Lecturer Richard Weissbourd asked a simple yet complicated question: “How do you know when you’re in love?” And furthermore, he asked, what will you say when your child asks you the same question? For many adults, love is hard to define let alone explain to their children. But at the Civic Moral Education Initiative lecture, “Preparing Young People for Mature, Ethical, and Exciting Romantic Love,” this week, Weissbourd stressed the importance of adults, parents, and schools having these conversations.
“There are a lot of problems with failed relationships,” Weissbourd said, pointing to the high divorce rate, unhappy marriages, and even a growing state of misogyny among boys.
Part of Weissbourd’s newest research is exploring youth and their views of romantic relationships.
The problems are immense and deeply sociological, according to Weissbourd who says the view of love in the United States is often “immature,” explained as infatuation, fate, or chemical which results in confusion about its meaning. “When I said ‘I love you,’ to my wife on our wedding day it meant something completely different than today,” Weissbourd said.
Part of the often shallow definition of love links back to confusion and myths about how you act when in love. This problem is compounded because adults often don’t share their wisdom about love and relationships. Mature love is having self-awareness, communication, and capacities to tend to someone else and shield a partner from your flaws.
In Weissbourd’s early studies exploring young adults’ relationship experience and views of romantic relationships, he’s already seeing a different picture from what’s being presented in the media. Contrary to the popular media portrayal of a “hook up” culture, where young people are having a lot of sex with many different partners, his survey shows that only a small population – 10 to 15 percent – is engaging in sex with multiple partners. Instead, Weissbourd’s initial study showed how many young adults are eager to have monogamous relationships, and view cheating on a partner as the worst thing you can do morally – even worse than drunk driving.
“The idea that there is this rampant hook-up problem is not true,” he said. “The real problem is inhibition, anxiety, and uncertainty about relationships.”
Calling the current state of sex education in America “polarizing” and more like “disaster education,” Weissbourd envisions a new focus in the future.
Harvard College Lecturer Laura Johnson, the Allston Burr Resident Dean of Currier House, agreed with Weissbourd. “Rick’s work resonates with me on a lot of levels,” she said at the discussion. Johnson shared how when Harvard College students begin their studies, they are asked to talk about where they see themselves in 20 years. Although many of the students are eager to focus on their studies and put off relationships, they don’t mention their careers when talking about the future. Instead Johnson said the students talk about being married and having successful relationships.
Weissbourd emphasized that young people are eager to talk about more than just sex and that is often what sex education and health education miss. Under a new curriculum, he envisions young people having opportunities to talk about developing relationships, what love is, how it changes, why we become attracted to the wrong people, and what it takes to work out relationship problems. In fact, he sees relationship education as part of a moral education curriculum that could perhaps even fit in under courses outside of sex education.
“None of this is easy,” he said, acknowledging schools limited time these days. “Given how important this is … if schools don’t do their part -- how is it going to get done?”