What's your problem? The same as everyone else's…

What’s your problem? The same as everyone else’s… Dolly Alderton shares moments of her time as an agony aunt

  •  UK-based author Dolly Alderton reveals she relates to other people’s problems
  • In her new-found career as an agony aunt Dolly frequently connects with letters
  • 34-year-old Dolly says, that there is something reassuringly comforting in the fact that suffering is so universal, which she shares in her new book

MODERN LIFE

DEAR DOLLY 

by Dolly Alderton (Fig Tree £16.99, 240pp) 

‘Dear Dolly: I’m worried I love dogs more than men.’ Before you laugh, this is just one of the many intriguing real-life dilemmas sent in to journalist and author of Everything I Know About Love, Dolly Alderton, in her relatively new-found career as an agony aunt.

 Problems range from the amusing, such as this one, to the surprising: ‘Dear Dolly: I used to see an escort regularly and now I’ve fallen in love with her.’ But on the whole, the problems shared are highly relatable and universally felt issues about break-ups, family, body confidence, sex, dating, friendships and relationships. 

UK-based author Dolly Alderton reveals she relates to other people’s problems. 34-year-old Dolly says, that there is something reassuringly comforting in the fact that suffering is so universal, which she shares in her new book

She emphasises how frequently the same problems come up in her letters: ‘They don’t love me, I don’t love them, I don’t want to be friends with someone any more, my mum’s annoying me. 

‘It is why Claire Rayner, perhaps our most beloved advice columnist, apparently ended up categorising problems and answers for efficiency (e.g. this letter is problem 45, needing answer 78.)’ 

As 34-year-old Dolly says, there is something reassuringly comforting in the fact that suffering is so universal, it can be responded to in such a way: ‘We are all united in our own horribly unique pain.’ 

Though it may be a natural response to find certain predicaments — such as the letter about dogs — amusing, she tackles each with equal amounts of empathy, understanding and trademark wit. ‘The love a dog gives you is unconditional, as you say, but it is nothing like the sort of unconditional love that can occur between humans . . . your partner needs to make you laugh and turn you on. 

‘You need to find their thoughts and conversation interesting. You should get a kick out of their company when it’s just the two of you. I’d be interested to know your dog’s take on all this, though.’ 

She offers up the kind of advice most wish they could give their younger selves. On hearing from a girl who wants to split up with her boyfriend but is too scared to break his heart as he’s done nothing wrong, she says: ‘You can’t people-please your way through being in love. You can’t stay with someone because you don’t want to have a sad conversation. Sad conversations are sometimes the only place where real life is waiting for us.’ 

Nor is she afraid to explore problems in depth and hold people to account. Graham Norton, having been an agony uncle himself, advised her to imagine the viewpoint of the person being complained about, advice she followed.

‘It is easy to express sympathy and tell them that they’re in the right. What is harder is to deliver a compassionate view from all sides. That, I feel, is the real toil of the agony aunt — to imagine what it is like for the people surrounding the agoniser,’ she concludes. 

To the question, ‘Dear Dolly: We got together through an affair. When will we stop being judged?’, her response offers a nuanced look at moral issues that many would see as cut and dried. 

‘I’m sure that for both of you, your affair and subsequent relationship have caused a great deal of pain to the people you left. I’m sure the experience has left them with anxieties that will have an effect on how they love for the rest of their lives. I feel very sorry for them. I also feel very sorry for you and your partner. I’m sure you’ve felt a lot of shame and guilt in this process.’ 

She’s also reluctant to praise behaviour that many would consider inherently good, such as ‘being thin, rich, virginal and sober’. 

Her refreshing take makes for compulsive reading. The result is an oddly soothing book, as the problems of others leave you not with a sense of schadenfreude but with the comforting realisation that something you have felt, or are feeling, has been felt by countless others — and it will always be that way. 

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