As director of the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative, I sometimes fancy myself a caped crusader saving families one marriage at a time. In reality, I’m no superhero with all the answers. In fact, when I look back at my approach to relationships during the first 2/3 of my life, I laugh about how me ending up as a relationship “expert” is a bit like the kid who continually got C’s in high school math class ending up a college Algebra professor. While a C isn’t bad, the grade clearly leaves room for improvement. Somehow I managed to figure it all out, however, and I am thankful for the luxury of making a living by talking about marriage and relationships all day. I manage the numerous moving parts of a highly complex statewide initiative providing services and supports to couples and individuals, in various life stages and circumstances, in an effort to positively impact outcomes for children. I am proud to know many, many heroes out in the field who dedicate their time to imparting research-based and practical information to those who are struggling to make their relationships work and who often have little hope for the future.
In my opinion, one of the most interesting aspects of the array of services we offer is our work with young people, both high school and college students, who are formulating their ideas about relationships. I love this work for two reasons: 1) I can vividly remember my own struggles with relationships and wish I’d had the tools to better evaluate my choices and emotions, and 2) I believe in the efficacy of intervening early and hopefully helping young people avoid some potentially devastating mistakes.
The benefits of educating young people are balanced by an equal number of challenges. At age 34 (I know, I know, I don’t look a day older than 33), I can remember what I went through at age 16, 18, and 20, but I certainly don’t have the same mindset as I did at those points in my life. Educators must keep in mind research which says the frontal lobe, the part of the brain responsible for reasoning and problem-solving, doesn’t fully develop until well into the 20’s. Our experiences, and the fact that we can look back on what we learned from those experiences, influences our judgments about what young people should and shouldn’t do. However, young people don’t yet have that perspective to aid them in making decisions. This makes connecting with them on issues such as relationships, drinking, drug use, etc., a daunting task.
That said, young people can and do respond well to information about managing their relationships wisely if the message is presented in a relatable manner. This week, I was asked to speak on the topic of relationships to undergraduates in my college sorority. I chose a couple of topics from the broader curriculum we use on college campuses – “Seven Principles of Smart Love” and “Decide, Don’t Slide.” The first includes considerations for evaluating your approach to relationships, as well as how to identify your “must haves” for a current or future relationship. We talked about seeking a good match, paying attention to values, avoiding a makeover project, not trying to be someone else just to impress a guy, expecting good communication but not running from conflict, avoiding games and manipulation, having a bottom line, and doing your part to be a good partner. The girls had lots of comments throughout, but were particularly responsive to the concept of having a bottom line. I found it interesting, and helpful, to hear how personally one has to approach this issue. For some, the things they absolutely must have in a relationship were significantly less important to others. While many cited religion, good family relationships, and absence of violence as vitally important, one girl kept said more than once the most important thing to her is being with a guy who has good teeth. I’m hoping the discussion helped her think a little more deeply about the issue!
Regardless, I encouraged them to make a list of what they have to have (their bottom line and what would end the relationship or cause them to not begin a relationship in the first place if the behavior is present), what they really want (attributes they think are important in a partner) and what they don’t really care about (areas where they are willing to compromise) so they are clear about their wants and needs. Further, I asked them to share this information with those closest to them so they have someone to remind them of what they said they wanted in the event their judgment becomes impaired by the inevitable allure of infatuation.
Even more powerful than these principles is the concept of making decisions about relational steps rather than sliding through key life transitions without evaluating the consequences or their own desires. I shared a scenario about what can happen when you take an “it just happened” approach to relationships. My story began with an innocent outing to a fraternity party with hopes of seeing that cute boy she’s had her eye on and ended with the birth of a baby, an unstable-at-best relationship with someone who isn’t what she thought he was but is paying the bills, and dropping out of college because it’s just too much to handle with the baby. I have to say they were captivated by the story and the whole group gasped when I revealed the pregnancy. I don’t know if this is because they really didn’t think a pregnancy would be the outcome of a spontaneous fling or they didn’t expect me to go there with my story. Regardless, we talked about how the absence of decision-making often leads to constraints which build without a choice. In this “how did I get here?” scenario, the big constraint is that without the guy, who has a good job and is financially supporting mom and baby, she has no other resources. They all agreed that, if this happened to them, they might not know how to exit a bad situation because the alternative would seem far too scary.
Slides are not just about sex, but can show up anywhere in life and can be minor or extremely risky and dangerous. What I wanted the girls to think about is that we all have a choice and we are in control of our own relational destiny. In order to make this work for us, however, we have to be strong enough to prioritize decision-making over a fatalist mindset. This involves having real and sometimes uncomfortable conversations with those we are bringing into our world romantically. That’s why the best relationships are built on a foundation of friendship, commitment, communication, and shared values (and more) before sex is even a consideration.
I enjoyed my time with the girls and hope the message was received. Do I think I changed the world with my 45 minute presentation to 60 sorority girls? No, but even if one girl changes her approach to relationships as a result of the material and discussion, I can take off my cape and sleep well at night. Between you and me, I’m hoping it’s the teeth girl.