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4 Unhealthy Love Lessons from Pop Culture

By Linda Escobar Olszewski, PsyD

Coupledom can be pretty confusing, especially when you’re just starting out. It’s normal to be curious about how relationships work and how to deal with all the (messy, intense, wonderful, heartbreaking) emotions they bring up. Most people learn about relationships from watching the people around them (parents, family, friends) and from the media—magazines, TV, movies, music, social media and more.

Unfortunately, learning about relationships through the mainstream media can give you some pretty weird ideas about how relationships should work—ESPECIALLY if your parents are less-than-ideal role models and you’re not talking about relationships with a trusted adult.

Here are some of the most common but flat-out WRONG things I see the media teaching young people, and what you should know instead.

1. Romance = Love

On Screen: Your bae buys you flowers. You cook a fancy meal. There is an elaborate “prom-posal.”

Healthy Behavior: You have a heavy course load at school and spend most of your time studying—meaning there’s not as much time for your SO. They’re upset but understand, and you and your bae have a difficult conversation about how to make time for each other while respecting each other’s boundaries.

Media usually only shows the fun, romantic (or sometimes dramatic—see below) parts of relationships. On social media, people share cute moments with their special someone—not the tough compromises or even simple decisions, like whose turn is it to pick the movie! Because of this, many young people think that romance is love, when really romance is only one part of it. Love is also showing support, making compromises, and being a trustworthy friend.

2. Sex should always be passionate and effortless.

On Screen: When two people are meant to be together, sex is instantly passionate and perfect.  They never have to deal with condoms, or talk about boundaries or what they want in bed.

Healthy Behavior: Sometimes sex is awkward, and that’s ok—you can both laugh about it and still enjoy the moment. You can also have serious conversations about what you feel comfortable with in your intimate relationship, practicing safer sex, and more.

We’ve talked about the ways that porn isn’t like real sex before, but movies and TV shows usually don’t portray it accurately either. Sex is almost always shown as “hot,” “steamy,” and “sexy,” without showing any effort. Having great sex the first time is often a sign that two people are meant to be together. In real life, everybody is different, and figuring out what works for your partner and you can take time. Usually—hopefully!—it involves talking about sex. Sometimes, sex is awkward or messy—and that’s totally normal and ok!

3. Drama is romantic.

On Screen: Your partner gets jealous when they think you’re flirting with someone else. They tell the other person to stay away from you, and maybe even get in a fight. But it’s ok—they’re only being protective because they care about you so much.

Healthy Behavior: You’re at a party talking to someone new. Your partner tells you that they‘d feel more comfortable if you included them in your conversation since they feel left out.

Drama is necessary for good stories—NOT healthy relationships. In fact, drama is often a sign that trust or respect is missing from a relationship. Getting into huge fights all the time isn’t a signal that you “care about each other too much,” but that you probably need to work on your communication skills.

Fighting with each other isn’t the only kind of drama. If you and your significant other have an “us against the world” mentality, you might want to re-examine your relationship. Romeo and Juliet may be held up as the ultimate romance, but (spoiler alert) they both die. That’s not romantic, that’s unnecessary and pretty tragic. Feeling like your relationship is life or death isn’t healthy, and it’s definitely not a sign of true love.

4. Love is all you need.

On Screen:  Forget hobbies and friends. To be happy, all you need is love.

Healthy Behavior:   You’re having a hard time in school because you’re spending so much time with your partner.  You talk to your partner, and you both agree to spend less time together so you can get your studying in.

It’s not healthy for love to consume your life. Romantic relationships can definitely be a healthy part of life, but they can’t be all of it.  Pursuing goals, working hard at something you care about, and developing hobbies and friendships are all important parts of living a good life.

Love is also far from the only thing that relationships need to be healthy. Healthy relationships are built on trust and respect. It’s possible to love someone who doesn’t respect you, wants you to change, or just doesn’t give you what you want out of a relationship, but love doesn’t automatically fix it or make it better.

Of course, not all of pop culture is this way—some sources do a great job depicting healthy relationships. But much of what you see and hear doesn’t reflect real life or healthy behavior.

So if mainstream media isn’t a great place to learn about relationships, where is? I recommend talking to a trusted adult, like one of your parents or another family member, your school counselor, or a teacher. It’s especially important to talk to someone if you’re not sure your relationship is healthy (or you’re worried it might be abusive). If you’re 10-22 years old in NYC, you can also stop by the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center to talk to a therapist or health educator about healthy relationships and communication—all for free.

Linda Escobar Olszewski, PsyD is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, judgment free health care at no charge to over 10,000 young people every year. This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education purposes only.

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