Michelle Donnelly


Esther Perel Gets Ready For a 3,000-Person Group Date

Eroticism, love, and a whole lot of advice with your favorite relationship therapist.

Esther Perel has often said that couples therapy is the best show in town — in fact, that’s the basis of the psychotherapist and author’s podcast Where Should We Begin, where you can listen in to real (anonymous) sessions between lovers, family, and coworkers. The podcast has been so wildly successful that she’s taken her insights on the road with a series of interactive events (during which she gives relationship advice in real time to members of the audience). Both her 2022 Australia tour and 2023 London show sold out. Now, she’s getting ready to embark on her U.S. tour, which starts April 4 in Philadelphia and stops in Boston, D.C., New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Francisco.

Perel has built a career around discussing the push and pull of relationships, so it comes as little surprise that she says she views each leg of the tour as a “3000-person date” rather than a one-sided lecture. Perel even likes to source feedback on the spot from her audience, which is something her podcast fans will recognize. “I actually need the permission to not feel good when that's the case,” she says. “And at other times, I like the permission to just be really elated because I feel that it was a beautiful, creative, rich evening. Like a perfect meal.”

Or a roller coaster — Perel says she experiences an entire emotional journey before stepping on stage, and even when all the conversations are over and the connections have been made, she’s been known to make a friend at each show and invite them to the after-party. Ahead, Perel walks us through how she gets ready for a group date, sharing her best pieces of dating advice along the way.

Coutesy of Esther Perel
Coutresy of Esther Perel
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How do you prepare for a group date (your live show)?

If it's one person or 3000 people, I go through the same roller coaster. You would think that after so many years of going on many first dates I would be, by now, inoculated — but I'm not. First, I'm imagining it and it's all magical thinking and it feels very exciting. When it becomes a reality, I start to think, “Sh*t, what did I do?” Then I start to feel like I can’t let myself or anyone else down so I have to deliver. I do a lot of breathing before I come to the date and make sure I’m never in a dark place. I want to see the people I’m talking to. Once I start, it’s not so scary.

How do you unwind after?

Energetically, I’m usually in an adrenaline state so it takes a few hours to really come down. But the major thing I like to do is to just be with people I care about. It’s not that I have a particular way that I unwind. I like the serendipity of what the show brings that is going to lead to the after-show, which none of us could have planned.

What do you like to wear on a date to feel good?

Something that you stop to look at but then is also deeply comfortable. I can’t be bothered wondering if something sticks out, I need to feel like the thing on me blends with my body and is a clean somatic experience. These days, I’m into suits. I like pant suits because they fit the bill and serve all purposes. I like clothing that exudes confidence but it doesn’t have to try and be sexy. Yes, I talk about sex, but I don't have clothing that alludes to it.

Courtesy of Esther Perel

I like when you talk about not giving the best of ourselves to everyone but our partners. Do you have a routine that helps you to show up as your best self in your relationships?

In my romantic relationship, the most important thing is that whenever my partner tells me to put my phone down, I thank him. We need to help each other at this moment to just put the phones down. I also love when we sit in the car together, that's a place where we can really pay attention and talk. And I integrate my friends into my activities and I integrate my activities with my friends. I do physical and cultural activities with them so that I live life with people rather than live life and tell it to them.

What's the best piece of dating advice that you've ever received? Who was it from?

That dating is not problem solving. Dating is not measured by an outcome, it is the beginning of a story. You see if there is a curiosity to know where that story would take you. If there’s zero curiosity, don’t bother. I can’t remember who I heard it from, maybe it was me. I may have given myself the best piece of advice.

In your podcast, you also talk about viewing a date as an experience. So what makes a date a success, in your opinion?

I think a date is successful when it has elicited my curiosity. When I stayed two more hours than I had initially anticipated and didn't want it to stop. When suddenly, a drink turns into a dinner, turns into something after. Just this notion of timelessness begins to set in when the walls come down and a close connection is made.

Michelle Donnelly
Courtesy of Esther Perel
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What do you think are the biggest dating hurdles of today?

I think that some of the biggest dating hurdles today are the fact that we often treat ourselves and the people we meet as products that are continuously evaluated. We have a checklist and see if people check all the boxes. Where’s the romance in that? It doesn’t often feel playful enough. Dating shouldn’t be a job. We need to leave space for serendipity and the unknown instead of always wanting to hedge our bets on if it’s worth our time.

You also talk a lot about eroticism. What have you found to be the most common misconception around intimacy?

I think one of the common misconceptions is that intimacy is primarily achieved through talking and divulging private inner aspects of oneself to someone who listens. Sometimes intimacy takes place in silence. Intimacy takes place by two people listening to music that really moves them. Intimacy is two people who are at the top of a mountain they've just hiked. It isn’t just about inviting someone in, it’s also about creating something in between.

You also have a different definition of eroticism than most people. How do you define it?

Eroticism is what distinguishes when we feel alive, awake, and engaged with the mystery of life and our connections versus it being an act that we do that is called sex that has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Courtesy of Esther Perel

What's something you've learned recently about navigating conflict in relationships?

I didn't learn this recently, but every time I need to confront someone I learn how to have difficult conversations that are both honest and let the person know you’re saying these things because you value the relationship. That's the piece that is often not so clear. If you bother talking about what irks you, it’s because you actually care.

If you could give one piece of dating advice to yourself as a teenager, what would it be?

I would have told myself to stop trying to find people who like you so you can like yourself more. Ask yourself, “What do you think of them?” instead of constantly wondering how they see you. I did that for a lot of years and I was collecting good points rather than distributing mine.