school together and there is a structure that forces us to meet, you know that the only reason you meet is because you have shared interests, commonalities, and the pleasure of being together.
Dan Harris: It's magic. It's medicine.
Esther Perel: It's magic and medicine. Yes, it's pleasure, magic, medicine. It's all of it. It's an understudied and an undervalued relationship, especially in countries and cultures that like to talk about self-reliance and individualism and all of that. Because a friendship is very much an interdependent relationship.
Dan Harris: The flip side of it, though, is as you've already discussed, when you extend yourself in this way, when you engage in the love story – love, we're using the broad, capacious understanding of that word – when you engage in this love story with a friend, you're making yourself vulnerable. You can get hurt. You probably will get hurt.
Esther Perel: That is true. That is true. And I think one of the ways you know you're becoming somebody's friend is when they introduce you to their other friends. One of the ways that you know that you are no longer someone's friend is when they see those other people without you. So it's a very communal experience, friendship as well. Sometimes it's very much one on one, but there is a lot of it that is, I'm bringing you into my world. And I think that that is one of the things that people really experience during the pandemic now. Where the community shrunk into pods. And pods were the few people that you were living with and relying upon, whereas the community is the secondary and tertiary people - it's all the friends of your friend that you see only when you see that friend. But they're very important people in the fabric of our life; in the social fabric. So, that I think is a very big difference, is we could look at what is the one on one friendships and then what is the communal experience of friendships? It's both ends.
Dan Harris: After the break, how to figure out whether to address conflicts with your friends and how to assess whether you are actually a good friend. After this. I'm curious about, and I'm sure that you make these decisions on a case by case basis so I apologize if this is an unfair question, but when your friends let you down, do you generally broach the subject directly with them?
Esther Perel: So there is when the friends let me down and there is when the friends have rejected me, which one are we going with? I've had both.
Dan Harris: I would like to hear both, actually.
Esther Perel: The easier one is when friends let you down, you know, come on, I'm traveling all the way to see you and this is the time you decide to go do x,y,z? And it's such an effort, really. I don't find it that difficult to say to people because I know that I'm investing and I know that they care and I find the relationship is robust enough that it can hold things like this. Or when people say to me, you're late again, you know, my time is also important and if I'm going to be your friend, you cannot do this to me, kind of thing. And I'm just on the other side saying, you're absolutely right and we're going to change this. I find that a letdown, depending on the story, if you believe in the robustness of the relationship, you need to be able to say, I'm mad, I'm hurt, I'm sad to somebody that you think you care about and who cares about you. The rejection piece is a more challenging one, because sometimes you know why someone drops you and that you did something or you went out there for them or they couldn't accept a letdown. Or there are people who systematically cut off when there is a conflict and you've always thought that it wouldn't happen to you but you become the next one in line. Or because you did something that you don't even know exactly what it is. And those are the real confusing ones. And I have one day called a dear, dear friend to cut off, and I finally reached him and I cannot tell you how much I was sweating and palpitating, just finally getting him on the line and just saying, you know, what happened. And he just said, you're not the kind of person I want to be friends with anymore. And it was crushing. I have never forgotten it because I have lifelong friends. This is not a thing that happens to me and what hurts was that he didn't give me a chance to repair. I can take responsibility if I do things, but then I want to be able to make up. I want to be able to reestablish. Maybe it'll take a while. We have to have an off ramp. We're not right back instantly where we left off to give me a chance. I think the more painful thing was that I was just told, you're done; you do not get a second chance here. And whenever I have to tell stories of painful breakups, I often will tell of this one. And I probably have done similar in reverse. The thing with friendship is that you can find that you have been on both sides many times and that it's easy to identify with each side.
Dan Harris: One, that does sound really painful, just to affirm.
Esther Perel: Have you ever had a bad breakup with a friend?
Dan Harris: I'm struggling to remember one where a bright line was drawn in the same way in which you just described. But I've had painful drifting apart where I can think of one friend where we were very close, extremely close for a long time, and – I'll be gender nonspecific here – they moved away and it was pretty shocking to see the thing atrophy. I'm still a little kind of, takes my breath away when I consider how that's gone.
