S3 E8: Neil Strauss on Relationships, Sex, & Trauma

Neil Strauss is a best-selling author and an award-winning journalist.  After telling the stories of countless people living more wild lives and wrestling with their demons, Neil found himself facing his own issues. He has now written about relationships in two separate books. In our conversation, Neil sits down with us to talk about how relationships, sex, and trauma are all connected.

Podcast Transcript

Neil Strauss
We’re making the unconscious conscious, you get to start to have choice, in your relationships, in your happiness in your parenting, in your career, until we make the unconscious conscious that will rule our life. And we’ll call it fate.

David Condos
Welcome to Beyond theory, a podcast powered by Meadows Behavioral Healthcare. That brings you in depth conversations from the frontlines of mental health and addiction recovery. I’m David Condos. Author Neil Strauss rose to fame capturing the wild world of rock stars and pickup artists. And he thought his life seemed normal by comparison, until he needed to seek help for his own issues. So what did that experience teach him about how relationships sex and trauma are all connected? Let’s get out of the abstract and see how this applies in the real world. It’s time to go beyond theory. 

Neil Strauss
Cool. Oh, yeah, I’m Neil Strauss, I write a lot of books. I’ve written a lot of articles for Rolling Stone in the New York Times, maybe 10, 11, 12 New York Times bestsellers, not all, sometimes in collaboration with other people. Also do a podcast called To Live and Die in LA, where we, where I’ve looked for missing people, and there’s actually connection in one of them to the work of The Meadows.

David Condos
Wow, okay. Okay. Well, we can circle back around to that.

Neil Strauss
Right, you need a Meadows training therapist for part of the podcast. That was the number one iTunes podcast and it really was a true crime. podcast, but it relates to this part of it related to this work to the mind.

David Condos
Yeah, yeah. All right. Well, Neil Strauss, thank you so much for your time today. It’s great to have you here. So like you said, you’ve written a lot of best selling books, other works in journalism. Two of your most notable ones are books about relationships. So you did the game, you know, kind of more about how to meet women how to how to start that potential relationship. And then you followed it up with the truth, more recently, how to kind of maintain those relationships. And so kind of just to kind of lay the groundwork for this conversation. What are some of the things that people tend to get wrong about commitment, relationships. What are some of the lies that are perpetuating the misadventures with relationships,

Neil Strauss
Everyone has their own set of misconceptions they’re dealing with, right? So and they come from that your first experience of love and attachment, which is, you know, your childhood caretakers be they present or absent. So, and some of the common ones are, so there’s so many, there’s so many, and they’re out there so unique to everybody, but I’ll tell you some of the common ones. What some of the common ones is, “Everyone I love will leave me.” Right, so so that you get into this, and these can become self-fulfilling prophecies that then reinforce the false belief. Another one is, “I’m dating this person not accepting as they are but hoping they will change. And it’s my job to change or save or rescue this person I’m with.”  which is a horrible, dysfunctional enterprise to get into with a relationship. Another one is, “Trust this person, I’m not enough belief, or, or that this person is going to go in to cheat and, and walk into a relationship with trust issues.” Another one is that is, God there’s so many I could really go on but but that there’s there’s so many we walk, there’s a there’s a great line from James Hollis the union therapist, and I’m going to paraphrase it. But the idea is when we ask them to get in a relationship with us, we’re saying hey, can you walk across this field of minds that I have laid down and see if you can reach me?

David Condos
And so in The Truth, you were very personal about your own story, your own journey. And you you even talked in the book about your experience of going to treatment of being part of a treatment program for for I guess what you described at the time as sex and love addiction. What did that experience teach you?

