No matter your beliefs or background, I think we can all agree that the divorce rate in America is high.
Another fact? Divorce hurts kids.
Just so nobody thinks I’m railing on something I know nothing about, I am a product of divorce, and I am married (for the second time) to a man who was married and divorced prior, and who brought two children as part of our own marriage pact (point is, I have some experience. Another point, divorce happens, even to the best of us.). I can safely say that we (him and I) parented “his” and “our” kids as equally as possible, with the same rules, the same discipline and the same love. I naively thought “equal” would counter the other messiness of shared holidays, weekend time at bio-mom’s, different rules at different houses, the questions of why mom and dad divorced in the first place, perceived and implied child allegiances, discipline, etc., etc. But it didn’t. And, in the end, my husband’s divorce from his first wife, while emotionally and physically the best outcome for him and her, was a disaster for their kids. Even the most well-intentioned divorced couple (you know, those who don’t even use the word, but instead say things like “conscious de-coupling”), can’t reverse the effects of divorce on kids. In our situation, we weren’t able to co-parent effectively with the bio-mom, even though we desperately tried. There were too many hurts, too many differences and too much manipulation. It’s one of my greatest failures as a mom/step mom, because all of my hurt pales in comparison to the hurt inflicted on our kids- unintentional, or otherwise. But that’s a whole different post.
Back to the elephant in the room:
A common thread in American culture today that begins the weaving for a massive divorce epidemic is modern teenage dating.
“Wait”, you say?
“Teens have always dated, it’s nothing new,” you quip?
Oh but see….it IS new. And if you aren’t aware of it’s newness, you’re already two twenty steps behind.
You see, whereas teen dating was once a practice in marriage and commitment, it is now a practice in divorce. We are literally training our kids in the methods and practice of divorce, and most parents don’t even see it!
Talk to a teen. I mean, really talk to a teen, and ask them what dating looks like to them. Get to know the lingo, too. You’ll soon realize that today’s teen dating looks nothing like the dating of a generation (or two or three) ago. Things like “talking”, “hanging out”, “hooking up” are all pre-cursors to actually “dating”. And all of it is a build up for the inevitable break up. Over and over again. Parents, either because they are unaware, or because they are actually part of the process, are aiding their kids in how to have unrealistic expectations, how to demand more, give less and see anything short of relationship perfection as grounds for ending it quickly and without any sort of remorse or feeling whatsoever. We are literally creating a generation hell-bent on superficial flings, that, even if they do involve a ceremony called marriage, will still most likely end in separation and divorce, with little, confused kids created along the process, destined to repeat the cycle.
WHY are kids now practicing divorce and not practicing marriage?
- Teen relationships are superficial, at best. The general guideline for a relationship goes something like this- teens begin by “talking”, which isn’t really talking at all. It’s texting, snap chatting, instagraming, etc. It’s a get-to-know-you session, which often quickly leads to sexual innuendos and outright sexual acts, real or virtual. Then it moves on to “hanging out”, in which both parties agree to spend physical time together in a group setting. If both can tolerate each other, it might move on to “dating”. This is more exclusive, but doesn’t have to be. Nowhere in this progression is there really any important get-to-know you conversation like, “What is your religion? What are your goals for the future? What do you want from a monogamous relationship?” But, sex is almost always part of this process.
- Which brings me to my second point- teen relationships are much more sexual. Sexual encounters have often (not always) become the norm for the start of any teen relationship. Stay with me here, because I know you’re thinking sex was always part of teen dating, right? But the difference is this- teens are not only having more casual sex, but they are engaging in more risky sexual encounters that include same sex, multiple partners, oral sex, sexting, pornography, etc. This trend is particularly harmful to girls, because girls (and women) attach emotion to sex. It symbolizes something more than a trite, physical encounter. Superficial sexual encounters are leading to more depressed, confused young girls, and consequently more anti-social behaviors such as cutting, depression, suicidal thoughts and sexual promiscuity, etc. Girls are thrust into a sexual world that they are emotionally incapable of handling. The results for our young girls are similar to what we see in sex-abuse cases. Because, frankly, it is sex abuse. Boys are using girls (because the girls allow it) as sexual objects. For example, whereas at one time oral sex and pornography were considered taboo for teens, they are now the first expectation of many teen boys, and it degrades sex into a selfish act in which the teen girl is treated like an object.
