Relationships

I Just Spent 10 Hours Listening to Marriage Advice From a Power Couple That Went Kaput. Whew.

Rachel and Dave Hollis sold an exhausting view of what it means to be in love.

Collage of a photo of Dave and Rachel Hollis torn in half and surrounded by hearts and dollar bills
Dave and Rachel Hollis. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Randy Shropshire/Getty Images and z1b/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

“I’m Rachel Hollis,” a female voice chirps in the introduction to the first episode of the inspirational podcast Rise Together, which premiered in the summer of 2018. “I’m Dave Hollis,” a male voice responds. The two describe their marriage of 14 years and their four kids (“which is like a thousand kids!” Dave jokes). They talk about what it’s like to run a business together, the Hollis Company, a fount of conferences, merch, and multimedia content centered on improving yourself, your life, and your moneymaking abilities. (Rachel’s mega-bestseller, the vaguely Christian Girl, Wash Your Face: Stop Believing the Lies About Who You Are so You Can Become Who You Were Meant to Be, had come out earlier that year.) Then, the conversation hits on the core message for the new podcast, which promises to be all about bettering yourself as part of a couple: “We feel like it’s possible—we know it’s possible—to have an exceptional relationship despite the stresses you have in your life.”

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It wasn’t. After a 99-episode run of dispensing marriage advice, charging $1,800 for couple’s weekends, and much posing on Instagram as a pair, in June of 2020, the Hollises suddenly announced that they were getting divorced. Something of a difficult season has ensued in Hollis-world. Since the split, which came as a surprise to fans, Dave has gone public with a new fitness-influencer girlfriend. Rachel has published a suddenly relevant book, Didn’t See That Coming: Putting Life Back Together When Your World Falls Apart (it was in edits when the divorce was announced). In April of this year, a controversy further shattered the particular image that Hollis Co. had been cultivating: Rachel put up a TikTok video in which she defended herself against a commenter who called her “privileged” and “unrelatable” for hiring a housekeeper to, in Rachel’s words, “clean the toilets.” Rachel said in defense that she works much harder than most people, and (now infamously) captioned the video by comparing herself to other “unrelatable” women like Harriet Tubman and Oprah Winfrey. For some, the moment felt like proof of long-held misgivings about Rachel’s blind spots. As Katherine Rosman reported in the New York Times last week, the flap over that TikTok post led Rachel to suspend her plans for an online conference so that she could “rethink her content.”

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And still, nestled in iTunes, there exist hours and hours and hours of the Rise Together podcast (as well as some guest stints elsewhere—including a January 2020 episode of Slate’s own How To!, during which Dave details leaving his gig as president of worldwide distribution at Disney to join Hollis Co.). Rise Together has now switched into a Dave-only format—but before it did, it helped prop up a central aspect of the Hollis Co. business. Beyond the ads and tickets sold on the power of their marriage advice, the Hollises presented themselves as a modern power couple: flawed in adorable ways, out to make money and love as an unstoppable team. And they wanted to teach you how to do the same, sometimes for a fee. Because I’m interested, socioculturally speaking, in knowing more about what kinds of marriage advice Americans currently favor; because I’m a gossip, and this is hours of a couple talking about their relationship, when we know they were on the brink of breaking up; and because I’m a glutton for punishment, I recently listened to 10 hours of the “Rachel and Dave” episodes of Rise Together, picking ones with titles that represented a range of themes. Here’s what I learned about the vision of American couplehood they were selling.

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Marriage, the Hollises reminded me over and over (and over!) again, is work. That’s boilerplate couples advice, but the Hollises added a very Hollis spin: There’s no excuse for not working. The pair subscribe to the “you make your own luck” school of American thought about life outcomes—work hard, and you’ll have all the money and companionship a person could ask for. As for how to do the work of marriage—“keep reaching for more tactics, more tools, more podcasts, more books,” enjoined Rachel in Episode 3, “Help! My Partner Doesn’t DO Personal Development” (July 18, 2018). “Why would you be in a relationship that wasn’t good?” she said elsewhere in the episode. “Why would you not want your relationship to be great? What’s the point? Just OK? Just adequate? Just mediocre? It has to be that you don’t understand what’s possible. That’s the only thing I can think of.” (I can think of a few other reasons: money, family entanglements, abusive partners, child care needs. Life is rarely as simple as Rachel makes it sound.) The Hollises’ investment in the idea of “work” means that they lean toward personality tests and thought technologies, which are a little like love homework: There’s an episode about Enneagrams, another about “love languages.”

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If the first takeaway is “you must work,” the second is “be upbeat!” “Negativity is my kryptonite,” Rachel says in Episode 45 (“Excuses to Let Go Of as a Couple,” May 9, 2019). “I notice it much more than the average bear.” She says she writes, every day, in her journal the sentence “I am one of the most optimistic people I know.” All that optimism comes with a total lack of understanding and compassion for people who are “negative”: people who say they “can’t.” “We all get the same number of hours in the day. … At the end of the day, you don’t have the time, you find the time,” Rachel says. This is pretty standard issue American toxic positivity, with some modeling on how to perform it along with a spouse. The two joke about how Dave hasn’t seen Game of Thrones because he has decided that it’s not a priority. He’s allowed to watch it, Rachel says. “Just don’t say, later, that you don’t have time.”