Neil Strauss
Yeah, so what’s the crazy that man, I will say that there’s a moment at The Meadows that changed my life forever. And I walked in The Meadows because I had, was in love with someone. I wanted to marry them, cheated on them. I got caught. And I tried to figure out well, why? Why would I? Why would I act outside my value system for sex that I didn’t even enjoy? Why would I harm my chances of a future that I wanted so much? Why would I hurt someone I love? All these questions and a friend of mine said, “Maybe you’re a sex addict. And you’ve maybe should go to The Meadows and read this book by Pia Melloddy, which I think was Facing Love Addiction. And I read that and I said, “You know what, I don’t know. But, but I really need help, you know.” So that’s, that’s really where I started. Then we had to do a timeline, the first week at The Meadows, you do a timeline. And, and so I put on my timeline, all of my sort of peak positive and negative childhood experiences, sat down there on the floor in the in the group therapy room. And I remember, the therapist goes through it, she asks some questions. And she says, “You know why you’ve never been unhealthy relationship?” And I go, “No.” And she’s like, “Well, that’s because your mom wants to be in a relationship with you.” As soon as she said that. And then like this call, I just felt this cold wind blow over me. And like, I just kind of collapsed in this puddle of tears like, and I don’t, I didn’t really understand what she meant. But like my soul did, like my heart did. Um, and then all of a sudden, it’s like my whole past all those stories and all that narrative. All those stories, they just snap together and formed a single narrative. It was perfectly clear that I never saw before. And what I love what I love, the things I love about Pia Mellody is that this is the idea again, please correct me if anything’s wrong. The idea of post-induction therapy and the idea is your childhood is a hypnotic induction. Right? And there’s treatment or that process through which you are on hypnotizing and can enter reality. And so it’s really true. We, everybody I speak to thinks their child or a lot of people think this certain presented people think their childhood is normal, because that’s what they experienced. And that’s all they saw in your brain is gonna change.

David Condos
Everything seems normal, but you’re in the middle of it. Yeah, yeah,

Neil Strauss
Exactly. I hear that all the time. Of course, it’s just, there’s, there’s that’s a form of denial called globalization. And by them, it’s okay. My wife, I say this to my ex-wife. But she’s like, yeah, “You know, I grew up in Mexico, like mom’s always hit their daughters there.” But I’m sure there’s some moms there that don’t hit their daughters. And whether that’s true or not, it still causes trauma for you. I realize I’m getting a long answer. But the short version is, there was that one moment of like truth and revelation that my body recognized before our brain did, that changed the rest of my life?

David Condos
And so do you like looking back? Do you consider that that was your turning point?

Neil Strauss
That that was one of the turning points. You know, there’s a funny thing about the mind, which is, but that Yeah, I see that as a turning point. But it wasn’t. And I think it’s good and help people’s expectations be healthy around this is when we get these epiphanies when you get these transformations, very few as the person who then now lives out of that truth. It’s because these things are wired into your brain. And the connections reinforced over and over again, through through your belief system, the evidence you look forward as to support your false belief. Because of that, it’s it’s hard to do the stuff. And it’s an it’s a journey. So you can still, and I think that one of the most frustrating parts of healing is when you have the awareness, but the behavior hasn’t changed, isn’t getting the awareness doesn’t change the behavior. Just makes you aware that you keep making the same mistake.

David Condos
Yeah, that’s, that’s not helpful for the shame factor.

Neil Strauss
Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

David Condos
Yeah, yeah. And it definitely takes more than one turning point.

Neil Strauss
Yeah, yeah. No, it does. It really is. It’s a it is a back and forth struggle, which is why, which is why A) people in relationships are the expectation someone can change or continually disappointed and get into resentment, and it’s just not healthy. And someone has to have their own process. You know, someone has to experience their own process. And that process is messy, and it’s ugly. And it’s back and forth. And obviously, you being engaged in their process in a relationship is your own unhealthiness. And B) is really have to have compassion for just for your pre reverse self in this. I know people. I someone gave me a great quote, which is I said, You know, “I feel like I’ve done all this work. But here I am still dealing with this issue or that issue.” They said, it’s, and I quote this often is that, “Self improvements, like climbing a mountain that sometimes you get the same view, because in the same set of the mountain, but you’re standing at a higher place.”

David Condos
Yeah, yeah. And so kind of piggybacking off of this, you’ve also written on your you have a blog that talks about this and kind of unpacking the trauma. And in that blog, you wrote about how therapy and workshops, things like that are great, sometimes necessary work, but they’re not enough. And so what and this is kind of gets to what you’re what you’re just describing about those multiple epiphanies. So what are some of the things that have worked for you to really get you to change that mindset?

