An orange sea washed over the steps of the California State Capitol. Students several years my junior, adorned in orange shirts, glasses, and hats, held up handmade signs as they rallied for proper relationship health education. This “Orange Day of Action,” named after the signature color of Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, was held on Feb. 7.
According to the CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, one in three women, nearly one in three men, and over half of trans or non-binary people will experience an abusive relationship in their lifetime, with those between 16 and 24 at greatest risk. The current educational and societal frameworks for understanding love and relationships evidently aren’t serving us.
If “love is learned,” we have to be intentional about teaching it. If “we are stronger united,” we have to start with learning trust, respect, and how to process emotions in a healthy way. We can someday do away with the binary of abuser and victim, and prioritize the different healing that both would need to function safely. Photo by Carolyn Mock.
We are likely to think of “relationship” as meaning a romantic and/or sexual partnership, but relationships include those with our friends, family, and ourselves. By definition, everyone has a relationship, so practicing healthy love is imperative to all of our lives.
We’re taught that relationships involving romance and sex are of paramount importance. There’s a tendency to value them over ones with friends and family, and to feel heightened insecurity or shame about lacking a partner. It’s like the particular devastation of your middle school crush not liking you back.
There’s honest pain in hearing “I like you so much, just not like that,” or “I really just see you as a friend.” Rejection is tough. It’s valid to need time to process the emotions that arise: embarrassment, anger, sadness, even denial. How does that process measure up to the depictions of love from the movies, or the Disney shows, where if the rejected lead tries hard enough and doesn’t take no for an answer, they’ll still be together in the end?
Since there isn’t much narrative thrill in the characters going to their respective homes to sit with their feelings and assess what’s driving their decision-making, the storyline of hot-pursuit remains the standard. It paints itself to kids as the picture of covetable love — grand and messy.
Never mind that the value of a friendship is totally trashed; love worth having is defined as inherently challenging but crowned by the glorious payoff of winning. But it is a winning of power, not love.
It’s no one’s fault that power feels more essential to us than love . In this world, power may keep us fed and sheltered. Being unsuccessful, on the other hand, could mean losing a parent’s attention or a job opportunity; and, on a larger scale, power can determine our access to resources and therefore our quality of life. Our brains jump to survival, and societal systems keep us in that mode.
Right now, it is most within our control to start rewiring our brains by assessing our thought patterns. It’s okay to have an impulse; it’s better to assess it before acting. It’s okay to be confused; it’s better to understand navigation through that confusion is possible. This is where the pre-prevention work of relationship health education comes in.
Prevention work makes services such as reproductive healthcare, STD testing, and therapy available. It can also entail teaching people about red flags of abusive relationships to look out for.
Pre-prevention work goes a step further. It lays the foundation for understanding love and relationships. It not only educates people on red flags to look for in others, but also on how to spot green flags and how to self-reflect on one’s own behaviors.
This education is valuable at every level, as the practices of self-reflection, boundary-setting, and communication are just as applicable to friendships as they are to romantic relationships.
Imagine the empowerment a young person might feel in leaving an unhealthy romantic relationship if they had practiced making difficult decisions in other areas, and had healthy friendships they knew they could go to for support.
Imagine how celebrated and intimate a romantic relationship would feel if your partnership felt like a good choice, not something you couldn’t bear to step away from even if you tried.
Vulnerability with a partner may look different than with a friend, or from a sibling or co-worker.
I’m not advocating for a universally prescribed perfect relationship. I personally have endured a string of abusive relationships in my young life, and am still unlearning so many things about others and myself. Ending relationship violence will never mean ending conflict or erasing big emotions. It will hinge on learning how to hold oneself in conflict, through emotions, how to hold space for the other person, and how to accept help.
In the book ‘all about love,’ author bell hooks references M. Scott Peck’s definition of love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” February tends to be a month full of confusing definitions and portrayals of love, and is also Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. Now, as we move forward through the year, I encourage us to find community over all else. We need to help one another where we can, relieve each other of the burden of isolation, provide resources when we can, and accept resources when we need them.
We can reach a balance between self-sufficiency and interdependence. Coercion, shaming, and violence can be combated with creativity in solution-seeking, confidence in ourselves and the authenticity of our actions, and patient communication.
New frameworks of love will not free us from suffering, but they can be applied to our relationships in order to make us more deeply interconnected so that we can better navigate suffering and dive more liberally into joy.