Writer in Residence

Dream Space: on the Reddit Relationships Forum

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When I describe the reddit relationships forum to people at parties (which I do a lot), I usually say it’s like mainlining pure, uncut advice column. The basic premise of the site is simple: someone writes a post asking for relationship advice*, and then anyone with a reddit account can swoop in and offer their opinion. “Good” comments get upvoted, “bad” or unhelpful ones settle at the bottom of the page like sediment. Simple! Endlessly, stunningly, incomprehensibly addictive. But simple.

 

I found out about r/relationships through Twitter, and began reading it compulsively while I was trying to cut down on my social media use. For a while, the site functioned like a nicotine patch over my raging addiction to content – a middle step that allowed me to distance myself from my most toxic online habits while ensuring I still always had something to click on, to read and compulsively scroll through.

 

For me, this has always been the forum’s greatest appeal: the pace at which it replenishes itself is similar enough to Twitter’s endless cascade that it feels like an adequate dupe, but the content inside couldn’t be more different. Using Twitter is like letting bad news flood your neural pathways – opening yourself, bodily, to all the worst-ness of the world. I think part of this Infinity Mirrors-style dread it invokes has to do with control – the horror and sadness of the world seem to be constantly unfolding away from you, always visible but completely outside your reach.

 

The reddit relationships forum does not feel hooked into the same sadness machine. Whatever problem you have, it’s always solveable: you just need to communicate better, or to leave. There is conflict and sadness and frustration and anger and darkness and evil in the posts there, but it all feels oddly ahistorical, the same stuff that people have been passing back and forth between each other for all time. Though there are no explicit rules against bringing politics in, the forum feels cauterized from the outside world; it’s generally understood that the news of the day is a distraction from the real problems we’re all there to deal with. If politics enters into your relationship, it’s usually a cover for some greater interpersonal conflict, some fundamental incompatiblity between you and your partner. This idea – that the world between two people is the only one that really matters, that politics are a frivolous distraction floating above the surface of your life – is a calming inversion of Twitter’s aggressive insistence that what’s happening now is the only thing that matters. Both are ultimately lies, but when you take them together, they almost cancel each other out.

 

I want to show you some of my favourite posts so you can see what I mean, but it’s nearly impossible, because almost all the best ones get deleted not long after they show up. Sometimes it’s because the question’s been answered, other times it’s because the post became too popular and the poster got spooked, or felt piled on. Unless they get so popular that someone screenshots them, the stories and questions and conflicts that make the greatest impressions on you end up living only in your mind, taking on the same texture as dreams: filmy, half-dissolved, full of symbols, fused at odd angles to your memory. I think often, for example, about the wife whose husband’s obsession with mycology was destroying their marriage; he knew it was gross and made their house smell musty, but he couldn’t stop crowding the place with mushrooms, mushrooms, more. She was writing the post from their living room, which was piled high with specimens; as she typed, he came in carrying another armful of morels. Please help me, she said. I remember the post this way, but have no way of checking my memory against its contents – the whole thing is long gone by now.

 

I also don’t have any way of knowing whether the post was real in the first place, which is another part of the forum’s great appeal; every good story could be a troll post, every seemingly true first-person account shimmers a little with the possibility of falsehood, the impossibility of ever really finding out what’s true. It helps to think of the site less as a collection of true accounts (in which case you will always end up disappointed by an obvious lie), and more like a master class in the construction of first-person narrative. Usually, within about a paragraph of a single post you get a sense of who this person is, what their actual problem is, how much they are lying to themselves or to their partner or to us. There is masterful lede-burying, the kind that indicates someone is trying to hide the truth from the reader, or that they hold it in their mind but can’t quite see it for themselves just yet**. 

 

Maybe my favourite thing about the forum, in the end, has to do with the voices of the question-askers, and the way they play against the strange chorus of the commenters who offer them advice. There is no single, monolithic advice-giver in r/relationships, but the forum has a clear moral sensibility: the same opinions tend to get expressed over and over again, replicate like memes inside the answers to each question. The general style of the most popular answers is thoughtful but a little prim; there are standard opinions about fidelity, compatibility, monogamy and porn use that are rarely deviated from. According to the reddit relationships forum, once someone cheats they are a cheater for life, “no” is always a complete sentence, and you almost always need to go to therapy no matter what your problem is***. There is a common vocabulary of aphorisms and concepts: question-askers are frequently encouraged to “grey rock” but not “JADE,” to avoid setting themselves on fire to keep others warm. The forum likes the love languages and something called “mojoupgrade,” but abhors the Myers-Briggs test. There’s a lot of talk about how if someone hands you a very good sandwich with just a little bit of shit in it, you probably shouldn’t eat the sandwich.

 

I didn’t realize how much reading all of this had affected me as a writer until I started doing interviews about my most recent book. While writing Stereoblind, I got obsessed with the possibilities and limitations of the first-person perspective; the mutability of truth, the strange glitches in a person’s internal narrative, the places where their perception of the world melted into or against the way things actually were. I didn’t realize it until I was done, but reading the reddit relationships forum every day stoked these obsessions by showing me, over and over again, this strange counterpoint: one single person’s voice, and then a hundred others rising up to meet it in a strange, fractured chorus. All the things you can do with a single person’s way of seeing the world.

* Though the word is interpreted pretty broadly – there are neighbour and family and friendship-related questions on the forum pretty much every day – the bulk of the posts on this forum are about monogamous, heterosexual romantic relationships.

 

** The most depressing, and unfortunately common, form of this is in situations where the poster’s clearly in an emotionally or physically abusive relationship these types of questions usually begin by describing some astoundingly petty dispute, and then three paragraphs in, telegraph some much greater, more distressing problem.

*** Which, like....true.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.