Hook-Ups and Hang-Ups

Summer 2010

By Susan R. Perry and Al Vernacchio

Independent school environments offer relatively small faculty-to-student ratios that afford significant time and opportunity for quality interactions with students. Beyond the standard expectations of shepherding students through a course of study, encouraging them to participate in extracurricular activities aligned with their interests, and teaching them about respectful community living, independent school educators often serve as sounding boards and confidants regarding the students’ personal lives.

Engaging young people in conversations about their intimate and sexual relationships, however, can be a particularly challenging role for faculty and advisors, many of whom are hesitant or lack confidence in talking with students about these issues. Moreover, teenagers today socialize in a world in which cell phones and social networking sites are common tools for meeting and finding out about each other, forming and conducting relationships, “hooking up” (with all the varied definitions that phrase can imply), and even breaking up. The widespread use of these “new” technologies to conduct the business of relationships is territory that feels very unfamiliar to many faculty and advisors.

Technology, of course, cannot adequately teach a young person how to live with the feelings, complexities, and dilemmas inherent in relationships. Teachers and advisors are powerful guides and role models for students. More to the point, as Ted and Nancy Faust Sizer’s book The Students Are Watching affirms, there is no doubt that our students are indeed “watching” — aware of how attentively we listen to them, how we ask questions that demonstrate our interest in their lives, and how we empathize with the challenges and joys of their myriad relationships. They notice, too, when we do not demonstrate those things, and, as a result, may choose to seek help elsewhere or be left with having to figure things out entirely on their own.

Both by modeling these positive communication skills in faculty-student relationships, and by encouraging students to examine their own relationships with others, teachers and advisors are in a unique position to deeply impact the quality of the relationships young people are learning to create. With support and assistance, these important adults can learn to transfer and expand their own relationship skills in order to help students address specific issues concerning intimacy and sexual relationships.

Offered below are four broad questions that can assist teachers and advisors in guiding conversations with students about their relationships. Within each section, we offer a sampling of specific discussion starters and take into account a range of technological means of communication commonly used by students today. 

Question #1: 

Students are bombarded with examples of all kinds of relationships in movies, television, video games, song lyrics, social networking sites, and within their own families and peer groups. With so many varied and even contradictory examples, students may not have clear ideas about what truly constitutes a healthy relationship. Students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender may have an even more difficult time determining what a healthy relationship is, as models of these relationships are often not readily available. Giving our attention to these students is especially important since we may be the only ones in their lives who offer them support and help normalize their experiences. The information provided in this article is useful no matter what the sexual orientation of the young people in the relationship. Helping all our students think through their own perceptions, by providing relevant questions and general guidelines about the characteristics of healthy and unhealthy relationships, can be a tremendous support to them. Discussing the qualities below with students can open the door to continued dialogue about these issues. 

Healthy relationships allow for open communication and honest expression of both positive and negative feelings. Students often assume that a healthy relationship is one in which a negative word or a difficult emotion is never uttered. Helping them see that this expectation is not only unrealistic, but actually unhealthy, is important. Not being able to express sadness, anger, frustration, or unease to one’s partner means that one is not being fully human with that partner.

Reliable communication and commitment patterns are essential to healthy relationships. They can be especially important in cyber-relationships, as an indication of the other person’s character and trustworthiness. Is the person online when he or she says he or she will be? Does the person follow through on promises, commitments, and agreements? Erratic commitment patterns may be a sign that a partner is not fully committed, or may be using another person for something other than what appears on the surface.

Healthy relationships include real-life contact, not just in-cyber contact. This guideline is especially important in an age in which relationships often, and sometimes primarily or exclusively, exist via text messages, Facebook or MySpace, or other electronic means. Real-life contact allows for validation of things said and experienced online, and confirming (or not) whether the couple can function as successfully in real time as they do in cyberspace.

Compromise and flexibility are essential attributes of healthy relationships. Each partner must give the other permission to negotiate. Knowing and acknowledging that problems, both minor and major, inevitably arise in all relationships are signs of health. When disagreements and fights occur, partners in healthy relationships seek a solution where the relationship, not the individual, comes out the winner. Fighting to “win” over one’s partner, especially by making inflexible demands or ultimatums, can easily erode a relationship. 

In healthy relationships, couples consider in advance whether intimate sexual activity will be a positive or negative factor. Our culture encourages young people to assume that any romantic relationship must also include intimate sexual activity, yet this is not always the best course, especially for young people. Taking time to explore with students the benefits and drawbacks of sexual activity in a relationship, especially before initiating such behavior, can help avoid unwanted, unanticipated, or unmanageable consequences. Our voice may be the only one students hear suggesting that it is OK to delay sexual involvement and/or that such activity should always be a choice, not an automatic or expected aspect of being in a relationship.

