The Relational Economy

The Relational Economy

Both romantic and working relationships are under extraordinary pressure. Can we seize this moment to reclaim our hearts from our jobs?

Esther Perel speaks at TED2015 in Vancouver (Bret Hartman/TED)

“The fact is, we take home to work and we take work home. Love and work are the two pillars of our life . . . Sigmund Freud said it before me: in both we experience a sense of identity, a sense of belonging, a sense of continuity, and—hopefully—a sense of self-worth and fulfillment.” So says Esther Perel, probably our most famous relationship therapist. The Belgian daughter of concentration camp survivors has garnered more than 20 million views for her TED talks, and her book Mating in Captivity has been translated into twenty-five languages. More importantly, she’s the host of two extraordinary podcasts, where she takes you inside real therapy sessions, anonymized but excruciatingly raw.

The first, Where Should We Begin?, is about romantic relationships. In each episode, listeners eavesdrop as Perel advises couples on how to rekindle the spark, sort through the wreckage left after infidelity, and navigate a host of other problems. Since the advent of the coronavirus, she’s released a new series on the podcast, “Couples Under Lockdown,” looking at the extraordinary pressures that tight quarters and a lack of freedom place on our most intimate bonds.

Her most recent podcast, How’s Work?, takes the same shape—anonymous therapy sessions—but instead of romantic partners, she’s talking to pairs of coworkers about their relationships on the job. In doing so, she not only gives us a little frisson of voyeurism but lays bare a multitude of dysfunctional attitudes toward work.

I listened to Where Should We Begin? in the wake of a major breakup, yet I felt flayed open by How’s Work? in an entirely different way. Romantic relationships, after all, aren’t the only ones in our lives; often, as Perel points out a few times over the eleven episodes, they actually take a back seat to the relationships at our jobs, where we spend the majority of our time. But according to Perel, romantic relationships and working relationships have something else in common: both are under extraordinary pressure in this particular phase of capitalism.

Even before the coronavirus, the boundaries between work and home had thinned, and our vocabularies for both were blending. “Emotional capitalism”—a term Perel borrows from sociologist Eva Illouz—leads to first dates that feel like job interviews, as we apply market logic to our love lives. Meanwhile our bosses expect us to bring all the passion we have to our jobs, and in return we expect work to provide “authenticity and vulnerability and trust and transparency and belonging,” according to Perel. This is because “we see both our jobs and our relationships as a place for identity fulfillment.”

How did we get here? In the series prologue, Perel addresses a focus group, whose applause you can hear. She asks how many of them live and work where they grew up. When the answer she gets is the one that she expects—that many of them do not—she points out that this is historically novel. While our grandparents lived in a production economy in which many of them did what their parents did and stayed where their parents lived, that is no longer the case, she says. For people to relocate to pursue education, a career, a relationship, or fulfillment, or to escape a lack of economic opportunity, “requires a societal structure that is not about tight knots, but is about loose threads. That means that we moved from structure to network. In the network, you make loose threads that allow you to enter and leave easily so that you can connect and disconnect.”

This description of society echoes the ones put forth by many of capitalism’s critics, perhaps first by sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello in The New Spirit of Capitalism (originally published in 1999). Before the internet ran our lives, they theorized a society oriented around networks, flexibility, and mobility. In management literature, they find the same kinds of words Perel mentions—discussions of “charisma,” of “network[s] of personal relations,” of bosses being “midwives” of others’ talents. Boltanski and Chiapello attribute this, in part, to capitalism’s effective absorption of the 1960s critiques of staid factories and the “organization man.” Workers wanted employment that was less dull and mind-numbing, and they were rewarded with endless flexibility. What they traded away was any sense of security.

The term “network,” Boltanski and Chiapello argue, was relatively new at the time of their research. The idea of networking—of making and using and dropping connections—as a professional pursuit and skill emerged in the last third of the twentieth century. The networked society, they wrote, lends itself to “Life . . . conceived as a succession of projects; and the more they differ from one another, the more valuable they are.” Networked workers jump from project to project. Romantic relationships too, Perel notes, have this character now, as people move on to find fulfillment elsewhere. The shape of capitalism shapes our hearts.

The downside of this, to Perel, is that now our boundaries are a mess. “Everything is up for negotiation. Everything is a conversation. So, you have a lot more freedom, but you also have to continuously know what you think, what you want, what matters to you, where you want to go, what’s your next goal, where you want to be, how you want to scale. The burdens of the self have never been heavier.” Never before, she argues, has the world of emotion entered the world of work so intensely, and, especially with the coronavirus pandemic shaking up the very foundations of work, never has it been so ill-equipped to provide all the emotional validation and fulfillment we are told to expect from it. In this moment, as we grapple with the realities of a vastly changed working life, can we seize the opportunity to reclaim our hearts from our jobs?