Esther Perel: And they take a part of your life with them. It's a whole history that is shared that you can tell to somebody else, but not with the person with whom you lived it. You tell that trip, you tell that concert, whatever thing you did. And there's such a pleasure in retelling early stories with friends that are still in your life that when they're gone, it's like pages torn out of your diary.
Dan Harris: Yes.
Esther Perel: And the other thing then that I find very interesting is except for Bumble BFF, if I think there are no other apps for friends. All the other apps help you find partners or lovers or hookups, but not friends. Meetups used to be one of the ways people would try and connect with more people. I would love to have apps for people to meet friends.
Dan Harris: We should start that company because it is meeting a primordial need.
Esther Perel: Come back to me.
Dan Harris: So just to go back to how you handle these situations, what I'm hearing and I just want to make sure I'm right about this, is it seems like you are more inclined to broach things directly with people; to say what's on your mind rather than to harbor simmering resentments.
Esther Perel: Well, I think that my behavior is probably different if it's frustrations and simmering resentments, if it's the feelings of rejection and if it's feelings of hurt. I think that the first thing you ask yourself in terms of your own relational self-awareness is what am I feeling in this relationship and how do I see my behavior and how do I imagine that the other person perceives my way of being? I think that one of the ways that this has often come up is when couples split up. A number of my friends have been in couples that have been friends with the couple, and then they split up and then it's like, can you stay friends with both? This is one of these classic questions that people ask all the time, right? And then it depends if I think that you're someone who knows how to say, yes I did this, I realize I did this and this is why I did this and that's what I think about it. Or you say I'm sorry, or you say you owe me an apology, actually. Or if I'm with someone who I think that's not the way they operate, there's no point in going to tell them how you feel because either you'll get defensiveness or dismissal or they'll joke and make light of it - so let it go. I think instead of saying specifically the way I do it, I would say, what are the many things I'm thinking about? I think, how much does this friendship matter to me, you know? Or is it just that I'm kind of narcissistically wounded that somebody is letting dropping me? And, but in fact, I don't so much care about you. I don't so much want to be with you; I just want you to be with me. That version, you know, and then say, okay Perel, a little bit of honesty - let it go. You know, if it's somebody you've known for a long time, then you just say, oh come on, we're not going to spoil this for this incident - what are you doing? Then I'm just going to go and say, look, I owe you a major apology for what you said I did, but I value what we have. And then they may say, well, if you value that you had, you wouldn't have done this. You know, I came to New York and you managed not to see me once. That's a classic one. You know, there's a lot of foreigner’s friendship dances like that. And you kind of want to say, I'm so sorry. But basically what you need to say instead of explaining yourself and justifying yourself is, I get it. I wouldn't want to be the one to travel across the ocean to then not have you show up. I turned 60 a few years back. I invited people from my whole life, friends, because I don't have a large family and I have only one brother. And I invited really my family of choice, my friends. So some of them I know from age six. People came from all over and for the first time, the friends of my different lives met together in one place. It was really a beautiful tableau. What was very important was to explain to each person why the fact that they came mattered. What is often so moving is when you go to celebrate a friend – their graduation, their wedding, their birthday, whatever – and they basically explain why your presence is important to them. It's such an incredibly affirming experience. And I have been to another birthday recently where I said to the birthday girl who was doing her speech, I said, don't just say thank you all for coming. Look at the table and tell each person what they mean for you. And then I said to all the table, each of us here are here because we are important friends to this person. Why don't we each say one thing about what it's like for us to have this person in our life? This is food. This is nourishment for the soul. So when you asked me, do you only go to tell about the bad stuff? I think that what I also want to highlight is sometimes how important it is to say the good stuff, and why these people are so important. They were there when you got sick. They were there when your parent died. They were there when your child had problems. They were there when your marriage was in shambles. They were there when you had no job. They were there when you needed to renovate your place and you had a flood and you needed to go live somewhere else. I mean, there's so many things that we typically go to ask friends that we don't necessarily even ask our family.
