I live for good advice, and sometimes I spend a little too much energy attempting to absorb others’ hard-learned lessons into my own life. When I graduated from college, my attempts to gather as much advice as I could from everyone who’d already done it left me so overwhelmed with information that I went on an advice detox for a few months. I think I figured that by asking others about their youth I’d be able to magically skip the rough parts of postgrad life (hah), but it ultimately made me crazy. I’d started to overthink my every move and was so afraid of making a mistake that would ruin my shot at a happy life that I was, in fact, ruining my happy life by dwelling on it every second. My little break forced me to notice how often my friends were taking the same route by asking anyone and everyone to weigh in on their choices. It was like an epidemic, and more than any other topic in the world, the uncertain questions frequently led back to our love lives — even when we were happy as could be with them.
Like most of us, the people I ask for input are usually the ones closest to me, regardless of what their own personal lives look like. It’s often said that the only people you should seek advice from are the people who’ve actually accomplished the things you want, because they’re the only ones who actually know the steps to get there. As harsh as this sounds, the women in my family that I usually trust for relationship advice have love lives I distinctly don’t want. In fact, their love lives have played out as the opposite of what I want for my future — divorces, extremely conservative relationships, committing to people out of insecurity, and a slew of other routes I’d rather not take. Yet, I continue to seek advice from them over and over again. This is partially because I’ve been comfortable opening up to them for so long, but it’s mostly because I admire them endlessly and think they’re emotionally brilliant people. In fact, a lot of the tough romantic situations they’ve been in seemed to have happened out of bad luck in spite of how great they are, and those tough times have definitely left them full of wisdom to share. If I went by that rule, it would disqualify the opinions of about 90 percent of the people I go to for help.
I think the reason that concept is tossed around so much is that relationship advice is generally just a projection based on the advice giver’s own life experience, and since most of us lack the self-awareness to even realize when we’re doing this, it’s better to trust the projection of someone who’s been where you want to be in life than someone who took a completely different course. People choose what definition to take from their romantic experiences. It seems that how we choose to relate and react to the things that happen to us is one of the only things we have guaranteed control over in this world. Our definition of our experiences is what we use to create the story of who we are, but it’s just that — a story. It’s not so pretty when people take their own self-created story about what the world means to them and assume they are universal truths to be imposed on advice seekers. Depending on what kind of day you’re having when you ask for input, you may take your friend’s word as law, which is pretty unfortunate if your friend has an awful story about the world.
Say she tells you that all lawyers cheat (because the two lawyers she dated cheated on her). Now you may leave her house practically convinced — or at least full of dread — that your boyfriend is going to cheat on you since he’s in law school and that you probably shouldn’t marry him. You start to see evidence of failed relationships everywhere, because doomed love is suddenly on your mind. You start to decide that marriage isn’t even worth it anyway, because hell, everyone ends up miserable and they all just cheat and…. This can spiral on until it changes your view of love and you start to subconsciously sabotage every relationship you have. All because your friend had the misfortune of being cheated on by two awful dudes. That may sound a little insane, but we all do this on some small scale. Emotional baggage is human nature. Scary, right? Even scarier is that angry, bitter people are the ones who are most eager to dole out awful advice left and right. It’s even tougher when a projection comes out of the mouth of someone you love and trust. How can you recognize bias in the advice of your best friend or your sister? It can be next to impossible, especially when you’re already blinded by the heavy emotions of the predicament you’re asking advice about in the first place.
Asking for someone’s opinion of your relationship is a very delicate, vulnerable thing even before they bring their own baggage into it. In some small way, you are giving that person control over your emotions and (if you take them seriously enough) your romantic future. You’re also asking them to pass judgment on some of your most personal decisions — and what if you get a response you don’t like and choose not to act on their opinions? The advice giver may not be bothered either way, but you could find yourself waking up at 3 a.m. feeling self-conscious about your choices and doubting your own judgment. You could even turn negative advice into a self-fulfilling prophecy — and all the while, unbeknownst to both you and your friend, her big prediction of your romantic disaster is actually based on her own horrible breakup from three years ago that subconsciously influenced her own view of love.
This explains why so many people choose to keep the details of a budding relationship private so they’re able to at least form a first impression of the guy and the dynamic without their friends’ opinions creating a bias. Our everyday lives are already so full of people trying to tell us how to feel — advertisers, fashion magazines, TV shows and our peers put so many ideas into our heads that half the time we can’t find the line between random opinions and our own original thoughts. It’s nice, in theory, to keep your relationship all to yourself, untainted by any judgment besides your own. As we all know, however, taking our own advice isn’t so easy either.
