While I'm away, readers give the advice.
On telling a sympathetic story that comes across as one-upping:
Pay attention at the moment you realize you have a comparable story. Because it is at that exact moment that you have stopped listening to the other person and are instead thinking about what you want to say: You are listening for your chance to jump in, and ignoring the other person.
So -- STOP thinking about your own story and go back to listening to the other person. Maybe ask for some elaboration, or continuation, or clarification. Encourage them to tell their story, and let them. What are they telling you? What happened, what did they bring from it? Shut up and listen. Listening is a harder skill than talking. Develop it.
Mr. Advice, Everybody's Friend
On the impulse to chuck everything in response to a vague sense of unhappiness: Sounds like my ex-husband! Whenever he is unhappy (which is pretty much all the time), his first impulse is to chuck the relationship and find a new woman, who supposedly will make him happier than the one he has.
His best friend tried to get him to exercise, which would get those endorphins flowing and make him happier. He'd only go if his friend drove across town and dragged him out.
I tried to get him to eat healthier food. He'd eat the salad I prepared for dinner, then come up with some errand that needed to be run, and stuff himself on fried chicken, doughnuts and ice cream.
Both his best friend and I tried to get him into counseling. He went to one session, complained "it's too hard" -- he was expected to deal with painful issues he'd long buried -- and refused to go again.
He's always on the run from reality, always thinking the grass is greener somewhere else. Then he finds that his new woman isn't the miracle worker he expected, and he goes in search of another woman. And another.
On privacy, passwords and trust: Do you listen in on every conversation your spouse has with his friends? With her co-workers? With the minister? With the counselor? Do you read private writings to know what is being thought? Do you open and read his or her mail (snail- and e-)?
Some separateness can be healthy, especially in the long run. One of the stressors upon retirement is that a couple may be together constantly when they have had separate time for decades.
I have no private accounts -- but sometimes I say things on the phone or even in email or in texts that I don't want anyone else to see other than the recipient. Believe it or not, sometimes people vent about their spouses and don't really want the venting to get back to the spouse. Really.
I have my passwords and accounts all recorded on an encrypted file -- every year I send the name of the file and the password to decrypt it to my children and wife.
It is partly about trusting the person, but it is also about having parts of ourselves that we want to keep private. And that can be OK or healthy even.
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