Of all the relationship benchmarks I’ve written about in this series of posts, this is probably the one that needs the most clarification. Who hasn’t confided in a close friend or family member about a new relationship? We often doubt our own perceptions and can benefit from seeking advice from those with experience.
Running questions by a trusted confidante can help keep us sane. Very importantly, advice from those we trust can help us behave in such a way that we appear sane, which is almost as important in the early days of a relationship!
When Advice is Helpful
Advice When You Lack Experience
Navigating your first serious relationship is a challenge for everyone. It’s hard to know what’s normal, or present in all relationships, vs. what signals a mismatch or a problem that’s bound to get bigger. For example:
- How to resolve conflict and argue well
- How to manage jealousy and/or feelings of possessiveness
- How to balance independence vs. relationship intimacy
- How to communicate effectively about sex
These are issues common to all relationships, but they can be particularly stressful the first time around. Seeking counsel from someone with more life experience can be very helpful.
I also get a lot of requests for advice when something unexpected happens, like a relocation. The relationship is thriving, but some change beyond their control now looms. They want to figure out whether staying together is reasonable – if it works for other people, and how it works. They’re gathering information about the pros and cons of various outcomes.
We live in a culture where young women form expectations about relationships by watching romantic comedies and consuming media that glorifies casual sex and emotional detachment. Young men especially are pressured to disconnect emotions from sex. A lot of the requests for advice I receive reveal the inevitable confusion people feel when their real life experiences don’t match the cultural narrative. People want to know what’s true, and where they may be off in their expectations about relationships and the opposite sex.
Advice When Crisis Affects or Threatens Your Relationship
Sometimes we go through a crisis in life that has nothing to do with our partner. Stressful events like losing a loved one or job bring us down, and we fear the effect that will have on our relationship. This can be a worry even in longstanding relationships or marriages, so it’s hardly surprising that someone going through a crisis will seek support about how to maintain a romantic relationship while dealing with very difficult circumstances.
When Advice Spells Trouble
Despite all of the legit reasons one might seek advice in a healthy relationship, at least 75% of the questions I receive from readers describe complicated and dysfunctional dynamics. My most common response to emails starts out with “I think you already know the answer.”
It’s very understandable for people to reach out when they encounter a problem. Often the problem has been caused by their partner’s behavior, and they are looking for a solution to make the problem go away. Of course, this is impossible when the behavior or circumstances are totally beyond their control.
“How can I prevent him from cheating on me again?”
“How can I get him to spend more time with me?”
“How can I make her see that I’m too young to be serious?”
When I get long, complicated emails, 99% of the time my advice is to move on.
Questions about any of the following are a red flag:
- Does this person have good character?
- Am I being treated well?
- How does my partner really feel?
The Dubious Qualifications of Advice Givers
If you’re going to seek advice, get it from someone with life experience who knows a lot about relationships. In most cases a parent, mentor or counselor are going to offer far more value than a peer or your BFF. (And you can always write to me. 🙂 )
Inexperience is a Problem
Very often I speak with readers who have already received questionable advice from a close friend. It’s common because your close friends are stumbling through relationships in the same way that you are. They lack experience and context.
For example, one of my clients has a friend who has been in a successful relationship for several years. That “expertise” has earned her the role of Advice Giver in Chief. The problem is that her experience is limited to her one relationship. What’s right for her may not be right for someone else. If she delayed sex for a year, can we conclude that successful relationships require that? If she says it’s normal for attraction to one’s partner to ebb and flow dramatically from month to month, should we refine our expectations to accommodate big swings in feeling? A sample of one – or two, or six – is not something you can take to the bank.
Lack of Objectivity is a Problem
Our closest friends and family are not objective. They want the best for us and often feel protective towards us. That is natural. Additionally, we all have our own life experiences that color our views.
Therapists are trained to assess and counsel clients without allowing their own buttons to be pushed. When you tell a close friend that you’re worried your partner may be interested in someone else, her response may depend on whether her previous boyfriend was poached by another woman. If she is someone who has dated bad boys, she may excuse a guy’s flirtatious behavior as no big deal. If a guy broke her heart when he cheated on her, she may be angry at men and believe none of them are trustworthy.
You may also lack some objectivity in reporting the problem. You’re likely to stress some aspects of the situation while downplaying others, based on your own fears and triggers. I find that often this results in a friend being quite upset or offended on your behalf, compounding what may be an overreaction. Or your friend may zero in on some part of the story you didn’t even find troubling.
We all carry baggage that affects our objectivity. Be very careful about seeking advice from your close friends. At the very least, get several opinions so that an especially biased response doesn’t throw you off.
The Bottom Line
Stuff happens. We get confused, stressed out, doubtful. That’s inevitable, and it can be reassuring and helpful to talk with someone else when that happens. But as a general rule, the less advice you need to seek about your relationship the better. If you’re talking to your best friend for hours on end about the guy you’re dating, that’s not a good sign.
My best advice, for what it’s worth, is to trust your instincts. Most often when you ask for advice you really do know the answer already.
What experiences have you had seeking advice from friends? Family? Outsiders?
Have you ever followed terrible advice? Has the advice of someone else helped you save a relationship?
This is the ninth post in a series. Previous posts include: