Bad Thinkers?

Why do some people believe conspiracy theories? It’s not just who or what they know. It’s a matter of intellectual character.

Meet Oliver. Like many of his friends, Oliver thinks he is an expert on 9/11. He spends much of his spare time looking at conspiracist websites and his research has convinced him that the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC, of 11 September 2001 were an inside job. The aircraft impacts and resulting fires couldn’t have caused the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center to collapse. The only viable explanation, he maintains, is that government agents planted explosives in advance. He realises, of course, that the government blames Al-Qaeda for 9/11 but his predictable response is pure Mandy Rice-Davies: they would say that, wouldn’t they?

Polling evidence suggests that Oliver’s views about 9/11 are by no means unusual. Indeed, peculiar theories about all manner of things are now widespread. There are conspiracy theories about the spread of AIDS, the 1969 Moon landings, UFOs, and the assassination of JFK. Sometimes, conspiracy theories turn out to be right – Watergate really was a conspiracy – but mostly they are bunkum. They are in fact vivid illustrations of a striking truth about human beings: however intelligent and knowledgeable we might be in other ways, many of us still believe the strangest things. You can find people who believe they were abducted by aliens, that the Holocaust never happened, and that cancer can be cured by positive thinking. A 2009 Harris Poll found that between one‑fifth and one‑quarter of Americans believe in reincarnation, astrology and the existence of witches. You name it, and there is probably someone out there who believes it.

You realise, of course, that Oliver’s theory about 9/11 has little going for it, and this might make you wonder why he believes it. The question ‘Why does Oliver believe that 9/11 was an inside job?’ is just a version of a more general question posed by the US skeptic Michael Shermer: why do people believe weird things? The weirder the belief, the stranger it seems that someone can have it. Asking why people believe weird things isn’t like asking why they believe it’s raining as they look out of the window and see the rain pouring down. It’s obvious why people believe it’s raining when they have compelling evidence, but it’s far from obvious why Oliver believes that 9/11 was an inside job when he has access to compelling evidence that it wasn’t an inside job.

I want to argue for something which is controversial, although I believe that it is also intuitive and commonsensical. My claim is this: Oliver believes what he does because that is the kind of thinker he is or, to put it more bluntly, because there is something wrong with how he thinks. The problem with conspiracy theorists is not, as the US legal scholar Cass Sunstein argues, that they have little relevant information. The key to what they end up believing is how they interpret and respond to the vast quantities of relevant information at their disposal. I want to suggest that this is fundamentally a question of the way they are. Oliver isn’t mad (or at least, he needn’t be). Nevertheless, his beliefs about 9/11 are the result of the peculiarities of his intellectual constitution – in a word, of his intellectual character.

Usually, when philosophers try to explain why someone believes things (weird or otherwise), they focus on that person’s reasons rather than their character traits. On this view, the way to explain why Oliver believes that 9/11 was an inside job is to identify his reasons for believing this, and the person who is in the best position to tell you his reasons is Oliver. When you explain Oliver’s belief by giving his reasons, you are giving a ‘rationalising explanation’ of his belief.

The problem with this is that rationalising explanations take you only so far. If you ask Oliver why he believes 9/11 was an inside job he will, of course, be only too pleased to give you his reasons: it had to be an inside job, he insists, because aircraft impacts couldn’t have brought down the towers. He is wrong about that, but at any rate that’s his story and he is sticking to it. What he has done, in effect, is to explain one of his questionable beliefs by reference to another no less questionable belief. Unfortunately, this doesn’t tell us why he has any of these beliefs. There is a clear sense in which we still don’t know what is really going on with him.

Now let’s flesh out Oliver’s story a little: suppose it turns out that he believes lots of other conspiracy theories apart from the one about 9/11. He believes the Moon landings were faked, that Diana, Princess of Wales, was murdered by MI6, and that the Ebola virus is an escaped bioweapon. Those who know him well say that he is easily duped, and you have independent evidence that he is careless in his thinking, with little understanding of the difference between genuine evidence and unsubstantiated speculation. Suddenly it all begins to make sense, but only because the focus has shifted from Oliver’s reasons to his character. You can now see his views about 9/11 in the context of his intellectual conduct generally, and this opens up the possibility of a different and deeper explanation of his belief than the one he gives: he thinks that 9/11 was an inside job because he is gullible in a certain way. He has what social psychologists call a ‘conspiracy mentality’.

The gullible rarely believe they are gullible and the closed-minded don’t believe they are closed-minded

Notice that the proposed character explanation isn’t a rationalising explanation. After all, being gullible isn’t a reason for believing anything, though it might still be why Oliver believes 9/11 was an inside job. And while Oliver might be expected to know his reasons for believing that 9/11 was an inside job, he is the last person to recognise that he believes what he believes about 9/11 because he is gullible. It is in the nature of many intellectual character traits that you don’t realise you have them, and so aren’t aware of the true extent to which your thinking is influenced by them. The gullible rarely believe they are gullible and the closed-minded don’t believe they are closed-minded. The only hope of overcoming self-ignorance in such cases is to accept that other people – your co-workers, your spouse, your friends – probably know your intellectual character better than you do. But even that won’t necessarily help. After all, it might be that refusing to listen to what other people say about you is one of your intellectual character traits. Some defects are incurable.

Gullibility, carelessness and closed-mindedness are examples of what the US philosopher Linda Zagzebski, in her book Virtues of the Mind (1996), has called ‘intellectual vices’. Others include negligence, idleness, rigidity, obtuseness, prejudice, lack of thoroughness, and insensitivity to detail. Intellectual character traits are habits or styles of thinking. To describe Oliver as gullible or careless is to say something about his intellectual style or mind-set – for example, about how he goes about trying to find out things about events such as 9/11. Intellectual character traits that aid effective and responsible enquiry are intellectual virtues, whereas intellectual vices are intellectual character traits that impede effective and responsible inquiry. Humility, caution and carefulness are among the intellectual virtues Oliver plainly lacks, and that is why his attempts to get to the bottom of 9/11 are so flawed.

Oliver is fictional, but real-world examples of intellectual vices in action are not hard to find. Consider the case of the ‘underwear bomber’ Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit in 2009. Abdulmutallab was born in Lagos, Nigeria, to affluent and educated parents, and graduated from University College London with a degree in mechanical engineering. He was radicalised by the online sermons of the Islamic militant Anwar al-Awlaki, who was subsequently killed by an American drone strike. It’s hard not to see the fact that Abdulmutallab was taken in by Awlaki’s sermons as at least partly a reflection of his intellectual character. If Abdulmutallab had the intellectual character not to be duped by Awlaki, then perhaps he wouldn’t have ended up on a transatlantic airliner with explosives in his underpants.

Intellectual character explanations of questionable beliefs are more controversial than one might imagine. For example, it has been suggested that explaining peoples’ bad behaviour or weird beliefs by reference to their character makes us more intolerant of them and less empathetic. Yet such explanations might still be correct, even if they have deleterious consequences. In any case, it’s not obvious that character explanations should make us less tolerant of other peoples’ foibles. Suppose that Oliver can’t help being the kind of person who falls for conspiracy theories. Shouldn’t that make us more rather than less tolerant of him and his weird beliefs?

A different objection to character-based explanations is that it’s just not true that people have questionable beliefs because they are stupid or gullible. In How We Know What Isn’t So (1991), the US social psychologist Thomas Gilovich argues that many such beliefs have ‘purely cognitive origins’, by which he means that they are caused by imperfections in our capacities to process information and draw conclusions. Yet the example he gives of a cognitive explanation takes us right back to character explanations. His example is the ‘hot hand’ in basketball. The idea is that when a player makes a couple of shots he is more likely to make subsequent shots. Success breeds success.

Gilovich used detailed statistical analysis to demonstrate that the hot hand doesn’t exist – performance on a given shot is independent of performance on previous shots. The question is, why do so many basketball coaches, players and fans believe in it anyway? Gilovich’s cognitive explanation is that belief in the hot hand is due to our faulty intuitions about chance sequences; as a species, we’re bad at recognising what genuinely random sequences look like.

