Children’s love relationships can be challenging for their parents, writes Terri Orbuch in her new book, Secrets to Surviving Your Children’s Love Relationships: A Guide for Parents.
Orbuch is a therapist and distinguished professor at Oakland University in Michigan. She is also the director of the National Institute of Health’s longest-running study on couples and what happens to their relationships over three decades. Her first book, 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great, addressed how to stay happily married. After finding that about one-half of the couples in her study divorced and many of them re-partnered, her second book explored how to find love again.
Now, the children of her original research subjects are looking for love, and she’s turned her attention to the qualities in families that support children’s happy, healthy relationships. I spoke with her about her findings.
Diana Divecha: Two big challenges I see for young people seeking romance are the pain of rejection, and their despair about ever finding love. How can parents orient to their children’s heartbreaks?
Terri Orbuch: My first two suggestions have nothing to do with the children and all to do with parents, themselves.
First, it’s important that we adults watch out for what particularly triggers us. We have our own emotional baggage from our own breakups and struggles that don’t necessarily go away. It’s important to separate your feelings from what your child is feeling so that you can really hear and understand what they are telling you.
Second, you have to foster a trusting relationship with your child so the connection is there when you need to talk about important topics. In my book, I talk about the conversations to have throughout childhood and young adulthood that build trust between you and your children. For example, one way to create a safe space for discussion as they start dating is to share a little bit of your own experiences, mistakes, and vulnerabilities.
And third, it’s important to avoid negativity, like “I told you she wasn’t a good person.” Evaluations or judgments can make the child feel they did something wrong, and shut them down emotionally. Instead, make statements or ask questions that invite sharing, such as “Ugh that is so hard,” or “I can only imagine how you feel. Tell me more.” Open-ended statements and questions invite them to put words to their experience and help them to make their own meaning of it.
Only after you’ve listened, empathized, validated, and given them ample room to share can you consider sharing strategies for coping. Some examples for how to do that might be: “I read an article that had a great suggestion…”; or “When that happened to me, I wrote a long letter that I didn’t send”; or “Remember when you were in high school…” and you remind them of their strengths.
But you have to know your child, because they don’t all want advice in the same way. Some just need to discover their own path. That’s not to say you forget about them—you can let them know you’re available: “I know this is really hard. When you find a way or when you want to talk to me about a way to manage this really difficult time, please, I’m here for you.” Of course, watch for signs that they may need help from a therapist, counselor, or social worker.
DD: How does the way a child is loved by their parents affect a child’s choice of romantic partner?
TO: There is a direct link between how love gets expressed to children and what they will look for in a love partner.
If love was expressed by parents through certain actions, they’ll look for those actions in a partner; if it was through words, they’ll look for someone who can express love verbally. They’re looking for partners who have compatible love meanings. If parents ignore or dismiss their children or love them in a negative manner, that, too, can affect their future choice of partner either because they feel they are not worthy or they don’t deserve someone who expresses love in a positive way, or simply because they don’t know any other meaning of love.
However, I don’t believe this is set in stone, as a traditional attachment theorist might believe. Young adults can be discerning enough to change their choice of romantic style if they believe the parental one didn’t work for them.
DD: One of the most important messages in your book is that parents should be consciously talking about relationships with children from the time they are little, finding teaching moments, making the implicit explicit, so that by the time children are forming their own relationships—romantic or otherwise—they bring healthy expectations and frameworks to them. I appreciate that you give conversation starters and specific language examples to give readers an idea of how to begin talking about how people treat each other.
TO: We all want what’s best for our children, and while parents know that relationships are important, many don’t know the skills to maintain those relationships, themselves. They’re not sure how to model healthy relationships in front of their children, and they don’t know what kinds of conversations to have and how to begin them. That’s what this book is about.
Remember children are always watching us whether they’re two or 52! Model how you want them to conduct relationships in the way you treat people around you—waitstaff, service providers, teachers, friends, and so on. Talk with them a bit about how you are thinking about your relationships with your sister, your mother, your brother. Allow them to see that you have conflicts and difficulties with people you care about—and how you resolve them. If they never see healthy arguments, they won’t be able to handle conflict in their own relationships.
Practice inviting sharing by asking open-ended questions. Instead of asking, “How was school?” which usually gets the answer, “fine,” try asking something like, “Who’s the friend you could talk to if something bothered you?” At first this type of question might feel awkward, but keep doing it so that it becomes a familiar pattern. Our brains need to get used to a new form.
It’s also important to affirm the unique strengths of your child. Instead of discussing what your child is doing wrong, reverse the script and acknowledge their genuine assets and capabilities. Affirm, affirm, affirm, through your words and actions, every single day. Don’t expect a response, or positivity, or thanks, just know that when your kids feel seen and valued, not ignored or taken for granted, they take in that affirmation and begin to grow the confidence and esteem that helps establish their future resilience.
Affirmations are especially important for boys and men. Girls are taught to do that for each other more than men, but it’s a common research finding that men don’t give that affirmation to each other, so they crave and need it more than women in their heterosexual love relationships.
DD: Are you suggesting that women need to be responsible for the emotional labor for men’s happiness?
TO: Not at all. What I like to say to men is that you need to be responsible for giving affirmation to other men and for getting it from other men. I recommend “man-dates” for men, to cultivate their male friendships.
DD: What other guidance do you have for raising emotionally sophisticated boys, especially when they have to navigate peer cultures that are not supportive of their emotions?
TO: First, I say to fathers, you want to model for your sons that you can have many different kinds of emotions—you have to show it and you have to talk about it. (Some men will show their emotions, but they won’t explain them.)
Second, sit down with kids and watch media together—TikTok, TV, movies, whatever—and use the storylines or videos as examples to discuss specific emotions, life challenges, or relationships. For example, “Why do you think that character was upset?”; “Was that action appropriate in that situation?”; or “Is that the kind of relationship you want?” Don’t evaluate, don’t lecture, just think of these moments as laying pebbles down a path—you’re leading them in a direction, putting pebbles out one by one.
And, third, talk about the experience of switching back and forth between subcultures that have different emotional norms and how hard it is to move, say, from the bros on the football team to more emotional authenticity at home. Let them know that they’re not alone in the experience.
DD: I see young people making lists of the qualities they want in their future partners.
TO: I think knowing what qualities you need (rather than want) in a partner is important. Interest similarities actually have zero to do with happy, healthy relationships. Instead, the number one important thing for happy, healthy relationships is similarity in key life values—the core underlying attitudes about who you are and what’s important in life, such as values about family, children, spirituality, or faith. These are important for longevity, interests are not.
DD: Do you have any special advice for parents of LGBTQ+ youth who are looking for love, especially given the climate of intolerance that is heating up?
TO: All of the above still applies, but anytime you have a child with any kind of special concern, it’s even more important to recognize their unique strengths and gifts, to validate and affirm them. Depression and loneliness are a risk for the LGBTQ+ community, so take care to take their emotions seriously. Don’t dismiss them with, “Oh you’ll be fine,” or “You’ll get over it.” I share in the book the signals to watch for that suggest that a child might need some extra support and help, whether they’re in middle school, high school, or college. And stay aware of what’s going on in your child’s school and wider environment.
DD: None of us parents got a “relationship education,” so thank you for sharing some important actions and conversations that will help us elevate our children’s relationship skills.
TO: That’s my agenda, to get those science-based relationship skills out there. Good relationships for your children start with you. As parents, you have the power to affect your children’s love relationships and, at the same time, pave the road to a better lifelong relationship with your children.