6 Lessons for Love and Life
As an advice columnist moves on, he shares his collected wisdom.
Posted August 18, 2014
In a past life, Quentin Fottrell, currently a writer for the Wall Street Journal's Marketwatch, was an advice columnist in Ireland. In his book Love In A Damp Climate, he recounts the 10 years of advice he gave about navigating relationships with friends, family members, and partners.
I recently spoke with Fottrell about his book and his years of experience helping people with problems in love and life. I've distilled some lessons that might be helpful to all of us:
1. Your answer is often in your question.
Fottrell told me how he started giving advice: “I was the youngest child and, when I was still in single digits, my three sisters always asked me how they looked before they went out in the evening. I was always honest. They liked that." He found that what he mostly shared with people seeking help was common sense from an independent person. “The answer was always in the question," he says. "I just think people sometimes need an objective party—someone who isn't a friend—to tell them what they probably already know or need to hear. Being an objective party, it's also easier to just tell the truth and be honest. Taking the right course of action now can save a lot of pain in the long run.”
2. Never judge, and always listen.
"It's not the perfect life that informs," Fottrell writes. "It's the drama-filled, mistake-ridden imperfect one." When I asked the most important things were that he had learned from the imperfect lives of others, he said, "To never judge (though that's not easy); to always listen (which is a little easier); and to know that it's always possible to disagree respectfully, and that there is great inspiration and courage to be had from observing the mistakes of others, and how they carry on. That goes for our mistakes, too. I think we have less drama in our lives as we get older. That's the aim, anyway. We learn that it's possible to be true to ourselves and speak our minds, but do so in a way that's helpful to both parties.”
3. Don't put people on pedestals. They will disappoint you because they are human, just like you.
Fottrell's advice to anyone seeking a knight in shining armor: "Underneath the shining armor, when the knight has stripped off and left his helmet and sword on the bedside locker, you will find a man of flesh and blood who is real and will have needs and faults and desires…Just meet the blokes, talk to them, enjoy the gifts that they have to give you, take the good, weigh it up with the bad. And don't wait for the knight in shining armor because you may find yourself spending a lifetime trying to polish it."
The takeaway here? “Don't put people on pedestals," he says. "They will disappoint you because they are human, just like you. If you do have high expectations and put someone before all else—including yourself—you will end up giving up your own identity in an effort to please the other person. And if you have an impossible list of requirements, you will never find someone who lives up to them. If you ask. 'What can I bring to this relationship?'—and not what can you get from it—that’s a pretty good start.”
4. Remember that a relationship takes a lot of work.
Fottrell writes: "We, who demand constant attention and devotion from our partners, forget that previous generations made do with prolonged periods of separation." To illustrate this point, he shares the story of Biddy and Barney, a couple from Donegal in the northwest of Ireland, who spent many summers apart when Barney went “turning turnips” in Scotland. But they stayed together despite being apart so often. “There were no divorce lawyers in Ireland back then and no dual incomes and cars, or Facebook or SnapChat," he says. "It was a simpler time when people were poorer, but they are testaments to the hard work that a relationship requires."
5. Don’t confuse the desire to be loved with the love of someone who is unsuitable.
"Sometimes," Fottrell writes, "we confuse the desire to be loved with the love of someone who is entirely unsuitable."
“I think it's better," he says, "to be alone than to feel alone with someone who is totally unsuitable. It's a big responsibility to choose a partner, and it must be done with great care. The good news is the signs are there for those who wish to see them. I heard a comedian recently say that if you want to know what someone is really like give them a computer and a really slow Internet connection. I think there's some truth to that. How does a person treat the wait staff in a restaurant? Watch for the little things. They are very important.”
6. Treasure the moment and forgive yourself for past mistakes.
Fottrell's book details the quests for love of not only the young but the old as well. "We cannot learn about ourselves without listening to those who went before us," he writes. He relates the story of Harry and Kay, married for decades, despite the personal flaws Harry would later freely admit to Fottrell. Among them: Constantly singing a song—"Sweet-Sixteen"—that drove Kay crazy. Yet when Kay was on her deathbed, she requested that Harry sing her that song:
Last night I dreamt I held your hand in mine
And once again you were my happy bride
I kissed you as I did in Auld Lang Syne
As to the church we wandered side by side
"Harry died shortly after I interviewed him," Fottrell says, "so he never saw the book. It was moving for so many reasons. Firstly: I knew Harry and his wife Kay when she was alive, but had never spoken to Harry about his marriage. Secondly: Harry acknowledges mistakes he made. He could have been less fond of the booze, and that still hurt him all those years later. I felt like he had forgiven himself for being less than perfect, but he carried that feeling with him for the rest of his life. It was a reminder to always treasure the moment and forgive oneself for past mistakes. We—most of us, if we are lucky—do the best we can at the time. Harry did the best he could, too.”
© 2014 by Jonathan Wai