By Christine Murray, See the Triumph Co-Founder
This month at See the Triumph, we’ve been focusing on talking with teens and parents about dating violence. In the process, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I personally wish I would have known at that age about dating and relationships, based on what I know now.
As a parent myself--with several years to go before we get to the teen years--I’ve also been thinking about what messages I hope to be able to share with my own kids about dating and relationships as they get closer to that stage of life.
And so, today I want to share a message with teens who are starting to think about dating, or who have already begun to so. These messages reflect the lessons I’ve learned through my own relationships, my parenting experiences, my professional training and work experience as a couple and family therapist, and the research I’ve done about intimate partner violence, especially the research that we’ve done for See the Triumph.
Before I get into the specific messages, I’ll start by saying that it’s okay and totally expected that you’ll feel a bit nervous and confused when it comes to dating and relationships as a teenager. I can remember when I was that age, I felt that everyone else seemed to have it all figured out, but I know now that most everyone was just as confused as I was! Chances are, your friends and classmates are just as uncertain as you are, even if they look confident and stress-free when it comes to dating.
And, I’ll let you in on a little secret: Even adults are often confused when it comes to relationships and understanding their partners!
There are a lot of things about relationships that can be confusing, but I feel pretty confident in sharing the following ten messages with you:
#1: First and foremost, seek relationships that are full of respect and kindness.
One of the first questions I’d suggest you ask yourself about any potential girlfriend or boyfriend is: Is this person kind? You want to be certain that any person you get involved with will treat you with kindness and respect, so think carefully about how they treat you, and be sure that their behaviors reflect kindness and concern for you.
Also, think beyond how that person treats you...Are they kind to their peers, in and out of school? Do they show kindness to people they don’t consider to be friends? Do they treat adults with kindness and respect? How do they act toward people like servers at restaurants and workers at stores and other businesses?
Kindness alone won’t guarantee that a relationship will work, but a lack of respect and kindness is a pretty good indicator that a relationship either won’t work or won’t be a happy one.
#2: Relationships should make you feel better, not worse.
There will be difficult times in any relationship. Conflict is a normal part of relationships, and it’s healthy when it’s managed well. So sometimes, you will probably feel some sadness, anger, or frustration with your partner.
However, more often than not, your relationship should make you feel good and happy. One of the leading relationship researchers, Dr. John Gottman, has even found a specific ratio of good to bad interactions that leads to a successful relationship: He found that you should aim for 5 positive interactions for every bad one. This means that you should be certain that your relationship makes you feel good and happy much more than it feels upsetting and angry. If you find yourself unhappy with your boyfriend or girlfriend a lot of the time, I suggest it’s time to re-evaluate that relationship.
I hope that you’ll believe that it’s better to be in no relationship than it is to be in a relationship that hurts your spirit. Don’t ever let a fear of being alone keep you in an unhealthy or unsafe situation.
#3: Don’t let peer pressure overshadow your own intuition.
During your teen years, you will almost certainly face some sort of direct or subtle pressure from your peers to make choices that you wouldn’t necessarily choose on your own. Sometimes, this pressure can bring positive things into your life, such as if your friends encourage you to sign up for a fun new activity. But other times, of course, peer pressure can lead you down unhealthy or unsafe paths.
Don't let peer pressure overshadow your own intuition when it comes to relationships. Be careful not to let friends pressure you into bad relationships because of popularity or some other perceived status of a potential partner. Just because someone is popular doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily be a good boyfriend or girlfriend to you. Trust your own intuition first when it comes to making decisions that will impact your happiness, your safety, and your future.
#4: No form of abuse can be a part of a healthy relationship.
I believe strongly that every person has a right to a safe, healthy relationship. Any form of abuse is a barrier to safe and healthy relationships. Abuse can come in many forms, including emotional, physical, and sexual. Examples of emotional abuse include name calling, keeping you away from your friends and family, and controlling what you wear or where you go. Physical abuse includes any form of physical violence, such as hitting, kicking, pushing, and choking. By sexual abuse, I mean forcing you or coercing you to do anything of a sexual nature that you don’t directly consent to do.
Some people believe that dating violence only refers to physical abuse. However, emotional and sexual abuse can be just as damaging--if not more--to relationships as physical violence. Any abusive behaviors should be taken seriously. If you ever experience any form of abuse, seek help from a trusted adult or a domestic or sexual violence agency in your community.
#5: Abuse could happen to anyone.
