Advice Goddess

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Q: I’ve been with my boyfriend for four years. I thought I was super-happy, but I recently got a crush on a co-worker. Now I’m worried that maybe I’m not totally satisfied in my relationship. If I were truly in love with my boyfriend, why would I be crushing on somebody else? Does this make me more vulnerable to cheating? Should we go into therapy?—So Confused

A: You’re in a relationship, not a coma. That said, your worries are understandable. There’s been a belief, even among some researchers, that crushing (on somebody other than one’s partner) is the gateway to cheating—as well as lower commitment and lower relationship satisfaction. Obviously, crushy thoughts about, say, a co-worker can lead to a hookup (or more) in a way that matter-of-fact thoughts do not. However, it turns out that researchers failed to make a distinction between having a crush (an attraction to a person other than one’s partner) and having a high degree of what’s called “attention to alternatives” (basically, eyeballs ever on the prowl for “attractive alternatives” to one’s current partner).

In research by doctoral student Charlene F. Belu and psychologist Lucia F. O’Sullivan, 80 percent of the participants reported having a crush on somebody other than their partner while in a committed relationship. Only a small subset (17 percent) of those participants “reported they would leave their romantic partners for their crush if the opportunity arose,” suggesting that for many, their crushes “are not considered true viable alternative partners.”

The researchers found people’s crushes to be “of relatively long duration, although not as long as the length of” a person’s “current romantic relationship.” This “duration . . . suggests that one’s crush endures in parallel to one’s primary relationship.” They even speculate that having a crush may even help sustain a relationship, by (mentally) “providing some variety to help cope with monotony” that’s a natural part of long-term relationships but “without the risks inherent to infidelity.”

So, getting back to you, as long as your relationship’s satisfying and the only sex vacations you take with your crush are in your mind, you’re probably OK.

Q: Out of nowhere, a male friend started criticizing me, telling me that I need to change careers to make more money. He does have a successful business (started with seed money from his extremely wealthy family). But I didn’t ask for his advice, and besides, I love my job, and I’m working on what I need to do to move forward. So I ended up snapping at him. He got mad and insisted that he just wants the best for me.—Steamed

 

A: Criticizing someone does not make them want to change; it makes them want to Google for listicles like “10 Foolproof Tricks for Getting Away with Murder.”

To understand your friend’s spontaneous outburst of unsolicited advice, consider that human communication is strategic. Evolutionary scientists Vladas Griskevicius and Douglas Kenrick find that seven “deep-seated evolutionary motives”—emerging from survival and mating challenges our ancestors faced—“continue to influence much modern behavior.” These evolved motivations still driving us today are (1) evading physical harm, (2) avoiding disease, (3) making friends, (4) acquiring a mate, (5) keeping that mate, (6) caring for family and—ding-ding-ding!—(7) attaining status.

Yes, status. There’s a good chance that your dispenser of unsolicited advice has the best of intentions; he can be the expert, the career seer, the swami of success. But whatever this guy’s motive, you have no obligation to donate your attention to his cause.

The best time to set boundaries is before they’re needed. Or needed again. Gently inform your friend that you truly appreciate his desire to help but the only advice that works for you is the solicited kind. Should he wish to, uh, solicit your solicitation, he can ask: “Would you be open to hearing . . . ?” If you accept, it might help you keep an open mind if you focus on what you two have in common—for example, a relative who proclaimed, “When I die, all of this will be yours!” Unfortunately, your grandma was making a sweeping gesture toward her salt and pepper shaker collection.

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