At some point or another most of us turn to others for relationship advice. Whom should we tell, and how much should we reveal? How seriously should we take their suggestions or assessments?
Perhaps the first thing to bear in mind is that it is extremely difficult to present a fully accurate “three-dimensional” picture of your relationship to someone else. Also, unless you bend over backwards to create a balanced picture, you will likely emphasize your relationship’s negative aspects. After all, you probably won’t be asking your friends and family for advice about things that are going well. Instead, you’ll be asking about how to correct some problem. And usually that problem will be your partner’s bad behavior(s).
If you want truly helpful advice: you must present both your and your partner’s viewpoints in as balanced a manner as possible. Otherwise, any advice you receive will be either useless or actually harmful, for the same reason that telling your doctor only half of your symptoms would lead to an inaccurate and possibly dangerous diagnosis.
Now that you’ve wisely decided to make your relationship picture as clear and unbiased as possible – with whom should you discuss your relationship?
Just as you should consider your own biases, you should consider the possible biases of those you confide in. For example, what’s their relationship history? Has he or she had good, long-lasting relationships, or disastrous ones?
Asking someone who’s a veteran of dysfunctional relationships for relationship advice is like asking a contractor whose houses regularly collapse for construction advice. If you follow their suggestions, their disasters may well become your own.
How have your advice-givers related to your past partners? Did they get along with or approve of them, or were they often at odds? Did your past partners like your advice-giver? In cases where the person who’s giving you advice has a history of not liking your partners, you may rightfully suspect either that they don’t have your best interests at heart, don’t share your tastes in romantic partners – or they are accurately seeing a negative pattern in your relationship choices. But if you notice that you and your advice-giver are not seeing eye to eye on your choices, that’s probably something you should figure out before placing much store in their evaluations.
Also, your chosen advice-giver may have personal reasons for wanting your romantic relationship to fail. For instance, if you’re talking to an ex-lover about your current relationship, they may still have feelings for you, or may perhaps feel competitive with your present lover. Your parents or siblings or best friend may fear being displaced by a significant other.
Your friend may also envy your relationship success, and not wish, perhaps unconsciously, for you to succeed. Your best friend may want you to join them in perpetual bachelorhood or old maid-hood.
Your friends will probably see their role as their defenders and sympathizers. It’s great to receive support and sympathy, but assuming an adversarial stance with respect to your partner is not likely to produce a fair-minded, truth-seeking perspective of your relationship.
There are so many good reasons for being wary of receiving another person’s advice that one might wonder if the idea itself is suspect.
I think it is. A better approach, in my view, is to discuss an issue. In my experience, a good friend listens more than advises. They well-appreciate that the decision is up to you – and that it’s rarely wise to speak critically of someone you love (even if it’s deserved).
But let’s say you’re satisfied that the person you’re asking about your relationship is reasonably healthy and unbiased and has your best interests at heart. How much should you tell them?
I agree (mostly) with therapist/writer Dr. Arnold Lazarus (Marital Myths Revisited), that we ought to feel free to tell a best friend or most trusted confidante pretty much everything – even some things you wouldn’t share with your romantic partner:
“Many people contend that marriage is a relationship that carries the principle of friendship to its ultimate and most intimate degree. I think they are mistaken.
“The structure of marriage overlaps with friendship but is not synonymous with it. Marriage is intimate sharing, whereas friendship is shared intimacy. Friends typically do not live under the same roof year in and year out. As such, their shared intimacies are intensive, rather than extensive. Spouses share many daily events in which the feeling tone of one partner has a direct effect upon the other. Consequently, it is easy to overload the system. Moreover, friendship emphasizes the needs and interests of two independent people, while the focus of marriage usually ends up being on the family.”
I’m not sure having less intimacy with our partners than with our best friends or others is desirable. Rather – and I think this is the true gist of Dr. Lazarus’s analysis – it’s not the amount or even intimacy of the information shared, but rather the kind of information shared. For example, mentioning a past lover’s superior sexual performance or venting all your anxieties to your partner seems destined to prove unhelpful, but such venting might be fine with a friend. In general, I think, issues which are likely to introduce anxiety or upset into your relationship without any tangible upside are better reserved for others or perhaps for your own thoughts.
What should be discussed with your partner, even if causes upset, are important issues which are specifically relevant to your relationship. If you’re discussing these kinds of issues with others but not your significant other, then you’re probably doing your relationship a disservice.