A lot of people have stereotypes about what kinds of people end up in abusive relationships--either as a victim or a perpetrator. Although certain factors (such as coming from a healthy family background and being involved in positive activities in your school and community) do help, abusive relationships really can and do happen to people from every possible background.
The problem is, when people think that abuse doesn’t happen to people like them, they’re probably less likely to realize when they’re experiencing abuse. They may turn a blind eye to abusive behaviors or excuse them, such as if they think, “He comes from a great family, so even though he hits me every now and then, he’s not an abuser.”
I encourage anyone who is dating to learn some of the “red flags” of abuse so that you’ll be better able to identify a potentially abusive situation, either for yourself or for a friend.
#6: Remember that there’s a thin line between the flattery of attention and controlling behaviors.
Early in a dating relationship, some of the signs that a relationship is abusive can easily be confused for affection and positive attention from a partner. If you’re interested in dating someone, you’ll probably feel flattered and excited when they pay attention to you, such as by calling you, asking you about your day, sending you sweet text messages, and learning more about you. I think the early time in a relationship is meant to be enjoyed, and all of these things are a part of that fun and excitement of a new relationship.
However, I want you to think about some signs that all this attention might mean your partner could be abusive. Some questions to think about are as follows:
#7: When it comes to dating, take it slow.
By taking it slow, I’m not just talking about physically. It takes a long time to get to know someone, and it’s important to think carefully about the people you bring into your life to date. Take the time to really get to know someone, such as learning about their families, their values and hobbies, and their goals for their current life and their future. Think carefully about how well someone would fit into your life and if they’d support your own goals for your life.
Even if you already have known someone for a long time before you start dating, you still should take time to get to know them as a dating partner. How someone acts as a friend can be very different from how they act in a relationship.
Fill your life with great friendships, fun hobbies, and fulfilling goals, so your life will always feel full enough that you won’t need to rush into an intense relationship to fill a void in your life.
#8: Don’t be afraid to ask for help or guidance when you face situations that you’re not comfortable with.
Like I said earlier, even adults sometimes feel confused about relationship situations. Relationships are complicated, and there are a lot of challenges that arise as you get to know someone and build a relationship with them. It’s a good idea to have at least one or two close confidants that you can talk with when relationship challenges come up. Try to find someone whose opinion you value who also isn’t likely to be judgmental of you.
For many people, it’s not easy to admit to others that you’re struggling. If your partner is doing something you’re not comfortable with or you’re concerned might be unsafe, you might feel embarrassed to tell someone else about it. I know it’s hard, but this embarrassment might actually be a sign that it’s important to tell someone about what you’re going through. If you find yourself hiding or making excuses for your partner’s behavior, you probably realize on some level that what they are doing is wrong.
Nobody has all the answers, but talking through difficult relationship challenges is a really helpful way to sort through what is and isn’t normal and healthy, as well as to come up with possible solutions to the challenges you face.
#9: Relationships may end.
Relationships beginning and ending is a normal part of life. Sometimes, there are problems in a relationship that just can’t be fixed. The decision whether to end a relationship or to try to work on improving it is often a very difficult one.
It’s a good idea to remember that your teen years are a time of great change, and you’ll be learning new things and having new experiences all the time that can change you. As you change, you may find that a relationship no longer fits in your life. This is a very normal experience during the teen years.
And yet, the end of a relationship can be a very scary and upsetting experience. Sometimes, people hold onto relationships much longer than they want to just because they’re scared to move on. Whenever a relationship ends, whether it’s your choice, your partner’s choice, or you both agree to it, always remind yourself that there are good things ahead of you, and you can create a healthy relationship in your future with someone else.
#10: Your early relationships are good practice opportunities for later relationships.
You can learn so much from any relationship, whether it lasts forever or just a short time. Even a bad relationship experience can be a good learning experience. You can learn from relationships that don't work out, especially if you take the time after the relationship ends to think through the things about your partner that you liked and didn’t liked, what happened in the relationship that made it better and worse, and what you might want to do differently the next time you’re in a relationship.
Think of your early dating experiences as practice, whether or not you’ll end up with your current partner in the long-term. You can use any relationship experiences to practice good communication, problem-solving, and conflict management skills. Becoming better at these skills can help you in any future relationship experiences you will have.
I hope this list of messages is helpful to you, but I’m also certain that there are a lot of other important lessons that you’ll learn about relationships through your own experiences. I wish you all the best for your future dating experiences, and I especially hope you’ll find safe, healthy relationships along the way!
Please share in the comments section below any other messages you’ve already learned, in hopes that your experiences can help other people, too.