Recently a few hundred college freshmen gathered in a college auditorium to listen to a psychologist speak about the challenges of relationships.
The presentation ran the gamut from everything to communication skills to physical abuse to appropriate sexual behavior. The psychologist spent a lot of time challenging students not to get stuck in unhealthy relationships. He talked about early warning signs and positive steps to protect one's self from getting buried in this emotional mayhem.
In his presentation, the psychologist noted how times have changed; how college students are more open about many issues, but also how many people are still narrow and closed minded.
As much as students have heard the speech on "no means no," the literature talks about acquaintance rape continuing to escalate. Too many young men still give a million and one excuses to justify their aggressive, violent behavior. Too many young men get away without being held accountable.
After the hour long presentation, many of the freshman class represented continued the conversation around the material presented. These conversations continued in small classroom settings.
The two groups of students that I was invited to share with were very vocal. They found the presentation helpful, but not really insightful. Many in my groups felt they had heard most of the material before. They expressed the need for some insight on how to protect themselves from falling victim to relational violence, getting stuck there and not knowing how to get out.
Another rather pointed issue emerged that generated a lot of reaction. The question was raised why is there a double standard between young men and women?
Why is it okay for a man to go out with his buddies on Friday night and party hardy, but not okay for the young man's girlfriend to do the same with her girlfriends?
Guys can go out and be flirtatious and downright inappropriate and the expectation is that women should be tolerant and forgiving or as one of the male group members said, "that is what guys do."
However, if a young woman goes out with her girlfriends to a club to dance, that is totally unacceptable, even if the young woman genuinely goes just to dance and have fun. The men involved automatically presume (possibly because of projection) that bad stuff is going to happen.
Many young men expect the woman they are connected to will comply and not go out, but they make it very clear that no one is going to alter their social plans.
Some men treat the women in their life like they are possessions rather than partners. Why do women in those circumstances put up with that nonsense? Some women in the group expressed frustration and fear that possibly this is as good as it gets!
Their self-esteem is fragile to start with and they are afraid of being alone, so they talk themselves into believing that they must accept this behavior.
Others felt it was an issue of trust and that men and women are very suspicious of each other and really don't trust each other. The lack of mutual trust fuels distorted control issues and a lot of dishonesty. Ultimately, this infects and destroys the relationship.
Where do we learn about trust? It is not a class that is taught in school or for that matter is taught formally at home. We seem to learn it as we go, by trial and error. Too often, the error side of the equation is so painful that we never really recover. That lack of recovery makes it very difficult each time we start a new friendship and/or a new love relationship.
The other interesting notion that emerged as a real conflict in relationships was the understanding of respect. It was verbalized that many people, especially young people, have a very warped understanding of respect.
For many, it is defined as mindless acceptance and tolerance of another. It has little to do with understanding and mutuality. It has more to do with blind compliance fueled with bitterness and resentment.
The kind of respect that is vital to any love relationship or relationships in general is an open and honest acceptance of difference where the other party genuinely values the perspective of another, even if he or she vehemently disagrees.
It must be a valued inclusion that is not grounded in resentment or bitterness. That respect is shaped by how we treat each other. Even if we disagree, respect dictates a level of tenderness and empathy that is often missing.
True respect does not dismiss or categorize people we disagree with. There is a sincere effort to navigate life's landscape without stereotyping or kicking to the curb people we are uncomfortable with.
Respect is reflected even in the words we choose and the tone of voice we use when addressing each other. We make excuses for yelling, screaming and cursing at another. Unfortunately, too many of us accept that behavior as normative.
JC and TJ were friends in early high school. By senior year, they were going steady. After graduation, they decided to commit to each other even though they were going to different colleges. JC was going away and TJ was staying home. For most of the summer, they were inseparable. They shared the same friends and the same interests.
As the summer came to a close, they started to share their expectations of a committed relationship with both going down a different path. As they both got ready for college, what started to emerge was that they had some very different viewpoints on how this long distance relationship was going to be maintained.
JC felt that although they were committed but separated, it was okay to date other people as long as they were monogamous. TJ disagreed. She opposed dating, but said it was fine to see friends of the opposite sex, since they were friends monogamy was not an issue.
They found themselves arguing over terms. In their fighting, they realized they were not as close as they thought, nor did they really trust each other the same way.
As their freshman year began, they also realized that they wanted different things from life and their relationship with one another. They decided to terminate their exclusive relationship and go their separate ways since they couldn't agree on mutual expectations.
As they took leave of each other, they both expressed gratitude that they made a decision to move on and not live a lie or betray each other.