By Sarah Foster Special to Published Dec 18, 2010 at 11:15 AM

People have made entire careers for themselves --  some of them fairly lucrative -- by telling us what's wrong in our relationships.

Watch Dr. Phil for a moment and tell me the guy isn't brilliant. He's created a multi-million dollar industry out of telling you, on national television no less, why your relationship is so screwed up. To his credit, he genuinely seems to want to help people.

I know a fair amount of people, married and not, who have gone to couples therapy in order to try and "save their relationships." I think it's admirable. You want something with someone you love so much that, although your relationship is in the gutter, you're ready for a third party opinion in the hope that things will someday be good the way they once were. Enough so that they're willing to pay God-knows-what per hour for some clarity.

Our friends' opinions, on the other hand, are free, relatively, but no matter how neutral they may try to be, your friends are going to have an opinion formulated on far more than the facts. Don't kid yourself. Friends form opinions based on all the trash talking you've done about your significant other over the period you've been together. Everyone talks about the bad more than they talk about the good. Your friends do not have such a thing as an unbiased opinion. If they are truly your friends then they love you and want to help but, even if they can see that your relationship is crumbling, they're likely to tell you what you want to hear, not what you need to hear.

On rare occasion, I've seen a situation so bad that I've had to tell my friend that things are beyond repair. I've even had to threaten drastic action to open the eyes of a friend to a problematic relationship that I could see was headed towards very dark places but that she thought was just passionate. That's not a Dr. Phil moment, that's a call the cops and get your friend to change her number type of moment.

True friends are people you can trust with information about your relationship that you're uncomfortable sharing with others, like whether or not your fighting is normal or outside the box. They can be a good sounding board when you feel like you cannot step outside of yourself or a situation enough to think things through clearly. I often think I'm in the right or not over-reacting in an argument until I talk to a close friend and see the look on her face telling me I'm totally in the wrong. It might not be easy or fun to hear but it's valuable. Sometimes just hearing my own description is enough to clear my thoughts. It's those "Oh God, I'm completely insane, aren't I?" moments when your best friend gives you a much needed reality check that makes you thankful you have that friendship and, also, that you're astute enough to recognize it.

I've learned to look at my friends' relationships and how stable they seem and choose to take their advice based on whether or not the advice is coming from a good place. I don't want relationship advice from the friend that is constantly calling me, crying because she and her boyfriend are breaking up for the one millionth time. Or the friend that cannot see her own faults and plays the victim as often as she can get away with it. I want advice from the friends that are comfortable arguing but aren't always fighting. I want advice from the friends that have been through challenges and have come out on the other side of those challenges better and stronger. The friends whose relationships have earned them the insight to advise others on how to solve their problems. There is nothing worse than someone who cannot get their shit together, but who cannot wait to give you advice about your issues.

And, I don't want to bother giving advice to someone who isn't interested in making an effort or isn't interested in listening, but just wants to bitch for the sake of bitching (although sometimes all we need is a little time to blow off steam). I give advice to people I care about and those that I truly want to try and help. If a friend is just looking to air their guilty conscious or complain non-stop, then go to someone that gets paid to listen. If you're ready to listen to sound advice from someone worthwhile then you can probably get away with free, friendly advice from a trustworthy, savvy pal.

Sarah Foster Special to

No, the sex columnist's real name is not Sarah Foster. (Foster is the model/actress that played an ex-lover of Vincent Chase in the first season of "Entourage.") In reality, our sex columnist is a Wisconsin native with a degree in journalism and a knack for getting people to talk to her.

Sarah never considered herself an "above average" listener. Others, however, seem to think differently. Perhaps she has a sympathetic tone or expression that compels people to share their lives and secrets with her despite how little they know her. Everyone from the girl that does her hair to people in line at the grocery store routinely spill the details of their lives and relationships to Sarah, unprompted but typically not unwanted. It’s strange to her that people would do this, but she doesn’t mind. Sarah likes that she can give advice even if it is to complete strangers.

So why the pseudonym? Simple. People tell Sarah these things because for some reason they trust her. They believe she cares and therefore will keep their secrets in a locked vault the same way a best friend or therapist would. Sarah won't name names, but that vault is now unlocked.