Neil Strauss
Yeah, sure. And I think the first thing that I be curious, actually, I asked you on this since you’re there, I feel like most inpatient treatment programs are usually four to six weeks usually. And, and it really isn’t, you know, if I was to design a treatment plan that work, maybe I’d have babies only be there for nine months to a year. But of course, to get the commitment for that, of course, the cost of bed is just unfeasible. But really, it’s hard to really hold on to it after that, which is, it’s so that it’s hard to create. It’s hard to create what will really work that is also will, is palatable to people. So I there’s a challenge there. But for me, I think there’s a three pronged approach to healing that I recommend, which is: Part One: Yeah, so the idea is talk therapy really doesn’t work for shifting and changing and healing trauma because it’s it’s, it’s the intellect, the intellect is engaged to talk. And the intellect is not how this stuff came in. It came in somatically. It came in sort of emotionally, it came in unconsciously. And so the you know, it’s it’s the intellectuals really deals with, it’s not enough. So I think that, that the first step is deep experiential workshops, stuff like that. Survivors, of course, I recommend this, but so many people quit their program. That that and I’m so happy for everyone who goes to it. So I’m so excited for them. So such as the Survivors program, and I see and experiential is not a lecture experiential is you’re lying and collapsed in a puddle of tears on the floor. No, that’s, that’s, that’s really what you were. So that’s one and one is often not enough, it’s maybe you want to do one or two a year just to just to shake, shake that trauma loose. But there are many different, there are many different amazing workshops to choose. And I also say nothing hurts, there’s nothing and I’ve tried almost everything, there’s nothing that’s really, if it’s if it’s accredited or suspect, there’s nothing that really has been bad for me. So luckily enough, I think everything, everything can help. Again, unless the person leading it has really made them intentions. So that’s one. Two is I think, talk therapy, or and I recommend group therapy over talk therapy, I’ll explain why in a second. But talk or group therapy for maintenance. In other words, you get this big epiphany, you get this big shift in return to the environment where all your problems are, exist and still exist, and it pulls you back into it. And the great thing about having the accountability of a weekly person or group to talk to is you then say, Well, I did this and I said, “Oh no, there you go, again, with the same pattern that you did before, and you’ve done this, this time, that time and that time. So maybe now you can use the knowledge you had and change that.”  So you get the accountability. And it keeps the head has a way of saying you’re thinking is off. You go to these workshops, you have the experiences and you walk out with the truth, knowing who you are. And slowly it shifts away again. And this can help help keep it straight till you get it straight if that makes sense. So that’s Two and the word of talk versus group therapy. So I found that there are studies supporting this, that group therapy is more powerful than one on one therapy. And I’ll give you a couple of reasons for this. One, and I’ll be curious what other people have said, but one is, therapists can recommend something and I can disagree with them. I can say okay, well, that’s your perspective, you don’t really know me, you have a different background, I see that, but I just disagree. But if you have a therapist there and five of your peers, and they all say, no, maybe you’re thinking is wrong on this, you kind of have to consider it even if you don’t agree. Other thing is you can really only talk to a therapist during your office hours, but the group stays in between and really creates this amazing support group and support network. And, and I love it, I recommend it for everything that third reason why it’s great is it can be more affordable. One-on-one therapy is expensive. But if you get four or five people, and you all go in together, for the therapist, it actually becomes cheaper, cheaper, more affordable. So I’m a big fan of group therapy for all those reasons. Third thing so we have experiential, multi-day workshops, we have talk therapy. And then the third thing is tools to use. I think we tools to use are they’re moments, there are moments, when we feel that trauma, we feel that old behavior pattern coming on that trauma is starting to rear its head. And if you start to recognize you start to know the signals, right, you know, maybe you feel the tingling, maybe your heart starts pounding, maybe your head starts burning, maybe you feel yourself shutting down, maybe you feel yourself starting to get angry. And I almost think it’s almost like a roller coaster, you feel it going you feel like going up the hill. And then you can stop it till it gets to about there. And once it’s there, you can use it to control your childhood, you said, “I’m going to save you!” Right and it just keeps going for the hits the bottom and then you feel the shame and then you can start to recover. So, so the idea of the tools is okay, if I recognize that I’m sorry. I feel agitated, I can intervene before it’s too late with these tools, as an example, re-parenting. So for me as someone whose mother in meshed when my partner would be would, you know, kind of just squeeze or hold me and hug me? I would start to get like, I’d want to get them away, I’d feel like I’m getting smothered again. Right? You know, I’d feel like that, that, that needy mom energy. And so my adult functional self, to use the terminology, right would talk to my inner child and say, “hey, it’s okay. She’s not, she’s not your mom. She’s not trying to use or control you. She just loves you, and wants to connect. So don’t worry, I got this, I will always keep you safe. I’m having this. Thank you.” Boom, I connect. So I think those three things, doing them for a period of time helps this stuff. Just, I don’t want to say I want to say shrink or lessen this trauma came in through so many different ways and being reinforced so much, you really have to make it if you want, if you want to change, you have to make it a real mission.

