“Nobody taught us how to love one another. Nobody taught us a book on how to … control our emotions or our anger.” Hip-hop artist Chris Brown made this connection between healthy relationship teaching and domestic violence prevention shortly after he received a slap on the wrist for beating and threatening to kill his girlfriend Rihanna last February. It’s rare to find common ground with someone you wouldn’t spit on if they were on fire. But while Chris was attempting to abdicate his responsibility, he was making a valid point: an integral part of curbing violence involves teaching healthy relationships.
Where to begin? Well, let’s lay out the key questions. How violent do some relationships really get? Where do college students fall in this and why? And the crown jewel: in what ways can we foster healthy relationships?
Wolverines, we have a problem. You know we are living in some scary times when a 20-something is beaten to death by her ex-man so badly that they need to run the serial number on her breast implants to identify her, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times on Aug. 25. It’s one thing if you can explain away the heightened violence among young people by faulting celebrity eccentricity or just another hyper-macho man in the running to be the next Ike Turner. But college students, in significant numbers, are just as guilty of being perpetrators of violence in relationships. A 2008 study in the Archives of Pediatric Medicine reported that 17 percent of college students had been violent toward lovers or peers and 40 percent experienced emotional, sexual or physical violence.
What gives? Researchers in the study say the support systems of college students suffer when they make the transition into college. Further, young folk may be running amok because they aren’t under the thumb of parental units anymore. And then there’s the reason young folks do anything on campus: social validation. That’s right, the 25.6 percent rate of campus violence found in the study is linked to the perennial need to be accepted by peers for the reputation of, in short, being a jerk.
So, let’s turn the tide and get to this healthy relationships stuff. Adolescent Health Working Group, an organization I worked with this summer, compiled these major tenets of healthy relationships: pleasure, autonomy, consent, equality and respect.
Pleasure. This may sound basic, but it’s less commonly thought about than it may seem. Time spent with your partner should be enjoyable and make you feel like you are a better person. I’m not just talking about the monthly orgasm tally either. Your conversations, date nights and having sex should feel good to you significantly more than it rakes your nerves.
Autonomy. You and your partner need space in your togetherness. This involves anything ranging from instilling separate activities to separate friendship networks. But the catch is, you shouldn’t have to fight to get a weekend alone. And your all-boys vacation shouldn’t feel like a threat to your relationship. You both should feel as comfortable together as you are apart. Check your clinginess.
Consent. First off, your commitment doesn’t translate to an all-access pass to booty. Like the airport, consent means there are routine check-ins when you first arrive and along the way. Desires should be discussed and both parties should be clear on what is okay and what is not okay sexually. As a gentle suggestion, conversation on sex should include protection methods and contingency plans in the event of contraceptive failure.
Equality. Ah, my favorite. The key aspect of this concept is that decisions impacting the relationship are made together. This can involve discussions on how date night is spent to thinking about household labor divisions in the future. Equality also means that there are some things that won’t be 50/50. But you discuss those things and compensate each other elsewhere if necessary.
Respect. I’ll cut to the things Aretha hasn’t touched on. Your partner should respect your culture, boundaries and opinions. By culture, this could be race-related or geographical. If you are a geek from Boston with a cute accent, your partner should value that and not make it a constant punch line. Boundaries are crucial, too. You should have an expectation that if you tell your partner you are too busy cramming, that they hold off texting you mug shots of their nether region. On the opinion front: your politics should get in the way of the feelings of the person in front of you. No matter the subject, you should be able to disagree agreeably.
As these healthy relationship tidbits are fundamentally about communication overall, I’ll leave you with the words of India.Arie. While her lyrics in “Talk to Her” refer to women, all genders need apply. “When you talk to her, talk to her like you’d want somebody to talk to your mama… Cause everything you do or say, you got to live with it everyday. She’s somebody’s baby. She’s somebody’s sister. She’s somebody’s mama.”
Rose Afriyie can be reached at email@example.com.