In The Truth, author Neil Strauss asks: Is it natural to be faithful to one person for life?
The book details his journey away from his monogamous relationship, and into a world of cheating, orgies, and sex addiction clinics. Neil begins, "As such, it requires sharing a lot of things I'm not proud of -- and a few things I feel like I should regret a whole lot more than I actually do. Because, unfortunately, I am not the hero in this tale. I am the villain."
What he discovers along the way is the agony, and the joyful freedom of living a life in which he is 100% truthful with everyone he meets: the girlfriends in his open relationship, his mother, and himself.
- Is marriage a broken model?
When you started writing The Truth, did you know it would be about marriage and monogamy?
Yeah, I don't write with an agenda or a place that I'm going to. I might have an idea, but I'm always willing to discard that idea. It was the same when I was doing journalism and interviews for Rolling Stone. I am open to process of where it's going. First of all, in all my books, or most of my books, [they] don't start off as a book idea. They start off as a problem in my life I'm trying to solve.
With this book, there was a moment when I broke up with Ingrid, my girlfriend at the time, and said, "Hey, I don't think monogamy works. It doesn't seem natural. It doesn't make any logical sense. It doesn't feel right for me, and I want to try these alternate relationships that are alternatives to monogamy, that are becoming more and more acceptable in our culture."
That may be the point when you really got me, it pulled me in. That conversation is so hard to have. I see a lot of people that - if they had that conversation early on - that communication would be better. What was it like having that conversation?
For me, it was painful. It was painful saying "I love you, but I just don't know if I can be with one person physically and sexually and romantically for the rest of my life," which hopefully is over half of my life. It was tough.
Again, when I made that decision, it really felt like I was making the right decision. I was making the smart decision for myself. When I wrote it and I read it, it really became clear on the page that it was a dumb stupid decision motivated by complete fear.
You're breaking up with Ingrid was motivated by fear?
Breaking up with her, being afraid to be with her.
Listen to what I said. "I'm afraid that I can't be with one person, or afraid not to have any more romance and sexuality in my life." It was all fear motivated.
Yeah, and that's the journey you go on in The Truth: you're on this quest to figure out what that fear is! Right?
Yeah, the quest was to discover fear. And to discover: Why weren't relationships working for me? Why is the divorce rate so high? Why are people who don't divorce so unhappy? Why are something like over 90% of couples unhappy after the birth of their first child? Why are people living compartmentalized secret lives that their partners don't know about? It just felt like a broken model to me.
Yeah, even after reading the book, marriage still feels like a broken model. It's like, I've seen your successes, but it still feels like a broken model. You don't agree?
Again, the real answer is that it's not the model that's broken, it's ourselves that are broken.
It's ourselves. We're not capable of connecting in a healthy way with other people, staying with them if it's healthy and leaving them if it's not healthy. It's us, that's broken.
The things that I wanted to accomplish with the book were: one, to write a book that once you read the first page, you can't put it down. That's the problem I have with a lot of self-help type of books. They're just really laborious to read, and take me a long time to read. Whereas, I love a story, because I can just whip through a story.
The second thing is, to leave a trail of breadcrumbs through the story, so that you can hopefully understand yourself better, understand your relationships better, understand why you make the choices you make, and why you choose the partners you choose, and how to get to the other side of that.
When I first saw the title of the book [The Truth] I thought it meant this is "the truth about marriage." But it seems that The Truth refers more to "telling the truth". Is that right?
Yeah, that's it. That's why I did the subtitle, "An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships," because it's really uncomfortable. People are so scared to share their truth with other people, because they're worried they'll be judged. They're worried someone will hurt. They're worried the person will have emotions that they can't control, so a lot of times, people would rather lie and be safe, than tell the truth and be vulnerable, or be unable to control the other person's reaction. By avoiding the truth, we hurt our relationships. The other reason I named it The Truth was, I felt like the opposite of The Game. If The Game was about the game, and there's some level of inauthenticity in the game, for a relationship, you need a high degree of authenticity.
Do you feel like you've solved your problem with monogamy and relationships?
Definitely, I have for me. Ingrid [Neil's wife] and I both say that we're the happiest we've ever been in our entire lives, than we are right now. I feel really good. There's no part of my life and sexual desires and proclivities and feelings, that she's not privy to. All the things I was scared of, turned out to be the best things in my life.
I really dealt with the deep, deep inner issues that were keeping me alone and isolated, and thinking that was life.
I said everything I wanted to say in the book, but I do make a decision in my book, and the decision is this: If it doesn't drive the story forward, I remove it. There might have been some things that I wanted to say in the book, that I felt would really help other people with their relationships, but if it didn't drive the story forward, I just removed it, because I just want you to read it.
I don't know what your experience was, but I want you to read it like a slide greased with butter. If there's a big bump in there, or all of a sudden, you're going across sandpaper, it's not going to be a comfortable experience.
