Maribeth knows her husband Joe so well she can see through his blind spots. She loves him so much that she draws on her wider perspective to give him great advice. He could get a raise if…. He’d tell jokes better if.… He’d be happier if…. She’s always right. And it backfires every time.
Give advice only when asked.
Or at least, that’s how it used to be, when Maribeth first became my client. “Joe just can’t take advice,” she complained. But as we reviewed their relationship history, she recalled instances early on when he had asked for her suggestions and followed them. That was the key: He asked.
Romantic partners want empathy first and foremost.
Soon she’d begun giving unsolicited advice and he had stopped turning to her for counsel. In fact, he had turned away. Why? Because what everyone wants most from a romantic partner is empathy, in the form of validation and appreciation (yes, people want this even more than sex!).
Bust the gender myth.
Some relationship gurus suggest that only women want empathy, and only men give too much advice. Not true! Whether sharing daily tribulations or life-long dreams, women and men both seek validation and appreciation. Such support keeps partners romantically happy. And, it makes them stronger individuals—in fact, strong enough to ask for advice, if they need it.
Good advice is still bad.
Even well-intended unsolicited advice tends to be in-validating. Here’s an example. Joe says, “I really deserve a raise, but my boss is a total miser.” Maribeth responds, “You need to be more assertive!” Let’s say she’s “right.” Well, to be assertive requires confidence. But she has basically just told Joe he’s doing things wrong. This undercuts his confidence.
Giving unsolicited advice gets opposite results.
It also puts Joe on the defensive, by painting the situation as his fault. This will make him loathe to take Maribeth’s suggestion because to do so would feel like siding against himself. Rather than spurring him to action, her advice may immobilize him.
Offer praise instead.
Fortunately, there’s a powerful way to help: Validate and appreciate, specifically in the form of praise. In the example, Maribeth could validate Joe by saying, “Your boss really is a Grinch!” and then praise her partner by adding, “You sure do deserve a raise. The company would fall apart without you.” This boosts Joe’s conviction and confidence, making him more able to demand a raise. More importantly, he now trusts Maribeth to be on his side.
Praise is a great teacher!
Try this: Refrain from advising your partner to change something that they do wrong. Instead, praise your partner for whatever he or she already does right. You will soon see even more of that right stuff! (Never squelch your own needs. Just know that unsolicited advice won’t get those needs met.)
My client Maribeth switched from advice-giver to empathizer. She also came to realize how deeply she benefits from Joe’s consistent emotional support. He has rarely ever offered her advice! “That aspect of him was invisible to me before,” she said. “Now I believe it’s one of the reasons I feel so secure. I thank him for it!”