Picking a life partner is one of the biggest decisions we make in life. Some of us make it once, and others multiple times. Either way, you are picking someone to spend most of your life with. It is a huge decision and sometimes a leap of faith.
It is one of the many things parents worry about when it comes to their children.
Are their kids picking the right partner, and how can they make sure they do ?
I don’t think there is a right answer to these questions. There are no universal qualities for the perfect partner and sometimes we can’t control who we’re attracted to.
However, I think there are some criteria we need to look for while thinking of love. With experience, we realized there are some qualities we need our partners to possess.
This is where parents’ contribution is valuable. You have the responsibility to love your girls and equip them with the right tools that will help them make good choices.
The other problem we face with this issue is that this is not an isolated decision. There are a lot of cultural and social aspects playing a role in this; advertisements, movies and books that are always grooming women for marriage.
So how do we create an environment in which girls grow up wanting the right partner and not just a partner?
I will share with you a few pointers that I have picked up throughout my coaching experience, my readings and my life as a woman.
Debunking social expectations
There is so much pressure on girls to find a partner and start a family. Many women end up marrying anyone just to avoid being 30 and single. It doesn’t matter if the relationship is working, their fear of rejection trumps their need for a happy healthy relationship.
In fact, this rejection is embedded in our vocabulary. In the english language there is a word for an old unmarried woman: “spinster”. While old unmarried men are just called bachelors.
We are constantly sending this message to girls; you need to find a partner or you will be rejected and deemed unworthy.
So, as parents, you should really be aware of how you handle this bias. You need to make sure you portray romantic love as a choice and great possibility; but one that does not affect a person’s worth. Marriage or partnership is a decision to be made with the right person and for the right reasons and not just to avoid social pressure and rejection.
I am lucky to have parents who have never pressured me to find a partner by a certain age and I hope your girls are as lucky as I am.
Defining what love really is
There are so many definitions and theories addressing what love is or what it looks like. I have chosen three definitions that I believe are the closest to reality and I’d like to share them with you and discuss how you can incorporate them in your girls’ lives.
“When we understand love as the will to nurture our own and another’s spiritual growth, it becomes clear that we cannot claim to love if we are hurtful and abusive”, by Bell Hooks in her book All About Love.
“Those who matter are people who love you not despite your imperfection and vulnerability but because of your imperfection and vulnerability”, by Brenee Brown in her Netflix special
“It’s the small things done often that make the difference”, by Dr. John Gottman
To me, these quotes portray love as an act rather than a feeling; as a partnership rather than a form of control; as a choice that we make every morning in every one of our actions rather than a word we use lightly.
From Bell Hooks’ view, hurting others, physically or emotionally shaming them, or neglecting them is not love. We cannot claim to love someone and abuse them.
She describes love as an opportunity of growth for both partners. It’s a space for honesty and accountability and not for control and shaming.
I think this point is crucial because we all do it without even noticing that we are. Out of fear for our girls, we criticize their bodies, their grades and behavior. By doing so we are attacking who they are rather than addressing the behavior with them and exploring the opportunity for growth and change.
On the other hand, sometimes, we are so attached to a certain idea of who our kids should be that we try to manipulate every aspect of their life to fit that image we created, instead of hearing their perspective. We may want them to wear dresses when they prefer pants or we may want them to become a doctor when they want to be a lawyer.
By being controlled or shamed, girls may develop low self esteem and run a higher risk of staying in relationships that may be abusive, controlling or simply wrong.
This point is complemented by what Brenee Brown said. Love is not in enforcing control but rather in being curious and accepting. It’s in knowing the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of those around us and creating a safe space for both, to talk and be real. By doing that we are loving each other because of our shared humanity.
So, it is important to be curious about who your girls are and to embrace their imperfections while pushing them to grow. We need them to understand that love should never be conditional. They should not change themselves to receive anyone’s acceptance or affection.
On the other hand, John Gottman compares love to a tank where every small positive experience is a deposit and every negative experience is a withdrawal. Since, we are not perfect, there will always be withdrawals, the key is to choose to turn towards those we love most of the time making sure the tank is more full than empty.
This idea portrays love as a choice we make in the small moments, when we make our partner a sandwich or when we hold them because they’re sad. So, it is important to show up on a daily basis in the small things and teach our girls to do the same and appreciate the importance of these moments.
