The Internet is a wealth of information. You can get medical advice, relationship advice, learn how to cook and really find anything you need. Some of the most popular viral articles these days are ones on relationship advice. As an Imago relationship therapist I can’t help but click on an article posted in my social media feeds that promises some sage advice on how to fix, save or create the perfect relationship. While tips and advice can often be helpful, titles of the articles that create lofty expectations or promises of easy fixes are incredibly dangerous when it comes to relationships. This is simply because there are no simplistic, easy or trite answers to what makes a relationship “good” or “healthy.”
I have an undergraduate degree in psychology, a graduate degree in counseling and advanced training and education in Imago relationship therapy. I have worked with couples using Imago for 3 years. Even with ten years of combined education and experience, I still have a long way to go when it comes to understanding relationships and working with couples. If I’ve learned anything about relationships it’s that they are so complex and that each situation is unique. I write relationship advice on occasion but the more I learn and grow, the more I realize that my “advice” needs to be clear that relationships are complex and advice should be taken with a grain of salt if it’s vague or a blanket statement.
I get uncomfortable when I read viral articles written by people who have no formal education or training on relationship theory or experience working with a couple in crisis because I know how the power of messages can impact relationships. Sometimes these articles have the opposite effect of what they intended. On the other side, if a couple is relatively healthy and functional, these articles can often have value by offering tips that can “spruce up” the relationship.
A client was recently in my office talking about a relationship issue when our time ran out. Panicked she looked at me and said, “wait, you didn’t tell me what to do!!” I calmly told her that I couldn’t do that. Even if I did tell her what to do, if she didn’t want to do what I suggested she wouldn’t do it regardless. Second, if I told her what to do it would basically be a biased response based on my own personal experience which is not what will necessarily work for a person who is completely different than I am.
If you are struggling in a relationship, I want to send the message that intimate relationships are the hardest work you will ever do. Easy fixes won’t help because relationship issues are so deep. Imagine one adult bringing a unique personality with unique life experiences and wounds and combining that with a person who has a totally different personality and set of circumstances. Combine individual external factors and stresses with all of this and you can see where I’m going with this. There is no magic potion a couple can take to ensure a lifelong happy relationship. If there was, someone out there would be a very rich individual.
There were 2 articles I recently saw in my newsfeed mutliple times that I believe were misguided with their advice (although, I’m sure well intentioned). The first article I will address was titled The Questions That Will Save Your Relationships . While I agree, showing active interest in another person by asking direct questions can enhance closeness, doing this is no way will save your relationship (I know these titles are designed to get “clicks” but they are still misleading). Asking questions is an art form. I personally do not always like to be asked detailed questions because I can be a very private person at times and I also live by the philosophy that when I am ready to share, I will. Often a general “how are you” is more than sufficient. I also try to be sensitive when I ask questions to others. If I know someone is struggling to conceive a child I will not ask them every time I see them how baby making is going.
Clients often tell me how direct questions can make them very anxious or uncomfortable because they may be very personal things that they aren’t ready to talk about. One of the biggest challenges of relationships is using our intuition to decide which questions to ask and which questions are appropriate. Treat people as individuals. Get to know them and the way they prefer to communicate. Not everyone is comfortable communicating the same way. In relationships, it is actually more important to work on listening skills and how to effectively communicate that you have truly heard what the other person has said.
The other viral article I wanted to address is titled Marriage Isn’t For You. I did find another article that addressed it perfectly in the way I would want to so I’m just going to post it here: Why Man’s Marriage Isn’t For You Essay Misses the Mark
In sum, don’t beat yourself up or think something is wrong with your relationship if your relationship sounds much more complicated than these articles suggest they are. You are the norm.