Often, I'll do a follow-up book. I'm probably going to do one to this. After The Game, I did Rules of the Game. I'm probably going to do a book that at least takes some of the lessons and says them in a straight-forward way. However, back to our discussion at the top of this podcast, it's interesting that The Game was the story, and Rules of the Game was all the information. And the Game was three times more successful, and it's the book that people always refer to, versus Rules of the Game, which is really just the data.
Do you think people should share more of themselves?
People should be what I call, congruent, which is, who you are on the outside, matches who you are on the inside, and that is how you portray yourself in the world. Congruence would help, versus creating a reality on Instagram, where you're living the most glamorous life, but you're staging these photos to portray something to the world, that you're not congruent with, and that lead to internal anxiety and pain. Congruence is healthy for your soul.
Is the Neil Strauss character in your books, 100% congruent with "Neil Strauss the author"?
I put in all the parts of myself authentically, but only the parts, and this is really the difference between an indulgent book, and hopefully, an interesting or useful book, is that I have put in the parts not to share them because I'm just trying to share myself, but put in the parts because I know if I say the things that are relevant to the story, that are the most vulnerable and true for me, that I don't want to say, then other people who also hide and share these parts of themselves, will feel heard and connected, and know they're not alone.
By sharing parts of ourselves that are true and authentic, other people will be excited about sharing them, too.
We're probably getting into a world right now, thanks to social media, where people are more afraid to be vulnerable. Any mistake you make, can go viral. A high school kid now, doesn't have to be just scared of humiliation within his class or her class, or his or her school. It could be a humiliation worldwide, that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.
You're not allowed to make a mistake. You're allowed to, but you got to face the consequences, which are intense humiliation and ostracism. The stakes to be vulnerable are much higher. I would love to be living in a world where it's okay to fail; it's okay to be wrong. It's okay to make mistakes, and that's how we learn, and be accepting of that.
That ties into what we said centrally at the beginning, and you were discussing about, "Why is marriage hard, or what's the problem with these things? Is the institution broken?" The answer is that we don't learn to be emotionally intelligent as human beings.
We're taught to be physically healthy. We got hospitals if we're sick. We're given an intellectual education, however lacking it may be, through the school system, but we do nothing for our emotional health or emotional intelligence.
Consequently, when we get into emotional relationships, we haven't been raised in a really loving, nurturing way, by supportive, needless boundary setting, emotionally healthy parents, which is much rarer than one might think, all that shit comes out.
What can we do to become more emotionally intelligent?
I can tell you what I'm doing. Being a new father, the first thing I'm doing is really learning about the stuff, and then passing it on. Passing it on to my child, to that generation. The first thing we can do is really understand about stuff, and teaching it. We really don't know. If we start to study about ... I'll give you an example of something I did. I wrote a note to my son before he was born, and said, "Your mom and I love each other very much, and we made this decision to bring you into the world, and we love you and we're so excited for you to join our lives, and just be great parents for you."
Just let him know that whatever may happen in life, he can stand on this solid platform being love, which a lot of people don't have. My mom told me I was an accident. I know other people's parents left really early in their lives, so they walk around ... Maybe there's a deficiency, a feeling like, "Why am I not enough? Why did my parents give me up for adoption, because I was an accident, and I wasn't wanted." It's a core wound that you walk around with from the beginning.
The first thing I did was try to do that, and the second thing honestly, that we can do, is start to emotionally educate, to make emotional education a part of our education, whether through the school system, whether it's through therapeutic system, if we can improve that, whether it's through a week-long, or weekend intensives, start to grow at each appropriate age, grow children up. Even tribes had rituals at which a boy or girl became an adult.
What's the closest thing we have to that right now? Is there anything?
We have nothing. It's all the very grown-up children walking around, the closest thing that I experienced to it, was there's a lot of intensive and great, week-long, emotionally purging healing programs, where you understand how you were raised, how those issues affect you, and then you emotionally purge that stuff. It's hard to talk about it, explain it properly, but a lot of it is based on Gestalt therapy chair work. There are other variations of that, other places that do that. For me, it was a nice ritual of saying, "I am letting go of my childhood. I'm divorcing my parents."
You can still love your parents, but you don't have to ... Some parents want to parent their children until the day they die. There comes a time when you have to actually let go of your parenting, and go live your own life. I'm finding a problem in our culture, is that parents cling to their kids, even as their kids are adults. They're still trying to guide their lives. They're still trying to use them to get some needs met, and we don't allow children to separate and become their own person, become truly independent.
I did a similar kind of weekend thing. I did Landmark. I don't know if you've heard of it.
Yeah, I know Landmark.
I just did it this weekend, so I'm coming out of that head space. One of the things that I learned there was, "your parents are not responsible for you anymore." I had these blind spots that I didn't know of, and then all of a sudden, it's like, "Oh, I am responsible for myself." For me, just hearing that, it was just so freeing. I can't explain it.
