Toxic dump

For at least 10 years I have included a class on relationships in the university course I teach in the Psychology of LGBT People. These lessons have changed a great deal during those 20+ semesters, but have become increasingly personal in the past few. I have noticed that students are holding more and more popular beliefs about relationships that they have neither considered nor verified for themselves. These young adults appear to take on the misguided ideas of earlier generations uncritically.

For example, there is a theory that I will call “There for me,” as in “She is not there for me.” Fans of “there for me” regale me with numerous examples of the phenomenon in its absence, but seemed perplexed when I ask for examples of its presence. I have heard more than once in tones that suggest I have the brain of a lizard, “You know, ‘Like, there for me!’” For now I am understanding that this theory values highly a premise that friends and associates should listen with great attention and sympathy to the ups and downs of a person’s life. Sometimes it is expanded to include the notion of mutuality, as in “There for each other.”

Another theory I often hear is variously known as “one in a million” and “soul mate.” Proponents of this theory seem less upset about my questions about their beliefs than the “there for me” bunch. While the 1/1,000,000 theorists emphasize the rarity of interpersonal communion and the soul mates emphasize the intangibility of such unions, they often agree on fragility, intensity, and urgency as part of the equation. I also find this cohort of theorists to lack some degree of humor when I point out that I can readily calculate at least 75/260,000,000 in the US who might be perfect for them. They don’t like it when I ask them to point to their souls, either.

Of course there are the “always/never” theory, the “I-will-die-without-them” theory, and the “who-would-want-me” bunch.

Toxic wasteIn the last few years I have also come across what may be an emerging toxicity bunch. Aficionados of this theory believe that there are people whom they like – even love – who are toxic and must be avoided. If they are in some sort of relationship, the toxic person may even need to be dumped.

The challenges I have with all of these theories about relationships are many. Where do they come from? What do you mean exactly? Do you have measures of the factors contributing to the theory you hold? Have you tested it with any sort of robustness? Is there a chance for problems with rater reliability?

My questions are tongue in cheek. What I am getting to, however, is that when it comes to interpersonal relationships we seem to adopt what are sometimes absurd positions without any critical consideration of their accuracy or utility. They too often contribute to isolation rather than resolve it. They are sometimes enshrined in slogans like, “I didn’t come here to make friends.”

Why not?

As I embark on another week of writing on criticism, I start with this example of theoretical criticism, with its interest in the meaning of ideas, even those on which theories themselves are based.

2 thoughts on “Toxic dump

    • Caring for young people of all ages requires us to think about their development and well-being across eight dimensions: social, emotional, intellectual, physical, environmental, financial, occupational, and ethical. My experience suggests that we struggle with some of these more than others, in large part because children are undervalued (witness Parkland, Sandy Hook, homeless families, etc.) by society. We like to coo over the well-scrubbed versions of them on TV, but ignore the real ones with huge developmental needs and few developmental resources.

      I don’t think that teaching about love and relationships for children is all that complicated, but it is also not easy. The struggles come less from what we teach and more from what they inadvertently learn from others because we are not teaching. For example, that “One and Only” baloney is widely spread by TV and Hallmark. The stuff about owning those we love is thoughtlessly expressed in statements like, “You are mine.” We can teach young people that we all have strong feelings of desire and affection for people. Just like we have strong feelings for our pets and our possessions, but for humans, the strong feelings are different because we value individual self-determination and freedoms. We can also teach young people about commitments — how we want to be with one another and for how long. For example, “I will stop bugging you about cleaning your room starting the day you agree to put away your things, remove all clutter from the floor, and get your dirty clothes in the basket. If I continue to bug you and you have done those things, I will take you out for ice cream. Agreed? Let’s try that for a month and see how it works.” We can also teach young people about being honest about our thoughts and feelings. “I am tired and want to sleep.” “Do you feel upset about something?”

      That teaching all contributes to the groundwork of love: passion, intimacy, and commitment. From that basis, we can have more advanced discussions later in their development.

      Finally, I am a big fan of having adults model healthy relationships to young people. I know one divorced person who used to fret about sending a bad example to her daughter if she divorced. I asked what example she was sending through the abusive relationship. Later she modeled really great adult relationships for her daughter by having extraordinarily functional, loving relationships with a couple of her female and male adult peers.

      Clearly I have much more to say than can be readily addressed in a blog post.


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