And yet when Gilovich sent his results to a bunch of basketball coaches, what happened next is extremely revealing. One responded: ‘Who is this guy? So he makes a study. I couldn’t care less.’ This seems like a perfect illustration of intellectual vices in operation. The dismissive reaction manifested a range of vices, including closed-mindedness and prejudice. It’s hard not to conclude that the coach reacted as he did because he was closed-minded or prejudiced. In such cases as this, as with the case of Oliver, it’s just not credible that character traits aren’t doing significant explanatory work. A less closed-minded coach might well have reacted completely differently to evidence that the hot hand doesn’t exist.

Could we explain the dismissiveness of the coach without referring to his personality in general? ‘Situationists’, as they are called, argue that our behaviour is generally better explained by situational factors than by our supposed character traits. Some see this as a good reason to be skeptical about the existence of character. In one experiment, students at a theological seminary were asked to give a talk elsewhere on campus. One group was asked to talk about the parable of the Good Samaritan, while the rest were assigned a different topic. Some were told they had plenty to time to reach the venue for the lecture, while others were told to hurry. On their way to the venue, all the students came across a person (an actor) apparently in need of help. In the event, the only variable that made a difference to whether they stopped to help was how much of a hurry they were in; students who thought they were running late were much less likely to stop and help than those who thought they had time. According to the Princeton philosopher Gilbert Harman, the lesson of such experiments is that ‘we need to convince people to look at situational factors and to stop trying to explain things in terms of character traits’.

You say that Oliver is gullible for believing his 9/11 conspiracy theory; he retorts that you are gullible for believing the conclusions of the 9/11 Commission

The character traits that Harman had in mind are moral virtues such as kindness and generosity, but some situationists also object to the idea of intellectual virtues and vices. For example, they point to evidence that people perform much better in problem-solving tasks when they are in a good mood. If trivial situational factors such as mood or hunger are better at explaining your intellectual conduct than your so-called intellectual character, then what is the justification for believing in the existence of intellectual character traits? If such traits exist, then shouldn’t they explain one’s intellectual conduct? Absolutely, but examples such as Oliver and Gilovich’s basketball coach suggest that intellectual character traits do explain a person’s intellectual conduct in an important range of cases. People don’t believe weird things because they are hungry or in a bad (or good) mood. The view that people don’t have character traits such as gullibility, carelessness or prejudice, or that people don’t differ in intellectual character, deprives us of seemingly compelling explanations of the intellectual conduct of both Oliver and the basketball coach.

Suppose it turns out that Oliver lives in a region where conspiracy theories are rife or that he is under the influence of friends who are committed conspiracy theorists. Wouldn’t these be perfectly viable situational, non-character explanations of his beliefs about 9/11? Only up to a point. The fact that Oliver is easily influenced by his friends itself tells us something about his intellectual character. Where Oliver lives might help to explain his beliefs, but even if conspiracy theories are widespread in his neck of the woods we still need to understand why some people in his region believe them, while others don’t.

Differences in intellectual character help to explain why people in the same situation end up believing such different things. In order to think that intellectual character traits are relevant to a person’s intellectual conduct, you don’t have to think that other factors, including situational factors, are irrelevant. Intellectual character explains intellectual conduct only in conjunction with a lot of other things, including your situation and the way your brain processes information. Situationism certainly would be a problem for the view that character traits explain our conduct regardless of situational factors, but that is not a view of character anyone has ever wanted to defend.

In practical terms, one of the hardest things about dealing with people such as Oliver is that they are more than likely to accuse you of the same intellectual vices that you detect in them. You say that Oliver is gullible for believing his 9/11 conspiracy theory; he retorts that you are gullible for believing the conclusions of the 9/11 Commission. You say that he dismisses the official account of 9/11 because he is closed-minded; he accuses you of closed-mindedness for refusing to take conspiracy theories seriously. If we are often blind to our own intellectual vices then who are we to accuse Oliver of failing to realise that he believes his theories only because he is gullible?

These are all legitimate questions, but it’s important not to be too disconcerted by this attempt to turn the tables on you. True, no one is immune to self-ignorance. That doesn’t excuse Oliver. The fact is that his theory is no good, whereas there is every reason to believe that aircraft impacts did bring down the Twin Towers. Just because you believe the official account of what happened in 9/11 doesn’t make you gullible if there are good reasons to believe that account. Equally, being skeptical about the wilder claims of 9/11 conspiracy theorists doesn’t make you closed-minded if there are good reasons to be skeptical. Oliver is gullible because he believes things for which he has no good evidence, and he is closed-minded because he dismisses claims for which there is excellent evidence. It’s important not to fall into the trap of thinking that what counts as good evidence is a subjective matter. To say that Oliver lacks good evidence is to draw attention to the absence of eye-witness or forensic support for his theory about 9/11, and to the fact that his theory has been refuted by experts. Oliver might not accept any of this but that is, again, a reflection of his intellectual character.

The aims of education should include cultivating intellectual virtues and curtailing intellectual vices

Once you get past the idea that Oliver has somehow managed to turn the tables on you, there remains the problem of what to do about such people as him. If he is genuinely closed-minded then his mind will presumably be closed to the idea that he is closed-minded. Closed-mindedness is one of the toughest intellectual vices to tackle because it is in its nature to be concealed from those who have it. And even if you somehow get the Olivers of this world to acknowledge their own vices, that won’t necessarily make things any better. Tackling one’s intellectual vices requires more than self-knowledge. You also need to be motivated to do something about them, and actually be able to do something about them.

Should Oliver be condemned for his weaknesses? Philosophers like to think of virtues as having good motives and vices as having bad motives but Oliver’s motives needn’t be bad. He might have exactly the same motivation for knowledge as the intellectually virtuous person, yet be led astray by his gullibility and conspiracy mentality. So, both in respect of his motives and his responsibility for his intellectual vices, Oliver might not be strictly blameworthy. That doesn’t mean that nothing should be done about them or about him. If we care about the truth then we should care about equipping people with the intellectual means to arrive at the truth and avoid falsehood.

Education is the best way of doing that. Intellectual vices are only tendencies to think in certain ways, and tendencies can be countered. Our intellectual vices are balanced by our intellectual virtues, by intellectual character traits such as open-mindedness, curiosity and rigour. The intellectual character is a mixture of intellectual virtues and vices, and the aims of education should include cultivating intellectual virtues and curtailing intellectual vices. The philosopher Jason Baehr talks about ‘educating for intellectual virtues’, and that is in principle the best way to deal with people such as Oliver. A 2010 report to the University College London Council about the Abdulmutallab case came to a similar conclusion. It recommended the ‘development of academic training for students to encourage and equip them not only to think critically but to challenge unacceptable views’. The challenge is to work out how to do that.

What if Oliver is too far gone and can’t change his ways even if he wanted to? Like other bad habits, intellectual bad habits can be too deeply entrenched to change. This means living with their consequences. Trying to reason with people who are obstinately closed-minded, dogmatic or prejudiced is unlikely to be effective. The only remedy in such cases is to try to mitigate the harm their vices do to themselves and to others.

Meanwhile, those who have the gall to deliver homilies about other peoples’ intellectual vices – that includes me – need to accept that they too are likely very far from perfect. In this context, as in most others, a little bit of humility goes a long way. It’s one thing not to cave in to Oliver’s attempt to turn the tables on you, but he has a point at least to this extent: none of us can deny that intellectual vices of one sort or another are at play in at least some of our thinking. Being alive to this possibility is the mark of a healthy mind.

Quassim Cassam is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick in Coventry. His latest books are Berkeley’s Puzzle: What Does Experience Teach Us? (2014) and Self-Knowledge for Humans (2014).

A Study of Deuteronomy 30:15-20 Day 1

An Exegetical Perspective

The Valedictory Address of Moses.

Today’s passage concludes Moses’s farewell address to the people of Israel gathered in general assembly in the land of Moab (29:1-30:20). In this sermon he sums up all that has transpired in the lengthy “repetition of torah” (mishneh torah) or “second law-giving” (deuteronomion) that is the book of Deuteronomy.

