I don't know how to fix your relationship. Please don't ask.
August 27, 2010 3:18 AM   Subscribe

How do I graciously ask people not to come to me for relationship advice?

Asking for a friend:
There's really no tactful way to say to people, "Please don't ask me to talk about relationships with you, give advice on relationships with you, be around you and your happy significant other, or talk about having you set me up with someone" is there? No matter what I'm always going to come off as sounding petty and rude. Truth of the matter is, that each time any of the previous activities happen I keep going into a mode of inner-reflecting on all my past failures. Then I become depressed and cynical. I don't know if this is just some little fluke of my personality, where people think I can give them advice on something I have no knowledge of or what. But I am really exhausted from it.

Maybe I should just tattoo "I don't know how to fix it, please don't ask" on my forehead.
Short of that, what can I do or say to people, some of whom I care about and want to remain friends with, who dump their relationship troubles on me or want me to hang out with them and their S.O.?
posted by po to Human Relations (25 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
A friend of mine says, "if you don't want to be asked to do something, don't do a good job at it." I think this applies to giving relationship advice. Just give terrible advice and the problem will work itself out.
posted by jrockway at 3:24 AM on August 27, 2010 [4 favorites]

I wouldn't go as far as jrockway suggests, but if people keep coming to you/him/whoever for advice and keep getting turned away eventually they'll stop.

Just tell your friend to turn away the individual instances. The message will get across.
posted by theichibun at 3:28 AM on August 27, 2010

It seems like there are two questions here, right?

First, your friend doesn't want to give relationship advice. I suppose they could just say something like, "You know I really like hanging out with you, but I feel uncomfortable when you ask for advice, etc., and I'd rather not go there. Did you see that Shaq signed to the Celtics (or whatever)?..."

If I'm reading the 2nd question right, your friend doesn't want to hang out with their friends and the people they're dating. Ever?

I've had friends who were dating people I didn't really want to hang out with. When they asked me to hang out them as a couple I'd just say I couldn't and then I'd suggest another time to get together with just my friend.

I'm curious, though: do you know why your friend is uncomfortable hearing about their friends' issues? Because I dunno; that's what friends are for (sometimes you have a friend who only wants to rehash every little imagined drama, but you can just change the subject on those people).

Maybe I'm misreading the questions here, though.
posted by dzaz at 3:31 AM on August 27, 2010

My advice: Once you know what people want, you can decide whether you want to give it to them.

When people talk to you about problems, they want both or either of these things:
1) commiseration
2) advice

If you want to discourage people from asking, give neither.
I have friends who want to be good friends but who react to my problems with "um. I don't know." And then crack a joke. I don't think they're intentionally making me not want to ask again (they say they're just bad at "that kind of thing"), but it's certainly working!

If people brag about their relationship, or say nice things about it, they really just want someone to listen to them relive the glory.

Again, don't give them a lot of room for that. I suggest brief, conclusive statements in reply,. Like "Weird" or "No idea" or "Sounds like it" and then in the pause that follows change the topic.

Mind your nonverbal communication. While you respond, lean back and look reposed. The idea is to stop looking like you're following their every word. I mean, don't close your eyes, but don't open them wide and gasp, either.

If someone's really dead set in ranting their relationship woes with you, there's not much you can do, unless you want to tell them to their face that you can't handle it. But if you stop encouraging these type of conversations they'll stop coming.

I think you also need to work on feeling like a loser whenever you are in the presence of couples, or your friends are happy about being in a relationship. This has nothing to do with your friends, and even if you manage to make your friends avoid looking like they are happilly coupled, this may cause them to distance themselves from you and leave you lonely, longterm.
posted by Omnomnom at 3:56 AM on August 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

As to not being set up for a date, tell them loud and clear that your new principle is not to let friends set you up, because it makes you uncomfortable. Refuse to explain, but repeat, often.
posted by Omnomnom at 4:01 AM on August 27, 2010

It sounds like what you really need to work on is how talking about relationships triggers your bitterness and insecurity. And the ability to hang out with couples is valuable, since pretty much everyone has serious relationships at some point. Refusing to hang out with a friend and their partner, especially if the friend's relationship is serious, comes across as disapproval of the partner.