Yeah, I know exactly. There's a bunch of different groups, and honestly, people always will talk shit about all this kind of stuff. Anything you're doing that has the aim of self-knowledge and self-understanding, and self-awareness, is helpful. Exactly what you said, is the problem. We are too close to ourselves to see ourselves clearly, and to get out of our own way. This is something you can't do alone. For certain, there's a bunch of different places and organizations and ways to do it. Then also, change really takes humility, too, because you live with yourself for so long, that someone once told me, "The same head that got you into this mess, isn't really going to get you out of it."
When I was reading The Truth, I was reminded of The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm. In it he says that "many people have never seen good examples of love".
Reading The Truth made me realize that I had never seen good examples of love that also involved polyamory. And so, in that way, your story has provided me with an honest example of someone experimenting with relationships.
It's true. I was just talking to a friend who is in his marriage, and he said, "You know what? Reading your book made me realize that I don't have to go out and live all my fantasies. They're not going to be like I think they're going to be."
To answer your previous question about emotional education is, we can just find the healthy institutions, just like we have hospitals and schools. We can have maybe a third institution that shows emotional health, but we have to really relearn it as a culture; emotional health. We don't know it. There are so many ideas that are seen as good or important in our culture, that really are detrimental. Things, ideas we have, such as the idea that we're responsible for the feelings of others, or a husband might say, "My job is to make my wife happy." You can't make somebody happy. It's a choice they make.
Our culture is missing a language around emotional health.
They really are, and most therapists suck. Talk therapy is pretty iffy. I haven't been to Landmark, but if you go to something like that, people are like, "Oh, you're in a cult." You're shamed out of everything.
Why do you feel the need to share your vulnerabilities, and to be so honest in your books?
The answer is to maybe help people feel not alone, and like they can change. I can tell you what I did.
Once I found out what was wrong with me, I treated it almost like it was a cancer, a psychological cancer. If you find out you have cancer, you're going to do every treatment possible, to remove that. You're going to attack that, smartly and aggressively, and with every treatment available that's not going to hurt you too much. You're going to educate yourself. I did the same thing with the psychological stuff. I just thought, "I'm going to just throw every type of therapy and experience at it, until I can take it and really minimize it, so that it's not destroying my heart.
When did you give up on yourself?
It was toward the end. When I realized that everything I thought would work, didn't work. I exhausted all my possibilities, as far as using my brain. With complete humility, I said, "You know what? I don't know, but I know this needs to change," and found experts, and tried to accept, and tried to really accept their experience and authority, and submit to, and in a determined way, to letting go of the past, and changing and embracing the future. It was the first time I really had to deal with humility, abject humility.
Learning is often experiential.
It is! The Game is easy. "The Game" is just about behaviors. This is about beliefs, and even as I'm talking, I find it hard to explain, because we only know what we know, so how can you know what you don't know? How can you experience what you don't experience? How can you really step outside your comfort zone and live the life that is waiting for you, instead of the one you're stuck in?
I'm keenly aware of that. It's one thing to believe in something, and another to actually experience living it. After reading a book, I just close it up and put it back on the shelf, then my learning lacks the experience of applying the book to life. In order to learn, you have to fucking live your books.
Yeah, exactly. You've got to live your own journey, and it's different than everybody else's.
Let me ask you, because I noticed there's a theme coming up for you, which is that moment about monogamy or marriage not being right for you, how do you know marriage isn't right for you?
All right. Here comes all the stories. Ready?
I am interested in being with someone. I just don't know if the standard definition, the standard narrative of what marriage is, just having sex with one person, and only one person for the rest of my life, is reality. It scares me.
I don't know who I'm going to be in ten years, and that's a really scary road to get on.
Right. It's interesting. You sound a lot like me, at that point in the book, so I feel like that's the point ... but the truth is, I found a lot of my problem came from worrying about the future.
We really have no idea about the future, and I found those problems came from the baggage of the past, and fear of the future. I found that my relationship changed for me, the moment I just lived in the right now with her.
"Do I love you right now? Do I love being with you and enjoy being with you right now?" I find, by just asking that question, you get to have a lot of right-nows, and a greater future than just always thinking, "Hey, is this going to work in ten years? Will I be happy in ten years?" You don't even get to enjoy the "right now."
Even the parts when we're in conflict, it's like, I can still ... I actually enjoy the conflict when it occurs, because we recover really quickly, and learn something from it. I love that.
Let me ask you, because what tips me off that this really has nothing to do with the institution of marriage for you, is also what you said about your experience, your big epiphany at the seminar you went to, that: Did you say, your parent's' job is over ... What was the exact epiphany?
Yes, that my parents are no longer responsible for my life.