Our text is expressed in the unmistakable style of the Deuteronomists. It is hortatory. The familiar “if … then” syntax of conditional sentences is in place. Like much of the book of Deuteronomy, it is structured around the “two ways”: faithfulness and blessing vs. disobedience and cursing. Retribution theology is dominant throughout the book. God rewards the faithful and punishes the unfaithful. Keep in mind that this is a covenant made with the nation of Israel and does not translate to our covenant.

One of the curiosities in the study of the book of Deuteronomy is its style. After the discovery by archaeologists of the “suzerainty treaties” in the ancient Near East (one of the most famous of which is the about 1280 BCE treaty between Ramses II and the Hittite king Hattusilis), many scholars came to see  that Deuteronomy too was a kind of treaty between the sovereign God and the subject, Israel, in that its structure bears close resemblance to the patterns of these treaties. That pattern is as follows: (a) a ruling power reviews the history of its beneficence toward a vassal; (b) treaty stipulations are listed; (c) the code is witnessed by the divine and sanctioned with rewards and punishments; and (d) provision is made for the public reading of the agreement.

The Deuteronomists may indeed have drawn upon memories of this ancient treaty pattern. Their book opens with a historical memoir by Moses (1:1-4:43), followed by a torah of Moses (4:44-28:68) that includes a body of law (12:2-26:15) and curses and blessings as sanctions (chap. 28). At the end of the book are provisions for public dissemination and archiving (chap. 31).

In recent years scholarship has also favored to take the encompassing style of the book to be a last will and testament, Moses’s final gift to his people. Enclosed within that (pedagogical and homiletical) frame is a covenant text, the torah of Moses and the sanctions attached to it. This covenant functions as a sacred constitution for the ideal theocratic state.  It was a style that Israel would eventually reject.

Unlike treaties of that day, which was imposed by a sovereign on a subjugated vassal, this covenant (political charter) requires community assent. Deuteronomy’s task is to win that assent through exhortation, the carrot and the stick, even the hard sell!

This passage, Deuteronomy 30:15-20, reveals the passion for national unity and common loyalty that animate this great document, the book of Deuteronomy.

The Conditions for Life and Death (vv. 15-18).

This climactic final paragraph of Moses’s farewell address opens with the theme of retributive justice, cast in the familiar conditional manner favored by the Deuteronomists. There follows summations of deeds that are reckoned to be good or evil. The good deeds to which Israel is summoned are expressed in verbs: “obey … loving … walking in his ways … observing.” These lead to the multiplication of life, long tenure in the land, and God’s direct intervention to bless (v. 16). In contrast, idolatry—the only sin listed in verse 17, but a cardinal one for sure—inevitably leads to alienation from the land and death (v. 18).

Choose Life! (vv. 19-20).

At the end we reach the segment of the passage that assured that this text was to be well known and loved.

First, Moses sets out in a stark form the two ways: life and death, blessings and curses. In his comparable sermon in 4:25-31, Moses calls heaven and earth to witness against Israel (4:26; see also 31:28). There the people perish because of their fatal choice of idolatry over worship of the true God. In this passage, heaven’s witnesses are invoked not to testify to Israel’s sin, but to vouch that YHWH has placed before them the choice between life and death.

Then comes the great challenge: “Choose life!” The form of the Hebrew verb for “choose” (ubaharta) is imperative. It points to a unresolved decision. What do they do? At the end of the book of Joshua, in the context of a covenant ratification ceremony, the people publicly commit themselves to rejecting idolatry. They say, “We also will serve the Lord, for he is our God” (Josh. 24:18). They seal the covenant with their choice and consequently are liable for their subsequent apostasies.

In Deuteronomy 30:19, the summary conclusion of the book of Deuteronomy(a book always held to be the centerpiece of retribution theology in the OT) suggests that God’s hands are not tied to mandatory prison and death sentences for transgressors. The choice of life always remains an option.

This open-endedness, flowing from the one who cares about the people’s fate, in spite of their constant betrayal, actually underlies the entire book. Moses’s sermon in 4:25-40 comes to the same point by making the key affirmation: “Because the Lord your God is a merciful God, he will neither abandon you nor destroy you; he will not forget the covenant with your ancestors that he swore to them” (4:31). This covenant provided Israel a way of understanding why bad things such as the Babylonian exile happened to them. It also left them room always to make a new start, to reaffirm their allegiance to God, to choose life.

Finally, by leaving this appeal of verse 19 open-ended, the Deuteronomist exhorts all generations. Think of it! The choice of life is an option always open to everyone.

W. Sibley Towner

Choosing Between the Ways of Life and Death

A Study of Deuteronomy 30:15-20

15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

I will be posting morning perspectives throughout this week. Comments are welcome. Insights are desired. Thank you.

EVERY SUCCESSFUL RELATIONSHIP HAS THE SAME REASONS

ey, guess what? I got married two weeks ago. And like most people, I asked some of the older and wiser folks around me for a couple quick words of advice from their own marriages to make sure my wife and I didn’t shit the (same) bed. I think most newlyweds do this, especially after a few cocktails from the open bar they just paid way too much money for.

But, of course, not being satisfied with just a few wise words, I had to take it a step further.

See, I have access to hundreds of thousands of smart, amazing people through my site. So why not consult them? Why not ask them for their best relationship/marriage advice? Why not synthesize all of their wisdom and experience into something straightforward and immediately applicable to any relationship, no matter who you are?

Why not crowdsource THE ULTIMATE RELATIONSHIP GUIDE TO END ALL RELATIONSHIP GUIDES™ from the sea of smart and savvy partners and lovers here?

So, that’s what I did. I sent out the call the week before my wedding: anyone who has been married for 10+ years and is still happy in their relationship, what lessons would you pass down to others if you could? What is working for you and your partner? And if you’re divorced, what didn’t work previously?

The response was overwhelming. Almost 1,500 people replied, many of whom sent in responses measured in pages, not paragraphs. It took almost two weeks to comb through them all, but I did. And what I found stunned me…

They were incredibly repetitive.

That’s not an insult or anything. Actually, it’s kind of the opposite. These were all smart and well-spoken people from all walks of life, from all around the world, all with their own histories, tragedies, mistakes, and triumphs…

And yet they were all saying pretty much the same dozen things.

Which means that those dozen or so things must be pretty damn important… and more importantly, they work.

Here’s what they are:

  1. Be together for the right reasons
    Don’t ever be with someone because someone else pressured you to. I got married the first time because I was raised Catholic and that’s what you were supposed to do. Wrong. I got married the second time because I was miserable and lonely and thought having a loving wife would fix everything for me. Also wrong. Took me three tries to figure out what should have been obvious from the beginning, the only reason you should ever be with the person you’re with is because you simply love being around them. It really is that simple.

– Greg

Before we even get into what you should do in your relationship, let’s start with what not to do.

When I sent out my request to readers for advice, I added a caveat that turned out to be illuminating. I asked people who were on their second or third (or fourth) marriages what they did wrong. Where did they mess up?

By far, the most common answer was “being with the person for the wrong reasons.”

Some of these wrong reasons included:

Pressure from friends and family
Feeling like a “loser” because they were single and settling for the first person that came along
Being together for image—because the relationship looked good on paper (or in photos), not because the two people actually admired each other
Being young and naive and hopelessly in love and thinking that love would solve everything
As we’ll see throughout the rest of this article, everything that makes a relationship “work” (and by work, I mean that it is happy and sustainable for both people involved) requires a genuine, deep-level admiration for each other. Without that mutual admiration, everything else will unravel.

The other “wrong” reason to enter into a relationship is, like Greg said, to “fix” yourself. This desire to use the love of someone else to soothe your own emotional problems inevitably leads to codependence, an unhealthy and damaging dynamic between two people where they tacitly agree to use each other’s love as a distraction from their own self-loathing. We’ll get more into codependence later in this article, but for now, it’s useful to point out that love, itself, is neutral. It is something that can be both healthy or unhealthy, helpful or harmful, depending on why and how you love someone else and are loved by someone else. By itself, love is never enough to sustain a relationship.

