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Science Advice Goddess: Death Meddle

Amy Alkon on

I knew my girlfriend wasn't right for me, and I was super unhappy. Friends I confided in kept saying "Relationships take work" and "Take the good with the bad." I listened to them and stayed in the relationship, which led to an ugly breakup. When evaluating a relationship, how much should you take advice and how much should you rely on your instincts?

--Peer-Pressured

Every year, it happens. Men who love power tools end up effectively celibate for a year after buying their wife a vacuum cleaner for Valentine's Day. (Sad penis emoji.)

This gift-giving fail is a cousin of your friends' relationship advice-giving fails. Both stem from how bad we humans are at "perspective-taking." That's psychologists' term for a conscious effort to put ourselves in another person's shoes: trying to see the world from their perspective so we can figure out how they feel and what they need and want. Sounds like a pretty positive thing, right? And it is -- in concept.

In practice, however, we tend to take the lazy way out, explains psychologist Nicholas Epley. Getting a fix on what would work for another person starts with a good long think about who they are -- and takes lots more mental sloggery after that. So, we go with what we'd want, customize it ever-so-slightly for them, and then tell ourselves it's what they'd want.

For example, your friends' "Take the good with the bad," applied to your relationship, became "Take the miserable with the miserable." Chances are your friends aren't secret sociopaths, plotting to ruin your life. But there's (often subconscious) self-interest in advice-giving, like what I call "values-signaling": the showoffy confirmation of the awesomeness of one's principles by shoving them on others. And then there's the "helper's high," the buzz we get from do-gooding -- or the mere belief our do-gooding's done good.

 

If you find a friend wise and think they fully understand your situation and share your values, it might be helpful to hear them out. However, your best bet is taking stock of your own values and then factoring in what's made you happy (or miserable) in past relationships, along with the likelihood your current relationship will give you enough "good" to make the "bad" worthwhile. In short, the world's best expert on what works for you is you -- because you don't have to imagine yourself in your shoes; you just have to go find the one your hellshow of a girlfriend threw out the window.

Don't Goo Me Like That

My husband's a great guy: an excellent father and provider, dedicated to our relationship. However, if I text him something emotional, like if I'm having a hard time at work, his response doesn't seem genuine or heartfelt. Sometimes it'll be inappropriately robotic, like texting a sad emoji. How can I get him to be more emotionally engaged?

--Annoyed

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