Because of the work I do, there are days when I feel overwhelmed by the amount of sex and relationship advice that comes across my desk. Articles, tips and tricks, listicles, summaries, reviews, opinion pieces, personal experiences, interviews; sometimes it is simply too much to take in, much less incorporate into my dating life. Not to mention the dubious nature of some of these entries. Very often, people give bad advice. Maybe the article was sponsored. Maybe the author is inexperienced, or (worse) angry and reacting to something happening in their life, trying to teach or correct their partner through an article intended to help “others.” Whatever the reason, I think we’ve all been there, caught between radically different options: don’t call, make him call, call at 3am when you know it will go to voicemail, don’t call at 3am unless it’s a booty call, do you want to entertain a booty call, don’t feel guilty about a booty call, no one will want to marry you if you give it away for “free” in a booty call, here are ways to turn your booty call into something serious, here are ways to downshift your something serious into FWBs.
And that’s why it is okay to throw all of that advice away.
Chuck it overboard and forget it. It’s not doing you any good to stress out over how much sex you’re having, debate over whether you or your partner need to change, take another quiz, or ponder how every relationship is awful but can get better if you just do these easy 31 things every day (as told by someone divorced four times).
Just stop it.
You have everything inside of you right now that you will need to figure out how to have a healthy and happy relationship with your partner. Let me be blunt: These “helpful hints” move in predictable cycles, get recycled, and get copied with different turns of phrase every few months to make every “relationship coach” with a writing degree and no job sound like an expert.
You. Are. You.
You are not someone else.
Your relationship? It’s between you and your partner(s). Working together, you have everything you will need to walk into the unknown Alaskan wilderness of a relationship and survive. That may sound anticlimactic because you don’t have to do anything or become anything, but it’s still true. We can live lives based on rules and order and control, or we can begin to recognize the goodness within us and make the necessary changes to accept who we are, who our partner is, where you are going together as a team, and move forward from there. You do not need more advice – you need experience. You need to talk to your partner(s), make decisions together, and live them out, not have a “relationship” defined by ideals and suggestions that don’t fit either of you.
For my family, this meant that my parents promised to change this or that thing about themselves. They were always chasing the high of doing what they were asked, of “changing,” of promising to “do better,” of becoming someone other than who they really were. Their marriages and childhoods were a lifelong pursuit of whatever fad came across their television sets, magazines, the advice of pastors, marriage seminars, infinitum. In time, the fact that my father didn’t do laundry or dishes wore on my mother, no matter how much she nagged or incentivized, rewarded, cajoled, bartered, or threatened. He was a slob. He still is. When my mother tried to start her life in a way that would make her happy, my father tried to convince her to study the classes he wished he would have studied while he was attending college. She tried, and did well but it never felt like she was living her own life. Instead, she was living a life dictated by him, which in turn was dictated by an ideal of what a “good” and “stable” relationship looked like. Their intention to “improve” one another always distracted them from who they really were, whether with each other or apart.
Years after their divorce, my mother told him about her intention to attend graduate school and her dreams of a future in psychological health. He blurted out, “I never knew you had dreams and ambitions.” That was their entire marriage in a nutshell – always giving each other lists, always promising to be better or do better, and amazed that the other never heard them. Witnessing those interactions through my childhood and as an observer (and sometimes “coach” – whatever that means) of relationships, I always fear something similar will take place in the life of someone else. I fear that there are couples who will spend years together, only to one day realize they were pursuing what other people outside the relationship were telling them to go after. It troubles me to know there are couples chasing the high of “good job” instead of paying attention to who their partner was, is, and will be.
One of the things I will ask people is how they saw relationships modeled over their lifetime, and which one they aspired to become – if any. The question is never about “what are the traits and qualities you need to adopt and adapt” but instead what is the essence of those relationships – what did you see that makes it a “good” relationship? What “good” thing(s) are you pursuing when you are in a relationship? Where is the ideal? Once they begin to develop that concept or recover those memories, I will ask if they really want that for themselves. Because seeing a thing and obtaining a thing are two very different locations of experience.
For example, I have seen more divorces and nasty breakups than I have healthy, stable, committed, and loving relationships. The safest and most stable relationship I have observed was the Terrells. The Terrells owned a furniture store in the town where I went to college. He sold furniture while she sold insurance. Their kids were in college, doing well, and nice people. Cookie cutter couple. Basic. Even had the picket fence with the open floor plan, brick fireplace, and deck overlooking the river. No part of their relationship would indicate drama. Quite the contrary. They were loving and doting, with a profound undercurrent of having resolved their fights and issues over the years. Everything about their relationship announced, “We have a system and it works.” But as much as I respected their relationship, as many examples as I could give about how stable and loving they were (and still are, approaching 45 years of marriage), I never felt they were what I wanted to become. I have always been aware that what worked for them worked for them. Not someone else. Yes, there were enviable qualities and yes, their relationship was “safe,” but – don’t miss this – what they had worked for them. Their system emerged because they worked it out between themselves – not because they read the latest book, shared a good article they found online, or respected each other’s uniqueness by lovingly turning a blind eye to those qualities and actions they did not prefer. They were very open about the fact that they came close to divorce several times, but they worked through it and worked on it together – even turning themselves away from the well-intentioned advice of those around them.