Perel’s therapy sessions revolve around her concept of the “relational dowry.” “Everybody has a relationship résumé that they got from home, from their culture, their community, their society where they grew up,” she says in her new podcast. That relationship résumé shapes our personal lives, but it also comes to work with us. Perel asks, “Were you raised for autonomy or were you raised for loyalty?” While it is rarely entirely either/or, she explains, these tendencies inform our outlook. Raised for autonomy, the one hard-charging entrepreneur believes in “extreme ownership”—that his successes and failures are all on him, even as he sits in Perel’s office with his best friend, whom he describes as both his business partner and “life partner.”

Perel credits her parents for her own understanding that she depends on others. “I ask for help a lot, I offer help a lot, and I have no fear when I ask for help,” she says, noting that for her parents to have survived the concentration camp, they had to understand the ways that others helped them to live. “This notion of self-made never existed for us. You are never self-made. . . . I completely believe in a communal structure and I depend on a lot of people for a lot of things for me, for my kids, for my team.”

In guiding people through their work relationships, Perel sometimes gently and sometimes firmly reminds them that none of them got there on their own. She also admonishes a would-be taqueria owner to learn Spanish, tells one man to quit rather than try to “destroy” his friend and partner, and disabuses a cheating husband of the notion that nonmonogamy will solve his problems with his wife, who also happens to co-run their business.

In contrast to the cracking couples of Where Should We Begin?, many of these pairs come across as pretty emotionally literate (with a few glaring exceptions, and in those cases it seems clear they were brought along by a more emotionally honest colleague at their wits’ end).

For many of the coworkers, it appears to be impossible to have an intimate relationship that is not romantic. But even though their partnerships revolve around a business (an oil company, a communications firm, a restaurant), the ache in their voices betrays that these are still stories about love. (As Perel says when she introduces her first session, “In many ways this is a love story.”) In the first episode, when one person says, “It feels like a break-up,” she tells them, “It is”—a clip that recurs in every introduction.

What does it mean that work is the place where these people feel comfortable expressing affection for one another? With a business between them, they can be “partners.” But even for the male−female pairs who aren’t romantically involved, the dreaded “work spouse” frame comes up (Perel memorably describes the term as “vulgar and boring”), and their romantic partners become jealous. So much of this reflects not just the blurred boundaries of workplaces, but also a culture that cannot understand chosen, caring relationships outside of heterosexual partnership.

An odd effect of the podcast is that it takes a while to tell the individuals in each couple apart. Many of the pairs are people of the same gender, from similar backgrounds, with similar accents, and as Perel doesn’t use their names, their stories blend into one another. This anonymization is especially interesting in the two episodes that dig the deepest into particular types of wage labor. A pair of strippers (two young women, close friends, both in graduate school, confident, smart, funny, and angry) and a pair of hairdressers (also close work friends, frustrated with the casual intimacies of their work and struggling to hold boundaries against their customers) talk about their work in ways that might surprise us, particularly when balanced against one another. It is the hairdressers, not the sex workers, who find it hardest not to take customers’ feelings personally, whose day is ruined by a bad client, whose images of themselves are flattened by a sexist boss. The strippers, by contrast, though they negotiate what Perel calls “overlapping relational systems”—in the words of one, “the ego needs of men are so profound . . . it’s so much work”—have a clearer understanding of the pitfalls of their work. Perhaps it’s easier to develop a robust analysis of what your job means when you have to band together with coworkers against a judgmental outside world.

Meanwhile, the idea of close workplace bonds is cynically marshaled by bosses who seek to avoid responsibility. One cannot turn around in our relational economy without finding a company that compares itself to a family. Perel is appropriately disdainful of the businesspeople that describe their companies thus, though she does help a mother and son negotiate their complicated working relationship and encourage a splintered couple to invest in their love for one another. In calling organizations that are not families “family,” she notes, workers are primed to accept constant breaching of their boundaries.

Perel has a way of saying things that makes her clients and the listener (well, me) pause, suck in a breath, or let out a rough sigh. One of the hairdressers painfully laughs, “Make it stop!” as Perel, laser-like, focuses on her insecurities. Perel is generous but takes no bullshit, and it is almost gratifying when she does get frustrated with someone because it validates the frustration building in the listener. Her warmth encourages her clients to be warm with one another. She sees the way they care for each other, and she makes them see it, too.

It is clear that Perel understands the limits of what she can do in a session; workplace therapy “puts the focus on the individual, but not the structures,” she told Josh Gabert-Doyon in a recent interview for Vice. Yet as Gabert-Doyon points out, by inviting us into these relationships she does, in a way, make all these workplace dynamics a collective concern. Instead of emphasizing people’s bottom line, she focuses on people’s happiness. Instead of treating them as individuals, alone in the world, she forces them to accept their own interconnectedness. It’s not socialist organizing, but it is a challenge to many of her listeners’ ideas about the world.

