“What’s the worst relationship advice you’ve ever heard?”
I was attending a conference on teaching relationship skills with about a hundred other professionals, the majority of us therapists, and this question from our trainer was our introduction to the topic.
In listening to the members of my small sharing group as they related their answers, I heard a lot of pretty bad relationship advice:
- “My friend told me to have an affair. She said it would do me good.”
- “Don’t expect much from your partner and you won’t be disappointed.”
- “My mom once told me I should just ignore our problems and they would eventually go away.”
- “My therapist asked me if I’d ever considered looking to have some of my needs met outside of my marriage.”
HOLD EVERYTHING. What?
Now I have this auditory figure/ground issue that makes it hard for me to filter ambient noise, so I wasn’t sure I’d heard right. But as I shifted my attention to the conversation of the group meeting behind mine, I heard the speaker continue:
“I know. Isn’t that the worst relationship advice EVER? Hah! I couldn’t believe she suggested that.”
And then, a bit later:
“No, of course we didn’t go back to her . . . Oh, we eventually divorced.”
You eventually divorced. Hmmm.
After all, what would happen if we stopped talking to our partner about our life (disengagement and distance), stopped asking our partner to do their share of the household chores (resentment and a perpetually dirty bathroom) or stopped communicating our sexual needs to our partner and took on a lover instead, as per the spectacularly bad advice above (need I go into details here?).
But, really, the truth is that we need to be willing to rely on others for at least SOME of our needs, because our partner can’t possibly take care of them all by themselves.
Unless we’re married to God. And even then we might be disappointed, because I think God gets pretty distracted by a lot of other things. Like war and poverty and stuff.
A (Very) Short History Lesson
Back in the day, when we lived in smaller rural communities, we didn’t expect our partner to meet our every need because there were so many other people around to help out. There were extended family members who could offer babysitting and childcare advice, lifelong friends who shared our interests and hobbies, and maybe a church or community center down the road that offered engaging and accessible activities.
Nowadays, because of our move to big cities, time-consuming jobs, scheduled children’s activities and more insular lives, there is often a considerable distance between us and these valuable people and resources, so we’re tempted to ask that just one person, our partner, meet all of the needs that an entire community used to fill.
Does this sound fair to you? Or even possible?
Exactly. As Esther Perel asks in her book Mating In Captivity, “Is it any wonder that so many relationships crumble under the weight of it all?”
Because we simply can’t do it all, people!
I know this limitation is real because I’m a partner myself. And, although I think I’m actually a pretty decent wife, I’m also fairly certain that I quite regularly disappoint my husband of 25+ years in the “meeting his needs” department.
In fact, I asked him about that as I was writing this post, and he said (somewhat awkwardly), “Well, Sweetie, you’re pretty good but . . . you know . . . not perfect.” There you have it.
But that’s okay. I don’t need to meet my husband’s every need. BECAUSE HE HAS SO MANY OTHER COOL PEOPLE IN HIS LIFE THAT CAN HELP HIM.
He has a best friend who doesn’t gag when they smoke cigars together and whose professional challenges are similar to his own. He has a son who shares his passion for fantasy football. And he has a whole slew of organized and creative people in his office who help him set and keep his professional goals and generally stay on top of things.
Likewise, I have a trusted colleague to whom I can turn when I need input about a tough client or a good marketing idea, as well as a funny, thoughtful friend I can call for writing advice. And it goes without saying that I can totally count on my daughter when I need a date for the “So You Think You Can Dance Top-10 Dance Tour.” (Sorry, Sweetie. They’re not coming to Omaha this year.)
Hey, I’m not recommending polyamory.
I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting you disconnect from your partner entirely in favor of these other supports, or that you immediately introduce polyamory into your relationship (not that there’s anything wrong with polyamory; it’s just really tricky and not for everyone).
The truth is, consequences like disengagement, resentment and broken trust are real, and can be devastating to a marriage.
- Do your best to meet those of your partner’s needs that you can.
- Let yourself and your partner off the hook for not being able to meet the rest of them.
- Seek friendship, support, shared interests and guidance from sources outside of your relationship.
- Wash, rinse, repeat.
And I’m suggesting that if you do these things that you’ll actually end up meeting your loved one’s most important relationship need . . . the need for a confident, healthy and well-rounded partner who has the capacity to enter into a truly equal and collaborative relationship.
Hey there! I think this is is pretty good relationship advice. Maybe the best EVER.