A dying husband who wants his skull bleached and placed on his family’s mantel, a girlfriend who’s obsessed with psychedelics and her spiritual journey, a boyfriend who broke it off because his girlfriend was too good at sex — all perfectly healthy, perfectly normal romantic quandaries that have been submitted to Reddit’s r/relationship_advice. With roughly 1,500 people posing their relationship problems on a daily basis to the subreddit’s 2.6 million subscribers, it’s one of the biggest, most active communities on the platform.
Bryant Zadegan has been a moderator of r/relationship_advice for more than five years, and “steering the ship for the last three years, since [head moderator] u/buu700 has been neck-deep in running a startup.” And while there are plenty of wild, eye-catching posts like those above, there are plenty more documenting the very worst things people can do to each other. Here, then, is what Zadegan has kinda, sorta learned sorting through the relationship drama and heartache that would cause both Dr. Drew and Ann Landers to spontaneously combust.
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The common thread connecting far too many posts submitted to r/relationship_advice is a persistent inability, for whatever reason, to openly communicate with one another. There’s usually some underlying factor — such as the fear that their significant other might misinterpret their words or that it might cast the concerned person in the wrong light; local and cultural taboos around certain topics; bad assumptions about either person; or simply not knowing how to communicate in a straightforward manner.
So many people’s first instinct is to find a “safe” way to let someone know of a challenge without hurting any feelings. Maybe because hurting someone else’s feelings may hurt our own in the process. But indirect communication is a hot ticket to an everlasting disaster. If direct communication isn’t had, boundaries will never be set, and the other person will carry on thinking everything’s okay.
Successful communication between people requires respect between people. But if any person violates that respect (knowingly or not), the other person (or people) can’t trust that the respect will return when it’s time for a hard conversation.
This brings us to the one exception of direct, open communication — ghosting. We see threads left and right about people being ghosted and whether the person on the receiving end should go after the person who fled. Ghosting, just like communication, is a tool. And usually when someone chooses to ghost, it’s because they feel they can’t communicate their desire to leave in a way that’ll be respected by the other person. I’d like to think the world might be better if people ghosted each other less, but after reading so many threads where someone was ghosted by someone else, I can’t really begrudge anyone for choosing to do it.
Tech can easily make the problem worse. If all you do is text, that’s the only way you’ll feel comfortable communicating about serious topics. But communicating serious topics over text loses the nuances and disrespects the subject. Fairly often, we’ll see posts where people include screenshot after screenshot of text conversations, and no one’s ever aware of all the body language, subtleties, etc. that are all lost when relying on text to talk to one another.
That said, just as texting can so easily erode the strongest bonds, it can also strengthen the weakest. Family group chats, for example, are a great way to shorten the distance when everyone’s far apart. It’s probably why we don’t see too many threads about communication breakdowns between family members within group chats — because the ease of texting is enough to keep loosely held bonds strong enough to prevent them from breaking.
My hunch is, when you don’t thoroughly know your friend, your partner or your family member, texts lead to misreads and misfires. But when you know them through and through, you can fill in those gaps in your own mind no matter how much time has passed.
Dating apps have been around almost as long as the internet itself, but the advent of swiping and bite-sized consumption of dating follows a similar path. Because the apps have made it that much more accessible to everyone, they’ve opened a Pandora’s box. Many of the questions we see on r/relationship_advice regarding online dating surround one person finding their significant other on Tinder, for example. We’ve also seen plenty about family members discovering loved ones they knew were married, or friends finding friends doing things they never imagined. We’ve seen bonds of all kinds form over dating apps, and we’ve seen as many bonds fall apart just as easily.
It doesn’t matter who you hear it from in your life, almost everyone has a bias. But anonymous strangers? What are they invested in with this story? They just want to feel right with the advice they give, so they’ll say what they believe in and hope no one else thinks they’re wrong.
There are also populations with no one to turn to, either because their situation is so all-encompassing or because it’s so sensitive in the wrong direction that their family and friends would hold pretty hostile feelings about it. It’s this crowd that benefits the most from subreddits such as r/relationship_advice and anonymous help.
In spite of this, we have many, many trolls who exploit everyday readers for their own personal benefit, keeping others who legitimately have no one to turn to for help from getting the exposure they need. We’re still working out how to convince readers and submitters that the site needs to be taken seriously, but that’s difficult when the main sources of new readers are outsiders and third parties (influencer Twitter and Tumblr accounts) that, whether they realize it or not, dehumanize people who have real problems and have nowhere else to go.
As for me, keeping emotionally detached from everything that happens in the subreddit is a pipe dream. Certain cases have even made me seek therapy, such as one where a gentleman sought advice for separating from his wife only for her to kill their two children once he tried to leave. I had to verify the story, and even though it’s been years, that one still affects me.