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This is Your Process: Look Inside for Relationship Answers

How to distinguish between the need for advice and support

Who do you turn to for advice and support? Image: Flickr/MarionDoss
There are things you know you should do: eat well, exercise, be civil with telemarketers. But then there are other things—things that are more challenging, like finally ending a failing relationship or letting go of your ex (see previous post on mourning a breakup). Most of us have been to both these places. In a dissatisfying relationship, you know it’s not working, it hasn’t been for a while, yet you keep hanging on and hanging on. In trying to let go of someone who has already let go of you, your ex may be ready to move on, but you may not be. In both situations, you’ve hung on so long that your friends wonder what you could possibly be thinking.

Here’s the thing: At the end of the day, in either of these scenarios, it’s your process. It may be messy, it may be taking ridiculously, painfully long, but it’s your experience, your history, your relationship with yourself and your partner or your ex that determines your actions. Even if your process includes waking up hopeful that today your relationship will turn a corner only to be brutally disappointed again, guess what? It’s still your process and it belongs to you and you alone.

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Maybe the overall uncertainty of letting go is leaving you consciously or unconsciously looking for excuses to stay in the relationship, or perpetuate the fantasy that there’s a way to revive a relationship that’s ended. Either way, severing the connection is painful, scary, and difficult! (See my previous post on how feeling bad can be protective.) You may believe the safety and certainty of your unfulfilling relationship is less daunting than being alone.

So what do you do? Well, if you have trusted friends or family, you might ask for advice. But asking for advice can be tricky. Ask yourself if you really want their opinions or if you’re really looking for a supportive forum to air your thoughts. There is a big difference between support and advice and knowing which you want can help keep the integrity of your process while leaving your support network strong.

By asking for advice that you realistically are not ready to take, you run the risk of creating a peanut gallery of well-meaning friends or family who are now invested in your outcome. They may start nipping at your heels to try to speed your timeline or shape your process. Of course, in some cases, you may be truly confused and in need of this guidance. But even the best advice from friends and family can unfortunately add a layer of shame to your process, because perhaps they’re saying what you already know, and maybe what you know you “should” have already done. If you’re unable or unready to follow through on the advice you're given, it can feel as if you’ve disappointed your support system—as if you’re incapable of meeting their expectations. This shame and the feeling of isolation that can accompany it can make it even harder to take the difficult, necessary path of action.

There is no more famous line from the peanut gallery of well-meaning but frustrated advice-givers, than “you just need to move on” or "get over it". Unfortunately, your process is likely more complex than those two pieces of advice. You are stuck beneath a shroud of grief. You are not yet ready. (See Tuesday's post on how to fully mourn a breakup to move forward unencumbered.)

Think about it: How often when people ask for advice, are they really asking for a place to reason aloud so they can create their own conclusions and bring themselves closer to resolving the issue? That’s their process. Maybe if you’re paying an attorney $400/hr it’s different, but in many cases people who ask for advice simply want to talk it out themselves. I even see this as a psychologist—sometimes people will ask me to tell them what to do, but I know that placing my own timeline on their process more often than not sets them up for failure if they can’t follow advice with action—and failure is the last emotion a therapist wants to evoke in a therapeutic setting!

It can be a frustrating and painful experience on both sides of advice. First, you may feel like your support system can give you the answer—“why doesn’t he or she just tell me what to do!”—but of course, if your friend gives in and offers straightforward, well-meaning advice, what if you’re not ready to take it? The resulting frustration, shame and friction you now feel can shut down a valuable part of your support system. Conversely, as the advice-giver, it can feel almost intolerable to watch someone you care about in duress when you can clearly see the right path of action, and he or she is just not heeding your advice.

Instead, friends and family might do best to take a step back from advice and simply support your process, which means respecting the fact that you will have to come to your own conclusions in your own time in your own way. Your process is influenced by your past relationships, your history, your fears, your ability or inability to trust in the world, the specifics of your current relationship or past relationship. I’ll say it one more time: this is your process.

The antidote on both sides is support. If you’re the advisor, you can try to offer nonjudgmental support knowing that it remains your friend’s process, and that he or she will work through experiences in good time. Instead of trying to steer a friend, work on creating an emotionally safe container for this process, which allows the person experiencing confusion and difficulty and pain to remain true to the integrity of his or her process.

Eventually, this process will provide the only true answer – the answer that maybe you and everyone around you knew was best from the start. But only by coming to it organically and personally and individually can you own the outcomes. Only by coming to conclusions yourself can these conclusions become honest actions.

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This is the last in a six-part series on expressions of insecurity in relationships. The previous posts (in order) are here, here, here, here and here. Consider exploring these past weeks to discover how insecurity can influence your happiness, resilience and current relationship. And then let me know what you think! Get in touch via comments or at the social media links below.

Twitter: @DrSuzanneL

FB: facebook/DrSuzanneLachmann

Suzanne Lachmann, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist in NYC specializing in psychotherapy.

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