David Condos
Yeah, yeah. And so you, you mentioned Pia Mellody’s work a couple of times, how would you describe the way that some of the ideas that she has fleshed out about childhood trauma about, you know, repeating patterns from, from our parents, and so on and so forth? And how we carry shame and trauma? How has that shaped the ways that you might view relationships today, it different than how you view them? 1020 years ago?

Neil Strauss
Yeah. I mean, it’s, it’s nuts. And I’m really like, I don’t know, I just think it’s wild stuff that Pia Melloddy, you know, synthesized and developed, it really is, to me, just one of the best systems for understanding relation relationships and relational dynamics. And so I guess the way I understand that, the short answer is, it’s so profound, that if I, if you if I or if you know, if you really understand Pia Mellody’s work, and you know, how someone is raised, and they haven’t done the work on themselves, you know, who they’re going to pick for relationships and how it’s going to go. And vice versa. If someone’s in a relationship, and they describe their issues to you, you know, exactly how they were raised. It’s almost like seeing the matrix of relationships. 

David Condos
Yeah, I’m sure we could, we could CGI some of Pia’s action moves at the end of this video.

Neil Strauss
But really, is it really like, it’s just amazing.

David Condos
Yeah. So at one point, in your book, you you described a situation where you were talking with some of your guy friends, and they were asking you questions about commitment. And I think you were, like, about to be married at that time. And how you described in the book is they were asking all the wrong questions. And I think that’s that’s kind of a general that’s a common thing, like in our society in general. So what what are the right questions? How should we be viewing relationships? What are the right questions that we should be asking?

Neil Strauss
in unhealthy relationship? an unhealthy relationship is too fucked up people getting more fucked up together? healthy relationship is too fucked up people getting on fucked up. You know, like, I think I really think a relationship can be a great place for growth. If both people are conscious and do their own work. Hmm.

David Condos
Yeah, and not expecting the other person to be your Savior.

Neil Strauss
Yeah, be your Savior, be your therapist or be your accountability partner, it really is up to you, I think if you if you’re getting that dynamic, where your partner is helping you change, or you’re changing for your partner, it really is an unhealthy dynamic for the relationship.

David Condos

One other thing that you that you touch on in the book is that, especially as men, a lot of what we learn about relationships comes from society. I mean, obviously, it comes from our father, and then people who are close to us, but also just comes more broadly from what we see around us. And obviously, and often that teaching can be toxic, whether it’s, you know, overt or subliminal it can, it can, it can be unhealthy. I mean, what what do you think? What do you think it’ll take to change some of those cultural factors of the pieces of that puzzle to where we can, you know, maybe change the way we think about masculinity and how that is, is setting up men to be in these toxic relationships because of that?

