Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Peril of Taking Bad Advice

The story is not so much about the letter-writer, Easily Swayed. It is not so much about Polly’s response, which is not worth the time or the trouble. What interests me in this story, which I will report in detail, is that a young woman was swayed, influenced, pushed and nudged out of a good and loving relationship… for reasons that make no sense to her or to us.

So, the story is about peer pressure and about advice columnists, like Dear Sugar—and No, I haven’t read it—that promote an attitude that hurts women. It hurts women by undermining good relationships in order to push these women to become independent and alone and in therapy. Peer pressure tells young women that they must not marry before their careers have blossomed. In that way they can be looking for husbands in their mid thirties and look forward to having toddlers running around the house when they are promoted to the executive suite. What is wrong with this picture?

It doesn’t matter. The narrative influences people and breaks up perfectly good relationships. We do not know whether ES’s relationship was one of them. She thinks that it was. She ends up thinking that she made the mistake of a lifetime. Polly gets it, even though she still thinks, lamely, that it’s a question of how badly ES wants her ex.

Polly writes:

You can’t come to love out of fear or desperation or depression. You have to come to love from a place of strength. If you feel solid and not neurotic and you’re letting your feelings flow and you STILL WANT YOUR EX in every cell and you know he’s the one for you, a million times better than every dumb guy you are forced to date, then go to him. But as far as I can tell, you’re not there yet.

Yes, it feels like a risk. But every day alive on this planet is a risk. Your big challenge right now is not to decide about your ex. Your big challenge is to learn to become calm and present and even invigorated by the giant risk of being alive.

When you made a huge mistake you will be suffering from serious mental anguish. You do not have to puff up your strength and do more therapy to recognize the mistake. As far as I can tell ES is there, right now. Why is Polly telling her not to try to rectify her error? The last paragraph is psycho-blather, an embarrassing piece of silliness. ES’s challenge is to accept that she made a mistake and to beg for forgiveness.

Now, in case you are curious about the true story, here is Easily Swayed’s letter, excerpted:

I started dating my boyfriend when I was 23 and he was 22, and we had six lovely years together — some long-distance, some in the same city. He was my first real relationship, but I mostly felt a deep sense of contentment, surety, and love during our time together. We moved in together last year, and I soon began having doubts about whether I was ready to settle down, whether I should have more life experiences on my own, and whether I could be happy being with him for the rest of my life.

For reasons that escape me, young women are being told that they must accumulate a series of life experiences—meaning what, exactly?—before settling down. In truth, if a young woman finds a man she loves who would make a great husband, why delay? In order to have a few more hookups while being blackout drunk? In order to develop some good singles routines before trying to establish couples routines?

Anyway, ES made a decision based on an advice column. Generally speaking this is a bad idea, not because all of these columns offer bad advice—some do, some don’t—but because the columnists rarely know enough to grasp the complexity of the situation. 

ES continues:

And, after months of research and swimming through doubts, I deduced that the prevailing advice seems to be the line from Dear Sugar: Wanting to leave is enough.

Apparently, ES is also a reader of Ask Polly, so she credits Polly too:

So I did it. I took everyone’s advice — yours, Sugar’s, the myriad of commenters on those message board-threads — and followed my gut. I packed up my stuff and moved out of the apartment we shared, and I haven’t talked to him in four months. It’s the bravest, most disruptive thing I’ve ever done in my peaceful, easy life.

Now she is doing what the columnists think that she should be doing. And naturally, she is going to therapy and learning all kinds of truths about how she is easily influenced:

On the one hand, things are going well. I’m dipping my toe into dating for the first time, really — an adventure! I’m living with two of my best friends in a great new neighborhood. I’m journaling, going to therapy, exercising, and enjoying my wonderful friends and great job. Most importantly, I no longer have that cloud of crushing guilt hanging over my head when I come home at night. I’m glad I don’t have to wonder about, or long for, something unknown any more.

She has the life that they were all telling her that she should have. How’s that working out?

But intense regret keeps washing over me. I miss him so terribly, and I don’t understand why I couldn’t stick it out and fix what was wrong — or even what was wrong in the first place. I’ve heard from friends that this has been incredibly hard for him, and that really truly kills me. We had a very loving separation, and I feel like I want to be with him when I’m older, but I’m not ready for the commitment of what he represents. And trusting in “fate” to help us out down the line is scary. I don’t get why my feelings changed so quickly after years of happiness and a settled knowledge that he was the one for me. It’s not even that I’m scared of not finding someone else — if he’s not it, I’ll be fine. But this relationship was so special and pure and loving and supportive and truly, truly good — I’d be surprised if I find something that comes close in my lifetime, or makes me feel as safe.

After the de rigueur assertion that she has learned so much from therapy, ES gets to the heart of the matter.  She did something stupid, something is not in her own interest, because she allowed herself to be played.

I can already tell that I’m learning important things about myself and facing some hard truths. What I can’t get over is the thought that he could be gone forever, that I’ve hurt him so deeply. I keep thinking maybe there was a chance I could have grown into some of these truths while preserving the relationship, and I’m obsessing over the thought that I destroyed something so important just to date around and have some more years of singledom. Some of the things that were making me so miserable being in the relationship now truly seem so trite, maybe a symptom of personal change rather than a sign of anything wrong with us. If my loving, lasting, peaceful, happy relationship with an insanely generous, handsome, funny, caring, and forgiving man could be demolished by me having a couple of months of doubts and soul-seeking, how the fuck am I supposed to commit to anyone? 

She concludes:

When I think about him, I can feel my heart still breaking. I want children with this man, I want to grow old with him and die with him, but I need to grow apart for some reason I can’t explain. Where do I go from here? Should I not have followed everyone’s advice?

She might not be able to explain why she has made such a mess of things, but the clear answer is that she succumbed to peer pressure and listened to bad advice columnists.


Sam L. said...

She sees an opportunity to put things right; will she do it? I'm guessing not.

JPL17 said...

Experiencing pain during periods of personal growth is normal, probably inevitable.

But experiencing the pain without learning any lessons or achieving personal growth is a waste, a sign that one is doing something seriously wrong.

It's hard to tell which category Easily Swayed falls into. I certainly hope it's not the latter. But if it is, this is a sad case indeed.

Ares Olympus said...

Overall, it seems like this women doesn't want to date anyone else. And her heart may even be preventing that as a serious possibility. More it sounds like she just wants the freedom to be selfish for a while before lifelong commitment, which isn't bad, a side of her she can learn about better when she's single. But now there's a risk, something to lose, and no guarantee she can get back what she gave up.

We all have a need for connection and a need for autonomy are both real, and both important, and often contradictory. And these needs both exist whether or not you're inside a relationship, so connection is harder when you're single, and autonomy is harder when you're in a relationship.

I don't know if this woman should get back together with her man, now or later, but she certainly can apologize for the way she left and say something to show her ambivalence and fear over that decision. But it isn't wise or kind to express everything she expressed in the letter. It would be selfish of her to make him think he should wait for her.

James said...

The last time I followed someone else's advice I said "I do".