Dan Harris: In the last answer you gave, there was a particularly delightful little moment where you talk to yourself, okay Perel. And it got me thinking about the fact that you have listed provocative questions that people might ask themselves to do a kind of self assessment to really see themselves clearly as they walk through this, I think, undervalued underexplored, but incredibly important realm of friendship. So I was thinking maybe it's worth talking about the kind of self-assessment we can all do.
Esther Perel: How much am I there for my friends? How have I shown up? That's a question that I often think is very important. Do you show up for your friends? Have you been there when they needed you? Like I have a friend who's very ill now and it's nice to send a text. And then I just thought to myself, pick up the phone and make an effort and call him twice a week. And then, I have another friend who's in and I just make sure I text constantly without response, just to say, I'm here and I'm thinking of you. And then my other friend's father was dying of COVID a few weeks back. And I thought, it's so easy to forget and it's so important to show up. So I think sometimes it’s how have you been as a friend? Who do you owe a phone call to? Who hasn't heard from you that should have heard from you and that you keep thinking every morning I should, I want to, I really need to - but then don't do. That kind of thing. During the pandemic, I was very keenly aware you could only stay in touch with a number of people. It felt too much to have to go through these long Zoom calls with so many friends. And so the world shrunk to a few people and a few with whom I was in a book club and a few with whom I was in a movie club and a few with whom I went hiking. And I had clusters like that of people. And I remember thinking, I miss meeting new people, I miss making new friends, I miss exploring the world with my friends. It's like we're just in that safe zone to make sure that nothing bad happens to us. And I miss the spontaneity, the curiosity and spontaneity that comes with friendships. And I mean, basically, that's why one morning I woke up and I said, I am going to create a game because you think of playing, you think friendship, you think having fun together, goofing together, that kind of thing. And there's so many things that I began to speak about with my friends during this last two years that had not been subjects we had ever touched upon, including what happens if we die Not always light subjects; darker topics. And I thought there needs to be a way to facilitate the conversations that friends often want to have. So I did it in the version of Where Should We Begin, the game, the card game, but the goal was, man, when friends begin to talk, especially friends who think they know each other very well, and they start to broach all kinds of subjects that they rarely talk about, that is an amazing way to nourish friendships. I mean, not only friendships, but especially friendships is making people who think they know each other curious about each other again and discover things that wow. Like I saw you yesterday, like, how is that thing suddenly– you never told me that! It’s a great line. You never told me. I never knew this. That is one of the most amazing juices for friendships.
Dan Harris: So the goal of the game, at least in part, is to peel back the layers of these relationships where you thought maybe you knew everything.
Esther Perel: Yes. The goal of the game is to promote intimacy – but intimacy not just in the romantic sense – closeness, connection, curiosity, playfulness. The game is a container for taking risks. You know, you were telling me before about how vulnerable it is to go and tell someone I feel rejected by you or you haven't invited me. But in the game, that can be a card, a friendship I need to let go of, a friend I owe an apology to, a message I fantasized receiving, a phone number I need to delete, I wish I had stood up for my friend when– or I've been a good friend or a lousy friend too. And so you get to tell the story about someone, and then often it becomes less ominous to actually go and tell that person. But partly. I think we have been a bit socially atrophied in this last period. And so it is, I thought I knew you. And it's that experience when a person that you think you've been with for a long time suddenly shifts the pan and you get a whole new perspective. Perspective change is often very, very juicy.
Dan Harris: I'm hearing two juicy things there. One is, yes, you're learning these surprising things about people. The other is that the game can provoke the kind of a self-assessment that will make you a better friend going forward.
