Psychology Melbourne Blog

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Advice on giving advice: it can be bad for your marriage

Edited by Jill Wright,

So you think your spouse could do with a little good advice? Psychologists at the University of Iowa, reported in the Wall St Journal, have some advice for you: you might want to withhold your wisdom.

They followed 100 couples for the first seven years of marriage, and in a series of six studies found that both husbands and wives can get distinctly unhappy when a spouse offers too many words of wisdom.

When their wives give them unsolicited advice, men tend to feel that they are being nagged or reprimanded. Ironically, men tend to suffer more in marriages where too little advice is offered, because husbands tend to look to their wives as their primary source of encouragement.

When it's husbands who are freely dispensing advice, women generally believe they are being patronised or having their capabilities questioned. Comedian Bill Cosby would probably agree with them, having once declared, "A word to the wise ain't necessary - it's the stupid ones that need the advice."

As the Wall St Journal puts it, "Spouses often assume we are touching on their faults deliberately—so even well-meaning advice strikes them as criticism."

Their advice to advice-givers is to try the novel approach of inquiring first if the partner actually wants some ideas before holding forth.

Dr. Erika Lawrence, of the university's Centre for Couple and Family Studies, has what she calls the Platinum Rule: "Do unto others as they would have you do unto them." In other words, stop and listen. Sometimes listening can be even more effective than giving advice.

The article doesn't report it, but one of the Iowa studies categorised support into four types: physical comfort and emotional support (listening and empathising, giving your spouse a hug); esteem support (expressing confidence in your partner, providing encouragement); informational support (giving advice, gathering information); and tangible support (taking on responsibilities so your spouse can deal with a problem, helping to brainstorm solutions to a problem).

It found that too much informational support was the most detrimental to a marriage. The most valuable: esteem support.

About the editor, Jill Wright

Jill Wright (MAPS, AAFT, AICD) is the Director and Principal Psychologist at Psychology Melbourne. Jill was twice elected General Director of the Australian Psychological Society and established the Study Group Network. Find out more about Jill Wright.