There’s a lot of advice out there about interpersonal relationships. And yeah, a lot of advice pertaining specifically to romantic ones.
The more advice you take, the less sense it makes. That’s because the advice contradicts itself. One author will advise the opposite of what another author will. Occasionally, an author will even contradict themselves.
I’m not immune to this phenomenon. Fun fact: It’s possible to select essays I’ve written and have them debate one another.
That’s because all advice is contextual, situational. As I wrote in an earlier essay, the key to effective self-help is knowing where you are, relative to the advice. In a sense, it’s very much like effectively navigating traffic without crashing your car, ending up in jail and/or aggravating every other motorist around you.
The right move depends on what’s happening around you. If you accelerate in one instance, it could spell disaster. In other circumstances, it’s precisely what is needed. And slamming on the brakes or even maintaining your current speed in that position might be the wrong move.
Excellent advice applied to the wrong scenario functions the same way. It can be disastrous.
That’s why I’ve learned that the only real way to get good — or even passably decent — at interpersonal relationships is to develop an accurate inner spidey sense that you can trust. That tells you what the right move is.
Part of developing this can be reading advice, since this will potentially expose you to other viewpoints, other techniques, that may not have occurred to you to try naturally on your own.
But you still have to go through the pain, heartbreak, and risk of applying them and seeing what happens. And fighting back defensiveness and self-serving bias (i.e., a common tendency for us to blame others when bad things happen and take credit when good things happen) as vigorously as you can so that you can learn the right lesson from the result.
I Always Regret Not Listening to My Inner Spidey Sense
While I’m not a perfect person by any means (my shortcomings are legion), I do have one strength: My inner spidey sense is excellent.
In particular, I have an inner voice that lets me know very quickly if a relationship isn’t going to work out. And I always regret it when I don’t listen to it.
I experimented with not listening to it a while back. Or at least second guessing its initial decision. Several years ago, I began dating someone who was really fun in a lot of ways but I kept running into frustrating issues with. Not only did we not communicate well, they also didn’t seem to realize we didn’t. And even when I’d point out the important miscommunications we were having, they would instead try to get away from the conversation rather than address the issues.
Essentially, their goal seemed to be to sweep things under the rug. They also continually would callously hurt my feelings in rather pointed ways and then react inappropriately when I’d bring it to their attention.
This was a pretty new relationship, and we were already running into some pretty nasty issues and difficulty addressing them — at a time when NRE (New Relationship Energy) should have been making everything seem rosy.
Too much work too soon is a bad sign because of this NRE rosiness effect. Once the newness of it faded, our issues would surely worsen, not improve.
I saw that it was possible for me to escalate my already voiced complaints and frustrations, throw my weight around, threaten to leave unless they worked through issues with me. But I dislike giving ultimatums for a number of reasons.
And I realized that if I were already thinking of such a thing so early, the best bet would be to leave. Because it’s where I’d probably end up anyway, eventually. And likely way down the road, in a situation that would hurt us both more.
I ended it. They were shocked. We didn’t talk for a while but managed to become friends later on.
That One Time I Didn’t Give Up on Someone…and Regretted It
Later down the road, we eventually ended up talking about our breakup. And as we talked through it, it became evident that we’d had a major miscommunication about some issues from the time. This was hardly a surprise to me, because part of why it hadn’t worked was that we didn’t communicate well.
But one thing was different: They were actually acknowledging it. Suddenly, they weren’t sweeping things under the rug. And they wanted to give things another go.
You know, I thought, as we talked things over, you did give up on them. You didn’t see it through. You assumed it wouldn’t work. That it was unworkable. But you didn’t try it. Maybe you were wrong. Maybe you gave up on someone you shouldn’t have.
And so I suppressed every instinct I had and gave it another shot.
What happened? Well, pretty much the same thing. A few months that were fun in a lot of ways, and the same pervasive communication issues emerged. This time I pushed harder, fought harder. And in response, they deflected harder.
They were just as resistant to addressing things as I feared they’d be. As committed to sweeping things under the rug.
And new things cropped up that hurt me. I don’t believe any of them were intended to wound me; they were more born out of thoughtlessness. Carelessness. But the effect was the same.
And the second time around, I expended considerably more effort to work through issues with them but didn’t meet with anything even approaching success.
We broke up again, and this time it hurt us both exponentially more.
If You Have a Trustworthy Inner Voice, Listen to It; If You Don’t, Develop One
It was painful for a while. Thankfully, while we don’t talk often, we’re on friendly terms now (this didn’t happen overnight; it took some time and awkward conversations).
I still kick myself sometimes for not listening to that voice within me. The experience taught me to trust it, that ignoring it is a bad idea. This voice doesn’t tell me whether I’ll get hurt or not. But it does tell me whether going for any given thing will be worth pursuing even I do end up hurt.
And it certainly alerts me to critical flaws early on.
I’ve learned that my system isn’t prone to false alarms. I don’t tend to throw in the towel easily in other areas of my life (I’m generally persistent, can be downright stubborn). If I want to give up on something, there’s a good reason. I’ve learned that if I want to break up with someone, I should. And I should not question that decision after the fact. I should not go back. I’m not someone who considers breaking up on a whim. I don’t have those feelings lightly, or without cause.
Anyway, that’s what’s been most helpful to me as far as relationship advice: If you have a trustworthy inner voice, listen to it. Even when you don’t like what it’s saying.
And if you don’t, develop one. Even if it hurts and makes you feel stupid in the process as you learn through trial and error.