Building healthy relationships

Thursday, 22 Jul 2021

We would all like to see our young boys and girls develop positive, healthy, respectful relationships. Who wouldn’t? Is the natural romantic tendency enough to expect a relationship to thrive and survive? Perhaps not. We spend most of our lives in relationships but who teaches us about what constitutes a healthy relationship? Who teaches us how to resolve conflict without blame? Who teaches us how to communicate with the other without assaulting them or destroying their feelings? Who teaches us what empathy is? Who teaches us the difference between aggressive reply and assertive request? Who teaches us about the ‘soft start up’ when having a conversation? Family? Friends? Media? All of the above?

I often comment to my wife that I don’t always understand the ‘rules of engagement’ when it comes to young people and relationships. There are contradictions, what seems like their impossible to meet expectations, behaviours etc that I don’t get. I often give thought to how many boys and girls / young men and woman ‘connect’. I give thought to how they are told how to connect – and not by a parent necessarily. I give thought to how the porn industry informs their sexuality. I give thought to how their social media tells them how to connect and how various industry players help them construct their thinking, world and image.

Anecdotally, I am quite puzzled by how many young men and woman – truly beautiful young men and woman – are single at an age when I think they should be enjoying each other’s company or the company of someone and learning about, not just themselves, but what a close relationship means to them.

The Gottman Institute (a research-based approach to relationships) says: There’s a common misconception about relationships, and it starts with the words happily ever after that we hear in Disney movies as children. We’re told that it’s easy to simply settle down with a partner, or even find close friends, who will bring you happiness with no strings attached, no complications, and no fights.

Furthermore, it is argued that ‘the point of marriage isn’t happiness, but growth. And that’s likely true for all interpersonal relationships’.

I think most young people would look perplexed if we said the point of your relationship isn’t happiness but growth. Most children are fortunate enough to come from loving homes and most children learn how to navigate a complex world having relationships along the way some of which are not great, others being ok.

However, the world of exploitation and crime recently and deservedly gained attention. Some months ago, weekend papers focussed on a particularly sad story, that of Brittany Higgins - former parliamentary staffer - being raped. This was followed up by a great deal of commentary regarding the behaviour of many young men (boys?) who don’t seem to understand (or want to understand) what consent means. Some principals have noted (‘Principals Seek Change After Sexual Assault’; Sun Herald 21 Feb) that ‘the problem of sexual assault goes beyond the school system and requires parent involvement in particular’ – a point with which I wholeheartedly agree.

It seemed that many people, including those in public office, struck a discordant tone when commenting on the allegations even though what happened to the women (and subsequently others) was clearly wrong and a crime.

I believe that the attitudes that many young men have of young women are formed early, well before senior school. In relation to school-age kids, young men of 17 and 18 years of age don’t suddenly become feral and behave in deplorable ways against young women. They develop attitudes and behaviours almost from preschool and have these propagated by living in a particular familial, societal and cultural context. Whilst there are social scientists who help us to understand or explain behaviours and attitudes men have by referencing brain studies or gender-stereotype play or various societal factors, we are often overwhelmed and are left wondering how in 2021 young women can feel so isolated by a judicial system that harrowingly for victims of assault, often blames them for their plight or minimises some of the worst excesses of these behaviours.  

There are some harder questions that emerge any time I read these stories. Here are some questions I ask myself. I have many more so they are certainly not exhaustive.

  • When did men and women become so inured to a President bragging openly about “grabbing them (women) by the pussy” and revelling in perfidious behaviour? And what does it reveal that a person such as this is elected to the highest office in the land? 
  • How has/is the porn industry shaping the views and opinions of young men and women? (For a truly sad treatise on this it is worth watching ‘The Porn Factor’ - a documentary on SBS - 10 Unsettling Things We Learnt From ‘The Porn Factor’ here. It is sad to see the number of young women in this documentary who feel they have to succumb to what ‘the boys’ want). 
  • What do popular TV shows such as Married at First Sight / The Bachelor etc reveal about us and our society and what do they tell us about the perpetuation of the ‘happily ever after’ myth mentioned above? 
  • Are we more enlightened and aware because of the ‘Me Too’ movement? Has this taken root in our culture or is it confined to calling out the indecent acts of the famous only? 
  • Does a father’s ‘loving’ phrase ‘Daddy’s Little Princess’ help or hinder a girl’s social and emotional development? (Hey Dads, you may want to read ‘Daddy’s Little Princess is a Dumb Thing to Call Your Daughter’ found here)
  • Is the explosion in cosmetic surgery (most of which is performed on women) a symptom or a cause of what is happening in society and what does it reveal about us and people’s attitudes about relationships and what they value?
  • Who are the people determining and defining what ‘beautiful’ is? 

We are visited by so many ex-Collegians - truly wonderful young men and women – and it is always great to hear that so many have married and even have a family of their own. And not to be too gloomy, I am heartened as one father reports in the article below: ‘I also find myself excited about the young boys of today. I see a generation of boys who are freer to be less macho, more balanced, more empathetic and more comfortable around women and female power. They are growing up with girls who are strong, forthright and confident — often far more confident than they’. (3)

Nevertheless, what are some families and what is our culture doing ‘right’ and what are we doing ‘wrong’? Why are many men ‘lost’? Even with the knowledge we have about social media, the porn industry, portrayals of men and women etc, I think there will always be a burning question for most parents - a question that many should ask when it comes to ensuring our children grow up in positive relationships: Are we doing the wrong things more right, or are we actually doing the right things? 

Some recent articles below may be of interest in expanding on the above:

1. Porn use on the rise among teens, researchers find link with mental health problems.
2. 'I had no idea Instagram had porn': Keeping kids safe on social media.

3. How should we talk to boys about respecting women?

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