I read about five or six advice columns a week. Sometimes more. I don’t think I need this much advice (I doubt anyone does), but I have an enduring fondness for the format. I love the small window into a stranger’s life, and how those who write in tend to frame their problems in a way that is, if not unbiased (because who can truly appraise themselves objectively?), then at least not totally self-flattering. I like to read things that aren’t written by writers, and therefore not coaxed into a conventional narrative, and of course I like the replies, too.
Over the past year, as contact with other people (especially acquaintances and new people) has been limited, I have found the snippets of family and relationship trouble, bad bosses, nightmare colleagues and irksome friends serve as a sort of replacement for the stories you hear when you have regular spontaneous interactions. And in a year when everyone has been through a lot, advice columns can serve as a reminder that there is always someone out there dealing with something worse.
Sometimes this isn’t even because of a cataclysmically bad event, but just a few too many of life’s natural disappointments. One recent example is a woman who wrote into The Cut’s Ask Polly to say that she was turning 40, living with a boyfriend she is barely intimate with, estranged from her alcoholic parents, had recently lost her best friend to anti-vax conspiracy theories and had just been passed over for a promotion at work in favour of a junior man. “I want to burn down everything and scream at everyone and hide in the forest after I throw my phone in a lake so nobody can find me and I can take a break from the world,” she wrote. And, honestly, fair enough!
Others put things in perspective because they are frankly bizarre, such as the letter that went viral a few years ago when a man wrote in to the Observer’s Ask Mariella seeking advice because he had recently met his fiancee’s married parents, only to discover he had previously been intimate with her father, having met him on a cruising site (his fiancee did not know he was bisexual). “I asked [her father] if his wife knew,” he wrote, “and we have reached something of an impasse.” The ones that go viral tend to be so juicy, they blur the line between ridiculous and funny, and probably have something to do with sex. (Why is it that other people’s sexual misadventures often seem so funny when we would never see our own in these terms?)
But even those that are fairly mundane can give you a lot to think about: the many partners who are jealous over basically nothing, or preoccupied with the details of each other’s former lives, or letters like the one from a man fretting over potentially asking a colleague to go for a walk (hoping to eventually start dating), stressed because his lack of relationship experience makes him confused about the protocol in such situations.
One from a while ago that has stuck with me was by a woman who wrote into Brandy Jensen’s Ask A Fuck-Up column, in the Outline, to say that after a chaotic few years, she had got her life together, and now had a stable job, a good relationship and a nice apartment, but found herself feeling incredibly bored. “I daydream about ruining my own life just for the fun of having to start over,” she wrote. “Broadly speaking, being a person is often very stupid and a bit of a letdown,” Jensen wrote in reply, but, to paraphrase, when you don’t take responsibility for yourself, you only end up making a mess for someone else to deal with.
Sometimes there is no bigger lesson to learn or grander moral to the story than that. This is the thing I like most about advice columns: there is rarely a sense of resolution. Different columnists respond in different styles – Ask Mariella’s tough-talking “the call is coming from inside the house” approach is a world away from Ask Polly’s chipper replies, illustrated with photos of animals and punctuated with BLOCK CAPITALS and italics for emotive emphasis, and always a reminder that you are being very hard on yourself. But, despite differences in style, most recommend some steps that might incrementally improve the writer’s situation and advise them to work towards accepting whatever it is that is going on.
When people write about their problems in personal essays, the moral tends to be that everything worked out for the best. Even the grimmest tales, such as a personal essay by a woman involved in an incestuous relationship with her dad that went viral after it was published on Jezebel in 2015, present a narrative of struggling through adversity to emerge a stronger person. You don’t get this with an advice column; you never find out how it all turned out, or even if the advice was followed. There is no sense that everything came good in the end, and there is something honest about this; it often doesn’t.
Recently I was speaking to a friend who told me they had just broken up with their long-term partner. I reflexively responded with that platitude, that I was sure it was for the best, and then spent the next few days wondering why I felt I had to say that. Things don’t always work out for the best, or even well. They can work out very badly, but the outcome is almost always livable. And maybe that is a better thing to keep in mind. It is normal to have regrets and to make mistakes and to feel like you have made such an enormous mess you have backed yourself into a corner, but you do just have to sort of keep going. And, if you read a few advice columns, it probably won’t take long to find someone who has, somehow, got themselves into an even bigger mess than the one you are in.