What We Really Ask For When We Ask For Relationship Advice

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Every week, Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond host the wildly popular "Dear Sugars" podcast, where they read listener letters and give relationship advice. In talking with Charles Monroe-Kane, Almond says a big part of the work they do is "to get underneath the defensive, the emotions, to where people actually live." That story beneath the surface is usually there in the letter, but often it takes a close reading. He walked us through his take on a few letters — one from an episode of "Dear Sugars," the last two from our show — to unpack what's happening beneath the surface of a person seeking relationship advice.

This letter was originally featured on the Dear Sugars podcast.

Three months ago, I relocated for my long-distance boyfriend. I left my dream job, my beloved city and great friends, and took a significant pay cut to move to a new city to live with him. When I first made the move, we were incredibly happy to finally be ending our long-distance relationship. Now, things are markedly different.

We’ve been fighting almost daily, and my usually sunny disposition has dimmed dramatically to the point where friends and family are starting to worry about me.

The main reason we fight is because of my cats — two adorable, sweet, and loving cats I adopted five years ago, long before I met my boyfriend. My boyfriend has never been fond of my cats, but told me he would do his best to get along with them when I moved in with him. He hasn’t. His only interaction with them has been to yell at them and chase them into a tiny powder room where we keep their litter box. They’ve become so scared of him that they hide in a crate to avoid him. They won’t come out while he’s home, even to go to the bathroom. To make matters worse, he has a dog whom he treats like a king, and expects me to do the same.

He now says that he doesn’t think he can live with cats, and he wants me to send them away to live with my parents. While this is an option, I feel like this is incredibly unfair to me and diminishes the importance of my cats in my life. If the tables were turned, I feel he would absolutely choose his dog over me.

Part of me wonders whether this goes beyond just a hatred of cats. Is he simply unwilling to compromise in general, whether it’s about cats or anything else? He says that’s not the case, and that without the cats, things would be back to normal. I’d love to give this a fair shot since I’ve already sacrificed so much and it does seem silly to end a 2 ½ year relationship over cats, but I’m 30 years old, and I don’t want to waste any more of my time on this relationship if he’s going to be stubborn and selfish forever.

I’m so torn about what to do. Please help!

Signed, Crazy (and Confused) Cat Lady

Steve Almond: [When it comes to letters like this,] there are two letters. There's the letter that the person thinks they're writing —which is “I'm confused, should I be with this person?” And then there's an objective description of how the relationship makes them feel. And from outside of the relationship — not being mixed up and invested in thoughts like “we've been together for two years” and “I really don't want to hurt this person” — it's perfectly obvious to us that this person needs to end the relationship but they haven't. They just need somebody else to tell them that they’re telling us they are ready to be done with this relationship, that they really need somebody outside to let you know that that's okay, and in fact that it would be unhealthy to continue in a relationship in which you feel so crappy all the time.

I don't think she was crazy or confused in what she was describing. It's a perfect example of the sort of letter I was mentioning: she’s saying “well you know my guy's not perfect” but the letters always begin with the happy fiction. “I met the love of my life and like we've been super happy for five years,” and then the rest of the letter is devoted to how unbelievably unhappy they are. How inconsiderate this person is. How much they feel like their self-esteem is being stepped all over.

This woman was essentially saying she’s thinking about having kids with a guy, but he doesn't want anything to do with a cat. It's not just a red flag — there's a whole bunch of flags being waved. If you think a cat is difficult to negotiate, meet a baby. Talk about pressures that are put on a romantic relationship. Babies are little truth bombs that land in people's lives. And I believe that it is unwise to become the parent with somebody who you can't even successfully be respectful and mutually take care of a cat. So it was very obvious to us that she needed to have a moment of truth and say this relationship isn't working.

I think you have to then try as hard as you can to walk in that other person's shoes and figure out “Okay, with the pressures that are bearing down on him or her, if that was me, would I lash out in that particular way?” Is this person behaving in a way that is fundamentally different than the way that I would behave if they were you know if this if the roles were reversed? I feel like that's pretty fair if your complaint is that your husband is saying that you're going to be a lousy mom and that you don't do a good job taking care of cats.

What's underneath this anxiety about the kitty litter? Because it's never about the kitty. It’s about what's dropped in that kitty litter: their anxieties, their neuroses. My read is that when people are hostile — especially when men are hostile — it always comes from a place of self-doubt. It always comes from a place of insecurity that is expressing itself as animosity or contempt.

And this is a lot of what we're trying to do in the show, to get underneath the defensive and the emotions to where people actually live: which is fear and disappointment and guilt. And oftentimes in sorrow, rage is a big, flashy cloak hiding unhappiness and insecurity.

