Relationship lessons from S-Town Podcast


So I binge-listened to the whole series of the S-Town podcast, a new production from Serial and This American Life, hosted by Brian Reed, about a man named John Brooks McLemore who despises his Alabama town and decides to do something about it.

Many critics out there gave their views and criticisms about the podcast series. But I made a different connection with the podcast. There are a lot of lessons about relationships I learned from John. Lessons everyone would benefit from.

Before continuing, spoilers ahead. But read on if you don’t intend to listen to the podcast. It’s almost seven hours long stretched across seven episodes. Unless you’re a fan of narrated stories, I doubt you’ll join the millions who listened.

Without further ado, let’s jump straight into the three lessons I learned from S-Town podcast.

Relationships flourish when no judgment is involved

Friendships are often valued based on how much people can get out from each other. Money, fame, influence, network, opportunities, feeling and the list just goes on. But when relationships are formed because of material benefits, they don’t tend to stand the test of time.

If John’s friends stuck around him just because he was rich, they wouldn’t have sobbed over his death. If John’s friends were only using his expertise in horology and clock restoration, they wouldn’t have had hour-long phone conversations. If John’s friends were not genuine, they wouldn’t even have tolerated John’s eccentricity.

Sure, all his friends judged him at first sight. It’s only human. What really matters, though, is shedding all the judgment to strengthen the relationship. Judgment has no place in building a relationship.

Olin and John got close. Because John was someone whom Olin could get intimate with. This was what Olin said, which sums up this point very well.

“Intimacy is the feeling that I can tell another person my thoughts and my behaviours without fear of judgment. If I can tell them the things that I’ve done, even things that I’m not proud of, and they’re still going to answer the phone and say hey, Olin, how are you getting along.”

But of course, if you had listened to the entire series, you would know, John and Olin eventually fell out. Olin never knew John died until he looked up his obituary online.

Mutual affection must be expressed explicitly

John and Olin had something special going on. But neither of them spoke about it even up till the end. If either of them lay his ego down and express affection, they might have gotten together. John might not have committed suicide.

Too often, we are afraid of expressing our affection for anyone. Because when I confess my feelings to someone, I’m giving up power. I’m at the mercy of his or her acceptance or rejection of my feelings. No one wants to feel powerless and be subject to someone else’s whim.

The truth is, though, if no one is willing to be vulnerable, relationships can’t form.

Every relationship starts with that first awkward conversation. Someone has to initiate it.

Want more friends? Start talking to strangers even if it means getting weird looks.

Want to date that person? Ask about his or her day and try to make it even better, regardless whether he or she ends up going out with you.

Trying doesn’t always lead to success. But if we don’t try at all, success will just be a dream.

John and Olin were too bogged down by their own worries and fears of the other person not feeling the same. If either one of them just had the selflessness to confess and be vulnerable about his feelings first, things might be different. There’s no telling if it would had worked out, undoubtedly. But chances were high, according to the story.

Love requires acceptance of eventual departure


Love broke John because he was always fixated on “possessing” people. When he felt the unknown guy, Michael and Tyler leaving his life, he tried to grab onto them tighter. It didn’t work out.

The same happened with Cheryl Dodson, the town clerk for “Shit Town” Woodstock. They were close. Until Cheryl got married to Jeff. John felt his relationship with Cheryl was threatened by her marriage.

Like most of us, when we think something dear to us is slowly slipping through out fingers, John became protective. And obnoxious to Jeff, then even to Cheryl.

The outcome is almost always the same in these situations – people suffocate and leave.

John killed himself in the end, as highly suggested by the narrative of S-Town podcast, because he felt Tyler leaving his life. Tyler was slowly getting a good hold of his life. Tyler was settling down with one girlfriend after two failed marriages and children from different Mums.

It was exactly what John wanted. But John couldn’t accept that Tyler, like the many people in his lives, was about to leave him.

Again. People are leaving me for something better, yet again. These were probably the thoughts going through John’s mind right before he downed potassium cyanide and killed himself.

This is clichéd but loving a person is not possessing him or her.

Loving a person means wishing the best for him or her, even if that means he or she were to leave you one day.

About the author

Vance Wong

Brain-picker. Cinephile. Koreaboo.

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Vance Wong

Brain-picker. Cinephile. Koreaboo.