I had another opportunity to catch up with one of my favorite people and younger sister last night, and I got to thinking about advice, which I’ve already written about in another context, and younger sisters, which I guess I write about every day, because I am one.
She called to share some very exciting news, about a relationship with someone she loves moving to the next step. It should have been a conversation mostly consisting of, “Yay!” and “That’s so great!” and “Congratulations!” and it was, but it’s also complicated. To say that she’s had bad luck with men is like saying Niagara Falls has a bit of water. She’s been hurt and taken advantage of and tossed around, and that all takes a toll. It continues to color things long after the insanity subsides.
We’ve spent a lot of time (and a few bottles of wine) talking about those bad experiences over the years, but I’ve always been impressed with her ability to stay the course. She’s hit a few bumps in the road, but she knew she wanted to earn a graduate degree in speech, and that’s what she’s doing. She knows who she is, and although she doesn’t have it all figured out and will, at some point, have to decide between plans A, B, or C, she’s miles ahead of where most people are, even people who have had ten years more life experience.
So the conversation started with what I think was some timidity on her part. Sort of like, “Well, we’ve been talking, and maybe thinking we’re going to do X…” which, by the end of the conversation became, “We are definitely going to do X and I’m SO EXCITEDDDD!”
Her caution in the beginning is understandable. Before she knew me, she was warned that I can be, uh, terrifying. Tough as nails, and nasty when provoked, something like that. I think with time she grew to know that’s not quite reality, but still, she can be forgiven if part of her is still unsure. But really I don’t think her caution was about me at all, I think it was about fear of being judged. It helps that she came out and told me that’s what she was and is afraid of.
She said something very telling early in the conversation. She said, “I’m afraid people are going to think I’m just going too fast and making the same mistake I did last time.”
Last time she was lied to by someone she trusted. I don’t see a mistake there. Was she too quick to trust? I don’t know.
I read this article on Forbes last night, asserting “20 Million Men Active On Ashley Madison: Why That Is A Great Wake-Up Call for Women.” The article goes on to say that women should not stay home, they should have their own money, they should be involved in finances, because men cheat, and marriages fall apart, and alimony ain’t what it used to be. On a purely practical level I’m sure she’s correct, and if financial planning were the only consideration, that would certainly be the smart approach. I know the market is still bad, but are things really so bad we are making major life decisions based solely on financial security planning assuming our husbands are going to cheat and our marriages are going to fall apart?* Surely not.
My point is, whether she was too quick to trust isn’t really the issue. In an ideal world, at least, it would never be an issue. Could she have been more cautious? Sure. We all could be more cautious. The human race would cease to exist because we would all live in bubbles and never interact with each other. Finding the right level of caution takes time, and experience, and no matter how smart we are, we don’t have enough of either at 18, and neither did she.**
And that’s my second point. She was literally a teenager. Women a lot older than her make a lot more serious “mistakes.” And I think at some point in our lives, most women need to make one or two “mistakes.” It helps us figure out what we want and what we don’t want. And I really need to stop starting sentences with the word “and.”
My third point, of course, is on advice more generally, or maybe this should be classified under criticism. Nah, I wrote about that yesterday. I told her last night that everyone loves her, and everyone will offer their thoughts in an attempt to help and protect her. It will all come, primarily, from a place of love. The problem is, we all offer advice, or criticism, based on this love, but also on our own experiences, so we are bringing, necessarily, our own baggage with us.
I can only advise her based on what I know and what I’ve experienced. I know a certain set of warning signs when it comes to certain types of men, because I’ve had bad experiences with those men. I also know a set of signs that indicate a man is good, and that a relationship is a forever relationship. But none of that really has anything to do with her. This guy could be the love of her life, and they could live happily ever after, or the real world equivalent of it, or he could be a serial killer. I don’t know. You don’t know. Her friends and family don’t know. She doesn’t know. There is only one way to find out, and only she can know whether it’s worth it, and whether she feels ready to do it. The best thing the rest of us can do is love her and support her. And do a background check on the guy. Just kidding. Or am I…
*I say that as someone who is divorced, and someone who put my career on hold to stay home, and someone who suffered economic difficulties as a result of that decision. It may be easy for me to say now, but I’ll say it anyway: I would do it all again. I would risk financial insecurity for the years I spent at home with my children. As always, I say that knowing that staying home is not for everyone, and I wasn’t sure it would be for me, and I’m not sure it will always be for me. I’m only sharing my own experiences.
**I want to stress again that this is about balance, and the exact balance is going to be something different for everyone. What I’m not saying is that every woman should run out, find a random man on the street, marry him, quit her job, have ten million babies, and hope for the best. What I am saying is that telling women they ought to be more cautious is like telling women we should dress more modestly to avoid being raped. Dressing immodestly isn’t the problem, rapists are the problem. Trusting men isn’t the problem, bad men are the problem. I reject the notion that a large number of men are bad and there is simply nothing we can do to change that, so we should just get smarter. How about we place the blame where it ought to be placed.