  1. Have realistic expectations about relationships and romance
    You are absolutely not going to be absolutely gaga over each other every single day for the rest of your lives, and all this “happily ever after” bullshit is just setting people up for failure. They go into relationship with these unrealistic expectations. Then, the instant they realize they aren’t “gaga” anymore, they think the relationship is broken and over, and they need to get out. No! There will be days, or weeks, or maybe even longer, when you aren’t all mushy-gushy in-love. You’re even going to wake up some morning and think, “Ugh, you’re still here….” That’s normal! And more importantly, sticking it out is totally worth it, because that, too, will change. In a day, or a week, or maybe even longer, you’ll look at that person and a giant wave of love will inundate you, and you’ll love them so much you think your heart can’t possibly hold it all and is going to burst. Because a love that’s alive is also constantly evolving. It expands and contracts and mellows and deepens. It’s not going to be the way it used to be, or the way it will be, and it shouldn’t be. I think if more couples understood that, they’d be less inclined to panic and rush to break up or divorce.

– Paula

Love is a funny thing. In ancient times, people genuinely considered love a sickness. Parents warned their children against it, and adults quickly arranged marriages before their children were old enough to do something dumb in the name of their emotions.

That’s because love, while making us feel all giddy and high as if we had just snorted a shoebox full of cocaine, makes us highly irrational. We all know that guy (or girl) who dropped out of school, sold their car, and spent the money to elope on the beaches of Tahiti. We all also know that that guy (or girl) ended up sulking back a few years later feeling like a moron, not to mention broke.

That’s unbridled love. It’s nature’s way of tricking us into doing insane and irrational things to procreate with another person—probably because if we stopped to think about the repercussions of having kids, and being with the same person forever and ever, no one would ever do it. As Robin Williams used to joke, “God gave man a brain and a penis and only enough blood to operate one at a time.”

Romantic love is a trap designed to get two people to overlook each other’s faults long enough to get some babymaking done. It generally only lasts for a few years at most. That dizzying high you get staring into your lover’s eyes as if they are the stars that make up the heavens—yeah, that mostly goes away. It does for everybody. So, once it’s gone, you need to know that you’ve buckled yourself down with a human being you genuinely respect and enjoy being with, otherwise things are going to get rocky.

True love—that is, deep, abiding love that is impervious to emotional whims or fancy—is a choice. It’s a constant commitment to a person regardless of the present circumstances. It’s a commitment to a person who you understand isn’t going to always make you happy—nor should they!—and a person who will need to rely on you at times, just as you will rely on them.

That form of love is much harder. Primarily because it often doesn’t feel very good. It’s unglamorous. It’s lots of early morning doctor’s visits. It’s cleaning up bodily fluids you’d rather not be cleaning up. It’s dealing with another person’s insecurities and fears and ideas, even when you don’t want to.

But this form of love is also far more satisfying and meaningful. And, at the end of the day, it brings true happiness, not just another series of highs.

Happily Ever After doesn’t exist. Every day you wake up and decide to love your partner and your life—the good, the bad and the ugly. Some days it’s a struggle and some days you feel like the luckiest person in the world.

– Tara

Many people never learn how to breach this deep, unconditional love. Many people are instead addicted to the ups and downs of romantic love. They are in it for the feels, so to speak. And when the feels run out, so do they.

Many people get into a relationship as a way to compensate for something they lack or hate within themselves. This is a one-way ticket to a toxic relationship because it makes your love conditional—you will love your partner as long as they help you feel better about yourself. You will give to them as long as they give to you. You will make them happy as long as they make you happy.

This conditionality prevents any true, deep-level intimacy from emerging and chains the relationship to the bucking throes of each person’s internal dramas.

  1. The most important factor in a relationship is not communication, but respect
    What I can tell you is the #1 thing, most important above all else is respect. It’s not sexual attraction, looks, shared goals, religion or lack of, nor is it love. There are times when you won’t feel love for your partner. That is the truth. But you never want to lose respect for your partner. Once you lose respect you will never get it back.

– Laurie

As we scanned through the hundreds of responses we received, my assistant and I began to notice an interesting trend.

People who had been through divorces and/or had only been with their partners for 10-15 years almost always talked about communication being the most important part of making things work. Talk frequently. Talk openly. Talk about everything, even if it hurts.

And there is some merit to that (which I’ll get to later).

But we noticed that the thing people with marriages going on 20, 30, or even 40 years talked about most was respect.

My sense is that these people, through sheer quantity of experience, have learned that communication, no matter how open, transparent and disciplined, will always break down at some point. Conflicts are ultimately unavoidable, and feelings will always be hurt.

And the only thing that can save you and your partner, that can cushion you both to the hard landing of human fallibility, is an unerring respect for one another, the fact that you hold each other in high esteem, believe in one another—often more than you each believe in yourselves—and trust that your partner is doing his/her best with what they’ve got.

Without that bedrock of respect underneath you, you will doubt each other’s intentions. You will judge their choices and encroach on their independence. You will feel the need to hide things from one another for fear of criticism. And this is when the cracks in the edifice begin to appear.

My husband and I have been together 15 years this winter. I’ve thought a lot about what seems to be keeping us together, while marriages around us crumble (seriously, it’s everywhere… we seem to be at that age). The one word that I keep coming back to is “respect.” Of course, this means showing respect, but that is too superficial. Just showing it isn’t enough. You have to feel it deep within you. I deeply and genuinely respect him for his work ethic, his patience, his creativity, his intelligence, and his core values. From this respect comes everything else—trust, patience, perseverance (because sometimes life is really hard and you both just have to persevere). I want to hear what he has to say (even if I don’t agree with him) because I respect his opinion. I want to enable him to have some free time within our insanely busy lives because I respect his choices of how he spends his time and who he spends time with. And, really, what this mutual respect means is that we feel safe sharing our deepest, most intimate selves with each other.

– Nicole

You must also respect yourself. Just as your partner must also respect his/herself. Because without that self-respect, you will not feel worthy of the respect afforded by your partner. You will be unwilling to accept it and you will find ways to undermine it. You will constantly feel the need to compensate and prove yourself worthy of love, which will just backfire.

Respect for your partner and respect for yourself are intertwined. As a reader named Olov put it, “Respect yourself and your wife. Never talk badly to or about her. If you don’t respect your wife, you don’t respect yourself. You chose her—live up to that choice.”

So what does respect look like?

Common examples given by many readers:

NEVER talk shit about your partner or complain about them to your friends. If you have a problem with your partner, you should be having that conversation with them, not with your friends. Talking bad about them will erode your respect for them and make you feel worse about being with them, not better.
Respect that they have different hobbies, interests, and perspectives from you. Just because you would spend your time and energy differently, doesn’t mean it’s better/worse.
Respect that they have an equal say in the relationship, that you are a team, and if one person on the team is not happy, then the team is not succeeding.
No secrets. If you’re really in this together and you respect one another, everything should be fair game. Have a crush on someone else? Discuss it. Laugh about it. Had a weird sexual fantasy that sounds ridiculous? Be open about it. Nothing should be off-limits.
Respect goes hand-in-hand with trust. And trust is the lifeblood of any relationship (romantic or otherwise). Without trust, there can be no sense of intimacy or comfort. Without trust, your partner will become a liability in your mind, something to be avoided and analyzed, not a protective homebase for your heart and your mind.

  1. Talk openly about everything, especially the stuff that hurts
    We always talk about what’s bothering us with each other, not anyone else! We have so many friends who are in marriages that are not working well and they tell me all about what is wrong. I can’t help them, they need to be talking to their spouse about this, that’s the only person who can help them figure it out. If you can figure out a way to be able to always talk with your spouse about what’s bugging you then you can work on the issue.

– Ronnie

There can be no secrets. Secrets divide you. Always.

– Tracey

I receive hundreds of emails from readers each week asking for life advice. A large percentage of these emails involve their struggling romantic relationships.

(These emails, too, are surprisingly repetitive.)

A couple years ago, I discovered that I was answering the vast majority of these relationship emails with the exact same response.

“Take this email you just sent to me, print it out, and show it to your partner. Then come back and ask again.”

This response became so common that I actually put it on my contact form on the site because I was so tired of copying and pasting it.

If something bothers you in the relationship, you must be willing to say it. Saying it builds trust and trust builds intimacy. It may hurt, but you still need to do it. No one else can fix your relationship for you. Nor should anyone else. Just as causing pain to your muscles allows them to grow back stronger, often introducing some pain into your relationship through vulnerability is the only way to make the relationship stronger.

