The best-selling self-development author’s new listen is the cure for relationship woes in our shelter-in-place era.
Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.
Sean Tulien: I'm editor Sean and today I'll be talking with a true rock star of self-development, Mark Manson. A man who has described himself as a millennial Dear Abby who happens to say fuck a lot, he's the author of the mega hit, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck as well as Everything is Fucked a book about hope. His new release, Love is Not Enough, is an enlightening and entertaining listen where he gives real people real advice about relationships. Welcome, Mark.
Mark Manson: It's good to be here. Thanks for having me.
ST: I'm really glad to have you. It's exciting. So Love is Not Enough just came out. It's an Audible exclusive and it's essentially you talking to five people over extended periods of time, checking in with them over time about their real-life relationship issues. Is that a fair way to describe the book?
ST: Great. So initially when I listened, I thought it might not be the best time in the world to release a book on relationships given the fact that almost all of us are in quarantine. But as I started to think about it more and more — and the more I listened to it— [I realised that] it might actually be one of the best times in history to be listening to a book like this.
MM: Right? There's a statistic out of China that divorce rates went through the roof, and so I think a lot of people being stuck home alone right now with their partners, who maybe they've managed to not see very often over the last few years—it could be a little bit of a wake-up call.
ST: Yeah. I imagine a lot of people haven't had to spend this much time for this protracted of a time period with their spouses. It's kind of like there's nothing to hide it from right now. There's no way to get away from any of the problems that might be present in your relationship.
"Stress either makes a relationship stronger or it breaks people apart."
MM: Yeah, yeah. I've always felt, and I talk about this in the book, but it's generally stress. Stress either makes a relationship stronger or it kind of breaks people apart. We use a lot of different forms of distraction. We stay at the office late or we join a bowling league, so we're gone every night. We find ways to not be home and deal with the issues and with those removed now, a lot of people are going to find themselves a little bit exposed.
ST: Yeah, that's a good way to put it. You talk a lot about vulnerability in Love is Not Enough and it seems to be a recurrent theme where people might think they're being vulnerable and maybe they're kind of actually being sort of guarded. Is that something that comes up as often as it does in Love is Not Enough? Like just in general. Because for people who don't know, you kind of got started with relationship advice in your self-development career, correct?
MM: Yeah. I originally had a dating and relationships blog for Millennials back in like 2010. I was going to say to the question about vulnerability [that] vulnerability's tricky because there's a certain amount of self-awareness that's required. So it's like if I'm not even aware of why I'm doing something, then I can't be honest with you about why I'm doing it. There are a lot of cases where the person that we're actually hiding from is ourselves. I don't want to admit that I'm working late because I'm miserable in my marriage. So if I can't even admit it to myself, then I can't admit it to my partner.
ST: So with vulnerability comes the threat of codependency and that's something that comes up in Love is Not Enough as well. So I'm wondering right now when we're all out of this quarantine, when we're back to whatever the new normal is, because I worry that maybe right now because of how much we're leaning on our spouses for people who have spouses, there is this threat of codependency coming out of it. And I'm wondering what you think about that.
MM: I think maybe people who are prone to codependency or who are already a little bit codependent, this could exacerbate it. I mean generally speaking, stress amplifies whatever is already there. So it's like if the relationship is very healthy and loving and supportive, then those relationships that can become even more loving and supportive during this period.
If there's a lot of codependency in a relationship, this will probably bring out more codependency in the relationship. If it's dysfunctional, if somebody's compulsive, if there's distrust, this is probably going to bring those things out more. So in a weird way, I think this period—because you literally can't get away—I've been telling my audience that this is actually a great opportunity to have those difficult conversations that we don't otherwise have or that we keep putting off.
ST: Yeah. After listening to Love's Not Enough a couple of times, I started to realise [something]. I was previously married. For three years I was married—10 years together, got divorced about two years ago—I realised as I was listening to the people that you talked to speak about the problems in their relationships, a lot of the problems that I noticed at the end of my relationship—when we decided to go our separate ways—were a lot of the same problems that were there in the beginning.
That connection, the personality meshing, the obvious emotional and chemical connections, kind of rode us through that at the beginning. But when they were gone, it was kind of just, we had to either grow or it wouldn't work out. I'm wondering, it's easy for me to understand that now in retrospect. But what are some ways that people can identify that that might be happening early on when they're in the throes of the beautiful, euphoric connection with somebody?