As for the question at hand: "I feel for you, but I'm not good with relationship advice, so I'm not going to go there" tends to work. Additionally, is there anything you tend to talk about that might imply that relationship advice is your thing? If you gossip, or talk about other people's drama, or give opinions about people's partners without being asked, you might be giving off impressions that you do have advice to give.

The circles of friends you hang out with might be a factor here too. If your friends are often getting into and out of tumultuous or dysfunctional relationships, this sort of talk can be a lot more common. Friends whose love lives are a little calmer and sorted out won't constantly ask for advice - but, again, note that a lot of them are in serious relationships.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:28 AM on August 27, 2010 [10 favorites]

The first time a friend complains about a relationship or asks for advice I say the same thing:
If you want to have a healthy relationship, it's important to keep it sacred. Don't put me in the middle of it. Don't talk bad about your partner to others. Don't spread your business. Don't ask for advice. If there's a problem, go to your partner. Keep it between the two of you.
You may not agree, but in my opinion it is good advice. They also know where you stand and rarely ask for advice again.
posted by milarepa at 4:35 AM on August 27, 2010 [14 favorites]

"I'm really no good with relationship advice. I'm really sorry. But, I will listen anytime you need an ear, okay?"

Doesn't need to be more complicated than that.
posted by inturnaround at 4:40 AM on August 27, 2010 [4 favorites]

People talk about their lives with their friends. You aren't being targeted due to some weird signal you're giving unless you count "We're friends and I care about your life" as a weird signal. If you've given them good advice before or if you are a caring friend, people will see you as a safe and helpful person.

If I'm your friend and I'm not allowed to mention the person I live with and love... well, it's going to really hamper our friendship. That's not a reasonable expectation. Do I kick him out every time I want to invite you over? Can I tell you that my day sucked because work was stressful, but not because I had a fight with my SO?

I get that you're insecure about it and it triggers a nasty spiral of crappy thoughts. But that's your issue, not your friends' issue. Refuse to give advice, sure, but don't expect your friends to hide their partners because of your issue with your dating life.

To control nasty spiralling thoughts, I have found meditation and Feeling Good by David Burns to be very helpful. I also put a time limit on how long I can dwell on it per day before going and thinking about something else. 15 minutes works best for me. Set a timer. It helps give you the discipline to interrupt the spiral.
posted by heatherann at 5:27 AM on August 27, 2010 [11 favorites]

I would go with something along the lines of "Mate, I'm really not the best person to talk to about something like this... honestly. I don't want to be talking about something I'm really not qualified for, and I don't want you to do something or make a decision on the back of bum advice from me."
posted by Biru at 6:15 AM on August 27, 2010

"Fuck if I know.... Wanna go drink some beer?"
posted by spilon at 7:08 AM on August 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

"I wish I knew what to say to help. I really hope you figure it out." Followed by subject change.

Don't be surprised if these people wind up wanting to talk to you less in general. Lots of people base enitre friendships around these kinds of conversations.
posted by hermitosis at 7:30 AM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I'm asked for relationship advice, I say something like, "You already know the answer to that question." People generally are expecting a certain answer. For instance, if someone is asking if X action is irresponsible on the part of their SO, they generally want you to confirm what they already think. I don’t think your friend’s inquisitors are really expecting her/him to fix their relationship woes. They may be venting, or maybe hoping for another perspective that’ll shed some light on an issue, but most of the time in my experience the asker is looking for confirmation.

As for having to hang out with couples, I make it clear to my friends when I need one-on-one time, or a girl’s night out.

One of my close friends tried to set me up on a blind date once, and I was so negative about it, she never tried again (we don’t have the same taste in dudes, to say the least). Maybe your friend is being too nice?
posted by santaslittlehelper at 7:51 AM on August 27, 2010

be around you and your happy significant other

Do you mean you never want to be around couples? There's really no tactful way to say this, because it's pretty extreme and unhealthy.

