I love agony aunt columns, where people send in their most intimate dilemmas seeking the advice of an expert, picking up the judgment of thousands of invested internet strangers on the way. Who doesn’t love the low-stakes thrill of reading about the dramas of others as an innocent bystander?
This month, one woman’s simple relationship question to the New York Times Magazine went viral and ended up as a news item on CNN. When her family went on holiday, her husband booked himself into first-class on the flight but stuck his wife and children (aged 12 and 16) in economy.
“He justifies flying alone in first because of the cost,” she explained. He couldn’t move her up next to him in case the kids got lonely. He had generously offered to take an entirely different flight so it wouldn’t feel so bad when he headed off to the pointy end of the plane, abandoning his wife and children to a fate of tinfoil dinners and knees bruised by tray tables.
In the least surprising turn of events this year, the woman did not think this was a fair solution. She wrote in to ask, “Am I wrong?”
What followed was an academic study in how many variations of the answer “no” and the instruction “you should leave him” can exist in the English language.
We, the internet community, knew exactly what we’d do if we were in her shoes, and weren’t afraid to give our uninvited advice: let him fly first and use the time to pack up your house and see a lawyer. Take the air miles in the divorce.
Even those of us who show great personal restraint and merely read the column instead of shooting off our opinion online took petty solace in the article. “My relationship might have issues, and my spouse may communicate their needs solely through passive aggressive notes on the fridge, but at least they wouldn’t stick me in economy class on my own,” we thought to ourselves, full of smug relief.
Newspaper advice columns are the grown-up version of drunk strangers in the women’s pub toilets, who tell you to ditch your fella because yet again you’re crying on a night out
Other people’s problems are endlessly fascinating to us because we can greedily gobble them down while avoiding our own. We don’t have to square up to the failings in our own lives when we’re rifling through someone else’s – things that could be so easily solved if we were brave enough to accept the truth of the situation, such as leaving an unhappy relationship, finding a new job or getting help for an addiction.
If you are writing into a newspaper advice column about a relationship problem, you probably already know the answer deep down: you want to leave the dose but you’re looking for someone else’s permission. We are looking for a stranger to validate our emotions. Should we feel this angry or hurt? Are we overreacting? Are we making too much of a big deal out of this? Newspaper advice columns are the grown-up version of drunk strangers in the women’s pub toilets, who tell you to ditch your fella because yet again you’re crying on a night out.
We think there are only a few set reasons to break up with someone, like cheating, or running an illegal dog fighting ring in the shed. Saying “I’m not happy” doesn’t feel enough. We can talk ourselves out of that vague reasoning. Maybe we just need to be more positive. Fill in more pages of our gratitude journal. Listen to relationship podcasts while we do our nightly silent cry in the downstairs loo. We’re worried we’ll be told to “just give things another chance” when there’s been thousands of silent chances over the years.
I enjoyed my friend’s panic drinks in the pub after she called off her engagement more than sitting through weddings that should not have happened
We’re not very good at celebrating people when they leave unhappy relationships. We say “I’m sorry” automatically when we hear about a break-up or a divorce, instead of “I feel relieved because you have looked so sad for so long and it’s been hard to watch”.
The truth is, I enjoyed my friend’s panic drinks in the pub after she called off her engagement more than sitting through weddings that should not have happened in the first place but did because the deposit was non-refundable.
Maybe it’s for the best that I’m not an agony aunt – my answer to every unhappy relationship question would probably be “leave them”. You’ll have to find me in the pub bathroom for that advice instead.