Parents: Your first instructors on relationships

posted by Jeff | Monday, January 31, 2011, 10:28 PM | comments: 0

We had a series of surprisingly un-nerdy discussions today at lunch, about relationships of all things. Aside from one of my coworkers believing, with much conviction, that the engagement ring custom is a scam, we bounced around issues of negotiation, living together and generally getting along.

When I was seeing a therapist around the time of my divorce, he said that your parents are essentially your first teachers when it comes to relationships. You can probably connect the dots that if they themselves are divorced, don't get along, don't respect each other, impose toxic tactics toward like guilt and shame, then they are probably not ideal teachers in this respect. So basically, as he put it, you're kind of screwed.

But you make up for this with practice in additional relationships. Unless of course, you don't date much before you commit to a long-term relationship. Yikes, me again. The therapist was very adamant about this: You have no frame of reference without the practice, and are likely to easily accept things that are not healthy. Add in low self-esteem, fear of loneliness and any number of other issues, and you're lining yourself up for a real mess.

In the age of the social network, here I am a decade and a half after college finding that this path was pretty much the rule for at least half of the people I went to school with. The stories vary from, "He never changed to put me higher than pot smoking," to, "She thought sex was repulsive and I thought it was my fault." I'm not making this stuff up. If these far out, and seemingly obvious, relationship problems aren't enough to get people to make a change, what chance do the more mundane and basic issues have? Changes are that these sort of things manifest themselves early, and yet we overlook them.

We all want equitable partnerships in our most intimate relationships, but we're ill-equipped to know what they look like without making a lot of mistakes first. That's not to say no one can make it work, because I definitely know my share of people who do, but they had good role models growing up and mutual understanding of what kind of compromises are not acceptable. For the rest of us, we've had to wing it.

The bottom line is that our culture does a poor job talking about what functional relationships look like. If it were up to me to mandate advice, it would start with: "Date as much as you can, while you're young, and feel free to make mistakes. (But not health mistakes, like unprotected sex and what not.)" Having to engage in this process in my thirties was a pain in the ass, and would've been worse were it not for the Internet. You learn surprisingly quickly once you can be completely honest with yourself, about who you have a good time with, who injects toxicity into relationships, who can make you smile in the morning. You realize that getting laid or sleeping next to a warm body are not success criteria, they're just the things that come naturally with getting it right. Warm bodies are the easy part to obtain.

I wish someone would have taken me aside after my high school graduation and told me this stuff.


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