I always knew that the day would come when I’d need to help my kids negotiate the emotions and drama of romantic relationships. I just didn’t think it would come so soon.
Over the past few days, we’ve had one ex-girlfriend calling repeatedly and at length, another showing up at our door to have animated conversations on our front porch. We’ve had a girl we barely know texting us to ask our son to go and visit her at a house we’ve never been to with parents we’ve never met. We’ve had clandestine arrangements made (and then heartbreakingly unmade) to meet up with a girl at the community centre. And so on, and so forth.
What’s most frustrating to me about all this (besides the childishness of it) is the assumption these kids all seem to have that relationships need to be full of drama, that couples are always either passionately in love or stridently arguing or tearfully making up. They seem unable just to hang out with each other, to do the regular things they’d do with other friends, to talk about the things that interest them. Everything is too emotionally heightened to permit any kind of normal, natural behaviour with one another.
Now, I know where they get it. The stories we tell through television and the movies, in books and comics, are constantly full of dramatic, volatile relationships, for the very simple reason that conflict drives plot and makes stories interesting. A film about a couple who generally got along, treated each other with respect, worked hard at keeping a functional relationship, and managed to grow old and ugly together wouldn’t make for very compelling viewing or very impressive ticket sales. Drama is more interesting. Drama sells.
It doesn’t help that many of the adults in our kids’ lives are as childish in their relationships as any movie plot could want. In just the past few months, the gossip among the parents at school pick-up has included a father who ran off with his company’s publicist, a mother who smashed her estranged husband’s car with a bat, and couple who had a fairly hushed but entirely obvious spat in the middle of a school assembly. Our kids are watching all this, along with the single uncle who runs from one superficial relationship to another, and the neighbour who sleeps in his car some nights when his wife locks him out of the house, and the neighbours on the other side who bankrupt themselves in the process of a super-messy divorce (just to name some real life examples near me). Our kids are watching, and they’re learning.
So when they start exploring romantic relationships for themselves, their expectations are that there should be drama, that being in love necessarily involves (and somehow excuses) making terrible decisions, hurting people’s feelings, and generally being in a state of one extreme emotion or another. They know the script, and if you listen to them, they’re practically reading from it.
“I would die for you,” says one of my sons to a girl he’s been “dating” for less than 48 hours, not because he means it, not because he doesn’t mean it, but just because it’s the kind of melodramatic thing that pop music has taught him people say in relationships.
“Why can’t you just commit to us?” demands the girl in question, tears on her cheeks, as they argue on the porch a week later, not because she’s actually looking for commitment (which neither of them even understands at this age), but because it’s the kind of language that she’s heard used by the adults in her life.
“I bought you this,” he says a few days later still, handing her a cheap gold locket with his picture in it, “so you can always have me with you,” not because the locket means much to either of them, but because romantic comedies have taught them that any problem can be solved by a grand romantic gesture.
But successful, long-term relationships don’t look like this. They look like people committing to love each other every day, doing the work of caring for each other, talking out problems before they become disasters, letting go of things that aren’t that important, putting up with each other’s idiosyncrasies, being playful and fun together, and so forth. This is what our kids need to see from us. It’s what they need to hear us articulate for them too.
So, the next time you’re watching a romantic comedy, and one person breaks up with another over a silly misunderstanding, only to get back together just because of some over-the-top romantic theatrics, have a chat with your kid. Talk about how that isn’t how things should work between two people who love each other, how a couple should be able to let go of misunderstandings, forgive mistakes, and work through difficulties together. And put that advice into practise in your own relationships. You owe it to your children’s future partners.
Luke Hill has been the parent of birth kids, adoptive kids, foster kids, and just-need-a-place-to-stay kids for fourteen years. He’s had experience with kids in homeschool, public schools, and alternative schools. He’s been a teacher, a camp counsellor, and a coach. He’s also taught parenting courses for Children’s Aid for almost a decade. When he isn’t working with kids, he’s a writer, a publisher, and the director of a non-profit organization that supports book culture.