If there were a 100-percent-reliable manual for marital success, I'm sure it would have a lengthy chapter on advice. As far as I'm concerned, that chapter should be indexed like this: Advice (see "minefield").
Taking advice from others and applying it indiscriminately to your marriage is like walking into a minefield: one wrong step and it can blow up in your face. I have the emotional shrapnel to prove it.
Years ago, my friend Gail became outraged when she learned that I did all the cooking at our house. I was working full-time at an advertising agency while my husband, Dan, was in law school.
"You can't let Dan get away with that!" Gail fumed. "You need to split things 50-50, like Ron and I do."
"Well!" I thought indignantly. "How could I be so blind, letting Dan cruise along without performing his share of the kitchen chores? I have rights too!"
By the time my husband got home that night, I was armed and dangerous. I had managed to fan the tiny flicker of my resentment into a whopping bonfire, fueled by Gail's input and justified by a vague notion of "fairness." Dan walked in the door, tired and unsuspecting, and I let him have it.
I would not rest until The Issue of Cooking was resolved, and it wasn't pretty. By the end of the night, all I had was a houseful of hurt feelings and a sincere wish that I had thought things through before going on the offensive.
The truth was, I didn't mind doing the cooking, and Dan handled a lot of other responsibilities around the house. The "equality" in our division of chores wasn't the same as Gail's and Ron's, but it worked for us. What works in one marriage isn't necessarily the best formula for another.
That's why I'm suspicious of anyone who offers unsolicited advice about another's marriage. Who could possibly know enough about the complex dynamics of a marriage relationship to offer unasked-for advice and expect it to be useful?
Over the years I've grown a lot more discriminating about taking advice. For one thing, I seek it only from people whose judgment I trust. My friend Georgia, who has been divorced four times, is not the person I call when I'm struggling in my marriage. Instead, I might ask Janet. I know that her value system and mine are rooted in the same beliefs and that her husband and mine have similar personalities. I also know that she cares so much about me that any advice she'd give me would be cloaked in love and concern for my—and Dan's—welfare.
I have found, too, that the more adamant people are in giving advice, the less valuable their advice is likely to be. Gail was absolutely insistent that Dan and I needed to divide up the cooking chores 50-50. She was operating from a philosophical base that demanded equality in its most narrow, legalistic sense. Her advice was rooted in that philosophy, not in an understanding of my marriage.
My marriage is too precious to be undermined by other people's agendas. Humans are fallible, and even the best-intentioned advice can still be bad advice.
There's no doubt that we sometimes need a sounding board or a sympathetic ear when we run into rough spots on the matrimonial highway, and I treasure those few friends whom I can trust to listen carefully. If I want to know what they would do in my situation, I'll ask them. But I've found that the most valuable thing they can do for me is to help me choose my own course of action. I've discovered that most of the time, the solution to a problem lies somewhere within our relationship, and the best advisor is the person who helps me bring it to light.
And that's my advice to you.
Alicia Howe is a pseudonym for a writer and public relations specialist living in Florida.
1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.