I have a son — a teenager —and I really want to understand and I'm trying really hard raise him as a good man, given the context of today. Specifically, I want to make sure he knows how to make friends and keep them because I've realized that generations of men before me don't really have friends. Maybe they hang out with their brother-in-law, but not these great intimate male relationships. It seems that they put a lot of pressure on their wives as their only friend. Whereas women have so many healthy relationships! It got me thinking — maybe men need more relationships? Why do they struggle to do that?

Signed, A Man Raising A Boy To Be A Man

SA: I think what men do is kind of find safe terrain. Being a sports fan is safe terrain. It’s a kind of companionship but it doesn't push so hard on the fragile structures of self that I think live inside a lot of men, simply because that's how we're socialized. We [men] were not given cultural permission to deal with our inner lives. You know, boys don't cry.

It's going to sound odd, but in this cultural moment where there's a lot of sexual predation and power mongering behavior around men —in its own twisted way, men develop a certain fantasy. Women do too, but we're talking about men in this case, they develop a certain fantasy that they'll have a particular kind of sexual energy with a woman or a possibility of something happening erotically.

I think oftentimes because they're insecure, a position of power will buttress or maybe even enforce that — a kind of accelerant to the possibility of starting a sexual relationship. I think that's troubling and manipulative, but it happens all the time and that's part of the story that we're hearing.

What's happening in these moments — where women are describing men who are running through the flashing either yellow light or sometimes red lights — is that they’ve been rebuffed and told “I don't want this to happen.” This is the ending of something. “I'm not interested in you in that way.” It's men not being able to cope with that disappointment and say “oh I thought it was going to be one way, but this person doesn't share those feelings.”

And people are sitting there looking from the outside and saying “gee how could this happen? These guys are monsters!” I'm saying they are disappointed and hurt, and it's being converted into rage and power mongering and predation. That happens because — in that particular moment — a human being cannot deal with their inner life. They do not have the equipment within themselves to say “this person has said they don't want to enter into this with me and I just have to like deal with it.” A lot of times especially powerful men can't deal with it. It turns into predation, it turns into going through those red and yellow lights and proceeding into either misconduct or abuse.

I have a pair of friends going back to grade school. We had shared enthusiasm as kids — quoted the same TV shows and stayed up all night playing video games together. But once we were teenagers, they kind of never grew up. They never really meshed all that well with friends of mine from high school or college, and got deep into increasingly different things. I turned to beer, music, film; they went deep on anime, board games, more esoteric corners of pop culture. We definitely still had a deep connection going way back but it was always hard to integrate them into my more regular circle of people around me, and they had big personalities that pressed people’s buttons. I would frequently get the “why are you friends with these guys” question and especially as I started dating more seriously and hanging out in couples, it was harder to come up with a good answer.

I started hanging out with them less and less, offering vague timeframes when they wanted to meet up, saying “not this week but maybe next” and other such responses. Eventually that ended with one of them asking me “what did I do?” and me fumbling over words about how maybe our interests were growing apart but we were still friends, but never really giving a satisfying answer to them.

I moved away for a few years and they moved out of the country, but they still come home a few times a year and when we find ourselves near home around the same time, I find myself ducking their phone calls.

I sometimes wonder if it would have been less painful to have a more frank conversation about how they seemed immature to people I cared about, or that I wanted something different out of my friendships, but I was never quite sure what to say. How do you tell someone something like that without it seeming mean or cruel?

Signed, Too Old For Sleepovers

SA: The first thing I would is go out and get a book called “We Learn Nothing.” It's a book of essays by the writer Tim Kreider and what I love about is he's got an essay in that book. It's a lot of the book is about friendship and he's got an essay in particular your friend. I think find very interesting called "The Anti-Kreider Club" which is about you know longtime friends that Tim Kreider has who then suddenly break up with him, with one in particular who really jettisons him.

In the essay, Kreider essentially says romantic relationships are easier in terms of their ending because society recognizes that when you break up with somebody, they say "oh yeah, it didn't work out. You and Stephanie, or you and Tim, it didn't work out. Okay." And everybody kind of knows what to say. "Let's go grab a beer."

But there's no equivalent with friendship. You can't call up somebody and say "Hey man, I just had this really tough breakup with this friend." There's no socially — especially in the world of men, but I think more broadly — there's no Hallmark card that says "hey, you know we were great friends as kids and I cherish those memories, but I think we've grown in different ways." That Hallmark card doesn't exist.

There's no cultural discussion that reinforces the idea that it is okay — and in fact even natural — to have very intense friendships in childhood, then grow and change inside and in our place in the world. You don't have as much to connect with old friends over and it's not because they're bad people and you're great, or the opposite — it's simply because people change and what they need in a relationship changes.