MM: This has kind of been my crusade and relationship advice for years and years and years now and it's why the book is called Love is Not Enough. It's that high of romance and of passion and everything that happens when we fall in love. It is such a great thing, but it warps our perceptions to such a degree. It becomes very easy to overlook red flags or write things off.
It's like, oh well, he didn't mean to do that. He's just having a bad day. It's like, no, no, actually he's an asshole. You're married to an asshole. A lot of what I write about is just helping people get a little bit better. Because we're all bad about it. We're all very bad about seeing the person that we love clearly. I guess how I see my own work is just giving people tools and strategies to get a little bit better at that in their own lives.
ST: So for those who aren't aware, this is exclusively an audio right now and I think I have opinions as to why that might be important. But why do you think it was important to do this in audio only for Audible right now?
MM: Well, this is also a kind of a reason why I wanted to do relationships. Because you get a sense for the individuality of the people through audio that you don't pick up in a book nearly as much. So for me, when I started this project, I had never really done a project like this before and so for me, I asked myself, I said like, "What can audio do that written text can't?" One of the things I really came back to was, it shows the human side of people, like the intangible nuances of individuals in a way that you can never really capture with words. I think in that sense, I wanted to do a project that could take advantage of that.
ST: It's a great way to have conversations with people.
MM: Yeah, absolutely.
ST: One thing I picked up, there is a bit of a throughline from your previous books; I would say that, especially Everything is Fucked, the book [is] about hope. I think that for a lot of people love seems to be something that renders red flags as optimistic in the sense that maybe over time we're going to figure out how to work with them. But you have to be pragmatic and actually working on them. I think a lot of people miss that part, myself included.
MM: Yeah and in some cases it's almost like people like the idea of what a relationship could be, more than they actually like the relationship. This actually comes up a little bit in the book. But sometimes people, they're so attached to the potential for a relationship that they don't want it to get better because what if it gets better and it's actually not as great as they think it's going to be. So it's easier to just find ways to keep screwing it up. So it's that idealisation of love and romance that starts to get us into trouble.
ST: Is that part of the reason you think that, I'm taking this directly from your blog, which is excellent by the way, especially the articles about COVID and relationships. But one thing I saw that really stuck with me is, and I'm quoting you directly on this, remember this, the only way you can fully enjoy the love in your life, is to choose to make something else more important in your life than love. What do you think it is about putting romantic love in second place in terms of importance in your life? What does that do to help a relationship thrive?
MM: I think it puts priorities in order. So if both people are entering a relationship with the highest priority for the relationship is to feel loved all the time, well there's a lot of very unhealthy ways to make somebody feel loved. Simplest is like say lying to them or manipulating them in some way. So if the relationship is optimising for a feeling of love and passion, then there are many, many unhealthy behaviors that can start seeping into the relationship. What I tell people is, I say ultimately a relationship should be optimising for respect and trust.
Because once you get respect and trust, I mean feelings of passion and love, like they'll come and go, but it's only if you have that sturdy foundation can they continually arise in a healthy context. So yeah, sometimes choosing respect over passion, it's not the sexy, exciting thing, but if you do it, it's like the long term healthy thing. It's like eating your vegetables rather than gorging on a bucket of ice cream. Well, it's not exciting, but in the long run you're going to be much happier for it.
ST: It seems like it's that subjective versus objective thing. Like the objective thing is to be able to step back and look at things and be pragmatic and logical. Whereas I think a list of people out there would think that the most meaningful relationships, at least from the surface, are the ones where you're highly subjective. You're in there, you don't have any distance, you're sharing everything. You're just part of this beautiful maelstrom of chaos and then that fades and you don't have the other stuff in place. Do you think that's a way of looking at it?
MM: It's that romantic period. I'm not going to say it doesn't last, but it changes. Like that super excited, butterflies in your stomach feeling. That generally only lasts the first two to three years at most in a relationship. At some point it's like you get used to the other person. It's not this thrill when they walk into the room. You know everything about them.
You've seen them naked a hundred times. There's no mystery going on anymore. So if you're just living for that mystery, then yeah, you're not going to really set up anything sustainable long term. There's one person in the book that a lot of what I'm trying to teach her, is to optimise more for those long term traits. As she's dating men, to look for the men that are going to have those long term traits rather than the guy that's just going to make her feel really excited and give her butterfly feelings.
ST: She was actually one of the more memorable parts of the book and I was kind of curious. So you checked in with the same five people I think three times each, correct? Over several months.
MM: Three or four. I know a couple of them I did four. Yeah, it was about six months.
