When I was a girl, my parents taught me to play tennis, to ski, to ride a bike and drive a car. What they never taught me: how to have a healthy romantic relationship. They gave other feedback freely – validation of my love of reading and black raspberry ice cream, and fair punishment when I stole my best friend’s new ballet shoes.
But my parents never once offered a comment or suggestion about the boys in my life, or what kind of partner would make me happy over time. My father could never get my boyfriend’s names right. My mom loved all my male friends, and used to sit for hours with them on the living room couch chatting them up, until the second I started dating them, when she suddenly couldn’t stand them. I never got a nod of approval when I dated a quiet, kind boy; no subtle enlightening remark to set me straight when I went out with a cad; no heart to heart even when I was about to marry a clearly troubled man I misguidedly thought was my soul mate.
You know what? I could have used some guidance. No child is born knowing how to pick a partner. Why don’t we teach our kids the basics of healthy relationships, just like we teach them how to brush their teeth and wear a seatbelt?
Research shows that on average, marriage increases people’s happiness. But dig into the data, and the research shows that good marriages increase people’s happiness. Being unhappily married makes couples far more miserable than if they stayed single. Depressing marriages and divorce rates stem from many complex reasons; an enduring union is an inherently elusive challenge that few couples fully achieve.
One of the biggest obstacles – and the one we have the most control over – is that many people pick the wrong person to marry. A smart article on the site Wait But Why dissects why we’re drawn to difficult partners, how to avoid the most obvious mismatches, and why it matters so mightily to choose well:
“When you choose a life partner, you’re choosing a lot of things, including your parenting partner and someone who will deeply influence your children, your eating companion for about 20,000 meals, your travel companion for about 100 vacations, your primary leisure time and retirement friend, your career therapist, and someone whose day you’ll hear about 18,000 times.”
A surprisingly high number of people tend to be shockingly terrible at, and lacking experience in, picking a life partner and judging astutely who will make them happy over time. Think about it: by the time we marry, we’ve only had a few serious relationships, a very small data set for such a huge decision. And the intoxication of early romance is blinding for most of us.
What adds to the imbalance is that society overall, our peer groups, and our families give us terrible – or zero — advice about how to pick a partner. The media and many religions (as well as our own biology) rush us. Holding off on commitment and experimenting in love, whether it’s playing the field or mining Match.com, is frowned upon, instead of encouraged as a good way to collect valuable data.
We’d all be better off if we got a subliminal warning 100 times a day – and passed it on to our kids and friends – instead of the unrealistic blather and pressure to pair up that bombard us instead. The overriding maxim should be: whatever mistakes you make in life, don’t commit yourself to the wrong person.
The surface solution is not to get married. Ever. A 2014 Pew Research poll showed that barely half of Americans are currently married – only 51% of adults age 18 and older compared to 72% reported in 1960. But the underlying problem remains, since most of us, whether we intend to or not, end up in serious, largely monogamous long-term relationships. Whether you call it marriage or not, the same obstacles to abiding, satisfying coupledom apply.
Which is why we need to at least try to talk to our kids about how to research what makes you happy over time, and then how to choose a partner who fits that profile.
First though, you have to have a little talk with yourself. How does your relationship history stack up? Kids are incredible bullshit monitors, so be prepared to explain your own mistakes and lessons learned. Also, ask yourself: do you want your child to be in a healthy relationship? On face value, it’s a silly question — of course you do! But a healthy long-term relationship could feel threatening to us as parents. Check out any mixed feelings you have and deal with them before you tackle talking to your kids. But once you do, here are some good tips:
- An easy launch pad: start out talking to your children about the facts of marriage and divorce. State the obvious. (It may not be so obvious to them.) Tell them that who they marry is the most important decision they will ever make in their lives. If you have divorces in your family, use examples of other incompatible couples to make your points about what they should avoid, a good way to offer advice without attacking their personal choices.
- Offer constructive observations about their friends to plant seeds regarding important characteristics in partners. Such as, “Wow, that kind of consideration is really special,” or “I never liked that kind of drama in a friend.” I went so far as to point out to my middle daughter that she and her first roommate, who never fought in an entire year living together in a tiny room at boarding school, were so uniquely compatible, that they should make a list of what they liked about each other and look for husbands with the same qualities. It was a joke – but I wasn’t joking.
- Get to know their dates. Offer observations – gingerly – about their boyfriends and girlfriends. Little things like “I like the way Rocky talks to me – he seems smart and like a good communicator. Love that in a guy.” Or “She seems so uncomfortable around me and other adults. It would be hard to go through life that way.”
- Talk to them candidly about sex and birth control. Choosing the right long-term partner obviously becomes more complicated when an unplanned pregnancy is involved. Preserving choices about who to marry and when to have babies is essential, especially given new research that shows the first year of parenthood is more devastating than divorce, losing your job, or the death of a partner.
- Share what you’ve learned about your own relationships. I have a friend, happily married for 25 years, who married his wife instead of another girlfriend because his dad told him, “Love is quiet.” Humor helps too. My kids love few things more than horrifying stories of bad dates I went on as a teenager. I try to work in observations about what I learned as they pertain to picking long-term partners. Another trick: I point out a positive role model, such as our favorite uncle, who has been divorced once, widowed once, and is now happily married again in his late 60s. In all three marriages, he treated the women in his life marvelously. I try to get the kids to notice what he does right, especially because they already respect and admire him so much.
Even a handful of small comments from my own parents as I headed into my destructive first marriage, one-offs like, “I feel sorry for Connor, having been abused as a child. I’ve heard that children who are abused sometimes grow up to be offenders themselves,” might have helped me connect the dots. At the very least, it would have made me pause. It would have also let me know they cared about me and the huge decision/mistake I was about to make. And then, once I realized what I’d done, it would have been far easier to turn to them for help. That’s the kind of resource I want to be to my adult children one day.