Romance and Respect Feb13

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Romance and Respect

In honor of Valentine’s Day this week, I’m delving into the relationship between romance and self-respect during the college years. In this period of development, identity and the capacity for intimacy are still evolving— and the two don’t always sync up as squarely as we would like.

In my practice, I work with a lot of young people who feel pressured to be in relationships or to have sex. Sometimes that pressure comes from the outside (from the person who wants to be with them, or from friends who goad them on), and sometimes that pressure comes from the inside (being unskilled at saying “no,” or the fear of making someone else feel rejected).

It’s really important to note that while girls are usually socialized to be attuned to the feelings of others, we as a culture don’t do a great job of socializing them to be attuned to their own feelings.

By the same token, boys are born into such rigid, narrow cultural definitions of manhood that often the only way to survive socially is to cut off from their own emotions.

Most parents I work with have a deep desire to see their young adult make choices about dating and sex from a place of solid self-respect. So let’s dig into what self-respect really means

Courtney Macavinta, author of Respect: A Girl’s Guide to Getting Respect & Dealing When Your Line Is Crossed, writes that self-respect is:

  • listening to your feelings
  • figuring out what you believe in
  • making choices that are right for you

If it all starts with listening to yourself, then consider…

We can tell young people to practice self-respect, but if they haven’t learned how to listen to themselves—to know what they think, feel, need, are/are not ready for—how are they supposed to practice setting boundaries that are self-respecting?

When it comes to dating and sex, this relationship between self-attunement and self-respect is probably the most important aspect of my work with emerging adults.

So, I teach my clients how to do gut-checks.

I talk about how there are times in romantic relationships when the heart really wants something, but it’s hard to know whether that thing is really right for you. And I talk about other times when the body really wants something, but you’re not sure whether you’re ready for it, or whether this is a good person to do it with.

Whatever the situation, the place you really want to tune into is your gut. Because the gut doesn’t lie. It will send warning signals if something isn’t right. And it will let you know if you’re not ready for what you’re about to do.

The gut tells the truth, but it takes practice to learn how to tune in and to understand what it’s saying.

Parents, this is where you come in!

When your college student is telling you about a situation in her life and you hear something that sends off warning bells in your own gut, ask questions that facilitate her connection to her own gut feelings about the situation.

Let’s break that down:

  1. Ask questions (way more effective than launching into our own conclusions!)
  2. That facilitate your young adult’s connection to her own gut feelings (what better way to equip her for a safe and happy independent life?)

Let’s talk about what this looks like.

As he is telling you a story from his day, ask:

  • So, on a gut-level, what were you feeling?
  • What was your gut telling you to do in that moment?
  • What does your gut say now about that person’s motives?
  • What did you want in that situation?
  • What do you need in that relationship?
  • If you put what the other person wants to the side for a minute, what do you feel ready for?

These questions may or may not ignite revelatory conversations with your college student every time.  But here’s the thing:

Asking questions like these on a regular basis begins to build gut checks into your child’s own thinking and decision-making process.

Give it a try.  Take the conversation out of the realm of power struggle and onto the level of your young adult’s own wisdom.

And I promise you— the more often you respond this way, the more your child will trust that you are a good resource with whom to try out his own thoughts and feelings.


Joy Malek, M.S. is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and founder of SoulFull: Psychotherapy, Life Coaching & Creative Workshops. Joy specializes in empowering adults and adolescents to dig deeper into times of challenge, loss or transition to discover what brings them fully alive. An adolescent/young adult specialist, Joy works with students and their parents to cultivate wisdom for healthy decision-making, foster self-respect for quality relationships, acquire skill in managing strong emotions, and develop a vision for a future that inspires them.


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