Okay, cool. In what ways did you feel your parents were responsible for your life before?
Just having to give myself to their ideas of what a marriage, or a healthy way ... I just turned 35. There's always a ticking time-bomb of like, "I should be married by 35." When I...
You're dancing away. It's great. There's something here. What were their ideas? Now you're talking about some general idea. What were their ideas?
The standard ideas around relationships, "You get married, you live in the suburbs, you have two kids, you stay in a relationship, in a marriage, whatever it is, because that's what you do. You don't complain, and as far as I know, you don't cheat."
It's interesting how you depersonalize it, too, and jump to "you," instead of saying, "I," or "they." It's fascinating. Trying to take you to that point, you jump off, almost like this intense psychological defense mechanism. When someone says "you, and you, and you," when they're talking about themselves, it's almost like a distancing thing. Let me ask you, were they happy in their marriage, or just stuck together?
They're stuck, but they're happy, in a friendly, platonic way. That's not attractive to me, because it feels stuck. For me, that would feel stuck.
I'm just fascinated by this responsibility thing, and what way you felt responsible to them.
If you're still at 35, feeling responsible for your parents, or feeling like somehow, you living your own life, you're not allowed to do certain things, because it may upset them, or that you're supposed to do a certain thing, so it will make them happy, then of course, as soon as you get into a relationship and you feel they have any kind of expectations, it's going to be psychologically, too much.
You're going to want to withdraw from the relationship, because if you just look at it on a logical level, just a realistic, logical level, a relationship and a marriage is something you are free to leave at any point in time. You're free to leave at any point.
Look at the world. People survive after having a divorce. They survive after splitting up. These relationships end. When we're too scared to get into a relationship, because we're scared of what may happen in ten years, not realizing we're not children. We have total control over the outcome, seems to me, pathological on some level. By pathological, I mean, coming out of this stuff we've been talking about, unhealthy trauma, versus just being in reality.
That makes a lot of sense.
How often do you talk to your mom?
Probably once a week. That's something I'm trying to work on, is just having better conversations with her, if you know what I mean.
Yeah. Don't work on having better conversations with her. Work on having more shallow conversations with her.
I know. That's what you said in the book, and I was like, "That seems like the wrong thing to do."
Wrong to who? Wrong to her, but right to you.
Listen. I'm saying this as a father who just had a son. He does not owe me anything. Every day I got to take care of him is a joy. He brings so much happiness into my life, that he owes me nothing as an adult, other than to live his life. You have that choice now. It's fascinating.
Someone told me, whenever you feel guilt, it means you're doing the work of separation. Doing the thing you feel guilty with around your mom, will help you finally complete growing up, and separate.
Everything ties together in this interview. We go back to those rituals. A lot of those tribal rituals we're talking about, were really about separation, more forcedly taken from mom or dad, or the parents, and left alone. They got to become adults by separating from their parents. Here, we don't have that ritual, so we are chained by guilt. My thought is, instead of trying to have better conversations with her, she's not going to change. Don't go to the places that press your buttons. Draw a boundary, and keep it.
Is that working for you? How often do you talk to your mother?
I'll tell you something interesting, which is that when I decided to draw the boundary, my stuff was around keeping her secrets, and listening about how awful Dad is. Dad's bad. Dad's horrible. Dad did these things to her, and she's a victim to Dad.
I drew the boundaries, and she didn't talk to me for a while. Then she reappeared via text, and started having me keep a bunch of secrets. I responded to her. I said, "Hey, I'm happy to talk about anything, but I just can't keep secrets anymore. Keeping secrets caused me to cheat on ... I want to lead a true, authentic life. I don't want to cheat on people. I want to be honest with them." I said this in a shorter way. I said, "I'm happy to talk about anything. I just can't keep secrets anymore, or listen to stuff about Dad." Do you know what she responded?
What did she say?
Nothing. That's the last time I heard from her. Not even a response.
How long ago was that?
Four or five months ago.
Oh, my god. Yeah.
It was incredibly freeing, because it made me realize that if I wasn't there, if I didn't have a use, then I wasn't necessary to her life. It allowed me to let go, and say, "Okay. That's what the relationship is. I serve a use for her, and now she enlisted another family member in that use. I don't have to feel guilty." That showed what the relationship was.
Neil, it sounds like you're going to be an amazing father.
I hope so. You know what? I will make mistakes, and what I'll do is, try to recognize it and admit them, and repair them when I do. We'll all make mistakes, but thank you. I hope so.
I hope you can write a book about keeping a marriage, and one for raising a son. A lot of your books are about survival, from The Game, to Emergency. You're constantly trying to survive, and there's more aspects that when I finish this book, I was like, "What about all these other things?"
You're right. I really want to write something about that. There's a lot to write. Maybe this book, like you said, is going to open a door on a lot of things that are important to challenge in our culture. Thanks for a good conversation.