Healthy relationships allow each partner to pursue his or her own growth and development, as well as the growth and development of the couple. Some students believe that entering into a relationship means giving up one’s individual identity. Each person in the relationship can (and should) maintain her or his outside interests and friendships, and should be able to spend time apart from the other without it causing conflict in the relationship. Giving each other this kind of “space” ultimately can strengthen a relationship because each partner can bring new insights, experiences, and options to the relationship.

Human beings are imperfect. Our bodies have flaws, make strange noises, and don’t always perform optimally. Our emotional states, our energy levels, our ability to focus, and our own self-esteem fluctuate sometimes on a daily basis. Healthy relationships recognize, accept, and accommodate these imperfections as natural and normal. Perfection or even near-perfection is never a realistic standard.

Freedom from peer pressure, media influence, addiction, abuse, or other factors that can negatively impact the relationship are essential. Anything that lessens or negates one’s ability to choose freely creates an unhealthy relationship. A relationship that exists only around substance use, a relationship that is imposed rather than chosen, or a relationship that is based on an external model rather than designed by the partners themselves are all signs that a relationship is encumbered and unhealthy.

Question #2: 

Red flags should wave if we hear a student say, “We met in a chat room after a Facebook link took me to her website. It’s really cool, and she’s also into the music I like. In fact, we might meet downtown this weekend to catch a band.” In such moments, adults can help by asking questions that encourage a student to think out loud about their online interactions and their assumptions: Tell me what you’re imagining this person will be like and how it will feel to talk and be with him or her? What evidence do you have that your fantasy is accurate? Can you corroborate this person’s identity? What information do you have beyond what the person said online to confirm the truth of what was said? Do people always tell the truth online? Do you and your friends? What often gets left out, added, or embellished? 

Because young people so often long for connection, the Internet or cell phone can make such a connection seemingly come to life. In such situations, adults can help by taking on the role of investigator, the one with a healthy skepticism, the one who encourages restraint, especially for na├»ve and inexperienced teens who are bent on rushing full steam ahead to get their relationship needs met. Instead, they may be headed for acute disappointment, manipulation, or even danger at the hands of a technological wolf in sheep’s clothing. 

Of course, the person on the other end of the Internet connection is not, in all likelihood, a predator. More often than not, he or she is another young person hungry enough for connectedness to bend the truth about who he or she really is. In either case, the same advice applies: Ask young people to question the information they receive from another person online, especially if what they hear or read seems “too perfect,” and to pay attention when their “gut” tells them something doesn’t seem right. If their gut suggests trouble, that’s a good time to hang it up. 

Question #3: 

Another essential criterion for helping teens evaluate their relationships is the degree to which each person feels free to make his or her own choices. Faculty and advisors can ask a number of questions that can guide conversation about this issue: How did you become part of the relationship? Who made the first contact? What first attracted you or drew you to this person? Are you able to say no, whenever you want, to an offer to be with the other person? Can you find and express your real voice in conversation, or when responding to the other person’s questions? How are decisions made and who usually makes them?

One of the most common challenges students struggle with is how to maintain healthy boundaries after a relationship has ended. In fact, it is often over this issue that a student initially seeks adult help or support. Intrusive technological correspondences (i.e., unwanted e-mails, phone calls, text messages, or hurtful Facebook exchanges) are very common in the lives of students, especially after a relationship has ended. Whether it was a “hook up” or a long-term relationship, the “hang up” and the subsequent management of boundaries can be confusing. 

In many situations, students are likely to share classes with their ex-partners or participate on the same teams, theatrical productions, or student-run clubs. Some schools require shared e-mail correspondence as part of virtual or face-to-face academic lectures or lessons, a situation that can place ex-partners in direct communication with one another on a daily basis. While still struggling with hurt, mistrust, and confused feelings — and perhaps with an academic grade hanging in the balance — students can find themselves in the midst of highly charged and uncomfortable electronic conversations. 

Helping students see their available options in establishing firm, reasonable limits and boundaries on technological communication can be invaluable. With guidance from faculty and advisors, students can find ways of expressing themselves clearly and directly. They can say, for instance, “It is OK to talk at school, but you cannot come by my house, text me, contact me on Facebook, or come to my room on campus.” Students also need to understand that it is always an option to state an absolute boundary: “I do not wish to communicate with you at all.” 

Identifying where interactions might occur, the types of contact that are to be allowed and not, and the approximate amount of time a student will be in contact with the ex-partner are excellent starting points in constructing boundaries. Once those are identified, adults can then help students establish and communicate appropriate limits. For example, they can explain to a student that she or he cannot prevent an ex-partner from joining the school community on a bus during a school sponsored trip, but can ask the faculty leader in charge to arrange the seating so that the ex-partner sits elsewhere on the bus or at the event, even if this request requires sharing a bit of information as to why this request is being made. 

The number of variables in teen relationships, including the many and various reasons why break-ups happen, make it impossible to devise plans that are applicable to all students, particularly when feelings can change quickly and technology can facilitate intrusive communication even more quickly. The key is to engage students in conversation(s) about their particular situation, and encourage them to seek further support from teachers, family, friends, a leader in their faith or religious affiliation, or the school counselor. 