Behind respect, trust was the most commonly mentioned trait for a healthy relationship. Most people mentioned it in the context of jealousy and fidelity—trust your partner to go off on their own, don’t get insecure or angry if you see them talking with someone else, etc.

But trust goes much deeper than that. Because when you’re really talking about the long-haul, you start to get into some serious life-or-death shit. If you ended up with cancer tomorrow, would you trust your partner to stick with you and take care of you? Would you trust your partner to care for your child for a week by themselves? Do you trust them to handle your money or make sound decisions under pressure? Do you trust them to not turn on you or blame you when you make mistakes?

These are hard things to do. And they’re even harder to think about early on in a relationship. Trust at the beginning of a relationship is easy. It’s like, “Oh, I forgot my phone at her apartment, I trust her not to sell it and buy crack with the money… I think.”

But the deeper the commitment, the more intertwined your lives become, and the more you will have to trust your partner to act in your interest in your absence.

There’s an old Ben Folds song where he sings, “It seems to me if you cannot trust, you cannot be trusted.” Distrust has a tendency to breed distrust. If your partner is always snooping through your stuff, accusing you of doing things you didn’t do, and questioning all of your decisions, naturally, you will start to question their intentions as well—Why is she so insecure? What if she is hiding something herself?

The key to fostering and maintaining trust in the relationship is for both partners to be completely transparent and vulnerable:

If something is bothering you, say something. This is important not only for addressing issues as they arise, but it proves to your partner that you have nothing to hide.
Those icky, insecure things you hate sharing with people? Share them with your partner. Not only is it healing, but you and your partner need to have a good understanding of each other’s insecurities and the way you each choose to compensate for them.
Make promises and then stick to them. The only way to truly rebuild trust after it’s been broken is through a proven track record over time. You cannot build that track record until you own up to previous mistakes and set about correcting them.
Learn to discern your partner’s own shady behavior from your own insecurities (and vice-versa). This is hard and will likely require confrontation to get to the bottom of. But in most relationship fights, one person thinks something is completely “normal” and the other thinks it’s really grade-A “fucked up.” It’s often extremely hard to distinguish who is being irrational and insecure and who is being reasonable and merely standing up for themselves. Be patient in rooting out what’s what, and when it’s your big, gnarly insecurity (and sometimes it will be, trust me), be honest about it. Own up to it. And strive to be better.
Trust is like a china plate. If you drop it and it breaks, you can put it back together with a lot of work and care. If you drop it and break it a second time, it will split into twice as many pieces and it will require far more time and care to put back together again. But drop and break it enough times, and it will shatter into so many pieces that you will never be able to put it back together again, no matter what you do.

  1. A healthy relationship means two healthy individuals
    Understand that it is up to you to make yourself happy, it is NOT the job of your spouse. I am not saying you shouldn’t do nice things for each other, or that your partner can’t make you happy sometimes. I am just saying don’t lay expectations on your partner to “make you happy.” It is not their responsibility. Figure out as individuals what makes you happy as an individual, be happy yourself, then you each bring that to the relationship.

– Mandy

A lot is made about “sacrifices” in a relationship. You are supposed to keep the relationship happy by consistently sacrificing yourself for your partner and their wants and needs.

There is some truth to that. Every relationship requires each person to consciously choose to give something up at times.

But the problem is when all of the relationship’s happiness is contingent on the other person and both people are in a constant state of sacrifice. Just read that again. That sounds horrible. It reminds me of an old Marilyn Manson song, “Shoot myself to love you; if I loved myself, I’d be shooting you.” A relationship based on sacrifices cannot be sustained, and will eventually become damaging to both individuals in it.

Shitty, codependent relationships have an inherent stability because you’re both locked in an implicit bargain to tolerate the other person’s bad behavior because they’re tolerating yours, and neither of you wants to be alone. On the surface, it seems like “compromising in relationships because that’s what people do,” but the reality is that resentments build up, and both parties become the other person’s emotional hostage against having to face and deal with their own bullshit (it took me 14 years to realize this, by the way).

– Karen

A healthy and happy relationship requires two healthy and happy individuals. Keyword here: “individuals.” That means two people with their own identities, their own interests and perspectives, and things they do by themselves, on their own time.

This is why attempting to control your partner (or submitting control over yourself to your partner) to make them “happy” ultimately backfires—it allows the individual identities of each person to be destroyed, the very identities that attracted each person and brought them together in the first place.

Don’t try to change them. This is the person you chose. They were good enough to marry so don’t expect them to change now.

– Allison

Don’t ever give up who you are for the person you’re with. It will only backfire and make you both miserable. Have the courage to be who you are, and most importantly, let your partner be who they are. Those are the two people who fell in love with each other in the first place.

– Dave

But how does one do this? Well, it’s a bit counterintuitive. But it’s something hundreds and hundreds of successful couples echoed in their emails…

  1. Give each other space
    Be sure you have a life of your own, otherwise it is harder to have a life together. What do I mean? Have your own interests, your own friends, your own support network, and your own hobbies. Overlap where you can, but not being identical should give you something to talk about and expose one another to. It helps to expand your horizons as a couple, but isn’t so boring as both living the exact same life.

– Anonymous

Among the emails, one of the most popular themes was the importance of creating space and separation from one another.

People sung the praises of separate checking accounts, separate credit cards, having different friends and hobbies, taking separate vacations from one another each year (this has been a big one in my own relationship). Some even went so far as to recommend separate bathrooms or even separate bedrooms.

Some people are afraid to give their partner freedom and independence. This comes from a lack of trust and/or insecurity that if we give our partner too much space, they will discover they don’t want to be with us anymore. Generally, the more uncomfortable we are with our own worthiness in the relationship and to be loved, the more we will try to control the relationship and our partner’s behaviors.

BUT, more importantly, this inability to let our partners be who they are, is a subtle form of disrespect. After all, if you can’t trust your husband to have a simple golfing trip with his buddies, or you’re afraid to let your wife go out for drinks after work, what does that say about your respect for their ability to handle themselves well? What does it say for your respect for yourself? I mean, after all, if you believe a couple after-work drinks is enough to steer your girlfriend away from you, you clearly don’t think too highly of yourself.

Going on seventeen years. If you love your partner enough you will let them be who they are, you don’t own them, who they hang with, what they do or how they feel. Drives me nuts when I see women not let their husbands go out with the guys or are jealous of other women.

– Natalie

  1. You and your partner will grow and change in unexpected ways; embrace it
    Over the course of 20 years we both have changed tremendously. We have changed faiths, political parties, numerous hair colors and styles, but we love each other and possibly even more. Our grown kids constantly tell their friends what hopeless romantics we are. And the biggest thing that keeps us strong is not giving a fuck about what anyone else says about our relationship.

– Dotti

One theme that came up repeatedly, especially with those married 20+ years, was how much each individual changes as the decades roll on, and how ready each of you have to be to embrace the other partner as these changes occur. One reader commented that at her wedding, an elderly family member told her, “One day many years from now, you will wake up and your spouse will be a different person, make sure you fall in love with that person too.”

It logically follows that if there is a bedrock of respect for each individual’s interest and values underpinning the relationship, and each individual is encouraged to foster their own growth and development, that each person will, as time goes on, evolve in different and unexpected ways. It’s then up to the couple to communicate and make sure that they are consistently a) aware of the changes going on in their partner, and b) continually accepting and respecting those changes as they occur.

Now, you’re probably reading this and thinking, “Sure, Bill likes sausage now, but in a few years he might prefer steak. I can get on board with that.”

No, I’m talking some pretty serious life changes. Remember, if you’re going to spend decades together, some really heavy shit will hit (and break) the fan. Among major life changes people told me their marriages went through (and survived): changing religions, moving countries, death of family members (including children), supporting elderly family members, changing political beliefs, even changing sexual orientation, and in a couple cases, gender identification.

Amazingly, these couples survived because their respect for each other allowed them to adapt and allow each person to continue to flourish and grow.