ST: So as you're checking in with these people over several months at a time and you're following up on the advice you've given them and see what changes they've made, did anything surprise you? Because I guess in a way, this is kind of like coming full circle. You got started here and your most recent piece is also about relationships.
MM: It's funny because going into it, the five people are so completely different as individuals. They've completely different lives. They're from different countries, different genders, different sexual orientations. Going into it, my concern was that I worried that I wouldn't find enough overlap between people to kind of make something cohesive out of the book. But it actually surprised me how much really all of their problems just boil down to like three or four things.
It's just those three or four things manifested themselves in each life very differently, because each person is very different. But it's like when you really dig down, it's the same thing. It's like this guy has a boundary problem. This woman has a boundary problem and they're just showing up in completely different ways. So in that way it was very cool to see just how much underlying commonality there is in terms of just human emotion and human behavior.
In terms of surprises as we were going along, it's funny, not to toot my own horn, but I've been writing about relationships for over 10 years. At this point, I've gotten tens of thousands of emails from people with all sorts of weird screwed up stories. There were probably, I'm thinking of three moments for sure and you can hear it on the tape. Where one of these people said something and I was like, what the hell?
What? Where did that come from? There were definitely times where you can't even make this stuff up. Reality is stranger than fiction. Because some of the things that came out in these people's lives, if I saw it in a fiction book, I'd be like, "Oh, come on."
ST: That's actually one of the things that I love the most about listening to this is that, you're having fun. These are serious issues with serious people and they want serious answers and you're giving them them. But there's levity, there's a lot of laughter, there's a lot of happiness and I can tell that you're really enjoying doing this. It must be nice to be able to enjoy it after doing this for 10 years.
MM: A lot of it comes down to the people we picked. Really good people. I told my producer Rachel before the project, when we went through an interview process to find people, I said, "I've learned over the years that some people are more coachable than others." So we definitely screened for that. I've learned over the years which people actually listen to advice, which ones don't. We also looked for just personal chemistry. People that I had good rapport with—that had a good sense of humour. That were going to come off well on tape.
So it did end up being a lot of fun. It felt like checking in with old friends. I found myself rooting for them. Like a call would be coming up that afternoon and I'm like, "Oh man, I really hope Vanessa didn't do this. Or I hope she got a date." Like really, really pulling for her.
ST: Oh yeah. I'm doing that too. Yeah. Especially because the segments are split up by person. So you get one person and then another person and another person and you go back to the first person and it's this nice anticipation that keeps building. I kept thinking like, well, I'm really interested in what, I believe her name was Vanessa, correct?
MM: Vanessa. Yeah.
ST: Yeah, Vanessa. So I was like, "I really want to know what happens with Vanessa next." I'm like, "Oh, maybe I should skip." So as we're going through Jerry's chapter, I'm looking forward to hearing the next part about Vanessa. Did she follow your advice? Did she not like the human dramatic entry that we all like. But as I'm going and I'm learning more about Jerry, we get to Vanessa's chapter. I'm like, "Oh no, I'm really looking forward to hearing what's happening with Jerry too." Like it is this compounding. It's almost structured like a really compulsively readable YA novel with alternating perspectives.
MM: Yeah. I wanted to break it up because I know for some other audio projects in the genre there's one chapter per person and I like the idea of breaking it up more by time. Kind of almost like an episodic series. Like leaving people a little bit of a cliffhanger and then making them wait an hour to hear what happened with Jerry when he went on vacation with his girlfriend. I thought it was a cool way to build some suspense. It makes you really identify with them too, because you're learning.
ST: Okay. So given that you have all these interesting characters you talked to, I have to imagine that at least one or two of them are people that you still want to know how they're doing, that you check in with periodically. Is that the case at all?
MM: Yeah, actually a couple of them, we've been an email contact pretty regularly. We finished recording the Fall of 2018, so it's been about 18 months as we're recording this interview. So I have talked to all of them, especially with the book coming out. I've talked to all of them again. But yeah, there are two or three of them that make regular contact. When I did my book tour last year, a couple of them came to my event. So I've met some of them in person now. So it's been really cool. I've developed a little bit of a personal relationship. I'll even say a little bit of emotional attachment to a couple of them. I really want to see them succeed. I feel like a proud parent a little bit. So it's been really cool.
ST: It comes off that way too. It feels like a real genuine connection you have with the people that you talked to. So is that why you like doing this so much? Is it a way for you to connect with people that you might otherwise not connect with? Is it also a way to use their experiences to frame your own and maybe make your relationship more effective?
