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Andrew Smiler

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Why So Bleak?

Posted: 04/ 4/2012 3:12 pm

Frank Bruni's recent op-ed in the New York Times,"The Bleaker Sex," asks if disconnected, worthless sex is the new state of the world for young women. Bruni laments that "what's happening [in the bedroom] remains something of a muddle, if not a mess."

Although potentially provocative, the article completely omits two central components: men and relationships. The stories being told by Bruni -- made timely by the new HBO series "Girls" and its star/writer/director Lena Dunham -- are located within relationships. The sex that's described is not between two people who've agreed to have a one-time fling, but rather between people who are ostensibly trying to have an ongoing romantic relationship of some sort. Bruni almost completely leaves out the men in those relationships, providing only fleeting descriptions that suggest the worst stereotypes of young men's sexuality.

It's hardly an accident -- or news -- that relationships are a mess; we've been hearing about those difficulties for nearly half a century, since claims the divorce rate approached and reached 50 percent began being vaulted in the press. What we're missing is an understanding of why relationships are a mess. The answer is both simple and complex: we give young people very little guidance in developing healthy relationships.

In common culture -- the world of the media and popular Internet content -- we get a very singular depiction of a good couple, or at least good courting, in a million variations. He makes the moves, she guides the relationship and they eventually get married and live happily ever after. Yes, there are misunderstandings and the couple almost -- or does -- break up before they come to their senses. That realization is accompanied by an (often grand) apology, acknowledgement of misunderstanding or fear and the couple lives happily ever after.

In most segments of common culture, the work it takes for couples to stay together is invisible. We don't really see the efforts to identify one's own wants and the difficulty in balancing one's own needs with a partner's needs. We rarely see crises whose resolution requires more than an episode or two, and certainly not the same problem occurring over and over. We never see the resentment that builds up when one person always puts their partner first and rarely, if ever, gets their own needs met.

The places where that content appears with some regularity are aimed squarely at girls and women, in shows like "Sex and the City" and magazines like Seventeen. We occasionally catch pieces about the challenges of making relationships last in shows that appeal to broad audiences, although "Mad About You" might be the last one to really spend any time with the issue. These kinds of relationship dynamics are definitely not in the segments of common culture aimed squarely at guys, like "SportsCenter" or Car & Driver.

At home, 75 to 90 percent of parents say they've had "The Talk" with their teens, but only about half of teens say they've had that conversation with their parents, according to the research. As its name suggests, it's a one-time thing. It usually doesn't last very long, no more than 10 minutes according to the adolescents. And it's almost exclusively focused on sex, or not having sex, with little attention to how sex can affect a relationship.

Parents do talk about relationship with their kids, although they're much more likely to have those conversations with their daughters than their sons. When girls are in a bad mood or having a problem, parents are more likely to ask specifically about relationships and put more effort into finding out what's going on; sons receive much less parental prodding and are much more likely to end up figuring it out on their own.

So what's the message? Girls talk about relationships, almost exclusively with other girls or women. Boys get to figure it out for themselves. As a result, boys and girls have very different levels of knowledge about relationship dynamics. It's no surprise some people think they're from different planets!

It doesn't need to be this way. Boys and men can certainly learn this language. We can talk to boys about the characters they see in the media, asking what they think about how X is treating Y, the sacrifices Y makes for X, etc. And you don't need a "chick flick" to start the conversation. If he's a sports fan, ask him about loyalty between a team and it's players. Was LeBron wrong to leave Cleveland? Did the team do enough to support him? Or ask about a team's duty to a top-tier veteran whose coming back from injury, and the rookie replacement who's playing phenomenally. Who gets to play and who has to sit? And how does that decision affect what goes on inside the locker room?

Relationships are central to what it means to be human; our species is inherently social. About 80 percent of boys report having at least one serious relationship during adolescence, and about 90 percent of men will get married at least once in their lifetime. It's time to start teaching boys and men how personal relationships function.