Tell Me About It: An outsider who can offer a different perspective
Anonymity offers protection and by now, I hope that readers can see that they are treated with respect, even if the answer sometimes challenges them
When a boyfriend gives you a voucher for life-changing plastic surgery you don’t want, and you’re afraid that if you don’t use it, the relationship will be over, who do you turn to? Who do you ask for advice when you suspect that your husband is having an affair, and you’re afraid to ask him? It may seem surprising – especially to me – that people at such frightening turning points in their relationships turn to this column for answers.
But there are questions that we’re afraid to ask family and friends for fear they will judge us, or tell us what to do. You already know your mother doesn’t approve and your friends might laugh at you or say I told you so. Sometimes we want to ask an outsider who can offer a different perspective with the protection of knowing that they’ll treat your question compassionately. The reader/agony aunt relationship is an interesting human dynamic and one that has worked since such columns began in the 18th century.
It’s nearly a year since Tell Me About It started and I fledged my wings as an agony aunt. And a new year is the perfect time to assess this intriguing new forum for The Irish Times readers. It quickly became one of the most read columns in the newspaper because, I think, there’s nothing more fascinating to people than other people, especially when we identify with them. Research has shown that people today turn to media and digital platforms for advice far more than they turn to friends and family.
I’ve even got questions from people who were afraid to ask their own doctors and so asked me instead. Usually though, the questions involve relationships where two people are terrified of mentioning the elephant in the room. They know what the problem is, but they don’t know how to go about addressing it within the relationship. Maybe they know that their partner is being unreasonable or hurtful, but they want it confirmed by an objective stranger.
Anonymity offers protection and by now, I hope that readers can see that they are treated with respect, even if the answer sometimes challenges them. The man who was torn between his older lover and his fiancée may not have totally agreed with me that neither relationship was going to work until he looked to his own attitudes, but at least it got him thinking and he respected the answer.
On occasion, questioners have felt the insight offered was so useful that they’ve laid the column on the kitchen table over breakfast as a way of starting the conversation with their partner.
They’ve got back to me to say that seeing the problem set out in black and white helped and gave them the push they needed as well as the validation they required to dare talk about it with their beloved.
Over the year, many psychotherapists and other experts have been generous with their time and knowledge. It may be a comfort to known that while questions may sometimes appear unusual or even bizarre, these therapists have seen it all before and their advice is gold standard.
Another benefit of this column, is that each brave person who sends a personal question is speaking for the thousands who don’t dare to. Each of us thinks we’re different and strange and that our secrets are too shameful or shocking to air, but usually there are many others who identify with us and don’t think we’re strange at all, as anyone who has ever written a memoir or tell-all blog knows.
Many times in my answers I have encouraged questioners to seek couples therapy, often recommending Relationships Ireland, who are reasonably priced and have an impressive talent list when it comes to counsellors. Always, I am aware that this advice is terrifying to people. Actually sitting in a room and being emotionally naked with your partner, with the help and support of an empathetic counsellor, is quite a courageous move to make.
Almost every day people ask me whether the questions are real. Of course they are. I wasn’t born yesterday, the counsellors weren’t either, and to say questions are made up undermines the courage, the desperation or the refreshing candour of the people who write in.
How many times have you thought, life is stranger than fiction? Or, if only I could write, my life would be a best-seller. Everybody’s life is strange and wonderful in its own way. Who am I to judge?
I’m under no illusions. This column could be written by someone else with equally good results.
It’s not I who has the wisdom, I’m just the means through which you can express your fears and frustrations and hear something back from experts that may help you.
In the comment box online beneath the column, I’ve noticed the comments are becoming much more thoughtful and practical as readers get used to this Tell Me About It space as a means of exploring life’s big questions.
So please keep sending in your questions, because for every one you ask, there are thousands of people who share your problem and can’t wait for you to be the one to dare tell me about it.