Why behavioral prescriptions are bullshit

At 5:04 PM on Fri, Apr 20, 2012 (oh, the magical/horrific specificity of digital records!),  I emailed the following to my brother:


I woke up this morning realizing that we obviously need to start writing a brother-sister tag-team relationship advice column. Not because either of us has really demonstrated any long-term relationship success (ha), but because it would be awesome. I can smell the book deal already!

Your 3 Things (“things”??? do you have a better name for them?):

  1. Honesty.
  2. Accountability.
  3. No Bullshit.
  4. (I would add compassion, ie, you give people the benefit of the doubt, but these are your things, not mine…)

He’s been talking about his three things for years. Not sure why I decided to add my own on that particular day, but that’s the kind of thing annoying big sisters do.

I then wrote up my own 4 Prescriptions for Healthy Relationships (be it with romantic partners, parents, colleagues):

1. Know what you want.

This is harder than it sounds. It requires a high degree of self-awareness. It can refer to things as simple as “I want to be by myself tonight” or as complicated as “I want to keep the relationship open while you leave the country for three months.” Note that what you want is by no means fixed; in fact, it probably changes all the time. Which makes it even more crucial that you have enough self-awareness to keep digging beneath the surface to find out what YOU want at any given moment, not what you think you’re supposed to want because that’s what society and everyone else tells you you’re supposed to want. That’s the Myth of Normal: normal does not exist. Give up your attachment to any belief that there’s a way that you, or anything, “should” be.

2. Ask for what you want.

This one builds on the last one, as you can’t ask for something you are not already aware of. Asking for what you want requires taking a risk that you won’t get the answer you want, or that you might upset someone. Many, many people are so afraid of upsetting people or opening up challenging conversations that they never ask for what they want. Unfortunately, not asking for what you want severely decreases the chances that you’ll get it, and not getting what you want breeds resentment. Then you’re cranky. And if you don’t have the skill or willingness to communicate what you want, it’s probably also true that you don’t have the skill or willingness to communicate why you’re cranky and lashing out, and everybody loses. And no, you cannot expect the other person to magically know what you want without your having stated it. That goes back to the Myth of Normal.

3. Care what the other person wants, and ask them about it.

If you genuinely don’t care, well, you’re an asshole, and there’s nothing I can do to help you. But chances are you do care. Again, I will refer to the Myth of Normal: you cannot assume that you know what the other person wants, and the only way to find out exactly what they want is to ask. If you don’t ask, the net result is the same as not caring in the first place: you don’t know, and even if you have the best intentions and are trying Really Hard, there’s a strong chance you’re being an asshole simply because you have no idea if you’re doing something that actually satisfies what the other person wants. Once you’ve asked, then you have to let the person answer without interrupting or getting defensive about what they’re saying, and actually hear what they’re saying. You also have to ask clarifying questions if there’s something you don’t understand; you can’t just tell the person they’re wrong or unreasonable.

4. Negotiate a mutually-agreeable solution.

The prerequisites for this step are that you believe it is actually possible to reach a mutually-agreeable solution that meets both people’s needs, and that you care enough about the relationship to find it. Necessary ingredients for healthy negotiation include clarifying questions, genuine offers, suggestions for potential solutions, or combinations thereof (eg “Why do you want to be alone?” “What could I do to make you feel better about my going away for three months?” “If we do our own thing tonight, could we make a plan to hang out tomorrow afternoon?”)… and a willingness to consider possibilities that you have not thought of before. This is particularly important because the solutions you came up with by yourself, before talking to the other person, likely did not take their stuff into account At All. And they might ask you some clarifying questions that will help you understand why you were really want what you wanted, which could take the solutions into a whole new direction.


Yeah so that’s it… I’m continually refining these. I have a really funny anecdotal story after telling George he needed to be honest with his girlfriend about his dates with his ex. Initially his girlfriend dumped him, but the next morning she un-dumped him… I was so proud! “See?! Honestly always pays off. You just might have to deal with some real responses in the meantime.” Yay!



He forwarded the to his girlfriend, who loved it, and asked if she could send it to her sister, etc…. I was very proud of my prescriptions. And figured I always would be.

Reading back over it now, I’m fascinated by the things remain the same, two years later. I’m still relieved that my brother and I share similar perspectives on matters of inter-personal dynamics (and because we both also think too much, of course we have a rather well-developed theory about why that might be, ha), and grateful that we have a relationship where topics like these are not only fair game, but the norm. Despite what I had written about our respective long-term relationships (or lack thereof), he is still with the same amazing woman, and though there was a major hiatus last year, I am happily back together with the same amazing man I was with back then.

However, while my brother’s 3 things still strike me as pretty sound, I find that my prescriptions represent everything I currently find irksome about self-help advice in general.

The problem is pretty well summed up by my sweetie’s response when I most recently asked him, after having sent the above email to him for at least the third time, if he’d actually read the damn thing.

“Yeah I read it.”

“Well, what did you think?”

“I think it’s fine… in theory.”

In theory, people can function according to the principles of nonviolent communication, Buddhist principles, those collaborative design processes I learned in my sustainable MBA program, or whatever else I picked up from a relationship book, an ashram, a shrink, etc.

In practice, we rarely do. And this is why I’ve recently come to believe that self-help advice is itself a form of violence: in my experience, all this theoretical behavior that people could — theoretically — embody… serves merely to increase my level of expectation about how I SHOULD behave, or how other people SHOULD behave, in some stressful situation… and so suddenly, in addition to being upset about whatever triggered me in the first place, I’m also acutely aware of (and therefore livid at) the fact that my beloved / my boss / my mom / whomever is not as “enlightened” as I am about all the ways one could behave in a challenging situation. Simultaneously, I’m angry at myself for not miraculously being “enlightened” enough to be calm and peaceful enough to embody all that theoretical bullshit.

How is this helpful?!

It’s not.

So instead, my latest experiment for myself (not a prescription, mind you!) is one of both acceptance, and faith. Accepting, for instance, that in some situations, I’m mad. Accepting that the thing that I do when I’m mad is try to talk things through, and that makes him mad. Accepting that it might actually be more “productive” (and why does productivity matter, anyway?) for us to just be mad, and say “inappropriate” stuff in ways that go against all the theories in all the books I read and he wouldn’t. And having faith that whatever is happening is what is meant to be happening, whether I can make any sense of it, or not.

Yes, I realize this is all pretty bullshit, too. But the amazing side effect of having come to a place where I suspect that there is absolutely nothing that I can do about those infuriating situations is that I am suddenly completely free from the burden of having to try to do anything about them.

I feel better already.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

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