I saw the world's best relationship expert. She asked: What's the last thing you stroke at night?


“What’s the last thing you stroke before you fall asleep?

“And the first thing you stroke in the morning?”

I was at a talk by the world-renowned sex and relationship expert Esther Perel, and she wanted the crowd to own up to their bullshit.

Because we all know the answer to that question, right?

By the time she asked us this, Esther had been making us confess things by standing up and sitting down for 20 minutes.

Things like:

“Have you ever had a sexual encounter that was completely… unsatisfying?”

Whole room stands.

“That you just went along with anyway?”

Whole room stays standing.

“Has your life ever been touched by infidelity? Either as a child, as a friend providing a shoulder to cry on, a cheater, someone cheated on?”

The whole room stands again.

Esther Perel is a world expert on infidelity. Hear her talking to Mia Freedman about it, here: 

The thing about Esther Perel is, she knows that we’re all up in this relationship mess together.

She hustled her way to being trained by legends and has now been a psychotherapist, counselling couples directly, for decades. She’s written books that have changed the way people view their relationships, including the very best-selling Mating in Captivity, which explored the incredibly common but always unspoken reality that familiarity is almost always the enemy of desire. Perel has delivered TEDx talks watched by millions, and now she’s found an entirely new audience via a podcast, Where Should We Begin, where she counsels real-life couples and we all get to pretend, just for a little while, that we are on the couch with Esther and her glorious French accent.


That would be lovely place to be. Even as a semi-distant figure onstage at a packed Sydney theatre, Perel’s energy is palpable. She grew up in Antwerp, Belgium, the daughter of Holocaust survivors who were the only members of their respective families to come out of that horror alive. She always says that her parents chose to “come back to life”, not to “not die” after the War. And now Perel’s life-force and passion for her calling rolls off her in waves and has every audience eating out of the palm of her tiny, manicured hand.

She’s interested in everyone and judges no one. And she says that most of her correspondence comes from two groups of people who are rarely heard: Cheating women and hurt men.

So. Wow.

“What’s the last thing you stroke before you fall asleep?

“And the first thing you stroke in the morning?”

Look, it’s obvious, isn’t it?

It’s your phone. Sorry, it’s my phone.

Lots of standing.

“And stay standing if while you’re doing that, there’s a real, live person lying next to you?” Perel calls.

I’m still standing.


Ambiguous loss, Perel says, is what we feel when we’ve lost something but it’s still there. Let me spell this out: When the person lying next to you is there, but they’re not really.

Yes, you can see your partner there on their side of the bed, in winter PJs and their hair in a ratty bun, but really, they’re in Mauritius in a bikini like that influencer they hate-follow. Or they’re in their ex’s family album on Facebook, searching for an echo of their former love’s eyes in a little pigtailed girl’s school photo. Or they’re reading a long and instructive email from their boss that they could easily read on the bus in the morning. Or they’re eyes’ deep in a long-form, think-piece about how the House Dems really need to let go of hoping the Mueller investigation will save the world, even though they don’t really know what any of those words mean.


It’s not new information that our magical, all-knowing phones are connecting us and disconnecting us at the same damn rate, but sometimes you just need to be told. And Perel tells us.

At the end of her talk in Sydney on a nippy Sunday afternoon, she settles in to take questions. Don’t tell me how much you like me and how much my work has meant to you, Perel says. Just ask the questions and move the hell along.

And so people line up and they ask questions: How long should heartbreak last? Can a survivor of trauma ever open themselves up to emotional risk? Can men and women in a heterosexual relationship ever be truly equal? Can an algorithm really predict compatibility?

It’s a fascinating afternoon, but I’m left with a niggling truth about the primary relationship in my life. The one I give the most energy and attention.

I might say it’s with my exceptional partner, or with my excellent children. But what’s the last thing I stroke before I go to sleep?

Tonight, my true obsession is getting locked out of the bedroom. It can flash and mewl at me from the kitchen, and I will pretend not to hear. Let’s see how that goes.

I know Esther would be interested.

Esther Perel was in Sydney for Vivid Ideas 2019

You can follow Holly Wainwright on Facebook here, or buy her novels, here

What’s the last thing you touch before you go to sleep?