Advice about advice

Dearest Meredith,

Love the column. Even after moving away from Boston, still check back regularly to read LL. My question is one of tact. This is something that comes up all the time, for me and I think anyone who has friends.

The situation: my friend has a problem with her relationship/significant other. She (could be he as well) tells me in detail about the problem: the fight, the bad behavior, etc. I respond with my honest advice. Sometimes that honest advice is hurtful. I do not believe in sugarcoating my response with responses like "Maybe he was just having a bad day." Or "He didn’t mean it when he called you a ____." To me, there are things that are intolerable. They include name-calling, flipping out for no explained reason, never taking responsibility, to name a few. I have even told one friend flat out that her boyfriend was making her miserable and she should break up with him. She eventually did and is happier than ever.

The problem: I hear other friends give advice that is very sugarcoated, which I know it is not their honest opinion. They say they do this because it is not tactful to be honest about their friend's relationship.

What is the right thing to do? Risk hurting your friends by telling them what you really think? Or let them come to their own understanding, without your honest advice?

Thank you!

– Trying to Be a Good Friend, New York

TTBAGF, there's a big difference between empathy and dishonesty. There's a huge difference between helpful discussion and unnecessarily tough love. There's a way to give advice without bossing someone around or pretending that you know the answers.

I struggle with this one daily. It's my job.

Almost every letter I get is from a person whose relationship isn't meeting their expectations. I could boil every answer I give down to: "Break up," "Stay together because you're over-reacting," or "Suck it up and stay single."

But I can't answer letters that way. Because every problem is unique. And because all relationships go through bad patches. It's impossible to know whether two people who have a rocky start will eventually become the strongest couple on the block. It's impossible to know whether the best partner ever is going to become the person who has a Facebook affair. The goal isn't to tell our friends what they should do because we know better. It's to help them figure out what they want to do -- what's best for them based on what they're experiencing.

My advice about giving advice is to ask questions. As in, "How are you feeling about the relationship? Tell me about the good stuff. What are you getting out of it? Is the name-calling something that's OK for you? Why do you think he/she continues that behavior?"

Just ask, ask, ask. Quote your friends back to themselves (that's something I do all of the time, right?) Sometimes it's more effective for us to hear our own words than someone else's.

Keep your tone supportive and calm. And admit that you don't know any definitive answers. Because you're not a psychic.

You're right -- sugar-coating and false validation is lame, but so is pretending that you know exactly what to do. Remember, you don't see everything. You're just a spectator to these people's relationships. Ask questions to fill in the blanks. Help them get to there on their own.

That's what I'd do if I could sit down with letter writers. Wouldn't that be nice?

Readers? How do you give love advice? I'm curious to hear from regular commenters. Do you give advice in person the way you do on Love Letters? Is it safe or fair to tell someone to break up with a partner? Does it put friendships at risk? How tough is tough love supposed to be? Discuss.

– Meredith