Relationships are an area of life that we all must tend to and yet it’s rarely spoken about. More frequently what’s discussed at the dinner table is homework, chores, activities, responsibilities, and plans for the future.
It’s rare that parents sit down with their children and talk about what it means to have a healthy relationship. Partly this is due to the fact that adults themselves don’t always have healthy relationships. There might be domestic violence or emotional abuse among parents, which sadly, only gets modeled for their children.
Abusive relationships can begin at any age. Of course, when parents are abusive or neglectful to their children, those relationship patterns are often learned and played out later in adulthood. Furthermore, if children are witness to ongoing domestic violence between their parents, abuse can become a pattern of relating that gets played out again and again in their adult lives.
However, it would be important to talk to teens and share with them the elements of a healthy relationship so that they know what to look for and, perhaps more importantly, so that they know what to avoid. Research indicates that more than 1 out of 10 teens who have been on a date will experience:
- Physical abuse (hitting, pushing, and/or slapping) by someone they’ve gone out with
- Sexual abuse (kissing, touching, or forcing sex) by someone they’ve dated.
If this is the case, you might help a teen develop skills for healthy and safe relationships, set expectations for how they want to be treated, and recognize when a relationship doesn’t feel good.
For instance, if teens can identify what to avoid as well as what healthy relationships feel like, it could significantly change the way that they choose their partners.
What does an unhealthy relationship look like?
Those in unhealthy relationships may make many excuses to try to explain away the hurtful parts of the relationship. Some of those hurtful parts might be:
- One person tries to change the other
- One person makes most or all of the decisions
- One or both people drop friends and interests outside of the relationship
- One or both people yell, threaten, hit, or throw things during arguments
- One person makes fun of the other’s opinions or interests
- One person keeps track of the other all the time by calling, texting, or checking in with friends
- There are more bad times than good.
Furthermore, in the 1970’s, Lenore Walker developed the cycle of abuse theory that identified four distinct stages that an abusive relationship tends to get repeated again and again, often getting increasingly more intense. Over time, the relationship creates identified roles of abuser and victim and those roles get played out again and again as though each partner knows the steps to take and when.
These phases are:
Tension building: During this initial phase, the relationship is experiencing increasing amounts of tension. There’s a breakdown in communication, fear is increasing, and the victim will do her best to appease the abuser.
Abuse: The tension explodes into an abusive incident in which there is anger, blame, rage that gets expressed through emotional, physical, or verbal abuse.
Reconciliation: The abuser apologizes for his actions, gives excuses, blames the victim, or claims that the abuse was not all that bad.
Calm: The abuse is forgotten and a honeymoon period begins again.
Unhealthy relationships, put plainly, often don’t feel good. If a teen is feeling bad in the relationship for much of the time, this may be an indicator for a teen to leave the relationship.
What does a healthy relationship look like?
In healthy relationships, teens feel good. They feel supported, respected, and loved. They feel as though they are part of a partnership, which has elements of both friendship and intimacy. In a healthy relationship:
- Both people feel respected, supported, and valued
- Decisions are made together
- Both people have friends and interests outside of the relationship
- Disagreements are settled with open and honest communication
- There are more good times than bad
These are guidelines by which a teen can assess whether a relationship is worth participating in. Although this might not be something a teen needs to do later in life. However, doing this now, when adolescents are new to dating can set the tone for the rest of their lives. If a male or female teen can get into the habit of making healthy choices for themselves early when it comes to relationships, they might find themselves in one that is loving and that lasts for the rest of their lives.