MM: I mean there's a certain aspect of my job in general, which is, as I say, "for those who can't do, teach." A lot of the work that I do and a lot of my writing is inspired or motivated by what I need to hear myself. In terms of this, I think the pleasure of this was really just the human connection. I get asked for advice constantly. My inbox at any given time is just like hundreds and hundreds of emails of people looking for advice. It feels very impersonal. It's hard to know who's on the other end. It's hard to know the context and the story.
But when it really comes down to it, it feels great to help people. It feels nice to learn about people. Especially the good people who are struggling in their own way. So I think just on a very fundamental human level, it's very gratifying to just help somebody through a difficult period of their life.
ST: That makes sense. So I think anybody is interested in relationships, relationship advice, that kind of thing, is going to love this listen, and I think that's pretty obvious at this point. But what I'm kind of curious about is: have you seen through-lines from Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, Everything is Fucked and Models to Love is Not Enough? Because this is a bit of a departure, at least in terms of your publishing career. What's that line that's brought you from there to here?
MM: I think the commonality throughout my career is always challenging or questioning what is generally seen as the feel-good goal that most people want. So in self-help, I've been very critical of positive thinking and trying to be happy all the time. That's kind of my sacred cow that I'm constantly slaughtering. I think it makes sense when you translate that to relationships, that it's romantic love kind of plays that same role. It's something that we've idealised as a culture. It's something that we obsess over. It's something that we definitely overestimate. So I see my role as helping people to better question that and see through it.
ST: One of the things that I love about your writing the most is it's kind of a hallmark in my mind, where you take these wonderful — what do you call them?—like a parable or a metaphor and analogy. For example, the one you use at the outset of this book, Trent Reznor and John Lennon. You think, okay, so one of those guys is probably a better template for relationships than the other.
But you have this way of finding these interesting little nuggets that people would actually find to be opposite of what they might expect. I think that kind of resonates with this audiobook. Because I go in thinking, okay, this person has this problem. This person is going to get this advice from Mark, and then the outcome will be this.
But in reality, it's like a really good screenplay. It's how it's happening. It's upending my expectations in kind of a meaningful way. It doesn't feel twisty, it just feels really natural and organic. Do you go in with the plan of attack or do you just let this happen as it goes?
MM: You got to let it happen as it goes. That was actually one of my preconditions I guess for the project. So when I first sat down with David Blum at Audible to talk about this, I said, "Look, if I'm ever going to do any sort of coaching thing, it cannot be one of those things where it's like everybody has a happy ending. Everybody's like, Oh, Mark said X, Y, Z, and then suddenly the person is changed forever."
I'm like, "That's bullshit. That's not how life works." Coaching is messy. Sometimes people come in with one problem and it takes three hours to figure out that actually they have a completely different problem. Sometimes people don't resolve their problems. I felt very strongly that that would be more compelling to the listener, than the kind of cookie cutter person walks in the room, I give them three pieces of advice and then they walk away and we all hug and wave goodbye. So that's something that I'm really proud of with this project [and] I agree, I think it makes it a much more interesting listen. Of the five people, I think two definitely get happy endings. Two [others], it's kind of nebulous. They definitely make a lot of improvement, but it's not the improvement they expected.
Then I think one person, she came in with one problem and really what the journey was, was just discovering that she had a much deeper and much more fundamental problem going on. So everybody kind of had a different story arc and I didn't know where it was going either. I was hoping somebody would get a happy ending. It's like, [we] can't have nobody get a happy ending. But I think it just makes it more genuine for the listener. It was a more genuine experience for me.
ST: I would say that even the ones that didn't have the unequivocal happy ending, there's this hope and it's the same kind of hope that I think might be advocated for in your writing, in the sense that it's probably not the hope they came in with, but it's definitely something that'll get them to a better place.
MM: Even if they replaced a bad problem with a better problem in a lot of situations. Again, that's another thing that I've written about a lot in my other books, is usually what progress looks like, it's not just getting rid of problems, it's simply replacing problems with slightly better ones or much better ones.
ST: That sounds like really good advice nowadays. Picking better problems.
ST: So, Mark, I really want to thank you for giving us your time. This is a lot of fun to talk to you about and I think a lot of people are going to enjoy hearing the conversations you had with these five amazing, interesting people and the advice you hand out to them that changes their lives for the better.
MM: Yeah, it's been great. I'm super excited to have it out in the world and I appreciate you guys taking the time to talk to me.