Esther Perel: Yes, because you get to tell the stories, too. You get to tell your stories and some of them are about, they're all about it's a relationship game. So in Where Should We Begin, you get a fair assessment of how aware you are, how you show up. It's not explicit you're playing. It's not like you're doing a therapy session but it's embedded in there. And it's very funny because the questions are often quite irreverent and you get to tell stories. It's a storytelling game, I think I should say that. And I think friendships are stories, I think relationships are stories and we are a story and we get to be known and we get to know others through their stories. Which is partly what you and I are doing here as well. I like to ask how you show up. I like to ask, have you had some break ups? I like to ask who is the friend you envy the most? One of my closest friends from childhood– when I was a teenager I was never sick. If I didn't feel well, if I doubted myself, it was all a head job. Whereas she always was totally fine in her head. She always was fine in her head! I'd never seen somebody struggle less than this person, But she had one boo-boo, physical ailment after another. And on occasion I would say, I wish I could also get a physical symptom of my troubles rather than it always be my moods. And she would say, I wish I could express my mood on occasion and not have to go to the doctor every time because I have these weird things in my neck and my shoulder. And I envied her. I envied her because she always looked so poised. So I think the envy of friendships is a very important subject that we don't like to admit the jealousy that we have towards our friends. There's a lot of irreverent emotions that friendships elicit that are very primal reactivities. And I think instead of thinking that they need to be hidden, they’re just part of the experience and everybody has them.
Dan Harris: So if I have a friend who's more successful than me, wealthier than me, taller than me, it might make sense to broach that even through jokes.
Esther Perel: Of course you can, because the joke is– the humor is what allows to diffuse the tension around it, right? The humor says it's there; it's not a huge deal; but of course it's the case. Now that person may think, but look at your family, but look at your relationship to your kids, but you get to do what you really love. I make the money but you get the meaning. I think one of the situations where it's often very challenging, for example, is when people are in a developmental stage, right? One person has gotten accepted to college; the other one hasn't. One person has found a partner and the other hasn't. One person is having children that the other one is wanting to have but it's not happening nearly the way they would like. And you experience that gap. Sometimes the gap is in developmental terms and sometimes the gap is in what the person has achieved and has been able to experience in life. And you're longing for that. And it's very, very difficult, those moments, on both sides - from the side of the person who wants what you have and from the side of the person who knows that you are happy for them. But every time you meet them, you're also realizing what you're missing and this is also a dynamic in the friendship. It accompanies your true life. When you are older, when you get– at every stage, there is, you know, we are in parallel track and then we are like this. We are pushed apart by the fact that one of us is experiencing something that the other one would like to have or is hoping never to have like in this. I mean, when you look at this thing called friendship, it's from tiny, tiny after birth all the way to the last day of your life. This relationship accompanies you in multiple permutations, friendship. I think that even just me talking with you today, I realize I haven't even explored half of it. But it's so rich. And those who say I'm blessed with friends and those who say I wish I had good friends, I don't have good friends, or those who say I just need to have two or three friends in my life and that's fine. I don't need a big group. And those who are able to stay friends even when they’re coupled, and those are often men in straight relationships who lose their friendships, their direct friendships. And then the whole discussion in America about can you have friends between men and women that are platonic? That is, I think, hotly debated. And people are very suspicious of it here, which is not at all the case where I come from in Belgium. Do you understand friendship between boys and girls from Little…? So the cultural differences, the major differences also around how the cultures, what they give license to, what they think is desirous in friendship terms, what kind of friendships are okay or not, is a mentorship relationship a friendship? Can you be friends with your boss? It’s a ton of questions about can you be friends with. You're allowed to like, you're allowed to love them even, but can you be friends with them? And it's a litmus test, this question of friendship. So a question I love to ask is what have been some unusual friendships that you have had? Somebody was 50 years older than you; a person you met on the street; friendships that were not supposedly in the normativity of your life. What have been unusual friendships that you have? That's a beautiful question.
Dan Harris: Coming up, how to maintain friendships in ways that can strengthen your romantic relationships. And we're going to talk about how systematic we should be about our friendships, right after this. Let me close on a tactical questio, and I'll give you a little bit of background first. I got very busy in my career for many years and let a lot of friendships wither. And then recently retired from being a news anchor and all of a sudden, for the first time, was not working seven days a week anymore. I used to work on the weekends and anchor at a show on the weekends, and now I don't do that anymore. And so I have my weekends free. And as I've gotten older, I've gotten a little less stupid, hopefully, and in part through hosting the show, more attuned to the fact that our social life, my social life as an individual human and my social life that I conduct jointly with my wife is very, very important. It is a massive contributor to my happiness. As you say, the quality of our life is determined by the quality of our relationships, which I've really taken that to heart.
