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Has hope always been kind to you? Or has it ever been cruel?

Updated: Jul 15, 2021

You might want to hear about why we almost decided to never write self-help books. Welcome to the second and last part of our posts on why we dare to say that Why Couples Fight is an important book. Part 1 is here.

When we started out, we looked at all the books that were already out there, of course. We did it the old-fashioned, pre-Internet way: we went to a large bookstore, and there they all were. Psychology books and then, in their own little section, self-help books. Psychology books were about how things worked. Self-help books were about how to make things better, but they were also a different culture, as different as Times Square and Wall Street.

It hit us like a well-swung bat that all the self-help books were in the business of selling hope. Yeah, sure, on the surface the transaction was, You have a problem, we have a solution. But the emotional transaction was, You are discouraged, we offer hope. And they did so usually in the form of a big fat promise.

Now here’s how the psychology of this works, in case you’re interested. If I promise you the moon, maybe you won’t buy that I’ll be able to actually deliver the moon. But even if you take a discount—say, half a moon—you’re still pretty hyped up. And that’s the key thing. Hope feels good. The way a drug feels good.

And the best way to promise “the moon” is to offer a huge benefit with minimal effort on the reader’s part. “Earn a million dollars a year in real estate in your spare time!” That about captures it.

Almost all the self-help books we saw played that game. And here’s how it continues to work. You buy a book, huge promise, minimal effort, high hope. Things may get a bit better, but not much and not for long. Your hopes sag. So..., what?

You need another hit! And you buy another book.

Here’s how this was put in a recent New Yorker article: “This is, of course, the geometry of cruel optimism—the endless chase for a destination you’ll never reach.”

Sounds like the diet industry too, doesn’t it? So much of our life is like this, getting caught up in the “cruel optimism” of people overpromising and underdelivering. The grapefruit diet!

Well, Why Couples Fight is, or can be, important because it offers an off-ramp from the endless loop of hope, discouragement, and the search for more hope. Sadly, tragically, catastrophically it does so by asking you guys to pay a real price. I know! God forbid! You have to actually change the way you think about things—and each other—and the way you go about doing things with each other.

I don’t think it’s really all that hard. It’s not as hard as yoga or gardening! It’s not as hard as doing what you’ve been doing. But it is different, and that is hard for many of us.

And that brings us to another aspect of cruel optimism and self-help books. Self-help books tend to flatter their readers. “You already have everything you need,” is one of the most common points they make.

Telling people they instinctively do things wrong may be the way to give tennis lessons, but it’s not the way to write self-help books. But it’s what we do in our book, because—God help us—it’s true. Shoot the messenger if you like, but it’s still true that we have an instinct for responding to disempowerment with a re-empowering move, and this creates a self-perpetuating cycle, and this cycle can destroy a relationship.

Still, the good news is that once you know this and—we hope—accept this truth, you’re halfway to getting out of trouble. Of course, in the meanwhile you have to let go of blame: another bitter pill to swallow! But another step on the road to a relationship in which you get your needs met.

The importance of Why Couples Fight, then, is that now finally we have a relationship book for grownups. For people who are willing to see and accept what’s real, which is what grownups do. And who is willing to do what works to really solve the problem, which is also what grownups do.

Welcome to a world where problems are actually solved and things actually get done! I don’t know about you, but I think that’s important.


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