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Meet Esther Perel, who counsels 'The Affair' on affairs

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The Affair
Steven Lippman/Showtime

Even before therapist and author Esther Perel began working as a consultant on The Affair, her work was influencing the show. “We had actually already read an article wherein Esther was quoted saying something like, ‘oftentimes when somebody in a couple cheats, it’s not because they’re unhappy with their spouse or their partner. They’ve become unhappy with themselves,'” co-creator Sarah Treem told EW. “We loved that quote, and we had put it up on the board of the writers’ room as an inspiration.”

One of the show’s associate producers, Ryan Selzer, went to see Perel do a talk and approached the therapist afterwards about the show. Then came a meeting with Treem and star Ruth Wilson, Perel told EW. “I’m swimming in the subject; they were swimming in the subject. So we decided to swim in the same pool,” she said.

Perel, the author of Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, is a perfect match for The Affair, which follows the origins and consummation of a tryst from both the man’s (Noah, played by Dominic West) and the woman’s (Alison, played by Wilson) perspectives. “Perhaps not since Dr. Ruth commandeered American airwaves in the 1980s has there been a public figure with so much of an audience for her work on human sexuality,” Susan Dominus wrote when profiling Perel in the New York Times. Perel is currently working on a book titled The State of Affairs: Cheating in the Age of Transparency. She works with patients whose lives have been affected by infidelity. Hanna Rosin, in an article in Slate, described how Perel was “raised in Antwerp, Belgium, and has lived all over the world, which leads her to regard many American assumptions about affairs to be priggish and provincial.”

The process of working with the show has been “affirming,” Perel said. “These characters in many ways reflect what I’m trying to write and what I have seen. In a way, we give each other a view of life that was affirming for each of us, and for the complexity around affairs. There isn’t one kind of affair; there isn’t one set of motives for affairs. People do it for different reasons. People react to it in multiple ways,” she continued. “There isn’t just a victim and a perpetrator. It isn’t about saints and villains.”

Perel’s work on The Affair was multifaceted. She read scripts and worked with actors—primarily Wilson and Joshua Jackson, who plays Alison’s husband Cole—on their motives. “I think she was most helpful in character development, because she has had so much experience with couples in these situations. She could kind of identify the type of person that we were creating in the script,” Treem said. “She would say, ‘Okay, I think this type of person would react to this type of situation like this.’ She had some real world experience to inform our productions.”

Perel said that she “looked for emotional truth,” based on her 30 years of experience working with couples. She tried to tease out threads that the writers had already touched upon. For example: “Why is it that people who are monogamous in their beliefs find themselves acting completely contrary to their own values? How do we highlight that conflict in Noah? Why do people who actually love their partner, find themselves drawn to someone else? Our typical view is to think affairs always emerge [from] situations that are lacking.”

While Alison is grieving over the loss of her child, both she and Noah have strong emotional and sexual connections to their current spouses. Noah, especially, has a relatively happy existence with Helen. “Often the affair is the revenge of the missed opportunity, of the lost possibilities of life,” Perel said. “It’s much more existential. That, they were very interested in. And I would say Sarah and I had a fantastic relationship. I felt so received, because I didn’t always come with the kind of obvious ideas.”

Treem said that Perel was particularly helpful later in the season, when the affair starts to be revealed; she helped round out the characters of Helen and Cole. “This idea of the spouse that gets cheated on and how they react to the situation is really interesting,” Treem said “I felt she really helped us round out those characters in surprising ways.”

The structure of the show, which comes from both Noah and Alison’s divergent recalling of their experience together, was familiar to Perel. “I think it is the essence of working with couples: There are these two perceptions, and what you have here is the complete enactment of these two people and how they are constructing the narrative of their affair,” she said.

Perel knows the impact that television can have on perception. “The first time a television show entered my office it was The Sopranos, and then it was Mad Men. Those are two shows you knew people had watched the episode the night before and it had influenced what a was going to be said in the session the next day,” she said “What I know is that many couples therapists are going to be needing to see the show because people are going to be bringing in the episode that they saw the night before.”