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But I also learned that you should be careful to not spend too much breath telling your lover to prioritize better, especially if you are a woman who’s with a man. Women, Rachel says in the very first episode, should not nag, not be a “shrew” (“I might get into trouble for using that word”) toward men who don’t want to “develop themselves.” Just model. In Episode 3, she says: “Women do this more than men. I’m going to get some annoyed notes, but we think that to get our partner to come along for the ride, we nag, we harp on them, we chastise them—that’s not what we’re talking about.” Instead, you should “not say a darn thing to them” about whatever you’re doing. In the episode about having better sex (“Let’s Talk About Sex Baby,” Episode 7, Aug. 16, 2018), Rachel reiterates this idea that men cannot be “talked into” anything: “Don’t give notes. Give praise.” The answer for how to communicate with a male partner, whether for relationship improvement or sexual satisfaction, seems to be for women to hop on that Peloton, crack open a journal, and wait, like a hunter who sets a trap and then retreats behind a tree, watching for a bumbling animal to come along.

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Was living like this working for Rachel and Dave? From atop their advice-giving soapbox, the two sometimes said things that might have made an astute listener wonder if they were really as happy as they said they were. Fans have long arched their eyebrows at a chapter in Girl, Wash Your Face about the first year of their relationship, which describes some pretty cruel things Dave did to Rachel (think refusing to acknowledge their relationship in public, while treating her well in private to keep her invested) before she discovered self-respect and turned him around with an ultimatum. One of the couple’s stories, repeated often, is about a time that Dave said to Rachel, after she described one of her big plans to him, that it had a “3 percent chance” of working out (he’s vague in this episode about what the plans were; some fans suspect this was about the publication of Rachel’s first novel). After it did come to fruition, he says in Episode 24 (“Are You Showing Up the Way Your Partner Needs?” Dec. 13, 2018), she came into the room with a gift, said, “This is a gift you got me!” and then opened it to reveal a charm on a bracelet with “3%” stamped on it. The neg was then immortalized in business form: The podcast is produced by their own production company, Three Percent Chance.

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Is this story cute? Or terrifying? Dave spins it as a lesson: He had “shown up” in a way that Rachel didn’t need, as a naysayer. This twist—that it ended up driving her forth, toward success—is classic Hollis. There is a general sense, in the Hollises’ advice, that things in their marriage were always improving, even if it didn’t look like it. “We have, every year, become better versions of ourselves, even if sometimes we become worse versions of ourselves in order to become better versions of ourselves,” said Dave in the podcast’s first episode. This idea, that people’s lives are always on an upward trajectory (if they only work at it), is a classic American concept that affords terrifyingly little grace for people whose lives might actually be getting objectively worse. After the recent TikTok fiasco, many commenters pointed out that so much of the Hollises’ shiny, allegedly ever-improving life was greased by money, both Dave’s from his Disney exec days and Rachel’s from the inspirational speaker circuit. Money doesn’t solve everything, but it sure does make things like date nights and all that time for all that self-improvement easier to come by.

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I don’t wish divorce on anyone, cluelessly rich or no. But as the pandemic unravels some of the spell of American positivity culture and relieves us of some of our celebrity obsession, there’s something delicious about the way this particular fiction has been revealed to be just that. Episode 94, “Keeping Your Relationship Strong During Quarantine” (April 30, 2020), which aired just five weeks before the Hollises announced they were getting their divorce, is a real work of art. Now, it sounds almost frantic, over-the-top, in its protestations of “We’re doing great!” Rachel reports that she told somebody that the couple had sex that morning, and the interlocutor had expressed surprise because “most couples hate each other right now, during quarantine.” “People are either falling deeply in love or being split apart,” Dave observes. The couple talked about how good Dave’s muscles looked and his disappointment at his canceled book tour, and dispensed some very April 2020 platitudes about how the pandemic had given them new perspective on “what mattered.” Rachel, later on in the show: “Our bond is as strong as it’s ever been.” This whole episode gave me the creeps. It was soon followed with an Instagram post about how they’d actually been going through one of the hardest times of their lives. A grimmer artifact of influencer inspo-culture has rarely been produced.

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Still, my journey through this world left me feeling hopeful. If people now know that the ever-improving couple they portrayed was just a story, maybe some of the other stuff—every Hollis way of saying “you have only yourself to blame”—can begin to unravel for them as well. A reviewer gave the show one star on iTunes on July 18 of last year, writing, “Followed you guys for years. Bought the books. The merch. The stupid expensive event tickets. The lives, the stories, the podcasts. The LIES. Which is my own fault.” After my own marathon of Hollis advice, I just hope this fan has gotten some well-deserved rest.

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