I read “Kiss and Tell: What Teens Say about Love, Trust, and Other Relationship Stuff” at www.stayteen.org and I found it quite insightful. The survey results said, for example, that “a healthy relationship is one that includes love, trust, mutual respect and honesty”—true! I also agree that “a healthy relationship means different things to different people,” and that’s why I’d like to share my perspective of what a healthy relationship is. I believe you can use healthy relationship criteria to make better choices—choosing who your boyfriend is, and deciding whether to stay in a relationship or exit it.
I started to write Frog or Prince? The Smart Girl’s Guide to Boyfriends for my daughter after I saw her holding the hand of a Frog. I wanted her to have more knowledge about healthy relationships. When we know better, we do better—it’s that simple. The Prince and the Frog in the title of the book are metaphors for a healthy relationship—or its opposite.
We all have different rules for how boyfriends should treat us and what needs we deserve to get met. The common factor: in a healthy relationship, 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.
How can you recognize when you’re in a healthy relationship? To repeat, your needs are met. Like the need to become familiar with him (knowing if he has character, for example). The need to happily accept how he treats you. The need to value him (being able to tell him what you think and feel) and be important to him (knowing that he includes your feelings and needs in his choices).
Our needs in a relationship are actually pretty simple: the need to be familiar with, to accept, to forgive and value yourself and him, to expect the same in return. When these needs are met, you have a chance to build a healthy relationship. A Prince meets these needs. A Frog doesn’t. If you and your boyfriend keep having re-run arguments about the same need—say, your need to feel special—you’ve discovered an unmet need.
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, dependable, 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. Forgiven—does he bring stuff up you said you were sorry for? If so, you’ve identified another unmet need. Valued—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 when a guy trusts you enough to tell you how he really feels and thinks—about himself, and you, and your relationship.
Another way to tell if you’re in a healthy relationship?—Can you have a heart-to-heart with your guy? Conversations are where you learn about yourself and your needs, and where you negotiate to get those needs met. You can have those conversations with a Prince—you can’t with a Frog. A Prince really listens, meeting your need to be heard and understood. He may challenge your view, but he’ll adjust his perspective if you raise good points. A Frog doesn’t listen, doesn’t add to his own self-knowledge or his understanding of you. Which means he can’t learn and grow in the relationship. And you won’t be able to work through your feelings with a Frog—i.e., get your needs met.
Other ways to know if you’re in a healthy relationship? A Prince uses respect to get his needs met. A Frog doesn’t. A Prince will ask for (not demand) what he wants, then wait for your “Yes” or “No” answer. He respects that you’re the one who gets to decide if his want is reasonable or not. He may negotiate, but if he can’t get his way, he’ll respect your “No” answer. A Frog, by contrast, uses controlling behaviour, making up rules—“Pick up the phone when I call, no matter what” for example—or pressuring you to get his wants met.
Who your guy really is, deep down, will determine how well he can meet your needs. A big part of self-respect is realizing we can’t stay in a relationship if we have unmet needs, or if we can’t happily accept how our guy treats us. When you realize that, you must act on it. A Prince uses character to get his needs met—he says what he means, does what he says, knows right from wrong. A Frog doesn’t.
Finally, let’s look at how love, trust, self-respect and honesty play out when you want to have sex with a guy. Every woman has her own beliefs about when to have sex. The choice is a very personal one, partly dependent upon your beliefs. A big part of self-respect is making informed choices—choices that include your own feelings, needs and beliefs, not just his. If you know and love yourself, you’ll choose what’s good for you—not just him. You’ll know when you’re ready for sex. Healthy relationship criteria will help you decide if your guy is right for you—help you make good choices about who to have sex with (and, ultimately, who to marry).
A dishonest guy might tell you he loves you when he doesn’t. A confused guy might tell you he loves you (and think he does), then afterwards decide he doesn’t really love you after all. A controlling guy might try to make his problem your problem: if you don’t want sex, he might say, you’re frigid. Or pressure you—if you don’t give in, I’ll leave.
The dishonest guy is obviously a Frog. He doesn’t respect himself, or you, enough to tell the truth. And the confused guy is also a Frog, though he might not seem to be. The confused Frog doesn’t respect himself enough to understand his own needs and feelings before professing love and asking for sex. That’s why it’s good to find out what your guy is shopping for in a relationship—good to ask questions like “How long do you expect our relationship will last?” As for the controlling guy, he’s basically saying, “You can’t be with me unless you behave the way I want you to.” He doesn’t respect himself, or you. He thinks the only way he can get sex is to manipulate you. If he doesn’t believe he’s worth your time, why should you?
Remember, when a guy tells you he loves you, those are just words—unless you can see and feel that he’s actively, deliberately, trying to meet your needs, not just his own. How do you know if your guy’s honest? An important part of getting to know him is finding out whether you can trust what he says. It’s common to trust him right off the bat, but then you must start asking if his words are matching his actions. Pay attention to the gap between words (“I love you”) and actions (investing time and energy to meet your needs). If a guy has character, he knows himself. You can trust him. You can forgive him for honest mistakes. If he lacks character, though, you can’t trust him. He’s a Frog. Time to exit.
When we make decisions that ignore our beliefs, or we fail to take fully into account our own feelings and needs, we pay a price in self-respect. Chemistry is not love. Chemistry is a reminder: “Pay attention to the consequences!” Chemistry leads to actions, and actions lead to consequences. If the consequences leave you feeling respected and healthy—if you can look in the mirror and see yourself growing happy—then the chemistry might turn into real love. If the consequences leave you feeling guilty, hurt, frightened or confused—perhaps unable to look in the mirror at all—that’s a danger sign.
Healthy relationships are built on trust and respect. That doesn’t just mean trusting and respecting your guy — it means trusting and respecting yourself. Be careful about diving into a new relationship until you can see and feel genuine trust and respect. Before you dive in, wet your toes, splash around, check how deep the water is—make sure you’re in a healthy relationship. So that when you do take the plunge, you’ll be able to surface again—still you, but even happier and even more certain of who you are and what you need.