Equally important is helping students enforce the boundaries that have been communicated. If any interaction begins to escalate to the level of harassment, a dean of students and/or the school counselor, and, if possible, the parents of each student involved should step in to help erect and maintain healthy technological and physical boundaries. 

Question #4: 

A healthy romantic relationship is one in which, among other things, partners share equal power. No one person is consistently in charge, and no one person is consistently put at a disadvantage. Conversations with students about power dynamics may be particularly uncomfortable for faculty and advisors, and acknowledging this discomfort can be an important first step to broaching this topic. In fact, the fundamental power differential inherent in the advisor/advisee or faculty/student relationship can provide an excellent “in” to discussing the topic. An advisor or teacher might start a conversation by saying, for example: I know it can feel weird talking with me about power in a relationship because we obviously have our own power dynamic in our relationship. Maybe that’s a good place to start. When students talk to teachers, they may feel “on guard”’ or “uneasy” because the teacher seems to hold all the cards. If that’s also the way you’re feeling in this new relationship, it can be a sign of unequal power, and maybe a sign of an unhealthy relationship.

In our culture, age brings power and privilege, especially during adolescence. The ability to drive, a later curfew time, the ability to hold a job and have access to money, even the ability to see an R-rated movie are all determined by age. Students may balk at the suggestion that an age differential matters in a relationship, but we can help them reality-test their ideas. No matter how mature 14- or 15-year-old ninth graders may feel, they are not legally able to drive, and they are typically more socially limited and less experienced in dating and romance than an older partner. While none of these differences is automatically harmful in a relationship, even one can be, and, in combination, might well be. Regardless of the ages of any two individuals, helping students determine and understand the power dynamic in their relationships, and assess whether the dynamic is relatively equal or unequal (or unfair), is essential. 

A final age-related issue is especially important to consider. Laws defining age of consent, statutory rape, and sexual assault vary by state and locality, but legal lines are drawn in virtually every jurisdiction that prohibit certain sexual activities and can lead to prosecution. “Age of Consent” laws exist in all communities, to prevent relationships so skewed by age and experience that equality in the relationship is rendered impossible. Not only do faculty and advisors need to know these laws for their state and locality, this information must be made clear to any student who is contemplating a relationship with someone significantly younger than he or she is. Explaining why Age of Consent laws exist provides another important teachable moment about power dynamics in relationships.

Other, and perhaps even more difficult, aspects of power to discuss with students involve dynamics created by larger social or cultural norms. For example, a culture that sees women as naturally inferior to men may create inequality in a heterosexual relationship where both parties do not hold that value. Being at different stages of the coming-out process may create an uneven power dynamic in gay, lesbian, and bisexual relationships. Religious differences may bring wholly different sets of values and attitudes — concerning sexual activity, contraception, dealing with unplanned pregnancies, and gender roles — which may leave one partner with a more limited set of options for dealing with situations that may surface in the relationship. The point is not that differences in a relationship are necessarily problematic, but rather to help students develop the skills they need to critically examine how and why these differences may set up unequal power dynamics.

The power dynamics inherent in cyber-relationships are also essential to explore, since students may find themselves in a variety of situations online where power is not equally shared. For example, they may find themselves in situations where they or others have unequal access to personal information (through social networking sites or other venues) or where individuals are monopolizing chat time or instant-message time. Individuals who engage in Internet “stalking,” or who look through available online information without permission, may target students. They or others may try to exercise control over how long someone is allowed to stay online. The possibilities are endless. Again, asking simple but pointed questions can help students consider what is really going on in these kinds of situations: Are you giving out more information than you are getting back? Have you been asked to share account passwords? Do you feel pressured in these interchanges? Do you feel you have an equal voice? Or are you pressuring someone? If you were on the other end of that communication, how would you feel?

Helping students see that a healthy relationship does not expect perfection, but rather is open to change, growth, development, setback, and renegotiation, is a wonderful gift we can give them. Equal in importance is the gift of our time and interest whenever students seek us out for information or counsel. Honest and direct communication with a caring adult about the myriad ups and down of young relationships can provide an excellent model of healthy communication, and opportunities for students to practice the skills they need to create the kinds of relationships they hope for.

Susan R. Perry

Susan R. Perry is an educational leader and consultant, leading, facilitating, and designing professional development for colleagues, schools, and healthy campus cultures. She is former assistant head of school for student affairs at Ravenscroft School in Raleigh, North Carolina, and an independent school alumna.

Al Vernacchio

Al Vernacchio is the N-12 Sexuality Education Coordinator at Friends' Central School in Wynnewood, PA. He has given four TED Talks on human sexuality and is the author of For Goodness Sex: Changing the Way We Talk to Teens About Sexuality, Values, and Health.