Help! Teenage Dating Drama
I may have rolled up my sleeves when this one came in, folks. Buckle up!
I thought you might have some good insight on this situation. My 17 year old son has been dating a lovely young lady for the past few months. Her birthday was last week and he completely forgot about it. When she told him about it, he responded with something like “Oops, I’m sorry I forgot. Let’s do something next weekend since I have plans with the guys this weekend.” I know, cringeworthy to say the least! And if that wasn’t bad enough, there was strike number two when he trivialized her birthday by saying “it’s not like it’s your 21st.” After a heated exchange, she exclaimed “You just don’t get it!” and then landed a stinging slap on his cheek and stormed off. Needless to say, he has much to learn about the opposite sex, and I teased him that he may get a few more slaps from the ladies until he learns what it means to be a gentleman. To his credit, he took it like a man and seems less concerned about his wounded pride and more concerned about the young woman’s feelings. I think this could be a teachable moment for him, and I also think he can repair his relationship with his girlfriend if he goes about it the right way. Just wondered if you had any nuggets of wisdom to offer.
A lot of this sounds like every teenage relationship ever. Let’s unpack.
Love Languages and Translation
Remember back when Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus and all the hubbub about couples learning each others’ love languages came out? The target group was, in most cases, longtime pairs who’d been struggling with the same issues over and over for years. The reality is that most couples don’t find each other understanding everything about their partners, it’s more that misunderstandings that seem cute or forgivable early on tend to fester as time passes. Teenagers are both new to romantic relationships and not exactly known for their selfless and compassionate natures, if you get my drift. So when they don’t speak the same language in these scenarios, the typical result is a lot of hurt feelings and defensiveness (and—sorry—a breakup, because that’s a lot “easier” than doing the work to come to understanding).
My guess is that your son doesn’t see birthdays as that big of a deal, whereas his girlfriend sees them as a very big deal. Bottom line, she thinks he’s being thoughtless and he thinks she’s overreacting, but communication is how any situation like this gets resolved. She has to be clear about what she wants/expects (none of this passive-aggressive “I shouldn’t have to tell you,” because expecting anyone to be a mindreader is unfair, and multiply that tenfold when your target is a teenager), and he has to explain that he didn’t understand how important this was to her, and he didn’t realize how uncaring his actions appeared.
It’s worth having a discussion with your son, if you haven’t before, about the notion of “fair fighting.” The two key rules are to stick to the matter at hand (no bringing up other stuff from the past) and use “I” statements (“I feel like you’re overreacting” is marginally better than “You’re overreacting,” but better still is “I didn’t realize how big of a deal this was to you”). Remind him, too, that the goal in any conversation like this is to achieve understanding, not to be “right.” No one wins when it’s about being right—in a relationship the goal is to understand one another.
I’m of the belief that apologies are something of a lost art in today’s society. Real apologies take responsibility for the damage inflicted, express true regret, and propose a way forward. How often do you see that from people these days? Much more often, we get what my family refers to as the “non-apology apology,” and it’s easy to spot, because it contains the word “but” and/or a condescending “you.”
Real apology: I am so sorry that I misunderstood how important this was to you. I never meant to hurt you this way. If you’re willing to give me another chance, I’d like to make it up to you.
Non-apology apology: I’m sorry you felt hurt but it’s not a big deal and I don’t know what you want from me.
It doesn’t matter if the hurt feelings were unintentional, or even if you really do believe the other person is overreacting. A true apology is about acknowledging that your actions caused pain and trying to make amends for it, separate from any other conversation about the overall situation. So, for example, in this particular scenario, I think it’s perfectly valid for your son to tell his girlfriend something along the lines of “I don’t always just know what you want, and it feels a little bit like you get angry when I don’t, instead of telling me what you’d like me to do differently. Next time I screw up, can you please calmly tell me what you want so I have a chance to fix things before it’s a huge blowup?” But that has to be a set apart from the apology. As soon as “but” is added to the apology itself, it becomes a non-apology.
Also talk to your son about how even the most sincere, beautiful apology may not be accepted, and that’s just how it goes, sometimes. You can’t control someone else. It’s still worth doing, even if it doesn’t go your way.
To Advise or Not to Advise
I’m not clear from your note whether your son is asking for your input or not. If he was 13 instead of 17, I’d say you offer counsel, regardless, but at this age, you’re better off waiting for him to come to you. If he doesn’t want your opinion, offering it may cause more problems. My only exception to that rule would be the section below, which I’d share regardless of whether he wanted to hear it or not.
Gender Roles and Violence
V, I know you didn’t ask about this, but I’m going to address it, anyway. You may disagree with me and that’s your prerogative. In my family, we believe physical violence of any kind is unacceptable. Based on what you’ve shared here, I imagine you’d be appalled if the roles were reversed and your son slapped his girlfriend. Why, then, is your reaction to him being slapped a sort of “Well, that’s going to happen a lot more often if he doesn’t get it together, haha!”? I don’t care if he’s a linebacker and she’s barely five feet tall. No one should be hitting anyone, ever. It’s not about the potential damage caused or some gendered notion of girls hitting boys is no big deal, it’s about everyone understanding that you do not lash out that way against another human being. Again, you may disagree, and I know in different cultures this may be viewed differently, but if this was my child? I’d be having a conversation about how no one has the right to hit him, full stop. I still think he needs to issue a real apology for what he did, but he also needs to tell his girlfriend that he will not tolerate that behavior, and if they get back together, she needs to understand that if she hits him again, he’s done. To me this is about boundaries and respect.
I’ll add, here, that my own sexism is showing through in this advice; if the roles were reversed I would counsel my own daughter to not even offer an offending male a second chance. But because I think our society tends to “teehee” when a female hits a male, I would be willing to offer one do-over, here, to clarify that hitting is neither cute nor acceptable in case the girlfriend has never really considered how inappropriate that choice is. I would also counsel my son to seek an apology for the slap. If her attitude is “whatever, it’s not a big deal,” that would be worrisome to me.
Whatever happens with this particular girl, as you support your son through either rebuilding or the loss of this relationship, help him to see the experience as useful growth. His current relationship can only grow stronger as they work through this or he’s learned a lot about how to make his next relationship even better. None of us is born a flawless partner. Navigating a healthy relationship is a learning process, and he’s doing good, hard work. Remind him of that, either way.
Readers! Don’t forget that you can submit your own burning questions to alphamomteens [at] gmail [dot] com!
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