By Jacqueline Koch, Staff Writer
It took Jasmine Au only two weeks to realize she was dating what she describes as a jerk.
“He was flaky and indecisive,” the Red Bank High School senior said. “Communication was always a bit fluky. Immaturity was always present.”
Ms. Au, 18, said her boyfriend cared more about physical intimacy than emotional closeness and described him as self-involved.
“I’d say those are characteristics of a lot of jerky guys,” she said, though she added women are just as guilty of jerking men around. “I guess they’ve just needed to be attached to someone, but they end up treating that person like a small dog, more of an accessory.”
Many young adults think “been there, done that” when they hear about dating jerks. But emerging adulthood — the period of a person’s life from ages 18 to 28 — is a time to focus not necessarily on avoiding jerks but on creating healthy relationships, said author and counselor John Van Epp, who wrote “How To Avoid Marrying a Jerk.”
Though the title of his book is meant to grab attention, he said its most important message is that young adults should use a guide when approaching relationships. He developed a relationship progression model with the idea that people should not rush through its five stages — know, trust, rely, commit and touch — but instead balance them.
“We just know from studies that people who build a healthier dating relationship kind of use their head and heart together, make better choices (and) address key areas in the relationship that are significant and important,” Mr. Van Epp said.
First Things First, a local organization dedicated to strengthening families, hosts “How To Avoid Marrying a Jerk or Jerkette,” a course designed by Mr. Van Epp.
Executive director Julie Baumgardner, who teaches the class, said she trains participants to identify traits in boyfriends or girlfriends that should raise red flags.
“There’s something in their gut telling them that this isn’t good for (their) relationship,” she said. “When they come to the class and they hear the different topics, it almost is like giving them permission to go with their gut.”
Ms. Baumgardner said people should not exchange vows until they’ve dated each other at least two years. People are typically on their best behavior during the first year, she said.
Though most people act like jerks occasionally, serial jerks consistently show little insight into themselves, poor emotional control, manipulative behavior and inadequate relationship coping skills, Ms. Baumgardner said. People who find themselves habitually dating jerks should examine themselves to determine if they too exhibit jerk-like behavior.
“Your relationship can only be as healthy as the unhealthiest person in it,” Ms. Baumgardner said.
Melinda Woodard of Chattanooga knows the characteristics of a healthy relationship. The certified financial divorce analyst and mediator keeps a running list of qualities she looks for in men and suggests others do the same. At the top of her list? Family-oriented, God-fearing, confident, compassionate, loving and positive.
“I think all too often you just settle for anybody that asks you out,” Ms. Woodard said. “We should set our standards high.”
Sandi Townley, the assistant vice president for counseling and academic support and the director of the counseling center at Chattanooga State Technical Community College, said the biggest predictors of future relationships are past ones, though young people often do not have the litany of significant others older people do.
Young people run the risk of falling too hard too fast and diving into a relationship before truly knowing a person. Ms. Townley advises involving other people in date nights and limiting one-on-one time to counter instant infatuation while people get to know each other.
“If you keep your life open to other people and other things and not just focus on this one person, then you’re gonna be much more likely to go into it with eyes more open,” she said, “and not feel so sucked into a relationship that might not be good for you.”
So deep was Laura Mish, 17, into her two-week relationship that she did not realize its toxicity.
“He was somebody that seemed like a nice guy,” the Red Bank High junior said. “And it threw me off.”
Then he began blowing off plans to hang out and rarely called when he said he would. He seemed to care more about himself than anything else. Finally, he just stopped calling.
Ms. Mish harbors no angry feelings toward him. She said she realizes he is a nice guy but is not good at handling relationships, and she plans to look for guys who make her one of their priorities.
“If they don’t call, they’ve obviously got better things to do,” she said. “And that’s how it’s always going to be.”
For information on the course, contact First Things First at 267-5383.
E-mail Jacqueline Koch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Five stages of a relationship from the course
* Know — Know their families, friends and past relationships. Know how the person reacts in certain situations.
* Trust — Do not trust a person more than you know them. The only way to determine trustworthiness is over time.
* Rely — Watch how people act in tough times and if they do what they said they would.
* Commit — Only after you are sure you know, trust and can rely on someone.
* Touch — People who bypass the first four stages and rush to physical intimacy often commit to a jerk because they forget to focus on learning about a person.