Seeking the Advice Column: When Do We Reach for Help?

We’ve all seen the occasional Dear Abby article or glanced at the column of a local love “expert,” in which writers send in their romance woes and are served a paragraph or two of opinion, sense, prejudice, or any number of slanted answers (with, of course, the occasional honest piece of advice). The dilemmas described in these pieces are often not so far removed from trials experienced by most people during the course of their love lives; concerns may include a suspected affair, feelings of guilt or inadequacy, disappointments in intimacy, and beyond, spanning the common conflicts that arise in romantic relationships. But while we might be able to relate to these concerns on a personal level, a new study shows that we tend to avoid such columns and articles when we’re feeling unlucky in love.

The study, a joint effort between researchers at the Ohio State University in the American Midwest, and the University of Erfurt and the Dresden University of Technology in Germany, sought to understand the ways in which people use and interact with media in times of personal distress. The idea that we tend to avoid touchy subjects may not seem very surprising, but the study uncovered a tendency to seek out advice selectively; while scorned lovers avoided romance advice, those enduring difficult financial periods embraced the help of related columns and articles.

Focusing on a group of just under three hundred college students, the study began with a survey to determine which, if any, major life areas were causing distress in the subjects. After being presented with papers that included pieces on stressful life areas, the subjects tended to show a disinterest in items that covered subjects such as love and family. Business, money, and other professional concerns, however, did not seem to provoke the same disinterest. Though approaches to seeking therapy may differ, the idea that we tend to avoid certain sticky subjects when in the throes of their emotional effects is important in understanding the human desire for help.

© Copyright 2009 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • shaffer


    June 16th, 2009 at 7:41 AM

    yeah, who wants to read relationship advice ina middle of a break up, not me…and same for therapy. in the midst of grieving my last break ther was no way I’d want to read advice columns or go to therapy… i think soemtimes pepople need to go into their own cave during thw worst of it…then as things shift internally it might be easier to reach out for help and support…anyhow, just my experience.

  • Phyllis


    June 16th, 2009 at 2:47 PM

    I agree with you, Shaffer. When it comes to love and relationships, I tend to deal with it my way or on my own. Reading columns to me is like listening to someone else with the same problem and the answer is just one’s opinion, usually one that I could have come up with. Time heals all wounds.

  • Charles


    June 16th, 2009 at 3:01 PM

    I don’t know but sometimes I hate reading about money advice because it makes me feel even worse about the finances. Seems like I have better control over the love life than the wallet.

  • Michelle Samuel

    Michelle Samuel

    June 17th, 2009 at 2:35 PM

    From my experience, people tend to look for help not in their worst time of depression, but rather when they start to feel better. Therapy require energy and commitment; as therapists, we tend to forget how difficult and intimidating it is to start therapy.

  • Tiffany


    June 17th, 2009 at 2:31 PM

    I don’t really read the columns, even tho I have heard of Dear Abby, but I really cant’ see how this would help me if I was having problems. It’s just another story just like mine.

  • Paula


    June 18th, 2009 at 12:08 PM

    I really never tend to turn to the advice columns because of one big reason- the questions never really seem to apply to me. The questions that some people are writing in about are sometimes so simple, and I know it has to be to make for good column space. But in real life things are never quite so simple so I have a hard time relating to the simplicity of the issues that some people are asking about. Yes I think they make for a good read from time to time but I do not think I have ever once taken anything that I have read there and tried to apply it to my own life. I tend to turn more to my friends or (shocker!)even the one that I am having a difference with because that is the only real way to resolve most issues- just hash it out with the one you are arguing with or having problems with in the first place. And then if I feel I need the help of a therapist I will find one at home close to me, not a nationally syndicated one who will never know me as anything more than a write in to her advice column.

  • megean


    June 18th, 2009 at 12:12 PM

    I’ve ready theses columns and they are really not that bad. Actually they have some good suggestions and tips, whether they are proven to work, that is yet to be known.

  • Jon


    June 20th, 2009 at 11:48 AM

    Please, I only want help from someone I know is qualified, not just someone who happened to know the right person to get their name in print.

  • Marshal


    June 21st, 2009 at 8:28 AM

    I think I would rather go to a professional and get the help if I really needed it. Reading and going by the columns just aint for me.

  • Danny


    June 22nd, 2009 at 1:28 AM

    I think most guys dont like reading why things go wrong in love. Guys dont like someone else figuring things out for them. I think it has a lot to do with ego. Some of my girlfriends are that way too. Love and life is definitely a touchy area. I think everyone gets into a sticky patch with regards to finances some time or another. I presume the logic involved in this one is that money is an external issue and requires external help.

  • Gloria


    June 22nd, 2009 at 9:29 AM

    The advice columns are kinda getting a bad rap here. There have been a bunch of times when I have read the questions and have thought man, that is exactly what I am going through, and have gotten some good advice from them. Call it the poor gal’s therapy session I guess but I don’t think that what they have to say should necessarily be discarded just because you don’t have to pay for it.

  • Terri


    June 22nd, 2009 at 2:30 PM

    To each his own. If one feels they get comfort from the columns and don’t really want to face a professional then be it, that’s their choice. I feel if i was in this situation, i would get more by seeing a live person, someone i can tell they are listenng.

  • India


    June 23rd, 2009 at 1:42 AM

    What other columns are there besides Dear Abby? this is the only i know of. Are the rest similiar

  • Stephanie


    June 24th, 2009 at 2:04 AM

    If advice columns can give that glimmer of hope or even some relief into their situations, I think it’s great without spending a lot of money of getting close to the same help from seeing an actual therapist.

  • Jeff


    June 24th, 2009 at 6:48 AM

    Sometimes I think that when we read the advice columns we are not actually looking for ways to better our own lives but instead we are focusing on the multiple ways that others have things worse than we do. Or is that just me? When I read some of the things that other people are facing it really does help me to get grounded again and tell myself that my life really is ok. This is not reveling in the misery of others but just satisfying me that everything in my own life is gonna be alright. And hey if I get some great advice along the way then that is just another added bonus.

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