When you commit to someone, you don’t actually know who you’re committing to. You know who they are today, but you have no idea who this person is going to be in five years, ten years, and so on. You have to be prepared for the unexpected, and truly ask yourself if you admire this person regardless of the superficial (or not-so-superficial) details, because I promise almost all of them at some point are going to either change or go away.

– Michael

But this isn’t easy, of course. In fact, at times, it will be downright soul-destroying.

Which is why you need to make sure you and your partner know how to fight.

  1. Get good at fighting
    The relationship is a living, breathing thing. Much like the body and muscles, it cannot get stronger without stress and challenge. You have to fight. You have to hash things out. Obstacles make the marriage.

– Ryan Saplan

John Gottman is a hot-shit psychologist and researcher who has spent over 30 years analyzing married couples and looking for keys to why they stick together and why they break up. Chances are, if you’ve read any relationship advice article before, you’ve either directly or indirectly been exposed to his work. When it comes to, “Why do people stick together?“ he dominates the field.

What Gottman does is he gets married couples in a room, puts some cameras on them, and then he asks them to have a fight.

Notice: he doesn’t ask them to talk about how great the other person is. He doesn’t ask them what they like best about their relationship.

He asks them to fight. Pick something they’re having problems with and talk about it for the camera.

And from simply analyzing the film for the couple’s discussion (or shouting match, whatever), he’s able to predict with startling accuracy whether a couple will divorce or not.

But what’s most interesting about Gottman’s research is that the things that lead to divorce are not necessarily what you think. Successful couples, like unsuccessful couples, he found, fight consistently. And some of them fight furiously.

He has been able to narrow down four characteristics of a couple that tend to lead to divorces (or breakups). He has gone on and called these “the four horsemen” of the relationship apocalypse in his books. They are:

Criticizing your partner’s character (“You’re so stupid” vs “That thing you did was stupid”)
Defensiveness (or basically, blame shifting, “I wouldn’t have done that if you weren’t late all the time”)
Contempt (putting down your partner and making them feel inferior)
Stonewalling (withdrawing from an argument and ignoring your partner)
The reader emails back this up as well. Out of the 1,500-some-odd emails, almost every single one referenced the importance of dealing with conflicts well.

Advice given by readers included:

Never insult or name-call your partner. Put another way: hate the sin, love the sinner. Gottman’s research found that “contempt”—belittling and demeaning your partner—is the number one predictor of divorce.
Do not bring previous fights/arguments into current ones. This solves nothing and just makes the fight twice as bad as it was before. Yeah, you forgot to pick up groceries on the way home, but what does him being rude to your mother last Thanksgiving have to do with anything?
If things get too heated, take a breather. Remove yourself from the situation and come back once emotions have cooled off a bit. This is a big one for me personally—sometimes when things get intense with my wife, I get overwhelmed and just leave for a while. I usually walk around the block two or three times and let myself seethe for about 15 minutes. Then I come back and we’re both a bit calmer and we can resume the discussion with a much more conciliatory tone.
Remember that being “right” is not as important as both people feeling respected and heard. You may be right, but if you are right in such a way that makes your partner feel unloved, then there’s no real winner.
But all of this takes for granted another important point: be willing to fight in the first place.

I think when people talk about the necessity for “good communication” all of the time (a vague piece of advice that everyone says but few people seem to actually clarify what it means), this is what they mean: be willing to have the uncomfortable talks. Be willing to have the fights. Say the ugly things and get it all out in the open.

This was a constant theme from the divorced readers. Dozens (hundreds?) of them had more or less the same sad story to tell:

But there’s no way on God’s Green Earth this is her fault alone. There were times when I saw huge red flags. Instead of trying to figure out what in the world was wrong, I just plowed ahead. I’d buy more flowers, or candy, or do more chores around the house. I was a “good” husband in every sense of the word. But what I wasn’t doing was paying attention to the right things. She wasn’t telling me there wasn’t a problem but there was. And instead of saying something, I ignored all of the signals.

– Jim

  1. Get good at forgiving
    When you end up being right about something—shut up. You can be right and be quiet at the same time. Your partner will already know you’re right and will feel loved knowing that you didn’t wield it like a bastard sword.

– Brian

In marriage, there’s no such thing as winning an argument.

– Bill

To me, perhaps the most interesting nugget from Gottman’s research is the fact that most successful couples don’t actually resolve all of their problems. In fact, his findings were completely backwards from what most people actually expect: people in lasting and happy relationships have problems that never completely go away, while couples that feel as though they need to agree and compromise on everything end up feeling miserable and falling apart.

To me, like everything else, this comes back to the respect thing. If you have two different individuals sharing a life together, it’s inevitable that they will have different values and perspectives on some things and clash over it. The key here is not changing the other person—as the desire to change your partner is inherently disrespectful (to both them and yourself)—but rather it’s to simply abide by the difference, love them despite it, and when things get a little rough around the edges, to forgive them for it.

Everyone says that compromise is key, but that’s not how my husband and I see it. It’s more about seeking understanding. Compromise is bullshit, because it leaves both sides unsatisfied, losing little pieces of themselves in an effort to get along. On the other hand, refusing to compromise is just as much of a disaster, because you turn your partner into a competitor (“I win, you lose”). These are the wrong goals, because they’re outcome-based rather than process-based. When your goal is to find out where your partner is coming from—to truly understand on a deep level—you can’t help but be altered by the process. Conflict becomes much easier to navigate because you see more of the context.

– Michelle

I’ve written for years that the key to happiness is not achieving your lofty dreams, or experiencing some dizzying high, but rather finding the struggles and challenges that you enjoy enduring.

A similar concept seems to be true in relationships: your perfect partner is not someone who creates no problems in the relationship, rather your perfect partner is someone who creates problems in the relationship that you feel good about dealing with.

But how do you get good at forgiving? What does that actually mean? Again, some advice from the readers:

When an argument is over, it’s over. Some couples went as far as to make this the golden rule in their relationship. When you’re done fighting, it doesn’t matter who was right and who was wrong, it doesn’t matter if someone was mean and someone was nice. It’s over. It’s in the past. And you both agree to leave it there, not bring it up every month for the next three years.
There’s no scoreboard. No one is trying to “win” here. There’s no, “You owe me this because you screwed up the laundry last week.” There��s no, “I’m always right about financial stuff, so you should listen to me.” There’s no, “I bought her three gifts and she only did me one favor.” Everything in the relationship is given and done unconditionally—that is: without expectation or manipulation.
When your partner screws up, you separate the intentions from the behavior. You recognize the things you love and admire in your partner and understand that he/she was simply doing the best that they could, yet messed up out of ignorance. Not because they’re a bad person. Not because they secretly hate you and want to divorce you. Not because there’s somebody else in the background pulling them away from you. They are a good person. That’s why you are with them. If you ever lose your faith in that, then you will begin to erode your faith in yourself.
And finally, pick your battles wisely. You and your partner only have so many fucks to give, make sure you both are saving them for the real things that matter.

Been happily married 40+ years. One piece of advice that comes to mind: choose your battles. Some things matter, worth getting upset about. Most do not. Argue over the little things and you’ll find yourself arguing endlessly; little things pop up all day long, it takes a toll over time. Like Chinese water torture: minor in the short term, corrosive over time. Consider: is this a little thing or a big thing? Is it worth the cost of arguing?

– Fred

  1. The little things add up to big things
    If you don’t take the time to meet for lunch, go for a walk or go out to dinner and a movie with some regularity then you basically end up with a roommate. Staying connected through life’s ups and downs is critical. Eventually your kids grow up, your obnoxious brother-in-law will join a monastery and your parents will die. When that happens, guess who’s left? You got it… Mr./Mrs. Right! You don’t want to wake up 20 years later and be staring at a stranger because life broke the bonds you formed before the shitstorm started. You and your partner need to be the eye of the hurricane.

– Brian

Of the 1,500 responses I got, I’d say about half of them mentioned at some point or another one simple but effective piece of advice: Don’t ever stop doing the little things. They add up.

Things as simple as saying, “I love you,” before going to bed, holding hands during a movie, doing small favors here and there, helping with some household chores. Even cleaning up when you accidentally pee on the toilet seat (seriously, someone said that)—these things all matter and add up over the long run.

