Friends give advice. Psychoanalysts generally do not. For patients, this can be frustrating. In the early stages of treatment, some patients interpret my lack of advice as indifference, or as part of a role I’m performing. And I understand that it can feel strange. My analytic attitude goes against every expectation of what you believe is supposed to happen when you share your problems with someone, particularly when you share them with an expert. So, why would I not give advice?
Advice is usually a plan of action. We tend to like concrete plans of action because the world seems much simpler when there is a definite plan. We all know what happens when you ask a friend for relationship advice: You tell your friend about your relationship problems; your friend sees the problem more clearly from an outside perspective, interprets it, and provides a plan of action to solve the problem. You leave with a plan and a sense of being heard.
Then, you return to your life and your relationship, and somehow nothing changes. Functionally, the advice does nothing. Why? Because advice is based on simple (i.e. non-complex) interpretation. And if you continue to attempt to look at complex problems through simple interpretations, the complex problems will remain largely untouched. You may feel an empowered jolt of agency after receiving some affirming advice, but that feeling fades.
It is important to note that simple interpretations can be extremely useful and even life-saving in many situations involving uncomplicated problems, where everyone agrees on what is a good outcome and what is a bad outcome. For instance, if your leg is broken, you will take the advice of your orthopedist, and your leg will heal. If your car is making a strange noise, you will take your mechanic’s advice and your car will stop making that noise. These are concrete problems that require concrete solutions. We all want a functional body and a car that doesn’t make weird noises.
On the other hand, the problems that people need my help to solve are significantly more complex. None of us is in agreement on what a good or bad relationship actually looks like, because what we get out of our relationships is extremely personal and specific. As a result, complex emotional and cognitive problems are largely advice-resistant.
For instance, an intelligent, perceptive young woman in my consulting room tells me that her boyfriend of many years regularly insults, embarrasses, and humiliates her. He has been doing this for years. They have no kids, no mortgage, and they both have good jobs. Her friends say, “Listen, he treats you like dirt; he’s crazy. You’re better than that; you’re a superstar. Dump him and find a man who respects you.” She has heard this advice from dozens of people. But somehow, it is not helping.
Advice like this relies on one interpretation of events, and in this case, the interpretation is clearly flawed. This advice is tacitly constructed around unspoken, unquestioned assumptions about what she should want and how she should feel about herself. When talking to someone about what is going on inside a relationship, you cannot assume you both understand what a “relationship” is in the same way.
Put more bluntly, you’re not very good at interpreting other people’s relationships. No one on the outside is good at interpreting what’s going on inside. And when you give advice, you unconsciously superimpose your frame of reference and assumptions of what a “good” relationship looks like.
Nonetheless, people often talk to their friends about their problems, and they generally expect advice in return. Friends usually respond with the most thoughtful advice they can come up with. Once that advice remains unheeded after a few handfuls of heart-to-heart cocktail sessions, everyone feels exasperated. That’s usually when my phone rings.
Complex interpretation more effectively addresses complex problems, but frustratingly, it definitely does not look or feel anything like traditional advice. In our earlier example, the friends of the young woman suffering in a fraught relationship have been as helpful and as useful as they can. But in the service of bolstering her self-esteem, they ignore a hugely important question: if it’s so obvious to everyone (including herself) that her boyfriend treats her horribly, then why does she stick around?
She sticks around because in some strange way, this relationship works for her, and for her boyfriend. A dynamic is alive between them, and that dynamic has a powerful function for both partners. The problems arising from this dynamic are advice-proof because her friends [understandably] are not asking questions about what is actually taking place between these two people. Friends tend to interpret based on what should be going on in a relationship, and relationship advice from a “should” perspective will always be woefully incomplete. To understand complex relationship dynamics, it is important to move beyond what should be happening and figure out what is happening, right now. And as a result, psychoanalysts tend to interpret based on what is going on in a relationship, rather than what should be.
When we look at what is actually happening within a painful relationship dynamic, we often start to find paradoxes that defy simple interpretation. For instance, we may find that this relationship brings to life both partners’ extreme ambivalence about being in an intimate relationship at all, and its moments of violent agony justify their mutual terror of depending on another person for emotional sustenance. Even though this abusive dynamic is terribly painful and may appear frighteningly unstable, it may also serve the purpose of keeping the partners at a comfortable distance from one another, all the while appearing from the outside to be much more intimate than it actually is.
In other words, this person craves intimacy and is utterly terrified of losing herself in an intimate relationship, at the same time. These dynamics clearly indicate that this relationship did not arbitrarily come into existence without rhyme or reason, and that on the contrary, something very specific is playing out between these two strangely complementary minds. And in psychoanalysis, a big part of our task is to examine both sides of paradoxes like this at the same time, in order to name and work out the conflicts leading to these relationship stalemates.