When Good Advice is Bad Advice

I had a series of interesting conversations with Stephanie Zvan after the Marriage and Skepticism panel at Skepticon. One of the things we talked about was relationship rules.

The Marriage and Skepticism panel had briefly addressed making relationship rules that are designed to proscribe situations that might tempt partners to cheat. Rules against getting into certain situations or doing things with people that might lead to fuzzy sexy romantic brainpatterns.

I find the idea of such rules silly. In a way it’s exactly the opposite of what I would do, personally. If I were tempted to do something that I knew would damage my existing relationship(s), to me that wouldn’t be a signal that I should avoid that thing, it would be a signal that I need to understand why I don’t intrinsically want to avoid that thing. Why would I want to do something that would damage a current relationship unless (a), there were unacknowledged issues with that relationship, and some part of me wanted to escape it, or (b) I didn’t realize the potential for damage?

I assume that if the relationships I’m in add joy to my life that I won’t want to do things that damage them. Therefore, an impulse to damage them (by, for example, doing something that qualifies as cheating) either means I’m not confident my relationships are adding value to my life (and either I’m wrong and need to reflect or I’m right and the temptation is telling me that I’m not in a good relationship in the first place), or that I don’t understand how the impulse would damage them. Either way, that’s a problem with me. The temptation is only shining a spotlight. And frankly, I want those spotlights to shine as bright as possible. I want the information that a temptation would provide me, because knowing is the first step to fixing an issue. To me, the reality is that if I have constant problems with being tempted to do destructive things, the problem is either with me or my relationship or both, and the temptation is telling me that. Destructive impulses don’t just appear out of thin air. They are caused by the people we are and the situations we are in. They are red flags, and red flags are a source of information. I want to see red flags, not hide from them.

I talked over the above with Stephanie after that panel, and she said something that, although it was a simple, offhand observation, has been sticking in my head ever since: that maybe part of the reason the advice on not getting into tempting situations doesn’t make sense to me is because it isn’t really meant for people like me.

It’s been sticking in my head because it applies to a lot of mistakes I’ve made over the years. I read the advice of a lot of really intelligent people on sex and relationships and a host of other things. Some of the mistakes I’ve made have been because there are times when I fail to realize that I’m not the intended audience for the advice. The best example I can think of for this phenomenon is in the context of advice on being honest. It’s everywhere. Every blogger who writes about sex and relationships writes about the importance of honesty.

In truth, this pattern of advice-giving has not been particularly kind to me, because I’ve always been rather good at making myself be honest. What I haven’t been good at is intelligently choosing when and how to do it. You might call me a recovering Radical Honesty practitioner. I never really applied that label to myself, but in practice, my habits with respect to honesty have historically had a lot in common with it. I put literal, explicit honesty on a pedestal at the expense of the compassionate, Highest Truth (seriously read that link, and this one while you’re at it) style of honesty that is, I think, far healthier. But when I used to read Be More Honest advice columns, I would assume my problem was not being sufficiently honest, rather than not being skillfully and compassionately honest. As a result, I focused even harder on pushing myself to be “radically” honest, which was not at all what I needed to be doing. As above, the mistake I was making was assuming that the advice being given was for people like me when it wasn’t. Not really.

I don’t know if this kind of thing happens to other people much, but I’m realizing that in many ways it’s something important for me to be aware of. I tend to assume that advice that is written by thoughtful people in a way that doesn’t explicitly exclude me as a target audience implicitly includes me as a target audience. Sometimes this means I follow advice that is really good for some people, but not at all good for me, personally.

Anyone else have this problem?

By ResearchToBeDone Posted in other