Most of the podcasts that sell relationship advice imply that romance is synonymous with sex. The theory of that equivalency has been a theme in the arts for centuries: Shakespeare, Flaubert, Thackeray and Tolstoy all exposed its follies and truths. Unsurprisingly, the podcast hosts have a less poetic, nuanced note than the classic writers, such as giving the advice: ‘If you’re having a dry spell, listen to us or break up.’
Tony and Alisa DiLorenzo are a Christian couple who have married for 23 years. Perhaps surprisingly, their podcast, ONE Extraordinary Marriage, depicts sex and romance as interchangeable. Tony and Alisa, who couple on the page in their co-authored book 7 Days of Sex Challenge, start each episode with a ‘hug’. This embrace is a metaphorical advertisement, a listener’s praise for the podcast. Their blog lists things such as ‘Eleven objects you need in your bedroom’. You can buy ‘plush fleece blankets’ and a cleansing ‘Himalayan salt lamp’.
Tony and Alisa might hug, but they don’t rub their Christianity in your face. They will, however, make you feel that, compared to theirs, your sex life is completely inadequate and your relationship is doomed. One recent episode covered the topic of intimacy during ‘tough seasons’. The DiLorenzos schedule their sex life around church attendance, their son’s football games and family holidays.
Stiff erotic challenges arise when they jet off to address a marriage-counseling retreat in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. The day before the trip, their son tears his anterior cruciate ligament in a football game and is hospitalized for MRIs and CT scans. Tony and Alisa still go to Tahoe. ‘We had a commitment,’ Tony explains. Two commitments, in fact: they’ve double-tasked by also planning for the conference to be a three-day weekend of ‘scheduled sex’. Sadly, their rigorous program is disrupted by phone calls from the doctors in the middle of the night about whether their son would ever be able to play his favorite sport again. They are not happy about that.
Thankfully, the DiLorenzos have friends who can watch over their mangled boy while they workshop their strong marriage and vigorous genitals in Tahoe. This, and not some recondite form of cultish swinging, is what Tony means when he advises sex-schedulers to build a ‘community’. The pair also put time aside to pray for their son. I pray for him for when he hears their podcast.
Where Should We Begin? with Esther Perel is ‘a podcast for anyone who has ever loved’. Where to begin describing a podcast that, if it were a book, would be sold from a dusty rack in a pharmacy? Appropriate, perhaps, as Perel’s target audience might well indulge in daytime soaps. I was especially intrigued by the saga of the small-town couple who begin their relationship by cheating on their current partners and who, unlike Emma Bovary, make it work despite the gossips.
The highbrows at NPR have Dear Sugar, a snob’s idea of a local newspaper’s advice column. The lead host, Cheryl Strayed, is the author of Wild, an account of her hike on the Pacific Crest Trail after the death of her mother, later made into a film starring Reese Witherspoon. This being NPR, the stories are crafted for educated boomers open to anything except Donald Trump. Co-host Steve Almond quotes from a book apparently called Ugly Old Sex and compares an aged man’s body to a ‘Lucian Freud painting’. Elderly strangers complain graphically about fading orgasms. On which note, Hillary Clinton has appeared on Dear Sugar, but without asking for advice about a dilemma that once beset all couples sooner or later: ‘Dear Sugar, my husband is accepting free flights from Jeffrey Epstein. What should I do?’
Romance survives in Hollywood. Not just in film versions of Anna Karenina, but also on the excellent Anna Faris Is Unqualified podcast. Faris, who appeared in Brokeback Mountain and Alvin and the Chipmunks as an understandably frustrated love interest, is soothing, nonchalant, funny and aware of Hollywood phoniness. She did, after all, have a much-publicized decoupling from blockbuster star Chris Pratt. ‘We’re all self-absorbed,’ she says.
Faris interviews D-list celebrities, gives relationship advice to callers and exposes the backbone of relationships: honesty. You can hear her awkwardness and desperation when she politely interrupts a caller’s rambling and meaningless monologue. Faris talks sex, but she also talks the importance of trust and happiness without making them wholly dependent on sex. She may not be Konstantin Levin, or even know who he is, but I can imagine Tolstoy on Anna Faris’s mic, agreeing on what love really means and choosing Faris’s reflections over a weekend in Tahoe with the DiLorenzos.
ONE Extraordinary Marriage, Where Should We Begin?, Dear Sugar and Anna Faris Is Unqualified can be downloaded from iTunes and other major podcast providers. This article is in The Spectator’s April 2020 US edition. Subscribe here to get yours.