People mean well; they really do. As with all advice, your friends and family and countless blog post authors whose helpful little lists proliferate on Facebook, etc. are sincerely wanting to improve your relationships. But all too often their good advice proves unhelpful in the end. Why? Usually for one or more of these 3 reasons:
1. A Lot of Relationship Advice Assumes Relationships are Simple
I’d say most relationship advice contains kernels of truth but still winds up being woefully pragmatic. It treats relational success or happiness like a formula. You’ve probably heard this kind of advice before, or maybe even given it yourself:
– If a wife would just have sex with her husband more, he would not use pornography or have an affair.
– If a husband would just talk with his wife more, she would be less cranky.
– If you will go on a date once a week, you will keep the flames of romance burning.
– If you raise your children right, they won’t turn their backs on the faith.
You can likely list umpteen more examples. Each of these bits and others like them, as I said, contain kernels of truth. The problem is that they urge us to treat our relationships like some kind of psychological vending machine: if I just push the right buttons, I’ll get the right response. Formulaic. Pragmatic.
But in reality, people are incredibly complex! Our hearts are ridiculously nuanced things. We are a mix of our pasts and our personalities and our fears and our frustrations and our assumptions and our upbringing and our desires and our habits, etc. And let’s not forget that we’re all sinners! So you put this recipe into an intimate relationship, and you’re going to find that the “If you will _____, then they will ______” is an amazingly superficial approach to relationships.* People don’t work that way.
We can all think of examples of marriages where one spouse did “all the right things” (though nobody is perfect, of course), and yet could not win the heart of the other. This kind of advice is incredibly harmful in abusive situations, because it implies blame should be carried by victims. No, people are much more complex and sin is much more enmeshed in our hearts than most relationship advice is able to reliably sort out.
2. A Lot of Relationship Advice Assumes Both Parties Want the Same Thing
The advice formulas all seem to assume that if you got your relational act together, your partner would get their act together too. There’s even a marriage book out there full of advice for wives titled Have a New Husband By Friday (which I think is an awful premise for a book). But this kind of advice assumes, in fact, that the person who’s become your project actually wants to get his or her act together! It assumes they give a rip about having a good relationship. Or it assumes they don’t already think the relationship is fine as is.
When I was a pastor, this was one of the first things I’d ask a couple who’d come to me for marriage counseling: “Are you both here because you want to be? Do you both want to do whatever it takes to have a healthy relationship?” Because if they both don’t want to change, if they both don’t want a healthy marriage, it didn’t matter how much counsel I gave the both of them — it wasn’t going to “work.” Most couples would say they both wanted the same thing, but over time, I could discern that really one spouse was interested in experiencing healing in their marriage and the other was just sort of there as a last resort or to get their partner to stop nagging them about it. Invariably, without fail, when both parties aren’t interested in the same goal, they did not see any growth together. It didn’t matter how much advice I gave one or both of them — if one of them was not relationally on the same page, it didn’t work. And this is where the next place relationship advice often fails comes in . . .
3. Most Relationship Advice is Wrongly Aimed
When you only have one spouse really interested in marital health, the advice must shift to where it should have been all along, to where it should always be even when both spouses are interested in a healthy marriage — the glory of God. See, most relationship advice has as its aim the happiness of the one seeking the advice. Most relationship advice has as its end goal the advice-follower getting what they want, feeling a certain way, accomplishing a certain end. But when the other person isn’t cooperating or when the formulas don’t seem to fit the excruciating complexity of two broken human beings negotiating idolatry and habits and wounds in the context of intimacy, the advice-follower becomes tempted to throw up their hands and surrender. Why? Because the aim has been self — self-fulfillment, self-validation, self-esteem. Aimed this way, even if you win some little battles, you discover it’s never quite enough.
Look, it’s not a bad thing to want to be happy, to feel romance, to desire all the wonderful kinds of intimacy that comes with a healthy marriage, or to experience the joy of healthy friendships. But in our fallen world the only sure thing is the glory of Christ coming to bear in and through God’s children. In 1 Corinthians 13 — a passage many married couples interestingly have read in their wedding day ceremonies, only to carry on in their marriages without giving it a second thought — we do not see a love that is aimed at the self. We see the selfless kind of love, the truest and best kind of love, the kind of love that gives God the most glory.
Paul says, “Love never fails.” How can he say that love never fails? Is it because the lover always gets what he or she wants? No. We know from experience that’s not the case. Love frequently “fails” that way. Lovers frequently find that their love, even in marriage, isn’t reciprocated. So how can it be said that love never fails?
The kind of love Christ has for us — gracious, selfless, sacrificial, enduring all things and hoping all things — is the kind of love we are called to give the sinners we’re in relationship with. That’s the kind of love Jesus gave us. Do you think it was predicated on our being easy to love? If so, you don’t understand the gospel. No, the Jesus kind of love is love without strings, affection without expectation, service without demand. (Because love that only exists so long as the love is returned is not really love at all — not according to 1 Corinthians 13, anyway.) That kind of love never fails because it brings glory to God, and nothing that brings glory to God can be considered anything but a victory.
* Some of the advice could be rescued a bit by simply removing it from the if/then formula. Husbands should remember, generally speaking, that their wives feel loved when they feel heard, considered, known. Wives should remember, generally speaking, that for husbands sex encompasses more than physical release but is often tied to feelings of encouragement and approval. But even when removed from the if/then formula, this kind of advice can often erroneously assume a simpleness on the part of the advice-follower! Many wives struggle loving their husbands sexually not because of anything “wrong” with their husbands but because of a host of internal barriers and hesitations or even past wounds and triggers. Many husbands struggle communicating well with their wives not because they don’t want to communicate but because they too have an enormous amount of internalized hangups and fears, or they’ve never experienced healthy communication at any other point in their lives. We are all incredibly complex people, making impeccable advice-following and reliable behavior-changing really difficult!