How Not To Drown In The Teen Dating Pool
I was chatting with an old friend last night, and by old I mean that we have known each other for a very long time, and also that we are both feeling quite old, lately, because we have teenagers and that is a very aging malady. (I think I finally figured it out: Up to a certain age, the kids get older as one would expect, and of course so do we. But they hit puberty and suddenly they become deranged little Benjamin Buttons, somehow, where their behavior regresses while we grow old twice as fast. There is dark magic afoot in any house containing an adolescent.)
There is much to discuss (and offer your sincere condolences for) when comparing lives in a houseful of teenagers. But last night we found ourselves discussing the latest bogeyman of raising not-yet-adults: Dating. Listen; I know some people don’t believe in dating, and I’m not here to change anyone’s mind. Having a child who is dating is straight-up terrifying for a hundred different reasons, but I happen to believe there’s value in this (supervised! heavily-regulated!) practice of a basic human interaction. But just as it hurt to watch my toddler wipe out on the concrete between lurching steps, oh, it hurts to witness the typical blunders of young infatuation. So we talked, and exchanged all of the observations and hopes and fears we can never express to our children, because them dating is practice for us, too—practice in letting our kids make their own choices and deal with their own consequences, even when the stakes may be high. Ouch.
Every now and then I fumble through a short “here’s something I think it’s important for you to know” speech to my kids, finding myself awkward and uncharacteristically at a loss for words. How do you explain what it’s taken a lifetime to learn, and what you, yourself, would’ve scoffed at back before time taught it to you the hard way? You can’t. We can’t protect them. But with the benefit of a keyboard, I was able to distill it down to just a few points I hope my teens will be able to take to heart, even when those hearts are busy fluttering.
Putting someone else first can be wonderful, or it can be all wrong.
There’s no guidebook to explain this one, so a good rule of thumb is that you should put someone you care about first sometimes and they, in turn, should do the same for you (sometimes). If you always put the other person first, and/or they never put you first, there’s a problem. “I don’t mind,” isn’t okay, either. You should mind. Being generous and selfless is wonderful; being taken advantage of, I’m sorry to say, is a real risk if you’re not careful.
Most relationships have some inequality. Dating shouldn’t.
You’ll have your whole life to learn to deal with necessary interactions that hold an inherent amount of power inequality. Your teacher has more power than you do. You, in some ways, have more power over the guy who brings you coffee and relies on your tip. And I’ll be the first one to tell you that plenty of people are more important and more powerful than you, and the sooner you accept this as part of life and just deal with it, the better. (See also: A terrible boss is still your boss.) But this should never be true in a romantic relationship. There are two equal people involved, or something is wrong. Acquiesce to your partner sometimes, sure. See the movie you’re not thrilled about or hang out with the friend who’s not your favorite. But then your partner should do the same for you.
Love makes everyone a little stupid.
This isn’t limited to teens. Everyone gets a little dumber when they’re flooded with the warm fuzzies of infatuation. This endorphin poisoning is particularly acute when you’re young and this is one of the first times you’ve felt this way. Accept that this is true and enjoy the good parts. Also accept that your perceptions in this area are a little warped and no, it’s not really like you’ve known each other forever or you’re soul-mates or whatever after two days. Continuing to attend to your pre-love priorities (friends, homework, family, etc.) will serve as an anchor to make sure your new relationship doesn’t take over your entire life, as well as having the side benefit keeping you un-grounded so that you can continue to see your new squeeze.
Consent is enthusiastic, period.
I get that my children don’t want me to talk to them about sex, ever, please Mom, stop talking. And that’s fine (not that it’s going to stop me…). But more important than the “why you should wait” and “why it’s a really big deal” conversations (which make you shudder and roll your eyes) is the conversation wherein I explain to you that all physical contact with a romantic partner is some degree of sex, and all of that contact must be 100%, unequivocally, enthusiastically, consensual. You know not to have sex if you’re not ready. (P.S. You’re not ready.) Do you know not to let someone touch you or not to buckle to pressure to touch them in any way if you’re not into it? Even if you really, really, like them? Even if you’re flattered that they want to? Even if you think it might make them mad? If everyone knew that 1) they had to be totally into it and 2) they had to check to verify that their partner was totally into it before proceeding, well, the world would be a better place. Check yourself. Check your partner. Only proceed when everybody’s ready. If you feel unsure, say so. If this level of checking feels unbearably weird, that’s a sign you’re not ready. If this makes your partner anything other than concerned for your comfort, consider that this may be the wrong partner. Consent is not just about intercourse and it’s not just about not saying no. (This Laci Green video about Steubenville is NSFW and maybe not safe for younger teens, but I love her take on consent being mutual and enthusiastic no matter what the level of intimacy.)
The best relationships make you more you.
Personally, I dislike the oft-repeated sentiments about how someone is your “better half” or “makes me a better person.” You’re a whole, fascinating person without a love interest. A good relationship makes you more you in all the right ways, it doesn’t make you into someone else. If it’s making you into someone different, it’s the wrong relationship, period. Also, no matter what happens, the golden rule applies—behave in a way you can be proud of, even if your partner doesn’t do you the same courtesy.
This is a good principle for all relationships, but especially for romance. Pro tip: Any thought that begins, “But I don’t want to hurt their feelings, so…” is the path to dishonesty that is 99% likely to bite everyone in the butt later on. Case in point: Cheating on someone because breaking up with them would hurt their feelings is gross and selfish. And if it happens to you, it means your partner is gross and selfish, not that there’s anything wrong with you. You can’t respect someone you can’t trust. Be trustworthy, and expect trustworthiness. Also accept that not everyone gets this.
Most relationships end, and it hurts, and that’s okay.
Very few people end up in a forever relationship with their first crush (or even their second or third). I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s improbable. To be human is to love people who sometimes hurt you, either accidentally or on purpose. You’re lovable. You’re wonderful. Heartbreak doesn’t change that. If we’re lucky, the good parts outweigh the bad. Balancing protecting yourself with taking emotional risks is something you’ll work on your whole life. Risk. Love. Pig out on ice cream when it all goes sideways. Then do it all over again. It makes you stronger and smarter for the next time. And never forget: Whatever happens, I’ll be here with your favorite flavor and a spoon if you need me.