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The Advice that Dare Not Speak Its Name: Should Friends Let Friends Marry Foolishly?

A reader in his late 20s writes to me and poses this not-uncommon dilemma. The reader does not like his close friend’s fiancée. At all. He worries that his friend is about to marry badly, and foolishly, to someone who will probably visit unhappiness on his life.

But the friend is besotted. He doesn’t see any of the flaws that his good friend cites—her controlling nature, the churlish demands, the ways that she separates him from his friends and his interests, and some other complaints.

There are weddings where you feel like a raging hypocrite because you’re cheering and celebrating and forecasting a life of happiness, while in the recesses of your skeptical mind you’re giving the relationship a few years. Hell, sometimes even the bride or groom feels that way.

This kind of conversation is the third rail of friendship, though. Can you ever weigh in with a seriously dubious opinion about a friend’s future spouse?

It seems so paradoxical, that on the decisions that will matter perhaps the most in our lives—those of marriage and divorce—any ethic of care, reciprocity, friendly support, advice-giving, or insight goes out the window. Real friends are expected to remain mutely (and in this case disingenuously) supportive.

It’s not our place to say, the wisdom holds. You’ll just lose the friendship, and how is it really your business, anyway.

I can understand this wisdom. What do we really know about another person’s relationship? They’re not the same person with their lover that they are with us, and we can’t presume to know what happens in private.  We get such a partial view. It feels presumptuous—and might be so—to think that we can venture any opinion when we don’t see the totality of the bond.

But the standard that no relationship decision by someone we care about is any of our business sets up such an atomized, alienated notion of when and how we should care for each other. And it’s interesting to me that people who are otherwise critical of extreme laissez-faire views champion them so strongly when it comes to relationships and friendships.

The code of silence around marriage choices also reinforces the questionable idea that emotions and affairs of the heart are outside of the realm of reason, thought, or social intercession.

One problem is that we can’t entirely even trust our reactions. Lurking beneath the criticism of a friend’s lover might fester ignoble but all too human emotions: envy, jealousy, fear of friend-abandonment, anxiety about change, and many others.

These are natural feelings, but socially proscribed. Psychologists say that most of us go to contorted lengths to dress up jealousy, for example, as something more righteous. It may be that our opinion about the relationship is tainted with personal fears, feelings and anxieties that darken our judgment.

So if you were to bravely go and venture an opinion about your friend’s choice, you’d at least have to be self-aware and self-critical enough to work through to the extent possible whether it isn’t some other, personal, extraneous motive driving the worries and judgment.

Second, if any opinion is to be ventured, then it must be ventured with extreme forethought, planning, and care. This is never a conversation to have in the slurry dregs of an evening, or in a drunken fit of maudlin “candor” or anger.

Finally, as a good friend, you can at least open up a space for your friend to change his mind, on his own time and in his own way. Make clear that you’d support him regardless of whether the marriage goes through, or regardless of how it works out.

I say this because the social pressure to appear to be a happy couple is so strong. That pressure can even drown out the self-doubts and misgivings that a bride or groom has before the wedding, such that they don’t hear or trust that small, inner voice of caution. Maybe you can help your friend listen to his own inner voice of misgiving, without actually having to be that voice.

I was surprised, after my book, to hear from people convinced that all other spouses must be so much happier in their marriages, because they look that way. I’m always hearing about how marriage isn’t valued as an institution, but among the groups that are now getting and staying married the most—the college-educated and professional classes—the social pressure to appear content seems quite strong indeed. It’s not always (or even often) the case, of course, that the couples are as happy as they appear. But they feel social pressure to project marital success.

If all else fails, stay a good friend and keep your opinions to yourself. Dance and laugh at the wedding, make a toast, and be of good, tolerant cheer. Speak now, or forever hold your peace.

Hope for the best—and be there for the worst.

Live today! Unfiltered lessons of a female entrepreneur

Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT today.

Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

Sex & Relationships
  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

children using desktop computer

Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

How meditation can change your life and mind

Reaching beyond the stereotypes of meditation and embracing the science of mindfulness.

  • There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to what mindfulness is and what meditation can do for those who practice it. In this video, professors, neuroscientists, psychologists, composers, authors, and a former Buddhist monk share their experiences, explain the science behind meditation, and discuss the benefits of learning to be in the moment.
  • "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
  • "I think we're looking at meditation as the next big public health revolution," says ABC News anchor Dan Harris. "Meditation is going to join the pantheon of no-brainers like exercise, brushing your teeth and taking the meds that your doctor prescribes to you." Closing out the video is a guided meditation experience led by author Damien Echols that can be practiced anywhere and repeated as many times as you'd like.
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