Dr. Wes & Marissa: This week we announce our new Double Take author. We had some very fine essays. The two finalists were John Murray and Sarah Robinson, both of Free State High school. They wrote responses to the following question:
My boyfriend and I have been together for almost a year. He and I are really close - closer than any of my friends and I. Through the past couple of months, he's started not being so nice to me. He'll call me names and recently shoved me in an argument. My friends say that I should get out, but I don't think it's really that serious. This is the first guy I've ever slept with, and I take that seriously, so I don't want to throw the relationship away.
Given the quality of these two essays (and the rest as well), this was an extremely difficult decision. After we got it down to two, we argued passionately back and forth on which way to go. In the end, we chose junior Sarah Robinson as the runner-up and senior John Murray as the winner. If John cannot finish his term, Sarah will take his place, and we hope she will apply again during her senior year.
In response to the challenge question, Sarah wrote:
"When reading your letter, one statement struck me hard, 'My friends think I should get out.' Although subjective advice can be the bitterest pill to swallow, it is usually the most accurate. Sometimes, especially in complicated intimate relationships, we find it easy to compensate for our friends' flaws with misconstrued logic. Basically, many of us find ourselves forgiving our loved ones for things we shouldn't forgive them for because we love them.
"I think it is noble for you to value sexual relations as an expression of love, but a common misconception of sex is that it is some type of contract. Now I am not by any means advocating one-night stands, but I am emphasizing that we must not bind ourselves to a person for life just for the sake of preserving something beautiful that happened in the past.
WANT TO JOIN?
- Students in sixth through 12th grades are invited to join the Journal-World Teen Board. We're seeking students who want to contribute ideas, stories and pictures for publication in the Pulse section. If you would like to join this fall and be included on meeting notices, e-mail Teen Board adviser Karrey Britt at email@example.com and let her know. For more information, call her at 832-7190.
"The fact that you asked for advice tells me that somewhere in your mind you understand that any type of violence, whether spontaneous or malicious, isn't acceptable. Your boyfriend pushing you does not make him a bad person, but it does indicate anger issues that need to be resolved before I think it is safe for you to be with him again. Also, it seems that he has verbally abused you, which can cause greater detrimental effects in some circumstances.
"With the subtle violence and mean behavior, your boyfriend seems to have taken you for granted, and probably expects you to forgive him for it. I take into consideration that you did say, 'I don't think its really that serious,' but the problem was haunting you enough to seek help, and I think that says more than your disclaimer. It is not wrong, by any means, to liberate yourself from negative relationships, and although severing such close ties will seem unbearable at first, it is not as bad as people think to rebuild themselves when they are surrounded by positive influences.
"I am not trying to call your boyfriend a bad person, and I don't think your relationship was always tainted with ferocity. People change. People grow. It is in our natures to do so. It is not a fault of anyone's when once-similar people don't get along anymore, but someone is at fault when they take disagreements a step further and resort to cruelness.
"I cannot make this decision for you, and I probably can't see it for all its complexities, but sometimes decisions should be made based off of the big picture, no matter how harsh it may be. The fact is, your boyfriend is mean enough to you that it has become an issue. The fact is, your boyfriend pushed you. The fact is, a healthy relationship cannot survive on a memory of a good thing. Self-reliance is not as difficult to attain as you might think. After all, you did write this letter."
In her thoughtful and well-written response, Sarah went right for the issue of aggression. She defended the girl's right to be in a violence-free relationship. She did not dismiss the boyfriend totally - noting that he needed to "resolve his anger issues" - but felt the girl could consider continuing the relationship. She also understood the more subtle aspects of verbal abuse.
In his winning essay, John Murray wrote:
"Every relationship enters a difficult stage - often more than once. Trying times are what separate the successful relationships from the shallow. Your boyfriend may feel like he has climbed the plateau with you. Since you have already slept together and marriage feels like awhile off, he might think there is nowhere left for your relationship to go. Your boyfriend may feel bored or pressured to live up to the excitement your relationship used to have. Feelings of insecurity are especially difficult for guys to express, which may explain why he is using passive-aggressive techniques. Unfortunately, respect and communication skills are essential in any relationship, and if your relationship is going to survive, your boyfriend will have to work on both.
"Your conflict with your boyfriend is, at its root, a conflict of expectations. You expect more courtesy, while your boyfriend may have his own unfulfilled expectations and believe his behavior justified. Through dialogue, the two of you must clear up miscommunications and come to a consensus on how each of you should act with the other. Softly but firmly state your concerns and ask your boyfriend how he feels about the relationship. Be willing to change some of your actions, but don't let him pin the problem entirely on you.
"It may seem awkward to talk to your boyfriend like this, but the key to relationship conservation lies in relationship conversation. Even if your boyfriend is 'The One,' you can expect more relationship difficulties throughout marriage. Any married couple will tell you communication skills are essential during these rough spots.
"Shoving or calling a person names indicates a lack of basic respect. This type of aggression is often the precursor of domestic violence. If, despite your serious requests, your boyfriend refuses to back down on this issue, you are better off without him. Breaking up is tough, but clinging to a relationship void of respect and dialogue will only make you miserable."
John's response was also well-written. However, he took a more subtle tack with the boyfriend. Realizing this girl had already been told to leave the guy by her friends, John offered support by empathizing with the guy's struggles. We think this would have been easier for the writer to accept, showing her that John wasn't simply joining her friends in dissing the boyfriend.
He associated the boyfriend's behavior with insecurity - a plausible hypothesis. He suggested communication as key to this or any successful relationship. At the same time, he identified the boyfriend's behavior as an act of aggression that could lead to more serious violence if left unchecked. He suggested that if the writer could not find a way to redirect the boyfriend, she should end the relationship.
As we've said many times, dating is practice for future love. John saw this and suggested some good strategies that should transfer well to the adult years. While we were initially concerned that he might not have taken a strong enough stand against domestic violence in his response, he argued persuasively that this gentle approach was more likely to capture the writer's attention along with those in similar relationships.
Congratulations, John! We'll be watching for your first column in the Aug. 22 Journal-World.
Next week: A 15-year-old boy wants to turn his life around but fears he may be labeled a loser for his past mistakes.
- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Marissa Ballard is a Lawrence High School senior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.