Relationships are weird, don’t you agree? Other people are unpredictable, and the endless combination of human interactions leads to some pretty frustrating encounters. In Nicole Knows, Nicole Cliffe helps us navigate all the ridiculousness relationships come with. If you have a question for Nicole, email firstname.lastname@example.org
I have adjusted to a point in my adult life where my friendships do not mean being truly involved in their day to day lives. While in high school and college, friendships were often navigated by spending an enormous amount of time together. Now we see each other once a week, or once a month, depending. This is fine for me!
However, I still have a nagging problem that has lingered, which is overstepping my boundaries when a friend is making a choice that I do not agree with—whether it be how to handle an interpersonal relationship, or dating someone that clearly is a bad choice. I wish I was better at handling this, especially that now I’m at an age where every partner could potentially be a lifelong partner, I am torn between giving my opinion (when asked) and keeping my mouth shut. How do you separate when someone has asked your advice you’ve given it, and they ignore you anyway? Yes, I live and let live, but I can’t help but feel a bit resentful of it.
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Ah, the old “I love Chip! Chip’s great, except I deeply hate Chip and I think there’s a chance he’s poisoning you” phenomenon. You’re never safe. You’re not even safe when they break up, because if you then unleash the wave of anti-Chip sentiment you’ve been storing up for a year (tempting, I know!), they will immediately reconcile AND they’ll tell Chip everything you said and you’ll get put at the worst table at their inevitable wedding.
The great, unspoken secret of advice is that no one takes it. This column? Purely for the entertainment of the readers. People always just do exactly what they want to do in every single scenario. It makes me feel a lot safer doling out advice to complete strangers, frankly! Sure, you might ask someone which dry shampoo you should buy, and actually listen (email me if you’re a brunette and have a Holy Grail dry shampoo, please), but it’s a rare bird who is really going to unload a romantic partner on a friend’s say-so. It happened in Persuasion, and look how that turned out! (Badly at first, but it works out.)
None of this is to say that, when asked, you shouldn’t be honest, especially if it seems as though your friend genuinely wants to know your opinion. But I do think it’s hugely important to uncouple your emotions from the end result. Advice, once given, should ideally be like the self-destructing Mission: Impossible tape.
There is, however, what I call the Carmela Soprano Exception, which is a situation I devoutly pray and hope will never come up in your life. Remember when Carmela goes to see Dr. Krakower, the shrink Dr. Melfi referred her to? And she complains about Tony’s girlfriends and his temper and so on? And instead of being all “yeah, that sucks,” Dr. Krakower is like “he’s a criminal and a terrible husband and you are complicit and you just don’t want to give up your ability to drive a new cream-colored Escalade every season and be the most powerful wife at the swap meet”? Here, the kicker is at the end:
Carmela: I would have to … get a lawyer, find an apartment. Arrange for child support.
Dr. Krakower: You’re not listening. I’m not charging you because I won’t take blood money. And you can’t either. One thing you can never say. That you haven’t been told.
Carmela: I see. You’re right, I see.
Does she listen? No, she does not. Carm ain’t going nowhere, and Tony was WAY worse than your friend’s mediocre boyfriend, Chip. He killed Adriana! But the reason this scenario is an exception, despite the same end result, is that there is a point at which you may one day have to give your advice with a boundary: that you will not be able to continue your friendship as it currently is if your friend stays with this person. If Chip has repeatedly grabbed your boobs at parties, and your friend DGAF, you don’t have to whisper “please dump him” every time you get together and then discuss your friend’s espadrilles like everything is cool after they laugh airily and change the subject.
So, let’s clarify what path to follow based on the situation at hand:
You Do Not Like the Partner That Much
I have a lot of friends with a lot of significant others. Sometimes I love their significant other and take them fully into my heart and would give them BOTH of my kidneys and plan on taking platonic Viking River Cruises in our dotages together. Sometimes I find them aggravating or boring or just not my cup of tea. That’s fine! That’s not worth saying “you should break up” over, even if they ask. If they DO ask, what a great chance to go Socratic with it.
“Are you happy?”
“If things stayed exactly as they are now, forever, would you still want to be in this relationship?”
“Do you feel like you are your best/most authentic self around them?”
Spoiler: they will still just do exactly what they want to do, but you won’t have blown up your friendship for a low-stakes dislike of some rando.
You Do Not Like the Partner That Much AND They Do A New Bad Thing Every Month That Your Friend Complains To You About
“Are you guys still together? I thought you broke up after he gave away your cat?”
Then change the subject. No one has to give the same advice more than six times.
You Really Really Think Your Friend Is Making a Huge Mistake By Staying With/Marrying Said Partner
I’m so sorry, how awful. You can still ask the above questions, but also you should feel free to speak honestly about what is in your heart, if asked. It may still be a mistake they decide to make, and you can decide what to do with that. But I would caution you against being resentful, in either case. Much as flipping a coin can help you figure out what you wanted all along, there are people who ask for advice in order to accumulate just one extra data point in a very complex array that may take months or years to complete. It may seem as though they’ve discounted your opinion, but they could easily be turning your words over in their head at 2am along with thousands of other moments and factors and ideas that will eventually result in a decision.
Or you could be stuck with Chip.
This is, at its core, perhaps a Picking Your Battles question, but “pick your battles” is also pretty good advice, all things considered! You may or may not take it, and that’s okay. May the Viking River Cruises of your dotage be joyful and relaxing and filled with good friends and acceptable partners.