In the last few weeks, I’ve offered relationship advice to three of my friends (it has been a dramatic quarter, apparently), and each of those friends praised my ability to give insightful, thought-provoking relationship advice. It made me wonder exactly why I feel so fluent in the language of romantic love compared to other subjects of personal concern. The answer, I believe, starts with my mother.
I am the oldest of four children, and my mother stayed at home for my entire childhood. Combined with our ultra-similar personalities, this meant my mother and I developed an unusually strong bond that was at once parental and not parental at all; we were most often in conversation as close friends. She knew about the drama in my life, and I knew of the drama in hers. Together, we analyzed the collective drama of everyone we knew.
For example, my mother and I would often puzzle about the romantic struggles of my aunts and uncles, cousins and other students at my school. We would unpack whatever psychological baggage we’d glimpsed in others and see how it affected their relationships. We would talk at length about what made relationships stable and what made them fail, what feelings were genuinely loving and which revealed underlying selfish motives. With my mother, I must have analyzed dozens of relationships between lovers, spouses, parents, children, friends and enemies. As a completely unqualified pair of psychologists, we were prolific.
Some might call this gossip. In fact, I’m comfortable to call it gossip myself, but not the kind of gossip that gets spread like a virus. Rather, we engaged in the kind of gossip that allows members of the older generation to pass down wisdom and caution to their successors.
I think this is a fairly common experience for young girls, both with their mothers and with their friends at school. It’s often looked down upon as petty or cruel to talk about others — and with malintent, it certainly can be — but I believe gossip in small circles can also be a profound source of growth and maturity. Many of us are married by the age of 30, which leaves us each with far too little time to learn the ins and outs of love on our own. Instead, we rely on the successes and mistakes of others to navigate our own paths. The same is true of friendship, parenthood and dealing with relatives. By discussing the complexities of others’ situations with our close friends and family, we build our own encyclopedias of good social behavior.
Of course, we will never know all the answers when it comes to relationships; every relationship is particular and subject to its own context. Thus, gossiping about relationships offers us another skill: the ability to dissect and make sense of novel relationship challenges in our own lives. We all need to practice the art of talking about love so that we may have fruitful, kind conversations with our own partners, friends and relatives in difficult times. We cannot expect to have productive intimate conversations without many years of preparation and reflection.
It is my hope that society can make two major changes to the way we approach gossip of the benevolent sort. First, we need to recognize that some versions of gossip are healthy. Many of us were told as children that it’s ‘wrong to talk behind someone’s back.’ We may have ignored the admonishment, but somewhere in our collective psyche, we believe doing so is morally questionable. Let us instead embrace those kinds of discussions with norms about compassion, confidentiality and trust. We will always talk about people ‘behind their back,’ so instead of criminalizing the practice altogether, let’s learn to distinguish between good and bad gossip and teach our children the distinction. (If the word ‘gossip’ is objectionable to you, just use a different word.)
Second, it is imperative that all people feel welcome to engage in conversations about love and relationships as children, teenagers and adults. In particular, let’s encourage boys and young men to talk about these subjects without fear of emasculation or social shame. It is too late for men to be learning these lessons in college and beyond. The learning process must start young, ideally with a parent, and should continue throughout the life course. We must include boys and other excluded groups in the conversation if we want to improve the quality of love and relationships for all.
Contact Avery Rogers at averyr ‘at’ stanford.edu.