I read “Telling it like it is: Teen Perspectives on Romantic Relationships” and you’re right—many teen relationships (and more than a few adult relationships) are not healthy. Many of us lack the information and skills needed to build a healthy relationship.
You’ve identified things that make for a healthy relationship—respect, trust, honesty, good communication, for example—and behaviors that don’t make for a healthy relationship—things like cheating, lying, name-calling, hitting, bossing. But what needs do you expect to get met?
When discussing what makes for a healthy relationship some of you talked about needs like to be important (a guy pays special attention to you or makes time for you), or to be pleased (he’s thoughtful), or to feel interesting (he doesn’t walk away in the middle of a conversation when he spots one of his friends), or to accept each other as you are. In a healthy relationship you deserve to have all these needs met, and more. We all have lots of needs—to be familiar with, to accept, to forgive, to support, to please, to listen, to understand, to be important, to be interesting, to value yourself and him and to expect the same in return.
I found the way you expressed the stages of a teen relationship, from less serious to most serious, insightful. I believe you can use healthy relationship criteria to make better choices—choosing who your boyfriend is, when to have sex, and whether to stay in a relationship or to exit, for example—and to help you figure out other important stuff, like whether or not your boyfriend loves you. Here are some examples of how to use healthy relationship criteria within three stages—“getting to know the person,” “friends with benefits,” and “boyfriend.”
Getting to know the person
Beliefs influence actions. We all believe different things about what makes for a healthy relationship. Accepting a guy as he is, warts and all? No way! Often the criteria we use to assess a guy don’t include what makes for a healthy relationship. To truly know if your guy’s great, you must really know him, like his traits, and be able to accept how he gets his needs met from you.
Your needs are beautiful things, a deep part of who you are. One healthy relationship criterion—met needs—can help you determine if you’re with a great guy. Are you really familiar with him? Can you describe him—would you list the same traits his ex-girlfriend would (stubborn, funny, dependable, jealous, for example)? To meet your need to be familiar with him, you must know what his best and worst personality traits are. If you really like him, you may have to come to terms with some traits you don’t like. But you can’t accept a guy’s annoying traits if they undermine your self-respect.
What we all need is a bar—a standard for how you expect to be treated in a relationship. Think of it like a high jump; a guy has to clear your bar for you to let him into your life in a serious way. If you respect yourself, then only a great guy will treat you with enough respect to clear your bar. If your bar is too low, just about any guy can jump over it—and into your life. Your bar is too low if you accept the way a guy treats you because you love him, or want a boyfriend at any price, or don’t understand how a guy should show you respect.
You say communication is important—true. Can you have a heart-to-heart conversation with your guy? You can’t if stubborn is one of his traits. If he ignores what you think and how you feel, he won’t change his mind about anything. A Prince really listens, meeting your needs to be heard and understood. He’ll adjust his behavior—stop flirting, for example—if you ask him to and explain how you feel. A Prince meets your needs. A Frog doesn’t—he doesn’t listen, doesn’t add to his own self-knowledge or his understanding of you.
Another way to tell if your guy respects you is by how he gets his needs met from you. After spending time with him, have you discovered a gap between who you thought he was and who he really is? You say, “Good personality, maybe, but you’re gonna get liars.” Does your guy use character—say what he means, do what he says, know right from wrong—to get what he wants?
You believe that your having trust in a relationship is more important than his being honest—not true. Is honesty one of your guy’s traits? If he lies to you about where he was or what he did, he doesn’t respect you (or himself) enough to tell the truth. If he’s not reliable, if he doesn’t do what he says, he doesn’t respect you enough to follow through on his promises. If he talks to his friends about what you do sexually, to gain popularity, he doesn’t respect you.
Here’s a heart-saving shortcut: Your guy won’t have your back, and you cannot trust him, if he doesn’t have character. Until you know if your guy has character, don’t value him—tell him what you think and feel—about yourself, and him, and your relationship.
Is aggressive one of your guy’s traits? You say, “…one boy can be…honest, respectful, and you have a connection. But then, he’ll be violent or something.” You need to know how to deal with conflict—here’s why. How does your guy act when it’s difficult for you to meet his needs (for example, when he wants something you don’t want to give him)? Heart-saving shortcut: You deserve to be treated with respect. These unhealthy behaviors shouldn’t clear any woman’s bar. A guy doesn’t respect you if, when he can’t get his way, he punishes you, or calls you names like ‘bitch’ or ‘slut,’ or gets even by spreading rumors, or threatens to post embarrassing pictures of you on Facebook. If a guy is physically rough, tell someone, and find a way to respect yourself—and EXIT!
“Friends with Benefits”
You say, “friends w/benefits” is sex no-strings. But it seems like it’s a stage that you go through to get to boyfriend. (I’m just saying, not judging.) Here’s what you should know: “If you were in college you’d have less than a 25% chance of your hook-up getting to boyfriend stage,” but you’re in high-school, so you do the math (Laid: Young People’s Experiences with Sex in an Easy-Access Culture, 2009). Count your hook-ups (or your friends’) and divide by the number of times you got to boyfriend.
Some girls set their bar too low. A girl might hook up with a guy because she uses sex to get popularity, or to get her closer to the boyfriend stage, or she believes she loves him. That girl needs information to reset her bar.
When we get a need met, we feel happy, no longer wanting. Each choice we make creates a consequence—a met need (good feeling) or unmet need (mixed, confused or hurt feeling). Let’s say you used “friends w/benefits” to meet your physical needs. How do you feel the next day? If you’re happy, not expecting a phone call, not secretly hoping for more, chances are you’re a player. But if you’re waiting for the guy to make your relationship official, sleeping with him is probably leaving you feeling hurt, empty and confused—or worse, feeling nothing at all.
