Lifetime Connections

Exploring women's relationships in families and friendscapes

Relationships of the (Unexpectedly) Dangerous Kind

And what does your teenaged daughter even see in that guy?

What comes to mind when you think of “dangerous” relationships? Illicit assignations in cheap motel rooms or hooking up on isolated back roads in the backseat of the car? James Bond-type lovers who swoop in, whisk their partners off their feet, then disappear into the dark? How many of us have longed for the thrill of a “dangerous” relationship…the “bad boy” or “bad girl” the object of our lust and longing? How many of us have not, at some point, daydreamed about or pursued the type of partner that our mothers warned us about? The focus of this piece isn’t abusive relationships, which are a significant topic, but not the subject here. What we’re talking about here is that undeniable attraction to the one who takes risks, hangs out on just on the other side of danger, and whose careless disregard for what "everyone else" is doing seems simply irresistible. Careening down a path straight for the one about whom we have been warned is as natural to many a women as is trying to look older when she’s younger and trying to look younger when she’s older!

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Biology is a fascinating force in that its tendency to drive us towards the very relationship we are warned to avoid is so strong that we are able to discount the guidance of friends, not to mention the edicts by mothers! Researchers have found that the adolescent drive for branching out beyond the inner circles of family and friends is an evolutionary strategy for widening the gene pool and avoiding the risks of romantic partners too genetically similar, which would result in increased chances for genetic defects showing up in offspring. Research is also suggesting that our adolescent (and later?) risk-taking is part of the process necessary to build up the courage to leave our families-of-origin and create families of our own. And this can be a risky move—leaving the support that we have known, whether financial or emotional, and developing new identities as partners and, often, as parents is serious business.

An important aspect of raising a daughter is helping her to recognize and value her uniqueness and to build a healthy self-identity that is not dependent on the subjective valuing of herself by another. Easier said than done! Biological drives can motivate even the most seemingly independent and self-defined young woman to reassess her value in terms of her ability to win the attention of the object of her romantic desires. Faulty cultural messages, media propaganda, misbehavior of celebrities, are just a few of the negative influences on the social development of our young people. Yet our genetic predispositions in mate-seeking behavior are deeply encoded in each of us and we must find ways to both empathize with and guide our daughters as they seek to enact the metamorphosis from girl to woman.

Dangerous relationships offer excitement and a different flavor that appeals to many young women at a level much deeper than the surface. Most of us know from experience—our own or our child’s—that trying to ban interaction with the “bad boy” or “bad girl” only deepens the thrill of the chase. So what are we to do when a daughter or friend is chasing the dream that we feel is the nightmare partner? We need to be up front and honest with our adolescent daughters. We cannot pretend that her sexual desires and desirability do not exist. As difficult as it can be for parents, it is necessary that they openly discuss the risks in sexual activity and the steps a daughter can take to protect her health in terms of birth control, protection from disease, and the emotional health ramifications of her behavior.

The appeal and the allure of the “bad boy” or “bad girl” is deeply programmed into our DNA. What an adolescent daughter needs to know is how to protect herself from sexual health risks, unplanned and unwanted pregnancies, bruised self-esteem, and skewed self-perceptions of her worth as a person. From countless interviews and discussions with mothers and daughters, it is clear that it is a parent’s responsibility to open up discussions about these tough topics. We cannot let the media and our misinformed and often misogynistic cultural icons be the models for our daughters.

In fact, one of the most dangerous relationships possible is one in which honesty is absent and needed conversations are not initiated. Make sure that you (or your clients) encourage a safe relationship with a daughter by talking about the topics and choices that pose the greatest danger through a parent’s silence.

 

Suzanne Degges-White, PhD, is a licensed counselor and professor at Northern Illinois University.
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