Advice is what we ask for when we already know the answer but wish we didn’t. — Erica Jong
As Karen chronicled her first few dates with a new guy, I couldn’t help thinking how accurate is the phrase in vino veritas, though in this case the vino was scotch. By her second glass of 12-year-old Macallan, she’d stopped offering the disclaimer “I shouldn’t be telling you this” before sharing a saucy detail.
As her inhibitions yielded to the effects of the amber liquid in her glass, Karen described her latest rendezvous with Mr. Maybe. Relaxed and unconcerned, she paid no mind to the art festival going on around us. Sober and neurotic, I flinched when a couple and small child walked by just as Karen was expounding on a deviant sex act her date had proposed. Fortunately, the family didn’t seem to have heard anything. The DJ, however, perked up — perhaps upon hearing some choice words — while setting up his table and speakers a few feet a way. He seemed to keep one ear tuned to our frequency for the rest of the evening.
“And that was the last time I talked to him, about three weeks ago,” Karen concluded.
If she had simply been sharing, I would have nodded and said, “Cool.” But she had asked for my advice, so I gave it: “If he calls and asks you out, I don’t care what you’re doing — you could be sitting at home trimming your toenails — you tell him you’re busy.”
“But he was so nice,” she argued.
“Okay, forget about the fact that he’s cute, has an exotic Italian accent, and makes millions of dollars a month,” I said. “He’s a pornographer. It might be fun and all new and interesting for you right now, but trust me, it will get old. Having known people in that industry, I can tell you that this guy will never be able to relate to you as an intelligent, independent woman — in the world of porn, women are props.”
“Yeah, I know,” said Karen, the way people do when they voice what they think you want to hear.
“If you continue with this, you’re only postponing your disappointment,” I said. “The first three dates were all about him and his work, what he wanted to do and when he wanted to do it. What is it you want?” I softened my tone and continued, “You don’t have to answer that, but think about it. I don’t mean to sound harsh, but if this guy isn’t offering you what you really want — things you would later resent not getting from him — then it’s best to bail early.”
Karen nodded in reluctant agreement, and I was relieved. Proffering relationship advice to a girlfriend can be a prickly endeavor. One must keep in mind that the advice-seeker’s is the only opinion that matters; the advice-giver ought to play the role of a sounding board that occasionally reflects contrasting concepts in a devil’s advocate sort of way.
While living in L.A., I had a friend with a penchant for damaged goods. When she asked for my advice about a particular fellow, a guy who worked odd jobs to support his drug habit and lived in a small house with five other people, I laid it out. “Think of him like a residence,” I said. “Back in your college days you had your ratty first apartment. You’ve moved way beyond that now. You don’t have the time or money for a nonfunctioning fixer-upper. You need a new home, preferably one that comes fully furnished in your style, a place that will be your sanctuary.”
During the first few dates with a new beau, optimistic women will try anything to squeeze a man into the mold of their ideal partner — compressing a streak of arrogance or over-inflating an acceptable characteristic such as “niceness” in an attempt to fill the empty space of other desired but missing traits. I follow a basic rule when it comes to relationships: You can’t change people, so if he doesn’t fit into that mold now, he never will.
The only other option is to change your mold, reset your expectations — which is not as easy as it may seem. When I was single, I would invent all kinds of excuses for the insufficiencies in the men I dated. When I was 19, I rationalized how it didn’t matter that one particular suitor had no ambition past his job at a fast-food joint. On a deeper level, I knew I desired a partner whose thirst for life matched my own. At first, I overlooked my need because I was so happy to have a romantic interest be so into me. But needs have a way of catching up with you, and mine closed in during the third month, at which point I moved on. After that, I knew that any realistic contender for Mr. Barb had to meet one requirement: mutual respect. I needed someone I could look up to, but also someone who looked up to me.
It may not be comfortable to watch a friend over-compromise, but I have learned to keep my mouth shut. When my friend Trish broke up with her boyfriend of two years, I made a comment about never having liked him. In a betrayed tone, she asked, “Why didn’t you tell me before?”
“Because when it comes to your love life, it doesn’t matter what I think,” I said. “And, seriously, if I told you a year ago, ‘Hey, I don’t like Tom. He bores me and he’s a bit of a douche,’ you would have been, like, ‘Screw you.’”
It kills me to see my friends settle, to see them give so much more than they get as the imbalance of their emotional ledger slowly drains the life from them. But to offer my opinion when it is not sought is rude and presumptuous. Oh, I’ve done it anyway, but it never produces a desired result. Rather than “seeing the light,” the recipient of my unsolicited advice just sees me as a jerk.
Women often fall back on the same easy excuse when descending into a dissatisfying relationship. I heard it from Trish when she was lamenting the loss of a guy hardly worthy of her. “I still love him,” she told me.
“Love is not enough,” I said. “You know what? I love chocolate. And chocolate is delicious, but one cannot survive on sweetness alone. A nutritionally balanced relationship requires a helluva lot more than love.”
When giving advice, I always leave the final decision to my girlfriend. In this case, I posed a direct question for Trish to contemplate.
“Your choice in a partner says as much about what you think of yourself as it does about what you think of him. So, are you a five-star tasting menu or a bag of Cheetos?”