Esther Perel: Accurate quote.
Dan Harris: It's a very good quote. It's a life changing quote. And so this is building up to the question, which is now that I'm in this new phase where I don't have to work seven days a week, my wife and I have gotten very systematic about making new friends and maintaining our existing relationships - sitting down with the calendar, figuring out who have we not seen for a while, reaching out, setting them up. And it's become a really pleasant experience for the two of us.
Esther Perel: Beautiful.
Dan Harris: So let me ask you two questions. One is, I'd love to hear you hold forth on the importance of having friends while you're in a romantic relationship, because I believe that you believe it takes some of the pressure off of that romantic relationship. And two, how systematic and deliberate do you think we ought to be and especially given that there's a maybe a little bit of a taboo around that, it can come off as a little graspy, a little thirsty to be that deliberate.
Esther Perel: I think what you're doing when you are willfully, conscientiously reaching out to old and new friends is absolutely beautiful and it strengthens your relationship with your wife at the same time - it's a double thing. I think that– So the first question is what is the importance of friendships in the context of romantic relationships? I think it is essential and the research of Eli Finkel about thriving relationships, romantic relationships, supports that idea that the diversification of people in a romantic relationship is crucial. You cannot ask one person to give you what an entire community should provide, and that has become the faultline of the romantic relationship - is that this one person is everything to me. I think that relationships where people have solid friendships of their own as well as together are very important. And I say really it's both, and of their own in particular, and especially friendships from the past, and especially if it's friendships of somebody that– I had a session yesterday where one person has a lot of friendships from before and the partner moved to live close to them and they do not connect with these people. And I said to the person, you know, the local one, look, you need to make sure to find new people in town, which you probably would not have been inclined to do if it wasn't for your partner. But you want to reach out and make new friendships together, and then you have to maintain some of these friendships and not invite your partner necessarily to participate in them. They're yours. They are allowed not to like them and you will continue to develop them and those two shall co-exist. If you give up those relationships because your partner didn't really like them, it's not a good outcome. Now sometimes it moves because you go more towards the ones that you enjoy together. It's not always that deliberate, but the idea is these friendships are part of this person's history and they should be maintained. I think that some of the friendships can be along the entire gender spectrum. And that may mean sometimes it's a friendship with an ex, but it is a friendship. So there are complicated ones – the old ones from time that I don't connect with, the exes – they're more fraught, so they need to be worked through. There needs to be a real sense of trust about what these friendships mean in the context of our life. But friendships parallel to the romantic relationship and absolute yes. How determined should you be? I think what you're doing is really, very, very important. And on occasion, when you do a toast, you can even say, I really appreciate how we have been able to reconnect, given that I was out of commission for so many years. I know, guys that I wasn't there, that I've been working and you could have just long replaced me. And it means a great deal for me that at a moment when I finally realized that I have other important things to attend to in my life, you're giving me a chance to do this with you. And I really want to thank you. You will choke [up]. They will choke [up]. And it's beautiful. It's moving and beautiful. But it's so real. It's true. And then when it's people who are less interested in you, you may say, depending on where– as you're walking with one person from the car to a place, you know, these things don't need to be formally set up, and you just say, I'm really happy that we're going out tonight. It's been so long and I can't believe how I lived without it. You told me that you're going out tonight with friends to have dinner and then to music. And I just could imagine you as you're standing in line to the club, just saying, I'm so glad I'm doing this and I'm so glad I'm doing this with all of us because this could have disappeared. It's not a given that people would wait for me. And to say that makes you own, but also makes the people feel like it was worth waiting. It gives people a sense, like and then they would say, it's okay, dude, we love you. And then, you know, they'll just pat you and say something or they'll just say nothing. I can't underestimate the importance of these little comments like that that really support the statement: the quality of your relationships determines the quality of your life. It goes further than just the quote. And then with the new people. It's also to just say– it's like dating again after years of being in a relationship. Itt's like, how does one do this? And then to just say that this is a very interesting moment for me because I haven't done this in a while and I haven't done this with my wife and I haven't– I'm giddy. It's just like I feel like energies entering in my body. And I just want you to know I was so far from this for so long. I was in a different space and I'm so glad I'm on this track again. And then you go on and you eat. And then, you know, it's not like this becomes a ceremony. It's just, it allows you to take ownership of the experience, to give it meaning, to frame it, and to let people understand why they matter in your life. And that all is part of friendship. And on occasion, you can say that to your wife alone as well.