A big part of self-respect is making choices that include your own feelings, needs and beliefs. If you know and love yourself, you’ll choose what’s good for you—not just good for him. You say, one way a guy shows respect is to see you for more than your body or physical appearance—true! You shouldn’t have to get his attention by being willing to do sexually for him. Do you believe a guy would find you interesting without the sex? A guy should be getting to know you and to like your traits, and to accept how you get your needs met from him. Can you give up what you deserve, and grow happy? When a guy’s shopping for sex, it’s all about him—how he earns respect from his friends—it has nothing to do with you. And it should have something to do with you—as in, he thinks you’re a great girl.
Heart-saving shortcut: Does your guy use a condom? One of the needs we’re responsible to meet for ourselves is safety—to keep ourselves safe from harm. A guy who doesn’t use a condom does not respect himself or you. He’s exposing himself—and you—to the risk of diseases, pregnancy, even death (AIDS). Insisting on safe sex is one way to respect yourself.
You say you earn respect from your peers, based on how a guy treats you in front of them—he doesn’t put you down, doesn’t ignore you, acts like he cares about you. Here’s a way to get there. Reset your bar to Great Guy, or the right guy for you in a healthy relationship. You deserve to grow happy—to be with someone who wants to be with you as much as you want to be with him.
If your guy’s not a Prince—a great guy for you, in a healthy relationship—then he’s a Frog. What makes for a healthy relationship means different things to different people, but the common factor is that our most important needs are met, there are heart-to-heart conversations, and the respect—self-respect, respect for others, and the expectation to be treated respectfully—is mutual.
Heart-saving shortcut by Dr. Julius Licata at TeenCentral: Thought of abstinence as a choice? When you choose the right time to have sex, you’ll experience being in control; having control builds self-esteem. There’s a right time to have sex. Not knowing the person makes sex meaningless and empty. What does the guy like? Who is he? Why are you and he connecting? Abstinence keeps you safe—no fear of pregnancy or STD’s. And abstinence gives you time to build real love and understanding, so when sex does happen, it is not just mutual masturbation but the sincere act of caring and affection.
You say the boyfriend/girlfriend stage involves going out and doing activities regularly, and the hubby/wife stage is where you expect a guy not to cheat. You believe that all guys cheat. Simply not true! If your hubby cheats, he doesn’t have character. Or know what makes for a healthy relationship. During the boyfriend/girlfriend stage, look to see if these needs are met: the need to be familiar with, to accept, to forgive and value yourself and him, to expect the same in return. If they are, you have a chance to build a healthy relationship.
Is your guy really familiar with you? Does he really know you? Say you asked him to describe you—would he list the same traits your best friends would (funny, thoughtful, demanding, for example)? What about your need to feel accepted? Is he critical of you? If he’s always trying to change the way you do things, you won’t get your need for acceptance met. Does he bring stuff up you said you were sorry for? If so, you’ve identified another unmet need. When you ask him questions, does he say, “I dunno” or “I don’t want to talk right now”? If so, he isn’t valuing you. Your need to be valued will be met only when a guy trusts you enough to tell you how he really feels and thinks—about himself, and you, and your relationship.
Of course, it’s hard to know how to deal with things that come up in relationships, like the ones you’ve mentioned—your guy ignoring you, putting you down, acting like he doesn’t care about you (flirting with other girls, for example) when he’s with his friends. To build a healthy relationship, you must be able to tell your guy when he’s not treating you with respect. To do that, you must understand what’s going on between you. Can you identify your feelings in a relationship, articulate them to your boyfriend, and be willing to exit if things don’t change? Yes, you can! Needs are beautiful things.
Hurt feelings grow out of unmet needs. When your boyfriend doesn’t consider your feelings and needs in his choices—ignores you at parties, say, or flirts with other girls—hurt feelings bubble up. Those feelings are a signal. This guy might be a Frog. What to do? Armed with “good points”—“You never make time for me” or “You ignore me at parties”—you can talk to him about why you don’t feel special—and choose to break up with him if he doesn’t change. By using unmet needs as good reasons to exit, you can make tough self-respect choices.
If you start liking yourself less when you’re with a guy, you’re with a Frog. Let’s set your bar: ask yourself, “Are lots of my needs still met by me, my friends and family? Or would I feel empty and lost without my boyfriend?” If the latter, you’re not respecting yourself, not meeting your own needs. Ask yourself: “Can I tell my best friend the good, the bad, and the ugly experiences I’ve shared with my boyfriend without her asking, ‘Why do you put up with that?’” If your answer is no, the message is clear: you don’t respect yourself. Your bar is too low; it’s set to Frog.
If you don’t expect to end up with a Prince in a healthy loving relationship, your bar is too low. You can only set your bar according to what you know. Maybe you’ve never known a great guy. Maybe you’ve only gone out with guys who didn’t respect your feelings or didn’t want to get to know you as a person. Maybe you weren’t fortunate enough to watch your parents in a loving, healthy relationship. That’s the past. Any girl can raise her bar using healthy relationship criteria to build a great relationship with a guy.
You say you don’t believe in that crazy little thing called love. You should, but you have to be able to recognize it. When a guy tells you he loves you, those are just words—unless you can see that he’s actively, deliberately trying to meet your needs, not just his own. Real love is what you experience in a healthy relationship, when your boyfriend is happily meeting your needs (and maybe some you didn’t even know you had!) and you’re happily meeting his. And all the while each of you is maintaining your self-respect and meeting your own needs, too. That’s not crazy, and it’s not little. It’s love.
Best, Kaycee Jane
Kaycee Jane is the author of Frog or Prince? The Smart Girl’s Guide to Boyfriends (Amazon-only). Jane blogs at www.frogorprince.ca. When life seems overwhelming, try http://www.teencentral.net/ and get anonymous help from a professional.