“Advice for Couples: Give Less Advice”: WSJ

Here’s a feature article on one of my many obsessions. And yes, I hate “studies have found” too, but much of this rings true. I wish they’d elaborated more on the problems with simply recasting advice as, “When something similar happened to me, I…” storytelling. I’ve found that people giving advice on how to give advice typically think that will “work,” but in practice it often causes offense (how dare you suggest that my occasional extra Snickers bar is like your drinking problem?!–not a real example!). Or it can come across as turning somebody else’s problem into an excuse to whine about your own life or talk about the superiority of your own solutions and current behavior:

…Advice giving, especially unsolicited, is tricky. Being on the receiving end can be annoying and make us defensive. But giving advice can be frustrating, as well, particularly when the intended beneficiary of our wisdom makes it clear it isn’t welcome—or takes the same recommendations we’ve been giving for months from someone else. The whole advice issue is typically hardest to navigate with the person we know the best: our spouse or partner.

In a series of six studies that followed 100 couples for the first seven years of marriage, researchers at the University of Iowa found that both husbands and wives feel lower marital satisfaction when they are given too much advice from a spouse, as opposed to too little. And—surprise!—unsolicited advice is the most damaging kind. The most recent study was published in 2009 in the Journal of Family Psychology.

In one study, the researchers videotaped spouses discussing a problem that one of them had—say a struggle to lose weight or quit smoking—while the other partner offered advice. They then examined the positive and negative behaviors that each person engaged in while asking for support, receiving it or providing it.

One result of the study was unexpected: How the person asking for or receiving the support behaves is more important to the health of the relationship than how the person giving the advice behaves. “It’s a vulnerable position to need support,” says Erika Lawrence, one of the lead researchers on the studies and associate professor at the University of Iowa.

Another finding: When too little advice was offered in a marriage, it was the men who suffered more. Researchers believe this is because husbands often look to their wives as their primary source of encouragement, while wives lean on friends and other loved ones, in addition to their husbands.

Men and women tend to experience different emotions when they receive advice from a partner, says Anna Ranieri, a psychologist in Palo Alto, Calif., and co-author of “How Can I Help? What you Can (and Can’t) Do to Counsel a Friend, Colleague or Family Member with a Problem.” When wives offer guidance, husbands often feel reprimanded or nagged. Yet when the advice comes from the husbands—who are more likely to give tangible, fix-it type suggestions to a problem—it is common for wives to feel that they are being condescended to or seen as incapable.

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