But how do we actually change the workplace? One of the things that is rarely expounded upon in this show is how to do anything beyond quitting a lousy job, maybe switching careers, or finding ways to vent your anger or communicate better with your business partners. Power is everywhere, Perel notes—“Every relationship has a power structure”—yet her own view of the ebb and flow of power can seem at times to elide those differentials into something that can be changed with one’s outlook. There are occasional glimpses of a more radical idea: that hierarchies are unstable, and that the boss is dependent on people showing up. In the most recent episode, a conversation with Adam Grant, a fellow workplace psychologist, Perel jokes about workers going on strike to prove that the CEO is, in fact, not the most powerful person in the firm. Trust, to Perel, is a form of power. Collectivized trust is the thing we call solidarity.

It took me a week to begin listening to this podcast after I accepted the assignment. It felt too ghostly, too haunted, an assignment from another world done in the smoking wreckage of this one. What does it mean to consider work’s meaning when, in the United States alone, at the time of this writing, over 33 million people have applied for unemployment benefits in the past eight weeks? The real number of people out of work is certainly higher than that figure, which doesn’t include those who didn’t qualify for unemployment, didn’t know they could apply, or couldn’t get through to a system fracturing under that massive pressure.

“Work has changed meaning dramatically in just about a few days,” Perel notes in a post-coronavirus introduction appended to the episode with Grant. “Work that is the source of income, the source of self-worth, the source of pride, the source of identity, and the ability to take care of ourselves and our loved ones is under attack.” We are now divided, roughly, into three: the unemployed; the “essential workers” still doing their jobs under new, often life-threatening pressures; and the work-from-home brigade, trying to maintain normalcy in a world that is the opposite of normal. If work, as Perel says, is the way we find our identities in networked late capitalism, what have our identities become in this moment when work has become something very different, and when the brutality of the labor relation has been made newly visible?

The expectation of finding one’s passion on the job is of course far from universal and, as Perel notes, a fairly recent development. “Passion, for a long time throughout history, when it came to work, was pretty much the privilege of the artisans and the artists,” she says. “People did not talk about passion when they worked the land and certainly not when they went to the factory.” What so many of us expect from work now is, she says, “what we used to get from religion and community.” While that can be an improvement over the days of the factory—as striking workers in the 1960s certainly could have told us—it also brings with it, inevitably, more heartbreak when work doesn’t live up to our dreams.

There is, as Grant says in the final episode, a psychological contract at work, which has perhaps three types. There’s the basic economic contract: I show up, I get paid. Then there’s a relational contract, where the worker invests emotionally in the company and expects in turn to be treated as “part of the family.” And finally there is the cause-driven worker, who expects to make change at work. The betrayal of these contracts causes heartbreak, pain, even trauma. The fracturing of trust, Perel says, “shakes the whole foundation.”

That foundation has since been pulled from under our feet. Those of us who can are working from home, but even if our work feels meaningful it is being done in the most trying of circumstances. For those of us still going to a workplace, the gap between the sense of being “essential” and the degree to which our bosses treat us as expendable creates a sense of betrayal. That feeling is driving worker militancy in warehouses and grocery stores and hospitals alike. And for the laid off, there is an equal sense of betrayal. Work is being counterposed to life in a newly stark way, and for most of us the choice is easy. Go to work as normal—as many elected officials are now announcing it is time to do—and more will die. They will be our loved ones, our neighbors; they could be us. The combination of a new sense of appreciation for essential workers and newly frightening possibilities of contagion on the job could lead to the kind of raised expectations that lead to organizing, strikes, and the refusal of death-making conditions. And the demands of a workforce thrown out of work through no fault of its own—backed up with the kind of organizing that is building momentum for rent strikes as well as walkouts—could be the sort of demands that drew the New Deal out of a Democratic administration looking for solutions anywhere it could find them.

I find it not a little ironic that my least favorite character on How’s Work?—the unrepentant cheating husband, who says he wants to be nonmonogamous because keeping his affairs a secret is “too much work”—delivers the most important lesson of the podcast. Turning to his estranged wife and business partner, he says, “You’re where I was with my first business. You’re in love with it. You’re in love with this thing that doesn’t care about you at all. I know you love it, but it’s never going to love you back.” Work is the thing that is holding them together—their marriage is crumbling, but their restaurant and winery are flourishing. But the reason that there’s any hope for him at all is that he freely says, “I love her. I don’t love the business.”

Millions of people have learned this lesson afresh in the time between my writing this article and your reading of it. What more have we learned in the meantime?

Sarah Jaffe is the co-host of Dissent’s Belabored podcast and the author of the forthcoming Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone.

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