How Kids Learn About Fidelity
Loyalty in relationships is a confusing issue, even for the most mature adults. What exactly counts as cheating on your spouse? Sex? Flirting? A very close friendship? It seems that no one can pin down an exact definition of fidelity. This becomes even trickier for kids trying to navigate all of these issues and form their own idea of what fidelity is.
Infidelity may spring from some fundamental misconceptions about the nature of marriage itself or a disconnect between the idea of marriage and the reality of marriage. Many young people enter into marriage believing that it will be a life of unending happiness, perfect communication, and white-picket fences. Alas, sometimes that's just not true. Marriage has its difficulties: Sometimes your spouse will just make you angry; sometimes money is a problem; sometimes one partner may feel trapped or unfulfilled. In real marriage, these things can be worked through. Yet many movies and TV shows try to tell us that marriage should be a lifetime of constant fun, and, if it's not, something must be irreparably wrong. Loyalty between spouses just doesn't make for good movies the way infidelity does. Sadly, these movies and TV shows (in addition to observing parents) have become how kids learn about fidelity.
Reality Show Relationships
Take, for example, MTV's The Real World, the original reality show. It throws seven attractive strangers into a gorgeous house in a big city, then films the results for roughly four months. If any of these people happen to have significant others in the outside world, chances are that it doesn't last past the first week of the show. And if any of the cast members happen to develop relationships among themselves, they don't tend to last either. Most reality shows have this kind of trajectory when it comes to romances. To kids, this shows that it's ok for relationships to be impulsive, short-sighted, and unfaithful. If anything is boring or difficult in a TV relationship, the whole thing is quickly abandoned.
It goes without saying that real-life relationships have changed a lot in the last fifty years. People are marrying later in life, and sometimes after a much longer courtship period. As divorce rates rise, the average length of marriages decreases, perhaps due to feelings of decreased loyalty in relationships. It is now fairly common to go through more than one marriage in life, or to live with someone for years without being married. Living together, also called cohabitation, is especially common among young people in their twenties, who may have seen their parents divorce and may be questioning marriage as an institution—or they may simply not be ready to get married. It was previously thought that couples who had lived together before getting married had higher divorce and infidelity rates, but new studies have shown that this simply isn't true. However, it does downplay the importance of marriage in our culture. Does living together promote the same image of loyalty in relationships that marriage does? If anything, it almost presents a more confusing view of the situation.
Kids today are confronted by confusing examples and unrealistic expectations. They are told that marriage should always be fun, and that infidelity is nearly unavoidable. Loyalty in relationships sometimes gets passed over in this parade of flashy images, but there are still many functional, happy couples who walk among us every day. Perhaps they just need to get a little more screen-time, and perhaps we all need to redefine our expectations of marriage and how much work it really is.