We’ve all been there: A friend is complaining about a problem, and we just know we have a great solution. Or maybe we see a problem that we think a friend isn’t fully aware of, and we want to draw it to his or her attention to help her solve it. Despite our good intentions, though, our advice may not be welcome, nor may it be very helpful.
Giving unsolicited advice, particularly unsolicited advice about someone’s romantic relationship, is fraught with difficulty. So I am going to advise you not to give people unsolicited relationship advice.
The irony is not lost on me that I am about to give advice about not giving advice. But I’m specifically referring to unsolicited advice—that is, advice the recipient did not request.
Here are 3 reasons why unsolicited relationship advice is especially likely to backfire:
1. You’re making the recipient feel bad about himself or herself.
Receiving advice from someone else can be a blow to the ego for a number of reasons. When you give a friend advice, you are implying that he or she isn’t competent to handle the situation on her own.1,2 Even if you don’t explicitly say this, it is implied by the fact that you feel the need to offer the advice. Secondly, you are also implying that you know better than your friend, putting yourself in a position where you are superior.3 This puts the relationship on unequal footing, and is likely to make the recipient uncomfortable. Finally, such advice can also be seen as an effort to control the recipient. Thus, it threatens his or her sense of independence.4,5
If your advice involves criticizing a friend’s romantic partner, this advice is, in some sense, a criticism of the friend as well. Couples who are very close and interdependent tend to have “overlapping selves”6—that is, they see themselves as an “us.” A threat to the partner is a threat to the couple, which is a threat to the self. In an earlier post, I discussed how people go to great pains to maintain positive images of their romantic partners. This is, in part, because our partners are an extension of ourselves, so we protect them to protect our own egos. Thus, relationship advice that involves criticizing someone’s romantic partner may be perceived as personally insulting.
2. It can hurt your relationship.
Unwelcome advice doesn’t just make the recipient feel bad about himself, it makes him or her feel bad about their relationship with you as well. Over the long-run, ineffective support can reduce trust between the giver and receiver and actually hurt your relationship.7 One reason is that receiving support can make the receiver feel indebted to the giver, increasing strain in the relationship.8 Also, unsolicited advice can be harmful because it is likely to be interpreted as criticism rather than an attempt to help1,9—and criticism is especially toxic for relationships.10 Giving unsolicited advice can also make the recipient less likely to go to you for advice in the future.11 So even when a friend wants advice, you won’t be the one he or she turns to.
3. It’s unlikely to help.
You may think, “Sure, this advice is hard to take, and it could upset my friend or make my friend angry with me, but it’s worth it because the advice will help." And in fact, we are most likely to give unsolicited advice to those with whom we feel the closest, since those are the people we want to help the most and feel most comfortable helping.12 However, recipients of unwanted advice often reject it—so your wonderful, well-intentioned advice is unlikely to be used. Recipients often see it as inappropriate and do not find it helpful13,14—in fact, unwanted advice can actually make people feel worse.15
There are several reasons this type of support is ineffective: In part, it's because support is most effective when it matches the recipient’s needs.16 So if you’re giving the kind of help that your friend doesn’t want—i.e., giving advice when he or she does not want it—your support is likely to be unhelpful. You may think that if your friend is telling you about relationship problems, he or she must be doing so because they want your advice. This is not always the case. When people talk about their problems, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are doing so as a way to seek advice. They may simply be looking for sympathy or trying to bond with you by confiding in you.17,18
As I mentioned, unwanted advice can be seen as a threat to the recipient’s independence, so they may reject it (even if it is objectively good) as a way to reaffirm their autonomy. Also, the negative effects on the recipient’s self-esteem, discussed earlier, contribute to their sense that this type of support is unhelpful.
Other research has found that talking about relationship troubles with one’s romantic partner is beneficial, but discussing those problems with friends has no effect on the relationship.19 This is, of course, an average effect—there may be times when discussing relationship woes with friends helps and times when it hurts. Given other research showing how unsolicited advice is perceived negatively, though, it is likely that such interactions have, at best, a neutral effect on the romantic relationship itself.
This doesn’t mean that you should stand idly by if someone is in a harmful situation. But think carefully before giving unsolicited advice, as it is likely to be ignored and can strain your relationship with the recipient. Instead, try to find more subtle, less threatening ways to be supportive.
One final note: If your goal is to try to break up your friend’s relationship, your negative feedback about it could have that effect. Research shows that our relationships are more likely to break up if our friends and family don’t support them.20
Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D. is an associate professor of psychology at Albright College who studies relationships and cyberpsychology. Follow her on Twitter for updates about social psychology, relationships, and online behavior. Read more articles by Dr. Seidman on Close Encounters.
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