In One Ear; Out the Other / Not so “Nice” After All
Dear Dr. Hurd,
I have a friend who makes a point of coming to me with her problems. I am complimented, and I’m very careful to provide well-thought-out answers and insight. Then she thanks me and goes out and does the exact opposite of what I told her. And 99% of the time this ends up in disaster for her. Her requests for advice are annoying me more and more, as I know she is going to waste my time and then ignore me. How can I stop this exercise in futility without hurting her feelings?
Dr. Hurd replies,
You have to understand that people who complain about their problems are often doing nothing more than venting. Sometimes comfort can come from simply talking about what’s bothering you. You’re assuming your friend wants solutions, but her actions show otherwise. People who vent to you don’t necessarily want a solution. Sometimes their minds are already made up, and all they’re looking for is a sympathetic ear.
Based on your note, the error here is yours. You’re assuming something that probably isn’t true, and then getting mad at her for it. You should instead challenge your false assumption. If her refusal to take your advice reduces your motivation to hear her complain, then listen less or stop listening entirely.
The key is to place this in perspective. You don’t have to listen to her if you don’t want to, but if you want her as a friend, recognize that this ritual is probably part of the package. If you stop listening to her, then it will almost certainly hurt her feelings and tarnish your friendship.
So you have a decision to make: Do you want her as a friend? If so, then accept what you cannot control, i.e., her desire to do things her own way, even if it leads to disaster. A possible compromise might be to preface your comments with, “I know you won’t follow this advice, but….” At least it’s out in the open.
As an aside, don’t waste your time offering unsolicited advice. I’m giving you advice because you asked for it. But be careful to make sure she asks you for help before you give it. At the minimum, ask her, “Can I make a suggestion?” before you dole out the advice you know she won’t follow anyway.
Dear Dr. Hurd,
My brother-in-law can be a know it all, but I try to be accepting in order to keep peace in the family. He and his husband (my brother) have a dog. My wife and I have repeatedly asked them not to bring the dog over to our house. The dog is nice and gentle, but we are concerned about our young child. You never know for sure how a dog will act. Last week, in flagrant disregard of our requests, he (again) brought the dog to the house. It turns out the dog had a stomach virus, and ended up making a horrible mess throughout the house. We are facing some major expense in replacing some of the carpet, etc. The amazing thing is that neither of them act as if anything bad has happened. If his partner were not my brother, I’d ban him from this house and my life. But I can’t. What can I do?
Dr. Hurd replies,
Actually, you can reasonably do whatever you want to do. It’s reasonable to request that someone not bring their dog to your house, and to have that request honored. If you need me to tell you that, I suppose that’s fine, but let’s take a look at why that’s not immediately obvious to you. You’re asking your brother to respect your wishes, and I suspect you would do the same for him. It’s reasonable to expect of someone else what you know you’d do yourself. It does not take a disaster to justify this policy, although you now have a disaster to illustrate it.
The fact is that you created this problem. I’m not saying you’re responsible for your brother’s choices, but your mistake was permitting it to continue. The first time he showed up with the dog after you requested he not do so, you should have stopped him in his tracks. “Excuse me,” you could have said, “Didn’t I ask you not to bring the dog?” Make a big deal out of it, because it is a big deal. He was testing you to see how a big a deal it was, and you clearly replied by saying nothing.
Now look what happened when you attempted to be “nice” and avoid conflict. You’ve now got more conflict than ever. This is what happens when you let people violate your rights and boundaries. They push the limit further. When you said nothing the first, second, and fifteenth time he disregarded your request, your actions communicated to him that what you say doesn’t matter, even to you. So why should he care if you don’t?
That’s a much bigger problem than the mess on your carpet. Work on improving that, and life—including your interaction with your brother and his partner—will get better.
Michael J. Hurd, Ph.D., LCSW is a psychotherapist and author. His office can be reached at 302-227-2829. Email questions or comments to Dr. Hurd.