If I read food labels carefully, am I a dietician?
Does having a 401K make me a financial planner?
If I can triage a skinned knee or bloody nose, am I practically a doctor?
We can have working knowledge in plenty of areas we are not trained specialists. You probably have a friend with great financial insights. You may also have handy friends who can fix leaky pipes, help you customize meal plans and workouts, or change the oil in your car. Maybe they read a bunch of blogs and books on the topic, or they have hired professionals in the past and picked up some good tips and tools along the way.
The question becomes, in areas of our lives where the stakes are high or we’re truly out of our depth, would you rather receive guidance from the one who read the book, or the one who wrote it?
When I was getting quotes for my new website, one designer explained his rates were as low as they’d ever been because people can build their own sites so cheaply now that professionals struggle to compete. And why hire seasoned videographers and photographers when our smartphones can do so much, right? Well, in most cases, there’s a difference (often dramatic) between what we can do and what a trained pro would bring to the table. Just looking at the snaps on my phone versus the professional family photos on my walls is proof enough!
So, while we can’t afford a pro for every single thing (and we can save a lot of money by doing the work ourselves or asking knowledgeable friends to pitch in), in some areas, we need to splurge for qualified help. If I need a new AC unit installed, I’m not going to DIY that. If I am seriously ill, I don’t rely on WebMD to get me through it. If I’m struggling to learn a foreign language, I’d pick a fluent tutor over watching YouTube videos. There are many cases where outsourcing good help on the front end saves us a lot of time, money, and heartache. I’d like to offer a moment of silence for everyone who has undertaken major home renovation projects themselves…
So, as a relationship educator, you can imagine how many relationship experts I’ve run into! People in grocery stores, bars, gyms, shopping malls, churches, magazine quiz writers, daytime television hosts…they’re everywhere! We’ve been in relationships with others since birth, and we discuss our relationships constantly with our friends, coworkers, and even complete strangers. We feel like experts because we’ve had a lot of firsthand relationship experiences. But, in the same way using faucets and toilets for a lifetime does not make us master plumbers, being in relationships alone does not automatically confer the credentials of qualified educators, coaches, or therapists. In fact, I think back on the well-intentioned relationship advice I offered friends before I was in this field, and I cringe at some of it! My apologies, dear friends. Disregard everything I said before ~2013.
Part of my motivation to return to school for a Ph.D. was because I wanted to offer clients more than my personal opinions and advice. I wanted to learn research-based best practices for healthy relationships and common red flags and pitfalls. I wanted to have a deep understanding of relationship dynamics and patterns, conflict styles, decision making processes, and communication strategies. I wanted to understand what the happiest couples were doing well, and what kept distressed couples from reaching their potential. I fell in love with prevention and education work. I love the idea that recalibrating our relationships early on, while we are still happy and motivated, can better equip us to approach transitions and the inevitable conflicts and challenges together with more confidence.
I believe we are the experts of our OWN relationships (I mean you’re the one living it weeks, months, and years on end and see the good, bad, and ugly up close and personal!), but we have to be careful offering advice based on a case study of our relationship alone. I spend a lot of my time in private sessions mythbusting with couples and helping them adjust their expectations. Often, the relationship advice we’ve received isn’t terribly accurate, helpful, or feasible, but it gets perpetuated over generations in our families, or among our friends. Even if we had great role models, we may not know what our parents were doing well, or why certain relationships just seemed to click. We assume those relationships were just “blessed” or “lucky,” not realizing they’re hard work for everyone. All relationships have conflict. All couples go through trials. No one is immune.
The difference is couples who are happy and strong for the long haul, whether they know it or not, are implementing specific strategies and skills in their everyday interactions that keep their relationships on solid footing. The gap between “good” and “great” is narrower than most people realize, and small shifts and targeted tips are the bridge. It’s my charge to help couples on their way across.