‘Why does she put up with him*?’
It’s a question we’ve all asked about our friends’ relationships when we’ve heard about or seen their partners behaving badly.
And if I’m being completely honest, looking back on some of my past boyfriends, I wish I’d asked my self the same question.
Some women are trapped in toxic relationships (which is a separate issue entirely), but other women stay in them because they believe that a bad relationship — or even an okay one — is better than being single.
From Cinderella to The Bachelor, girls can’t escape the message that being single is the equivalent of life’s waiting room. This can encourage women to stay in relationships when they probably shouldn’t and tolerate or excuse behaviours that they definitely shouldn’t.
I want my daughters to be empowered to choose to be in a relationship because they want to, not because they think they need to.
I’m determined to instill in them that being single is an acceptable, and even desirable, option. The following are some small, everyday approaches of getting girls to practice the habits of independence.
1. Creating opportunities where they can learn to entertain themselves
Learning to enjoy your own company is powerful because you can make better choices about how you spend your time and who you spend it with. We have ‘quiet time’ everyday in our house where everybody spends an hour playing on their own.
Not only do I need the sanity break, it’s an opportunity for me to model the pleasure that can be found in solitude. When my five year old tells me she’s bored I try to reframe it as an opportunity for her to learn to entertain herself.
2. Instilling the value of female friendship
I want my girls to know that even though their dad and I love to spend time together, there will always be a special place in my life for my female friends.
Before my girls start dating, I want them to understand the importance of female friendship and how it needs to be nurtured and protected. No matter how besotted they become with a boy, they should always make time for their female friends.
Boys will come and go but it’s our female friends who will bring us ice-cream and tissues in the middle of the night.
And if a man ever tries to isolate them from their friends they should see it as a neon warning sign for unhealthy possessiveness and controlling behaviour.
3. Teaching them to be financially secure and independent
Money is a pretty crappy reason to stay in a relationship. But it also exerts a strong pull.
I want my girls to understand that the best relationships are when both people are independent and choose to be together. It’s important to teach them about budgeting and saving and sexually transmitted debt.
Young love can make people do stupid things with money, so before they’re love sick I want to caution them about the common pitfalls such as unwisely lending money to their lovers, prematurely buying joint assets, and buying overly extravagant gifts.
4. Buying them a tool belt and teaching them how to use it
‘I wish daddy was here, he’d know what to do,’ was my daughter’s response when the batteries went flat on her favourite toy. It was a wake-up call to me to start modeling how to fix stuff.
You don’t have to go out and restore a car or take apart a computer, but changing a light bulb is enough to demonstrate that women and men can take charge and fix problems.
5. Encouraging them to explore their sexuality from an early age
The prevalence of ‘sluts’ and ‘whores’ in young adult literature and schoolyard banter is enough to make a feminist mother weep. Our daughters learn early the same sexually oppressive messages that we learnt: that female sexuality is a prize to be given to (or taken by) a man.
I’ve seen it with friends who embarrass their young daughters by telling them to stop touching themselves because it’s ‘dirty down there’. And so begins a pattern of lifelong shame.
Allowing girls to learn to self-satisfy empowers them to take charge of their own sexual desires — both with and without a partner.
*It’s possible my girls will choose female partners, but for the purpose of this article I’ll assume their future partners are male.