I totally feel you on the other things, though -- there's nothing so annoying as having friends press to fix you up or complain about their perfectly adequate SOs when you're in the midst of relationship fail century.

I find that it's best just to tell the truth, though -- tell them that it bums you out to talk about this stuff because it makes you feel loserish at the moment. It's always easier to actually confess your bad or irrational feelings to your friends instead of engaging in polite obfuscations or otherwise passive/agressively trying to change the subject. That way they'll know what's going on with you instead of wondering.

However, I don't think that you can really expect your friends never to discuss their relationship issues, and still be your friends. That kind of stuff is really essential to knowing someone. I suspect anyway there's no actual need to have such a black-and-white rule -- as long as you feel free to tell your friends "I don't want to talk about this right now" when you're feeling particularly vulnerable or crappy, you'll probably feel ok other times to discuss it.
posted by yarly at 8:07 AM on August 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

What I say to people when they ask for advice on something is "I'm sorry, I have no idea." Just be clear that you know nothing about their situation.
posted by Slinga at 8:25 AM on August 27, 2010

"Please don't ask me to talk about relationships with you, give advice on relationships with you, be around you and your happy significant other, or talk about having you set me up with someone"

I don't understand what "be around you and your happy significant other" means. You don't like being around couples because you get depressed? If that's what you mean, that's a serious issue that needs more elaboration. If that's not what you mean, I don't know what you do mean.

It's easy enough to decline giving advice. Just say, "I don't know."

I feel like there's something else going on with this question ... something we're missing.
posted by jejune at 8:31 AM on August 27, 2010

Some sort of blanket solution just won't work, because this is about interaction, and not at all about "people" confronting "your friend" in some kind of predictable one-way manner. Your friend (I think) needs to confront the, let's call it "Inner Why" around these issues, and sensibly sort them into categories. Why is is that "advice" (i.e. potentially unhappy significant others) and being around couples (i.e. happy significant others) are both painful? Why do people seem to think they can approach your friend about relationship issues? Why is it that saying "no" only goes in a manner that others interpret as petty and rude?

Finding answers and truth here will make it possible to deal with every single situation in an appropriate, perhaps even elegant way.
posted by Namlit at 8:41 AM on August 27, 2010

I'm with most of the replies so far. Sounds like you want to have your cake and eat it too.
If you're talking about setting limits and not being required to give advice all the time, then be direct and 'just say no.'
But if you're talking about not wanting to hang out with your friends' SOs, not wanting to hear about their happiness or hard times, but still wanting to keep them as friends... sounds like you have your own stuff to work through.
posted by Paris Elk at 8:43 AM on August 27, 2010

Yeah, this sounds narcissistic and antisocial. Being a good friend just is doing the things you don't want to do. I've never recommended therapy on AskMe, but yours is the kind of problem that you can't talk to your friends about because they might not want to be your friends anymore if you do.
posted by smorange at 10:00 AM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I don't get this. You want to be best friends with them but also cut out entire swaths of friendshippy subject material? You don't get to do that, and what you do get from that is half-friendship, or acquaintance status. You'll have to decide which is more important to you: having these people as close friends or avoiding your history.

And yes, people do think that they can talk to people like you to help them with their problems without sending you on a spiral of self-recrimination. Frankly though, it just sounds like you're possessive of the friendship and can't be good friends with them unless they are single, since you recoil from SOs specifically and from information about relationships generally. Seek help.
posted by rhizome at 10:04 AM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm a horrible friend because if someone breaks up - I stay away for at least a week or two.
I also change the subject anytime someone starts talking bad about themselves or starts talking depressing crap about relationships.

And if they're really really annoying about it all the time, I stop talking to them and pretty much end the relationship.

