Define Your Terms

It happens so often. Two people meet and have a great date; perhaps they kiss. Then, two days later, one of them calls the other, feeling very hurt and disappointed that the kiss didn’t mean what they thought it meant. “We have a relationship!” one wails. “We just had a fun time!” says the other. Neither one is right; neither one is wrong. It’s a matter of interpretation.

People don’t talk about the meaning of a kiss, of holding hands, of words like ‘relationship’ or ‘commitment’. Depending on how you were brought up, a first kiss can mean anything from ‘we’re engaged’ to ‘I don’t hate you enough to reject you’ to ‘g’bye now, it was fun’.

So why isn’t there a class on how to find out what your partner is really thinking when they use one of these charged, ambiguous words like love, truth, committment, relationship? And why isn’t there a course in how to forthrightly explain what YOU are thinking? Assumption has killed many relationships before they even had a chance. Worse, many more have struggled on, neither partner understanding the other, both assuming the other one can read their mind when they can’t. “She already knows I love her!”  “Of course he won’t sleep with someone else—it would be a huge betrayal of me.”  “We never talk anymore.”   “The signs must have been there, but I guess I just didn’t see them.”

It should start in first or second grade: simple ethics courses on truthtelling, sharing and communication skills—such things as listening till the other is done, talking instead of yelling. Then in sixth or seventh grade, preadolescents should get a solid course in higher grade communication—the gradations of lies whether by omission, by misdirection or by untruth; conversational arts; honesty in relationships. Finally, in high school, when people have become all but adult and are engaging in romantic relationships (not that they didn’t start in junior high, but that’s another article), the advanced course in sexual safety, honesty, different models of relationships, comparative social forms, and the history of sexuality and romance.

Instead, these tasks are left to the parents, who, bear in mind, did not pass any form of exam in order to become parents. What actually happens is that the bizarre and unrealistic media ocean in which we swim trains our children to believe in forms of relationships that, if they exist at all, are mostly unworkable in today’s society. Now I will admit that it’s at least as unrealistic for me to suggest that these courses be taught in school—not with so many different, conflicting ethical models ingrained in the groups of people who decide what will be taught.

Wishful thinking plus hindsight… ah well.

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