Dan Harris: Rarely hurts.
Esther Perel: You cannot lose. You cannot– none of the stuff I just said, I mean, this is bulletproof. Guaranteed good elixir. You know, there are other things that I would say, I don't know if it would if it's a good idea to say it or not to say it but this kind of stuff, you can't go wrong.
Dan Harris: It's such a pleasure to listen to you talk.
Esther Perel: Let me ask you how this lands on you.
Dan Harris: Extremely well. I may actually utter the same words that you placed in my mouth to friends in the various gatherings we have arranged at over the next couple of weeks and months. Actually, at my 50th birthday, which was last summer, we had a group of friends for dinner and I said something very similar to what you proposed, I’d say. Which is, one of the biggest mistakes in my life was kind of letting some friendships lapse or not being sufficiently socially engaged and I apologize for that. And I'm back, if you'll have me. And it went over well then.
Esther Perel: Beautiful. Even listening to it, it fills my heart. So if I was of that circle of your friends that was at your 50th, you’d just say, glad to have you back, dude. There was a reason we didn't just say, okay, the hell with him, he's just busy climbing the ladder. Do you know another one that we didn't touch today? That would be part of what some of your friends may say is I'm not important enough for him. When one person starts to go on the achievement thing and they do those things that they're passionate about and things go well for them and they let go of their friends, the friends start to feel like I'm not important enough for that person. And that's a very icky feeling, too. So when you come back and you say, it wasn't that. I was just, you know, I got taken in this thing called work, you know, I loved it, I loved it, but I paid a price. And there's a better way to have a balance. And I want a richer life and you are part of that richer life. It's syrup. It's really it lands, you know, it's like, okay. And then, you know, we move on and– but everybody registered it. That's what's so interesting in this mania. And all I see is what you did at your 50th was beautiful and you don't have to wait for those big occasions to do it. It's life is lived in the details.
Dan Harris: Yeah, it's as simple as I was just thinking of being at dinner with a couple buddies recently and two of us kind of got up at the same time to go to the bathroom and we kind of put our arms around each other as we were going. We didn't have to say anything. It was like, yeah, I'm glad we're doing this. This is great.
Esther Perel: That's right. That's right. And what's so interesting is that this helps not just with your soul and with your inner life, this helps with your immune system. We know that connection, social connection, is essential for body and mind and spirit. It's not just about the meaning of life, it's also about health. It's so all encompassing. I don't emphasize that side as much because I tend to talk more from an existential point of view and a social point of view, but social connection is security. Social connection is preserving. It helps us on so many levels. And that hug, it's pure oxytocin. It's a bunch of hormones, you know, attachment, connection, hormones floating in between two men, and especially for men who often tend to be more socially isolated. This longevity relates to social connection. Immunity relates to social connections. I need to name these things because they are part of the importance of friendships.
Dan Harris: Thank you for taking time to do this. It's been awesome, as always.
Esther Perel: It's a pleasure.
Dan Harris: Thanks again to Esther. Always fantastic to have her on this show. She's amazing. Speaking of amazing, let me thank the folks who work so hard to make this show on a two and a half times a week basis. They include Gabrielle Zuckerman, DJ Cashmere, Justine Davey, Kim Buikema, Maria Wurttele, Samuel Johns, and Jen Poyant. And we get our audio engineering from our good friends over at Ultraviolet Audio. We'll see you all on Friday for a bonus.