Step Outside

In the vaguest of terms, a friend of mine has relationship trouble; I’m not going to say who, obviously, and I’m even going to play the Pronoun Game (crafty!) but I’m still going to talk about it a little, because they needed somebody to talk to, and as a result I now have something to say.

The process is, of course, well understood: we sat down over coffee and they talked and I listened and then I talked and they listened, and in a trite, whiffle-ball world I would have found the Magic Words that make people feel a little better about these things, they’d sniffle a bit and realize that Things Aren’t That Bad, and that I Can Get On With My Life, and so forth. But I’ve talked to a lot of people about a lot of relationships, and you know what? That shit never happens, because those words don’t exist.

But you know what does exist, and happens a lot? Bad, bad advice. The conversation turns, as it often does, to What Other People Think, and as always I’m impressed by the unbelievably self-absorbed, cripplingly bad advice that people will give their friends right at the moment that good advice is needed the most.

So, still vague, let’s postulate here your ANSI standard Relationship That Doesn’t Work Out. The person you’re talking with still feels broken up about it, and you want to, I dunno, do something, because this is your friend who’s hurting in front of you here and you want to make that stop. What to say?


You say: “You should just get over them”,
You hear: “Yeah, I know, but it’s difficult.”
They’re thinking: “Gee, thanks. Really? Fuck, I would never have thought of that on my own. Is that all I need to do?”


You say: “You need to get on with your life.”
You hear: “Yeah, I know. I just…”
They’re thinking: “That’s just what I need right now, a friend who talks like a Hallmark card.”


You say: “You deserve someone better than them.”
You hear: “I…”
They’re thinking: “Fuck you.”

“If I were you, I’d…” You’re not. It’s one thing to give somebody advice that you think will help them; it’s another thing entirely to just tell them what you wished you’d do if, or had done when, you found yourself in their position. Confuse the two, and you may as well be telling someone wheelchair-bound that jogging helps clear your head; the former is somebody trying be helpful, and the latter comes from someone too self-absorbed to be helpful to anyone.

If you’re really lucky, you’ve got friends who aren’t anything like you. So when they need your advice, don’t give them something that works for you; try and give them something that will work for them and not something that sounds like “Doctor Phil’s Bullet Points to a Better Life”. Seriously.


  1. Melanie
    Posted August 23, 2005 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    My experience is that people who want to talk about their rocky relationship aren’t usually looking for advice, they’re looking for a shoulder to cry on, which isn’t exactly the same thing. People who really need outside advice about relationships tend to be either a) about to get beaten to a pulp by their boyfriend (or worse) and need someone to scream at them to LEAVE NOW and/or b) not really interested in listening to what you have to say, no matter how wise. So in general, listen, don’t talk. Heartfelt phrases like “wow, that sucks” go a long way.

  2. Leigh
    Posted August 23, 2005 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Melanie. I have a friend who gets his/her heart broken rather regularly, and from that repeated experience I’ve learned that nothing you say is really going to help, but just being there does.

    There’s really no way around the hard part, anyway. Nobody’s advice is going to enable you to skip over the crying jag, curled around your pillow, listening to maudlin country music (“It is the music of pain”) phase of the post-breakup. It’s one o’ them inevitable thingys.

  3. Mike Hoye
    Posted August 23, 2005 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    See, that’s true, but neither of you are offering advice; you’re providing consolation, different. And if that’s what’s called for, great. But what I’m saying is that when somebody asks you for your advice, your advice should not be the kind of crap described above.

    “Advice about coping should not consist of ‘get over it’ or ‘the object of your affection is unworthy'”, is the Coles Notes version of what I’m saying, here.