A week before Valentine’s Day, 30 people gathered at Brookline Booksmith to hear Michael and Sarah Bennett’s antidote to the sugar-coated holiday. “[Expletive] Love,” the new book from the Brookline therapist and his comedian daughter, is fire-engine red with a yellow asterisk in its title, next to a white letter F.
“There’s a big commercial holiday coming up Tuesday, with flowers and candy,” said a woman in the audience. “What message does your book have about this holiday?”
“Aside from ‘feh’?” quipped Sarah, 38.
“We love to attack all these values that people overvalue and make a big deal out of,” said Michael, 71.
The Bennetts aren’t against love. In fact, the book’s subtitle is “One shrink’s sensible advice for finding a lasting relationship.” But the authors, who also wrote 2015’s “[Expletive] Feelings” — which reached No. 5 on The New York Times’ Relationships bestseller list — think the average lovelorn reader needs some dark-humored, tough-talking advice.
“Investing in a long-term partnership/relationship is about the most dangerous thing you will ever do in your life,” the Bennetts write in the introduction, “base jumping and relying on Boston’s MBTA during a snowy winter included.” (Yes, Sarah says, they wrote that line after “that special, special winter” of 2015.)
“We don’t think love is stupid,” explained Sarah, who’s written for the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy troupe in New York. “And you can’t be with someone you don’t have any feelings for. But passion is not the building block of a long-term relationship. It’s inherently combustive and fleeting.”
If you ignore a potential partner’s character, the Bennetts warn, you may end up talking about your divorce in a therapist’s office.
“Love brings me lots of business,” said Michael, a Harvard-educated psychiatrist. “I’m very, very grateful to love.”
Like “[Expletive] Feelings,” the sequel’s carefully deployed obscenities reflect Michael’s unorthodox, blunt approach to therapy and his belief that profanity can be a source of comfort and strength.
Chapter titles, such as “[Expletive] Charisma,” “[Expletive] Beauty,” and “[Expletive] a Sense of Humor,” also reflect the duo’s skepticism about many of the attributes people say they find desirable in a partner. “Each of those qualities has a dark side, too,” Michael said, “whether you’re attracted to it, or have that quality yourself.”
Beauty, for instance, can distract potential suitors from thinking straight. Someone very charismatic, meanwhile, might have what the Bennetts call “Bill Clinton Syndrome” and be addicted to dazzling everyone they meet.
“They have a way of looking at people, and they’d just be won over,” said Sarah. “You’re not noticing all these traits they have that indicate they’ll be a terrible spouse in a million other ways.”
The Bennetts also tear apart relationship clichés they consider dangerous.
“We tackled the ‘never to go sleep angry’ bull[expletive],” said Michael. “It would be very nice if all issues could be resolved before bedtime. But there are always some issues that can’t be resolved, period. So you’d better learn to shut up about them, especially when you’re tired.”
For the single and searching, the Bennetts recommend avoiding Internet dating fatigue by focusing on traits you want in a life partner.
“You’ll burn out quickly unless you have a way of shielding yourself, and not investing for very long in people who are not right for you,” Michael said.
Dating couples should test their relationship by going through hard times together.
“If you like someone, and think you have a solid relationship,” Sarah said, “go on a long trip on a summer day with no air conditioning, or go visit your alcoholic uncle for five days, or nurse each other through norovirus.”
The book’s advice — to listen to logic, not just feelings — reflects the tough-minded realism the Bennetts advocated in “[Expletive] Feelings.” In “[Expletive] Love,” daters are advised to have high standards, while the advice for married people tends to be tougher: accepting that their spouses will change slowly, if they change at all.
The key to matchmaking is “accepting that what is is,” Michael said. “This is not how to change your partner. This is how to see what he does and doesn’t have, and in accepting that, making a better choice. Not that people don’t change, but you can have various common-sense ways of evaluating whether that’s likely or not.”
The Bennetts both thank their exes in the acknowledgments. Sarah says the book’s chart, “The Art of Apology: The Dos and Don’ts of Sorry,” was inspired by an ex-boyfriend who reacted to criticism by saying, “I’m sorry you think I’m an [expletive].” Her message: you don’t have to put up with passive-aggression. “If you feel like you’re being an [expletive], by all means, stop,” she responded, “but let’s get back to what you actually did!”
Michael, who has been married 40 years, says “[Expletive] Love” reflects the hard lessons of his early romances.
“Any relationship that doesn’t work can leave you with heartache that feels like failure,” he says. Instead, “you should be able to think, ‘I gave it a good try, I really cared, I took risks. I’ve learned valuable lessons. This pain will pass.’ ”