Sounds bad, I know.
posted by KogeLiz at 10:05 AM on August 27, 2010

to add, I do have a couple of close friends, and they're not typically self-loathing or easily depressed about relationships. So if they have a problem, I don't mind giving advice. But if it starts turning into 4 hour daily rants (like when my father went through his divorce), I start ignoring phone calls.
posted by KogeLiz at 10:07 AM on August 27, 2010

You could always give the advice that works for you: you don't like to focus on your past failures, right? Presumably you look towards the future. So respond to relationship woes with honest and direct advice: "I can't bring myself to look back on my relationships. It makes me miserable, and depressed all day. What I do is look to the future, at what I'm going to do now, instead of dwelling on what I can't change. Have you thought about taking some classes [or some other future looking thing to change the subject to future looking stuff]?"
posted by davejay at 10:47 AM on August 27, 2010

1Maybe I should just tattoo "I don't know how to fix it, please don't ask" on my forehead.

No way you can say a version of this in words.

Please don't ask me to talk about relationships with you, give advice on relationships with you

Over the phone- when the phone rings and you see its your friend with ongoing relationship troubles, don't pick up. Wait for 2-3 hours before calling back. If the person wants to dump relationship troubles, they would have found someone else to do this within that period of time. Chances are you won't have to listen to it.

In person-

A. Hey, I am having trouble with Sam again.
B. Oh?

A. Yeah. The other day Sam said blah-blah and did blah-blah-blah.
B. Oh?

(lots of uh-huhs from you as the conversation continues)

A. So what do you think?
B. About what?

A. You know.. What do you think I should do about it?
B. That's a good question. Honestly, I am not really sure what I would do in that situation either (follow with dead silence)


B. That's a tough one. (pause) Cookies?

be around you and your happy significant other

There is only so much you can do about this.Try to find more things that you two have in common as friends but SO may not enjoy as much. Also try to hang out more with the friend vs the couple. This is a delicate one. You don't want to give the impression that you have a problem with SO but you do want to impress that you love to hang out with your friend.

or talk about having you set me up with someone

This is one where you can be direct. Try one of the following-

"I know you really care about me and want the best for me but..." or "I appreciate you thinking about trying to find me a date but..."

"I am really not interested right now. Thanks for understanding." or
"I would really appreciate if you don't try to set me up with anyone. Thanks."

That said, I think it's wonderful that your friends find your advice helpful and you are so generous and patient. But it doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing issue. Your pearls of wisdom are precious, only to be offered when there is a real need.
posted by xm at 11:34 AM on August 27, 2010

Part of your question is pretty easy. You can politely pass on being set-up and dodge doling out advice with the good suggestions above. Good friends shouldn't ask you to fix their problems for them. You are well within the limits of friendship to decline this responsibility. Not all advice solicitation is fix-it oriented, but pay attention when it is. Try not to feel crappy because you can't fix their sweetheart problems - it's not your job.

Part of your question is not so easy. As rhizome said, you can't be good friends with someone and at the same time dictate the terms of what they can and can't talk about - especially when it comes to things that are important to them. It makes for a pretty shallow, one sided friendship. Managing your own icky feelings about relationships by controlling your friends' behavior also doesn't make for a very good friend. It smacks of being just a wee bit passive-aggressive.

So you struggle with relationships. Yeah! Don't we all. One way to struggle is to pull away, cut yourself off, avoid things and people that make you feel cynical, depressed, like a failure. In short, you can dispense with your relationship discomfort by dispensing with close relationships. That's one way, but it likely won't help much with the very feelings you are having a hard time with. If you already feel like a failure, distancing yourself from the people you care about and who care about you could very well amplify that (probably inaccurate) sense of yourself. If you buffer yourself from happy couples, will you still get to see how good couples work? If you can't talk to others about their relationship difficulties, who will you talk to about yours?

The very people who might be able to help you are the ones you seem incline to wall yourself off from. Try to tackle the anxieties behind this impulse. It will make you better at relationships instead of better at avoiding them.
posted by space_cookie at 5:07 PM on August 27, 2010

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