Philosophically, we might say there are competing ideas here. There are those who hold to a fixed idea that “A Good Relationship” can be achieved by collecting certain experiences. If your partner brings you coffee in the morning, that is a good relationship. If you share the events of your day and your partner says nothing, doesn’t try to fix it, but “just listens” and gives affirming grunts, that is a good relationship. In this dynamic, when incongruent behaviors appear (say, your partner doesn’t serve you as you would like, fails to get the promotion because they weren’t sharp enough, or “forgets” to put toilet paper on the roll properly), you are faced with a decision which will, no matter the direction you go, undermine the dynamic. You will either have to confront the deviation from “A Good Relationship” and the failures, setbacks, or relapses or you will decide this is “A Bad Relationship.” The rigidity with which we decide what constitutes “good” can create an unrealistic ideal inevitably leading to disappointment. The benefit here is a focus on qualities, not the partner.
Another idea would be that there is no such thing as “A Good Relationship” but instead people who treat each other with goodness, preferring them “above all others” and giving alternatively attention, ignorance, affection, and criticism. This dynamic is not about achieving goals or developing lists (which are a kind of goal) of “good” behaviors necessary for a “good” relationship. Instead, it is about investing in the partners with whom one travels. The challenge here is when we fixate on the partner and ignore that “this isn’t going anywhere.” The relationship can easily stagnate, at first because we are so in love with this our partner, but later because we see who they truly are and are disappointed when they fail us, burp and fart, and have bouts of mania. We are disappointed not because our partner fails us, but because perhaps we have failed together, have ceased moving together, all because we have fixated on this individual. Worse, there is no way to “fix” it or improve except to get away from this partner who we have become emotionally invested in. We need to start anew, not repair what already exists.
Our reliance on “Dating Advice” today is symptomatic of relational confusion created by these tensions. The collisions of cultures – plural – and the conflict between singular identity and the confluence of different cultural norms, the ways we do life, often challenge what we think, feel, believe, and have within our tradition. Who are we in the midst of so many identities? What do we want, when we have so many choices? One idea fixes a location – we need to go to this place by whatever means necessary – while another may not have a destination but instead chooses to travel with this other person.
Philosophically, we might say the difference here is whether we approach relationships with a belief that thoughts and intentions matter, or whether actions matter. This is the difference between dualism and monism – that we can distinguish the “who” from the “do” or whether mind and body are one and the same, whether thoughts and actions are different or the same. Today, we are torn between these competing ideas – most of which have been argued in different fields and subjects of study for centuries. Without neglecting any of what came before, what I propose is that sometimes we are immobilized because we are caught between too many options and opportunities. We feel the pressure to live a certain way and become certain people, achieve adulthood with certain symbols of accomplishment. And this pressure applies to dating, relationships, and sex as well. Lip service to “everyone is a unique snowflake” is well and good but, realistically, uniqueness is not celebrated universally. There are cultural norms – note, these norms often compete with one another – that we are expected to follow. It’s exhausting being someone you’re not. The only exhaustion that matches that is probably being who you really are and enduring criticism because you’re not “right” and doing the “right” things.
Much of the advice is good and worth noting. It is easily digestible, easily transferrable, relatable, sometimes funny, and safe enough to share on social media. As my first year writing students tend to say, “I like it.” But given the readiness of it, our relationships slowly (and then all at once) become a pinball game – chasing, chasing, suddenly a different direction, running up points as quickly as possible. Rocking it with your groin can make things work in your favor for a short time, of course, but could also tilt the machine and cause one of us to seek another machine. Our reliance on generalized Dating Advice very often turns us away from the specific person/people we need to best give us advice – our partner(s) in this relationship.
So here’s my advice – Stop taking other people’s relationship advice. Even mine. Take a month off from all that and talk directly to your partner. Be honest. Laugh. Blow it up. Cry. If need be, break up. But god forbid you live another day in the comfortable cocoon of a lie, going in a direction that is inauthentic. Take time off to examine what starts popping up. The need to run away. The way you cling to your partner because you’re afraid of being alone, not because you actually want to stay with them. Start talking about the things that brought you together, where you are now, and what keeps you together. But whatever you do, stop taking everyone else’s advice and start listening to what the person right in front of you is saying.