In the end, if they grow up seeing love as unconditional, and as a safe space for growth, and a choice rather than a feeling then we’ve done our job and made sure that they will not accept any less than what they experienced and saw.
Building a good support system
I think we tend to focus on romantic love as being the only way to feel fulfilled and valued. While we cannot deny that it plays a huge part in our life, it is not the only way to feel fulfilled. Hence, we need to encourage our kids to build strong friendships and familial bonds.
This is important for two reasons: reducing loneliness and building a good support system for constructive feedback
When we know there is someone to catch us while we struggle with the aftermath of a break up, we are more likely to walk away when things are going bad. We have the courage to face that fear and loneliness because we are not alone especially when we know we are doing the right thing.
I was browsing Facebook a while ago and found a quote by Mark Manson. I don’t remember the exact wording but it translated into the following:
“Humans can survive without partners but they cannot survive without friends and family”.
We need love and a sense of belonging to make it through.
On the other hand, having trusting friends and family helps us see the blind spots in our relationship. When we’re in love, there are many alarming signs we might miss. We need someone we trust and listen to to give us honest and constructive feedback and a fresh perspective.
I have firsthand experience with this one. Being surrounded by an amazing support system and getting honest feedback even when it was hard to hear, has given me the strength to walk away from many unhealthy relationships and I am deeply grateful for that.
So your role as parents is to create trusting relations with your kids and to make sure they are building bonds with family members and creating meaningful friendships where they are loved for who they are and are given honest feedback, since you may not always be the one guiding them.
Encouraging true partnership
For a long time, women were portrayed as victims waiting to be saved by a man who can protect them and provide for them, in return they take care of him and the family and follow his orders and decisions because he knows what’s best.
This theory is as hurtful to men as it is to women. It puts so much pressure on men to have the answers and be strong while they are just as human. They have fears and face uncertainties just as women do.
The best portrayal of what we need to change in order to create true partnerships is an excerpt from Joumana Haddad’s book Superman is an Arab. It’s a two page paragraph so I picked a few meaningful lines to share with you.
“Then it suddenly hit me one day, much, much later: this world (and women in it) doesn’t need manufactured ‘men of steel’. It needs real men.[…]Real men who don’t feel embarrassed to solicit help when they need it. Real men who are proud to be supported by you, as much as they are proud to support you.[..]Real men who discuss what’s best for both of you with you, instead of arrogantly saying, ‘leave it up to me’. Real men who consider you a partner and not a victim/mission/trophy. Real men who share their problems and worries with you, instead of insisting on solving them by themselves.”
This kind of bond requires men to be vulnerable and women to accept that vulnerability and not expect them to be “superman”. It requires parents to portray what real partnership looks like and to raise boys who embrace vulnerability and girls that do not need saving.
We need to encourage boys to share their feelings and struggles and we need to empower girls to thrive and create something for themselves.
We need to ask our girls for their opinions about their lives and have them make their own decisions so they never think they need someone to make their decisions for them.
This does not mean that a girl embracing her femininity or a man being a gentleman is frowned upon. It is more about finding balance and having both partners contribute to the relationship.
This part is extremely crucial for successful relationships but also for a fulfilled life. It’s quite simple, to live a fulfilled life, we need to know what makes us happy and how we feel loved. We also need to let others know how we feel loved and what we need to thrive.
As part of the relational needs training we used to give in Lebanon, we asked participants to take an assessment that helps them understand their own needs, hindrances, fears and dreams. We’d also have them list their favorite movie, band, food… This way we made sure we were there for them in the way they needed.
Not everyone likes to be hugged when they are sad, or celebrated with cake on their birthday. Some like their hands to be held or like to go dancing. We’re all different and special. Loving someone resides in knowing ourselves and knowing them deeply. It’s not a one time effort, it’s a life time job to rediscover who we are together and how we’re changing.
We need to be invested in our kids’ lives, asking them questions, playing their favorite games, listening to them and understanding who they are and how they feel loved.
We need to encourage them to try different types of food, meet different types of people, try different hobbies and assess with them what works and what doesn’t so they can get a better understanding of who they are and what they love.
In the end, I don’t think there is a right answer for how to choose the right partner. There is no formula we can teach our girls to follow. All we can do is love them for who they are and trust that they love themselves enough to not accept anything less than what they really deserve.