- Teen relationships are increasingly non-verbal. Because of technology, teens can interact with other teens, in other towns and other schools, much easier than in the past. A teen relationship can begin, flourish and die online, without a single, real encounter between the two. Teens can even have virtual, sexual encounters through sexting, online innuendos and suggestive one-liners. This begs the question, “Did the relationship really happen?” Yet our teens might have several of these “virtual” relationships going on simultaneously, perpetuating the notion that monogamy is unrealistic, probably even impossible.
- Teen relationships are non-committal. Long gone are the days when teen dating was a practice in monogamy. Now, break ups are the norm. So common is the breaking up, that a friend group might have a myriad of examples in which members dated, talked and/or hooked up with one another, yet are now “just friends” or even friends “with benefits”. While I think parents would agree that we don’t want our teens in long-term relationships that are similar to adult marriage, the opposite isn’t the solution. Practicing breaking up only leaves the impression that marriage is no longer sacred, and if one or both parties in a marriage aren’t on cloud nine 24/7, then they might as well divorce, because, after all, that’s all they’ve ever known and practiced in their relationships.
- Teens have a faulty view of relationships. Because teens are naturally self-centered, they see dating as another way to satisfy their own self-interests. As they continue to practice this form of dating, they are internalizing the notion that relationships must serve their own needs first, while the needs of their partner are always secondary (or don’t exist at all). Over time, this cycle of seeking perfection, and not recognizing that humans are flawed and deserve grace, leads teens to believe that they must be in constant search of the next best partner, rather than working on a single relationship, or even working on their own ability to give and serve another person. The fact is, no marriage will ever survive this kind of thinking, yet it’s the only thinking our teens use when they “practice” such relationships. How can we expect our teens to spend years practicing a faulty view of relationships and then later get married and immediately shed such views?
- Parents are part of the problem. We use language with our teens these days like “If they can’t accept you for who you are, then they aren’t worth it.” Parents encourage teen dating, even when teens might not be ready, through language like-
“You’ll find someone else.”
“They don’t deserve you.”
“You’re better than him/her.”
Parents, mostly unintentional, are telling their teens, through their words and their own life decisions (remember, more often than not, teens live in blended families that have experienced divorce), that real relationships between a man and a woman don’t deserve the time, commitment and unselfish giving that are absolutely necessary to make a marriage work in the first place. And we suggest to our teens that they are so special that only a near-perfect partner will ever do.
Is there hope? Absolutely!
- Talk about your own mistakes. Even if we’ve experienced divorce, ourselves, we have to be strong enough to talk about our mistakes and want better for our kids. It’s hard, because, honestly, I might appear to be the chief hypocrite to my kids when I tell them that working on a marriage or long term relationship is absolutely better than not, since I divorced and my husband divorced. All I can really say is that I made mistakes, and, thankfully, I have been given a second chance to get it right (which is rare, and also worth pointing out), and I am getting it right. My husband and I are partners, we build each other up, we put each other first, and we do not have unrealistic expectations about what day-to-day married life is supposed to be like. Neither of us could have said that about our first marriages, and we were partly to blame. Still, the reality is that our kids (my step kids) have paid a huge cost, and we need to be “grown up” enough to talk to them about that, and stress that a two parent, happy home is always the goal.
- We need to call attention to the flaws in teen thinking when it comes to dating. We need to counter their behaviors with real, adult-like conversation. Because it will stick. It WILL stick, and they will remember. If not now, later. And we need to constantly remind them that the kind of dating they participate in as teens is nowhere near what kind of behaviors and mindset they will need for their future marriages. In fact, we need to point out to them that as teens, they are still incapable of such adult behaviors, and instead of encouraging constant dating, we should be encouraging self reflection and independence, goal setting and determination, first and foremost.
- Finally, we just need to open our eyes. Set clear expectations about your dating rules. Express that you know (even if you don’t) what they are experiencing. Know that they are living a day-to-day life that is much, much different than your teenage years. Talk to them about how teens of the opposite sex generally feel about relationships. Let your boys know the right ways to treat a girl. Let your girls know how to be treated by a boy. And, SHOW THEM, through your own relationships, how a grown-up relationship works.