Why Relationship Advice Doesn’t Work
The danger behind being seduced by relationship advice, tips, and tricks.
Don’t you just wish that someone would tell you how to fix relationship problems? How many billions of dollars a year are spent in the self-help section, promising the solution to our most complicated issues? Unfortunately, there are real reasons why relationship advice doesn’t work, and why a good couples therapist would steer clear.
Most normal people assume that fixing relationship problems means first understanding what the problem is and where it came from, which should lead to a solution. How to fix it. Knowing what to do. Making a plan. Do This, Don’t Do That.
Humans Like Easy Answers
We are human, and our brains evolved to solve problems. From building fires to hunting, our survival has hinged on making the outside world better. This is called the Problem Solving Mind. It tries hard to help, the only way it knows how: Logic! Determination! Fix it!
The Problem Solving Mind isn’t great at solving problems that have to do with our emotions and our relationships. It wants to make us believe that it can help, but it actually causes more harm than good. The main job of the Problem Solving Mind is to keep you feeling like you are on the right track. You are going to solve this. This isn’t out of your control. You don’t have to be miserable.
All you need is some quick advice and you’ll be OK. But that’s not true.
It’s Scary When We Have No Quick Fix Solutions to Relationship Problems
Relationships aren’t like machines that you can take apart and tweak here and there to fix. The only way to solve relationship problems is by working through them, not around them.
Relationships are hard. We don’t have control over how people act, how we react, and whether we could lose each other. The stakes are SO HIGH. We want to get it right, we don’t want to mess things up. We don’t want to have problems, hurt and heartache. No wonder we want quick answers! Who wouldn’t?
When the Problem Solving Mind asks for magic bullets, quick answers, easy tools and instructions on how exactly to fix something, therapists sometimes feel pressure to oblige. We want you to feel hopeful and effective! A good therapist is full of ways to help you, and that may include something you can do right now. But, a good therapist does not dole out relationship advice like french fries at the drive-through. Relationship advice doesn’t work.
Magic Bullets: Solutions or Quick Tips for Relationships
Magic Bullets are a type of relationship advice that doesn’t work. It may work for a little while, but then they stop working and you are sometimes worse off. Let’s use the Five Love Languages as an example. While the actual ideas in the book aren’t bad, couples routinely come in feeling defeated that they have been doing Acts of Service or saying Words of Affirmation for three months, and for some reason, their partner still doesn’t feel loved enough. What’s the issue?
The tool gets sucked up into the problem itself. The tool starts to feel like it’s not working. It feels forced, it isn’t coming from your experience and you can’t keep it up.
People fall into a bartering system. “I will do what you need if you do what I need. You haven’t done what I need, so I’m not budging.”
Things feel better and different for a while, but the actual core issues aren’t resolved. There isn’t more trust. People don’t feel secure in the relationship.
It starts to feel like your partner is just doing those things because they have to, not because it comes from their spontaneous love and intuition on what would make you happy.
If your partner isn’t doing the thing at all, then it’s evidence that they are terrible.
You blame each other and feel hopeless.
When things fall apart it confirms your original story about why things aren’t working.
“You don’t care about me.”
“You don’t even try.”
“We aren’t compatible.”
“You aren’t capable of sustaining change.”
“Nothing ever pleases you, it’s not enough.”
“You don’t know what you want, because I’m doing this perfectly and you still aren’t happy with us.”
The result? You are back at square one, only now you failed and you guys suck. You feel worse about the relationship.
What Would A Real Couples Therapist Do Instead?
You are trying to climb a mountain as a couple, to the top, where your relationship problems are conquered and you feel trust and security, and love. You are hiring the couples therapist to guide you. You want them to just tell you what to do.
A real guide is not going to stand in the parking lot and say:
Good luck on the way up. Let me tell you, it can get really windy. All you need to do is duck. I know you’ve never climbed this mountain, or any mountain, but if you just duck every time the wind blows, you should be prepared for any and all kinds of obstacles up there. Ice, hunger, low visibility. You’ll be fine. If it doesn’t work, you have yourselves and each other to blame, because that’s a sure-fire solution I’m telling you. But, I’m going to hang back here at the trail head and make sure I can see you through my binoculars! That’s what you pay me for. Good Luck!!
NOPE. You might leave the session feeling like you have a plan. But you will not make it to the top of that mountain.
A good couples therapist would say:
Let’s suit up. It gets really windy, so I’ll be guiding you and taking care of you both. Sometimes I’ll lead the way, and as we go over the terrain and the rock, and get knocked around by the wind, just focus on letting me know how you are doing. I can’t predict exactly what we’ll find, but I can promise you that I’ll help you through whatever we run into and you won’t fall to your death because I’m right there with the rope. As you climb, you’ll get stronger and more confident in your footing, and you’ll start finding your way with all that you’ve experienced and learned. By the time we get to the top, I’ll barely be helping. Until then, we have to meet every unique challenge together.
And then, they’d blaze the trail. Can you see the difference between Magic Bullets and real help?
As I began writing this, I really just wanted to talk about why Magic Bullets don’t work, but it’s really a deeper thing. It’s about what really makes successful change (experiences) versus what we wish would make successful change (Book Learning). If you find that your Problem Solving Mind is mounting a pretty convincing argument for the easy solution, please do yourself a favor and at least read a good book that won’t set you up for failure: Love Sense by Dr. Sue Johnson, or reach out for a free consultation to get an idea of what having someone climb the mountain with you would feel like.