Neil Strauss
Yeah, I find I find it so interesting. And then in this cultural discourse that we’re having that is so positive in terms in terms of looking at toxic masculinity and looking at some of these things. There’s not a conversation about parenting within that. It’s funny because I’ve been wanting to do a parenting book. And there’s not there’s less of an audience for that. Then a book about dating or a book about relationships, you know, parenting seminars are packed. You know, I feel like the people who feel the pain, the parenting is the vulnerable child, you know, not the parent. So so you know, so so there’s an issue there. And I really, this is really where my head in my thought process are now, how can create a parenting book that people will read? Who are who the average is that all of that will appeal to all parents, not all parents, most of those parenting books go on read. You know, a lot of not a lot of parents go to these workshops unless they feel they have a real so called problem child. Of course, the problem is usually not the child therapy system, as we know, right? You know, like, I, it’s so fascinating. It’s so fascinating. Like, I work with so many in this small tangent, but we get back to what was so many people who say I was a bad kid growing up. Okay, how are you? bad kid? You know, I would just run around the house, I was always loud. I was just noisy. I was like, oh, sounds like you were a kid. Right? your parent calls you bad to control you. And now here you are, like 40 still thinking you were a bad kid, when you’re literally just a kid. The word “bad” you’ve attached yourself is this shameful label for your whole life? is just a controlling parents who, who? Who has their own issues and has nothing to do with your inherent qualities as a human being. It’s the craziest, it’s the most interesting thing. And I think like, I think there are two sides to what you’re talking about. And one is, can people sort of wake up? Are those don’t really wake up and understand see who they are truly, outside of the the hypnotic induction will say of those first 17 or 18 years? And the second side is now can we conscious? Can we parent in a very conscious way? Like there might be I think a lot of people probably go to the power dealings or they’re trying to learn to control their child. Some there’s not there’s not an incentive you want your child to be successfully well, but I think people I’d really want to think about that idea of, well, what’s the incentive for that when you go into inpatient therapy, the incentive is I want to live, you know, usually by I might die if this doesn’t happen, or really hurt myself or someone else. And yet, to not have the empathy for the child, you’re hurting. Yeah, there’s, there’s one great book by Dan Siegel called Parenting from the Inside Out the things that neuroscientists and and that the whole thesis of it is, if you want to be just do your own work, if you want to be a great parent, just make yourself healthy, and the rest will sort of come automatically. And I think it’s a cool thesis.

David Condos
All right. Well, thank you, Neil, this has been wonderful. I will leave listeners with two two quick things. Now. First of all, for someone who is interested in diving deeper on these issues, whether it’s the you know, working on yourself, whether it’s relationship piece, what would be a book or resource besides your own that you’d recommend to them?

Neil Strauss
Let’s see if they’re interested in diving into this deeper. I mean, I think we I think we mention a lot of the stuff but obviously the Pia Mellody’s Facing Love Addiction or Facing Codependence is is great. On other relationship books, too, I love I think, you know, I think Harville Hendricks is Getting the Love You Want is good. But you know, like you if you I also think a nice kind of beginner book is that book attached, which is just a very simple look at what are the secure, anxious attachment relationships, I think those are good relationship resources. But I think if I think it’s that I also feel like it’s funny because as a writer, I think books only get you so far. I think books only get you so far. And if you really want this, if you really want to make the changes, maybe start we’ll just read a book or two to kick it off. But But as we said before, someone told me once very wisely, the same head that got you into the problem won’t get you out of it. So it’s good. I the thing I would do right now, it would be to form that therapy group get three or four people in similar life situations you trust and meet weekly on Zoom I guess, for the present moment or outside somewhere distanced with an all chip in on a great group therapist, like I think that would be an awesome idea. And again, another way to take advantage of this time to grow. Right, right.

David Condos
Alright, to wrap up with this last thing, what’s a favorite piece of advice that someone gave you that’s meant a lot? Something that you’d want to leave listeners with and pass it on?

Neil Strauss
I think probably the one of my favorite quotes is from Carl Jung, which you know, quote, I’m gonna say are no,

David Condos
no good. I mean, he has more than one but

Neil Strauss
Until we make enough, obviously probably going to paraphrase it slightly, but “until we make the unconscious conscious, it will rule our life and we’ll call it fate.” And the idea being that in the unconscious does need all these patterns and beliefs that I was talking about. We’re running my life that were in the driver’s seat of my life, the driver’s seat and until you make that unconscious conscious use that to become aware of these patterns, behaviors, and what their causes and what they’re coming from till till you’re really at the point where everything I do now and the choice I make, I know why I make them because this happened. Your life will be directed by the unconscious forces, you know, think that’s fate that’s out of your control. We’re making the unconscious conscious, you get to start to have choice, in your relationships, in your happiness, in your parenting, in your career, in the most important relationship, the one with yourself, and in starting to get attached to all the stuff we cling to on the outside that you think will bring us happiness and desert.

David Condos
Neil Strauss is a 10 time New York Times best selling author and award winning journalist based in Los Angeles. His work has been published in Rolling Stone, Esquire, in the Wall Street Journal, learn more about his book The Truth and read his blog about healing psychological wounds at NeilStrauss.com. Beyond Theory is produced and hosted by me David Condos. You can discover more from this podcast, including videos of each conversation, and beyondtheorypodcast.com. Finally, thank you for listening. And I hope you’ll join us again next time for another episode of Beyond Theory.

 

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