The same way Fred, married for 40+ years, stated above that arguing over small things consistently wears you both down, “like Chinese water torture,” so do the little favors and displays of affection add up. Don’t lose them.

This seems to become particularly important once kids enter the picture. The big message I heard hundreds of times about kids: put the marriage first.

Children are worshipped in our culture these days. Parents are expected to sacrifice everything for them. But the best way to raise healthy and happy kids is to maintain a healthy and happy marriage. Good kids don’t make a good marriage. A good marriage makes good kids. So keep your marriage the top priority.

– Susan

Readers implored to maintain regular “date nights,” to plan weekend getaways and to make time for sex, even when you’re tired, even when you’re stressed and exhausted and the baby is crying, even when Junior has soccer practice at 5:30am the next day. Make time for it. It’s worth it.

Oh, and speaking of sex…

  1. Sex matters… a LOT
    And you know how you know if you or her are slipping? Sex starts to slide. Period. No other test required.

That was the first time I discovered a truth about relationships: sex is the State of the Union. If the relationship is good, the sex will be good. You both will be wanting it and enjoying it. When the relationship is bad—when there are unresolved problems and unaddressed negative emotions—then the sex will often be the first thing to go out the window.

This was reiterated to me hundreds of times in the emails. The nature of the sex itself varied quite a bit among couples—some couples take sexual experimentation seriously, others are staunch believers in frequency, others get way into fantasies—but the underlying principle was the same everywhere: both partners should be sexually satisfied as often as possible.

But sex not only keeps the relationship healthy, many readers suggested that they use it to heal their relationships. That when things are a bit frigid between them or that they have some problems going on, a lot of stress, or other issues (i.e., kids), they even go so far as to schedule sexy time for themselves. They say it’s important. And it’s worth it.

A few people even said that when things start to feel stale in the relationship, they agree to have sex every day for a week. Then, as if by magic, by the next week, they feel great again.

Cue the Marvin Gaye tunes:

  1. Be practical, and create relationship rules
    There is no 50/50 in housecleaning, child rearing, vacation planning, dishwasher emptying, gift buying, dinner making, money making, etc. The sooner everyone accepts that, the happier everyone is. We all have things we like to do and hate to do; we all have things we are good at and not so good at. TALK to your partner about those things when it comes to dividing and conquering all the crap that has to get done in life.

– Liz

Everyone has an image in their mind of how a relationship should work. Both people share responsibilities. Both people manage to finely balance their time together with the time for themselves. Both pursue engaging and invigorating interests on their own and then share the benefits together. Both take turns cleaning the toilet and blowing each other and cooking gourmet lasagna for the extended family at Thanksgiving (although not all at the same time).

Then there’s how relationships actually work.

Messy. Stressful. Miscommunication flying everywhere so that both of you feel as though you’re in a perpetual state of talking to a wall.

The fact is relationships are imperfect, messy affairs. And it’s for the simple reason that they’re comprised of imperfect, messy people—people who want different things at different times in different ways and oh, they forgot to tell you? Well, maybe if you had been listening, asshole.

The common theme of the advice here was “Be pragmatic.” If the wife is a lawyer and spends 50 hours at the office every week, and the husband is an artist and can work from home most days, it makes more sense for him to handle most of the day-to-day parenting duties. If the wife’s standard of cleanliness looks like a Home & Garden catalog, and the husband has gone six months without even noticing the light fixture hanging from the ceiling, then it makes sense that the wife handles more of the home cleaning duties.

It’s economics 101: division of labor makes everyone better off. Figure out what you are each good at, what you each love/hate doing, and then arrange accordingly. My wife loves cleaning (no, seriously), but she hates smelly stuff. So guess who gets dishes and garbage duty? Me. Because I don’t give a fuck. I’ll eat off the same plate seven times in a row. I couldn’t smell a dead rat even if it was sleeping under my pillow. I’ll toss garbage around all day. Here honey, let me get that for you.

On top of that, many couples suggested laying out rules for the relationship. This sounds cheesy, but ultimately, it’s practical. To what degree will you share finances? How much debt will be taken on or paid off? How much can each person spend without consulting the other? What purchases should be done together or do you trust each other to do separately? How do you decide which vacations to go on?

Have meetings about this stuff. Sure, it’s not sexy or cool, but it needs to get done. You’re sharing a life together and so you need to plan and account for each person’s needs and resources.

One person even said that she and her husband have “annual reviews” every year. She immediately told me not to laugh, but that she was serious. They have annual reviews where they discuss everything that’s going on in the household that they like and don’t like and what they can do in the coming year to change it. This sort of stuff sounds lame but it’s what keeps couples in touch with what’s going on with each other. And because they always have their fingers on the pulse of each other’s needs, they’re more likely to grow together rather than grow apart.

  1. Learn to ride the waves
    I have been married for 44 years (4 children, 6 grandchildren). I think the most important thing that I have learned in those years is that the love you feel for each other is constantly changing. Sometimes you feel a deep love and satisfaction, other times you want nothing to do with your spouse; sometimes you laugh together, sometimes you’re screaming at each other. It’s like a roller-coaster ride, ups and downs all the time, but as you stay together long enough the downs become less severe and the ups are more loving and contented. So even if you feel like you could never love your partner any more, that can change, if you give it a chance. I think people give up too soon. You need to be the kind of person that you want your spouse to be. When you do that it makes a world of difference.

– Chris

Out of the hundreds of analogies I saw these past few weeks, one stuck with me. A nurse emailed saying that she used to work with a lot of geriatric patients. And one day she was talking to a man in his late-80s about marriage and why his had lasted so long. The man said something like, “relationships exist as waves, people need to learn how to ride them.” Upon asking him to explain, he said that, like the ocean, there are constant waves of emotion going on within a relationship, ups and downs—some waves last for hours, some last for months or even years. The key is understanding that few of those waves have anything to do with the quality of the relationship—people lose jobs, family members die, couples relocate, switch careers, make a lot of money, lose a lot of money. Your job as a committed partner is to simply ride the waves with the person you love, regardless of where they go. Because ultimately, none of these waves last. And you simply end up with each other.

Two years ago, I suddenly began resenting my wife for any number of reasons. I felt as if we were floating along, doing a great job of co-existing and co-parenting, but not sustaining a real connection. It deteriorated to the point that I considered separating from her; however, whenever I gave the matter intense thought, I could not pinpoint a single issue that was a deal breaker. I knew her to be an amazing person, mother, and friend. I bit my tongue a lot and held out hope that the malaise would pass as suddenly as it had arrived. Fortunately, it did and I love her more than ever. So the final bit of wisdom is to afford your spouse the benefit of the doubt. If you have been happy for such a long period, that is the case for good reason. Be patient and focus on the many aspects of her that still exist that caused you to fall in love in the first place.

– Kevin

I’d like to take a moment to thank all of the readers who took the time to write something and send it to me. As always, it was humbling to see all of the wisdom and life experience out there. There were many, many, many excellent responses, with kind, heartfelt advice. It was hard to choose the ones that ended up here, and in many cases, I could have put a dozen different quotes that said almost the exact same thing.

Exercises like this always amaze me because when you ask thousands of people for advice on something, you expect to receive thousands of different answers. But in both cases now, the vast majority of the advice has largely been the same. It shows you how similar we really are. And how no matter how bad things may get, we are never as alone as we think.

I would end this by summarizing the advice in one tidy section. But once again, a reader named Margo did it far better than I ever could. So we’ll end with Margo:

You can work through anything as long as you are not destroying yourself or each other. That means emotionally, physically, financially, or spiritually. Make nothing off limits to discuss. Never shame or mock each other for the things you do that make you happy. Write down why you fell in love and read it every year on your anniversary (or more often). Write love letters to each other often. Make each other first. When kids arrive, it will be easy to fall into a frenzy of making them the only focus of your life…do not forget the love that produced them. You must keep that love alive and strong to feed them love. Spouse comes first. Each of you will continue to grow. Bring the other one with you. Be the one that welcomes that growth. Don’t think that the other one will hold the relationship together. Both of you should assume it’s up to you so that you are both working on it. Be passionate about cleaning house, preparing meals, and taking care of your home. This is required of everyone daily, make it fun and happy and do it together. Do not complain about your partner to anyone. Love them for who they are. Make love even when you are not in the mood. Trust each other. Give each other the benefit of the doubt always. Be transparent. Have nothing to hide. Be proud of each other. Have a life outside of each other, but share it through conversation. Pamper and adore each other. Go to counseling now before you need it so that you are both open to working on the relationship together. Disagree with respect to each other’s feelings. Be open to change and accepting of differences. Print this and refer to it daily.