To begin with, the running dialogue at the surface of our minds is more or less bullshit on most days. Deep down, our gut knows more than we could ever imagine about what we really need in life, but that voice in our head is not the same thing as the wiser voice in our heart. That neurotic mess in your brain that questions everything you do, tells you that you look kinda fat when you look in the mirror, and starts making mental lists of what you’ll pick up at the grocery store after work when you’re in the middle of a meeting is not the wise part of yourself. That part of our mind, leftover from some bygone era when cavemen had to stay fearful 24/7 to avoid getting eaten by mammoths or whatever, is different from intuition; but they get mistaken all the time — and that’s where the trouble starts. Since we don’t need to be paranoid just to survive anymore, that fear wastes its time on modern-day dilemmas it has no business in — such as your relationship.
Our real intuition resides deep in our gut and is full of endless answers. But how do we cut through the blathering white noise to get to our gut? And how do we know when something is a gut feeling or just a hormonal love-induced misperception? Love shoots all kinds of intense emotional chemicals through your brain, and even if that weren’t the case, I’d still argue that love makes you mildly insane. Caring for a person so much that you’d do almost anything for them (which can apply to family and friends too) makes your sense of logic just a teensy bit out of whack. When I get too caught up in that blathering voice, I find myself thinking certain scenarios in my life should be going a specific way or that I shouldn’t stand for this or that behavior from someone, or that I should have said one specific thing the night before and that now I’m not doing life the “right” way, whatever that is. I’ll be puttering along, enjoying being in love and suddenly stop to think “Am I doing it right? IS THIS HOW I SHOULD FEEL!?” Where the hell does this magic “should” come from? When I think of how things “should” be, I can never think of a real-life example that lives up to that mythical half-baked standard – because it simply doesn’t exist. It’s a composite of millions of ridiculous, mostly false ideals that are perpetuated by movies and, well, the advice that was born of someone else’s projected baggage. Those inaccurate ideas spread like wildfire, skewing all of our ideas of what love is supposed to look like.
Despite how neurotic and self-perpetuating it all becomes, I can’t imagine not asking for advice from people I trust every now and then. I think the reason we seek it out so frequently is to know that we’re not alone. We need the comfort of understanding that others before us have gone through the same problems, which gives us some false sense of control. We’re looking for some kind of cheat-code that allows us to sidestep the toughest moments that spark the greatest growth. If we have to take both our friends’ input and our own with a grain of salt, then maybe our only choice is to accept the fact that love will always be a gamble, and that maybe we’re designed to push forward without knowing the big picture ahead of time. Maybe it’s rigged to be confusing because that’s the only way we can learn.
There are a select few universal truths about love that everyone accepts (such as “no, you can’t force that douchebag to change”), and focusing on self-awareness and personal growth is always a good bet to help romance make more sense, but beyond that, the only concrete conclusion is that humankind doesn’t know much about love at all. If we did, there wouldn’t be a million-dollar industry of relationship gurus, dating experts, and scientific studies that all provide vague, contradictory answers about what makes people succeed in love or fall out of it. All we know is that in its simplest form, it’s good and beautiful and makes life richer. Maybe that unknowable quality that no scientist has managed to pin down is what makes love so special in the first place, even if that means sometimes we end up making muddled decisions before winding up with the relationship that’s ideal for us. I’m not saying advice is a bad thing, because outside perspectives can shake you into self-awareness. But at the end of the day, after you’ve taken into account all kinds of ideas from your friends and family, the final decision-maker needs to be you.
Unfortunately, we have to trust ourselves, because that’s the only expert opinion on our personal lives that we’ve got. You know more about your heart and what it needs than anyone else in the world. That’s terrifying, isn’t it? Nobody wants that kind of responsibility, and that’s why it sucks when we can’t rely on other people to tell us who and how to love. We’re scared of trusting our own power. We’re scared of what the whisper of our heart, that teeny tiny voice way deep inside past that rambling dialogue, has to say. Our gut intuition knows the right choices, but it doesn’t promise to make those choices hurt-free, and that’s why it’s so hard to listen to. Sometimes listening means drawing a line in the sand when you don’t want to. Other times it means opening your heart to the person you love most, even if that means being vulnerable. When we find a way to really listen to that whisper, no matter how many stumbles we hit along the way, it will lead us to exactly where we need to be.