Letter to My Teenage Self: Learn to Listen
February 28, 2017
The National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) recognizes February as Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. One in three teens in the United States has experienced some form of abuse by a dating partner. This month, we asked: “What would you say to your teenage self about what you wish you knew then about healthy relationships, advocacy, and empowerment?” Here is one such response.
Dear Teenage Me,
I am writing to you because this month is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. You know when everybody told you that you should become an attorney because you argue so much? In hindsight, I think it may have been a not so subtle way to say that they wanted you to stop arguing with them. Nevertheless, you took it literally and now you are an attorney. (Don’t worry, you aren’t a total “sellout,” you specialize in advocating on behalf of survivors of intimate partner abuse). Bad news, you don’t make a ton of money. Good news, you love your work. There are so many things that I want to tell you about your life, but this being Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, I thought I would write to tell you a little about what I have learned while working with survivors of intimate partner abuse for the past eleven years.
You probably aren’t going to believe me when you read this, but life is going to get better, though paradoxically, it is also going to get a lot harder. I won’t get into all of the things that are going to happen as you reach your mid-thirties, but I am happy to report that you are going to enjoy a lot of them. Unfortunately, there are some things you will see and experience that are going to make you question yourself, your community, your country, your gender, your race, and the world, generally. There will be times when the questioning leads you to despondency and you will want to give up. Thankfully, for the most part you stay engaged and there are even large swaths of time in which you appear pretty optimistic. Which leads me to my first piece of advice: the world can be a very cynical place and your optimism will be one of your greatest weapons. I will get back to that in a bit.
Currently, you are in high school. You are right, it is the worst! But, you are also very blessed. You have good friends, great academic opportunities, and a lot of support. You also have an incredible group of mentors who will help to set you on the path of working to create a more just and equitable world. Appreciate that. You are already idealistic and ready to take on the world. Your willingness to fight for what you believe in will be a great asset, but it will also give you blind spots. I won’t sugarcoat it, at times, those blind spots will hurt people around you. While people often ignore or underappreciate the ideas and thoughts of young people, there are many people in your life who are interested in what you have to say. I like to think that people are interested because you have great things to say, but having seen the world (you will travel a lot and it is AWESOME!), I know that in addition to your great thoughts, part of why people listen to you is because you are white, male, heterosexual, grew up in a Christian household, from the USA, etc. Basically, you have a lot of privilege and that privilege is at least a part of the reason why you have influence on those around you. Unfortunately, your privileges can also lead you to feel like you deserve to be heard, even if that means that other voices get drowned out. I am sad to report that you will still be struggling with how to confront your privileges when you are my age, but there are some things that I think can make it better.
First, learn to listen! You are going to have incredible people in your life, most of them are women, and a huge percentage of them have experienced violence perpetrated by men that professed to love them. Hear their stories. They will teach you a great deal about strength, compassion, and how to be a better man. While you are listening, continue to check your privilege. Thankfully, you will have people who check it for you (it will hurt in the moment, but those moments will be your greatest lessons), however it is your responsibility to learn to check yourself. When you acknowledge your own privilege, you can hear other voices more clearly and you can create much more equitable relationships. Connecting with people different than yourself will enrich your life, but it is not enough to seek out connections with a diverse group of people. You have to put time into breaking down social power imbalances in order to build equitable relationships. On that note, checking your privileges will help to keep you from repeating some of the mistakes that you have made recently. Yeah, I am going there. Listen, it is great that you have decided not to drink alcohol, not to do drugs, and to try and only interact with a group of people that you feel are invested in positive things. That is a wise choice for you. However, you don’t get to decide how other people should live their lives. In particular, you don’t get to make decisions about how people you date live their lives. You have had a couple of relationships and in those relationships, at times you have used guilt and condescension to tell your girlfriend who she should hang out with, where she should go, what she should or shouldn’t drink, and there have even been times where you have suggested what she should or should not wear. I know you did those things with what you believed to be good intentions, but you will soon learn that is exactly the type of behavior that abusive partners often use to establish power and control in abusive relationships. You have the right to decide who you date. You do not have the right to decide what the people you date have to do, say, act like, or dress like. You get a lot better at this as you get older, and thankfully you never become abusive in a relationship, however I speak on behalf of all the people you will date when I say: quit it!
Going along the lines of my last suggestion, people have a right to choose how they want to live their lives. Working with survivors of intimate partner abuse for over a decade, I have learned that people do not need you to make decisions for them. People don’t need to be saved. They need information and resources so that they can make good decisions for their own lives. People will not always make the decision you want them to, and they may not always make the “right” decision (in your opinion), but you cannot make the decision for them. All you can do is provide support, an open heart, and a willingness to help if they want it. This will help you in your professional life, it will also help you in your personal life.
I could go on for days about all of the things that we have done poorly or insufficiently in our life (there are some great things too), but we both have work to do and therefore don’t have the time for all of that. I will leave you with one more thing and it is the hardest, yet. You are going to see that men in our world are disproportionately responsible for violence of all kinds, from international wars to sexual violence at home. You will want to cut off all ties with men. This is especially true because you will see violence against people you love, and you will personally experience violence at the hands of men in the years to come. As hard as it may be, don’t give up on working with individuals like you who have privilege. Society will only be successful in combating sexism, racism, and other forms of oppression if privileged individuals also stand up and demand a more equitable and just world. You will spend a lot of your time fighting against gender-based violence. You will meet some of the most resilient people in the world and you will be humbled on a near daily basis. If you ever have a question about how to move forward or what to do in your work, reach out to them. In the meantime, keep your head up, keep fighting for a better world, and I’m not telling you what to wear, but just be aware that as cool as it may seem now, you are going to be desperate to hide pictures of you with baggy bootcut jeans and bleach-tipped spiky hair. Do what you want…I’m just saying…
NNEDV Safety Net Legal Manager