Marvin Manson

The Cup Which My Father Gives Me

You will not be letting me off, I hope, with this as the last word. There is a sense, how shall I put it?—in which God is quite clearly not like our fathers. The worthiest among us can scarcely bear to think of our children going into hard suffering, to say nothing of sending them there. We come now upon a mystery in which I so hope you will see some light and guidance and understanding. There is a son, and he is talking earnestly to his father and calls him so. It is Jesus praying in Gethsemane. Listen: “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done.” And he got up and went on to shame and suffering and death, saying with a brave confidence, “The cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?”

When the tides of life turn against you, do remember that, too, about God. Try to remember that unlike our earthly fathers, he will send us into things that seem too ugly and ominous and painful. But you will remember also, won’t you, that unlike our earthly fathers, he knows full well what we can bear and, in bearing, what we can become.

LOVE IS NOT ENOUGH

In 1967, John Lennon wrote a song called, “All You Need is Love.” He also beat both of his wives, abandoned one of his children, verbally abused his gay Jewish manager with homophobic and anti-semitic slurs, and once had a camera crew film him lying naked in his bed for an entire day.

Thirty-five years later, Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails wrote a song called “Love is Not Enough.” Reznor, despite being famous for his shocking stage performances and his grotesque and disturbing videos, got clean from all drugs and alcohol, married one woman, had two children with her, and then canceled entire albums and tours so that he could stay home and be a good husband and father.

One of these two men had a clear and realistic understanding of love. One of them did not. One of these men idealized love as the solution to all of his problems. One of them did not. One of these men was probably a narcissistic asshole. One of them was not.

In our culture, many of us idealize love. We see it as some lofty cure-all for all of life’s problems. Our movies and our stories and our history all celebrate it as life’s ultimate goal, the final solution for all of our pain and struggle. And because we idealize love, we overestimate it. As a result, our relationships pay a price.

When we believe that “all we need is love,” then like Lennon, we’re more likely to ignore fundamental values such as respect, humility and commitment towards the people we care about. After all, if love solves everything, then why bother with all the other stuff — all of the hard stuff?

But if, like Reznor, we believe that “love is not enough,” then we understand that healthy relationships require more than pure emotion or lofty passions. We understand that there are things more important in our lives and our relationships than simply being in love. And the success of our relationships hinges on these deeper and more important values.

Like as a Father

“Like as a father” means also the power of example. A true father has to reckon what effect what he does will have on his child. A father has told of how he was reduced to tears while walking in a muddy street, only to look back to see his little son straining to make steps that would land him in his father’s footsteps. An old friend once told me that he had to stop smoking when his boys were born because he did not want them to smoke. The power of an example is a powerful thing. It enshrines our acts beyond our years and, for good or evil, imparts to us a kind of immortality. “Like as a father.” God is our perfect example. We are called upon to be like him. The psalmist cries out somewhere a prayer all heavy with passionate desire, “I shall awake in his likeness.” It was Jesus who told us to look to God for our example, not to people. “Be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Men will fail, even earthly fathers. You and I do not want to be completely like any man we have ever known, though we have admired some men intensely. Ah, but God is different. There is no quirk or weakness in him. Many who have seen God in the face of Jesus Christ count it worth a lifetime of surrender and seeking, of grand adventure and hazards, if, please God, somewhere on ahead they may see come to pass in their own lives that incredible word which the New Testament utters about what we may yet become. “It does not appear, it says, what we shall be. But this we know, that when he shall appear, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” Arthur Gossip, with that rare gift of disciplined imagining which has belonged to the Scottish preacher, used to say that those who surrender and seek are to become so like Jesus Christ that one day angels, looking first at him and then at those who are his, will not be able to tell him from them.

Waiting on God

Waiting on God is that kind of laboring confidence among farmers. The farmer goes on in a dry and barren season, when the land is parched, still plowing his field and tilling his soil, but with a look now and then toward the skies, sure that the heavens will keep faith with this labor, that the rains will come to water the earth and to nurture the plants. This waiting on God is that of which the psalmist speaks when his soul is rocked by the attacks of his enemies, when he is besieged by those who hate him, and when his soul’s gates are being battered by a relentless enemy who presses ever closer to deliver the telling blow, the mortal thrust. “I had fainted unless I had believed to see the Lord in the land of the living.”

There are mysterious energies loosed when a soul takes a high road and walks therein, no matter how steep the way becomes or how hot and fretful the journey. It is the testimony of every soul who has dared to live for the purposes of God, whether in places of public notice or in the places of obscurity, that an indescribable strength comes to match the task. So, take heart! God is nigh! Keep your aims high! Never mind how long and hot and winding and impossible the way may seem on which you have been called to walk. There is a mercy which will attend your path and a power that will sustain your journey. An oft-hurt people have a song out of their sorrow.

Mixing Gift with Effort

Well, we can come to understand a little more of God by looking at earthly fathers, real ones. An earthly father has the need of wisdom. I do not mean by that mere knowledge, but the right use of knowledge, which is wisdom. An earthly father has the need of balancing his desire for the comfort and welfare of his child over and against his need to lead his child into a worthy self-reliance. I sat but recently with a lad whose father tried to substitute things for attention and time. His son’s life is a study in failure, and the father’s heart is in candidacy for heartbreak.

God is a better father than our earthly fathers, for he knows how to mix gift with effort. He is, as an ancient seer saw, like an eagle who casts the young eaglet forth that in the desperation of falling it might learn to fly. We are born to fly on wings of prayer and faith, but we only learn this when circumstances come pushing us from secure ease to dangerous and dizzying altitudes. As we fall, we instinctively call on our powers to pray and believe and, therefore, to conquer. God mixes enough security with enough risk to make us true sons and daughters of whom he can be proud. He gives us roses but surrounds them with thorns, sunshine but intersperses it with clouds. God gives us springtime, but the chill of winter is his gift also. He gives us the power to laugh but equips us likewise with the capacity to cry. God gives us food from the earth but sets the requirement of sweaty toil that we might eat partly out of our own sacrifice and effort. He gives us births in our families that cradles might gladden the family circle. But the same God gives us the death angel, that the memory of graves might make us see life as a high and swift and solemn transaction. “Sometimes on the mountain where the sun shines so bright, sometimes in the valley in the darkest of night, God leads his dear children along,” we sing sometimes in our church.

No Child Sacrificed

“Like as a father.” This was a tremendous, upward thrust of religious insight when we remember that the idea of God was far removed from this among millions, and still is. “Like as a father, so the Lord….” Well, countless people believe otherwise. God is a leering, lurking enemy waiting to pounce upon unsuspecting folk. Others believe that he is a great shadow darkening the sunniness of life, threatening to swoop down upon us. As such, the deity must be placated, bribed by sacrifices and offerings. The incident of Abraham nearly offering Isaac as a human sacrifice could not have happened if there had not been a day when human sacrifice, even child sacrifice, was an accepted thing. So, this view sees God as our enemy, watching, disapproving, anxious to punish us. Then at the height of faith, a little advance copy of the New Testament, this one hundred and third Psalm goes on. “Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him.” The fathers of the earth ought to take great and justifiable satisfaction in the fact that the highest symbol of God yet known to humanity is that of father.

The word father evokes memories for most of us, glad and hallowed, for God in his wisdom has given us mothers and fathers that our emotional balance might be properly established. One of the greatest tragedies which can happen to any people or any family is that of reduction of the status of the father symbol, for God has given fathers in order that we might know the meaning of firmness mixed with tenderness and mothers that we might know tenderness mixed with firmness. When either of these is lacking, emotional imbalance is established and deviations are introduced into a home, a community, a race. Flabby convictions, lack of integrity, and cravenness are often the results of weak father symbols. Like as a father!