Singles and couples receive relationship and marriage insights from Christian therapists versed in science and scripture.
When it comes to relationships, college-age young adults are in a unique position. They move away and miss their old friends. Talking to their parents and siblings becomes a reminder of just how far they are from home. They want to develop friendships with their roommates and classmates, but there is no guarantee these efforts will be reciprocated. They often feel alone but are embarrassed about expressing it.
Helping students understand how to tackle these anxieties and insecurities is the primary focus of Relationship IQ, a cocurricular program offered by Pepperdine’s Boone Center for the Family that combines theology and social science to equip young adults with the tools to engage in healthy platonic, romantic, familial,and professional relationships.
Approaching the topic from a psycho-educational perspective, the Boone Center utilizes educational materials based on psychological, sociological, and communications research. Scientific evidence is then uniquely blended with spiritual support, which, for students battling painful situations, is a powerful reminder of God’s grace, unconditional love, and power to forgive.
“Part of the goal is to help them develop self-insight into how they do things, why they do things, and how it impacts their lives and the lives of those around them,” explains Hannah Parmelee, director of the Relationship IQ program.
Parmelee reveals that the most popular Relationship IQ topic is sex, which she discusses by illustrating what happens to the human brain when the body experiences physical intimacy.
During the one-hour sessions, she explains that three neurochemicals are released in the brain during sex: dopamine (induced by excitement), oxytocin (the “bonding hormone” that influences female social and sexual behavior), and vasopressin (the “monogamy molecule” that influences social and sexual behavior in men). These are also the same neurochemicals that help parents bond with their children, making their effects undeniably strong.
These neurochemicals are naturally produced whether the activities that prompt them are good or bad. In other words, sexual activity leads to an emotional connection between partners, regardless of whether the relationship is healthy or harmful.
“They are values-neutral, so whether you want to bond with this person or not, whether this person is good for you or not, those neurochemicals are going to be released,” she says.
Another noteworthy characteristic of these neurochemicals is that they lose their effectiveness over multiple partners, which leads to reduced emotional connections each time.
Parmelee has noticed that at this point in the discussion, many students become overwhelmed with fear that their past relationship mistakes have ruined their lives forever. That is exactly where the reminder of God’s compassion and mercy comforts them.
“The good news is that God is a god of grace and redemption and healing, and he knew how he made us, and he knew we would mess up,” she says, which allows her to segue into a discussion of neurochemical replenishing.
“The [synapse] connections that have developed can break down and die, and new ones can be formed. The neurochemicals can actually replenish. God has made our brain moldable.”
While the program’s mission is based on Christian values, the sessions are open to members of all religious groups. In fact, it is often the non-religious students who demonstrate the most sincere interest in how to navigate friendships, love, and sex.
More importantly, the program is only meant to educate students about the research and supporting biblical text, and does not offer or enforce specific advice on how the students should apply the lessons into their personal lives.
“I want to give them some information that maybe will help them make better choices for their lives and will bless them. But it’s their decision. They’re going to figure out what to do,” Parmelee notes. “I don’t want to dictate somebody’s life for them—that’s doing them a disservice.”
For some students, Parmelee’s teachings have made all the difference. Alumnus Daniel Chang (’15) admits that Relationship IQ has changed his life.
“I remember going back to all of my ex-girlfriends and apologizing for the way I handled certain aspects of our relationships,” he confesses. “After learning about things such as clarity in relationships, I felt that it was important to not only apologize for the way I handled things, but also let them know why we broke up and clear the air.”
But the Boone Center’s psycho-educational discussions don’t end there. For those who are beyond the dating phase of relationships, the center offers MarriageStrong, a program specifically designed to equip married couples with relationship skills to help them thrive.
Founded by Sharon Hargrave, executive director of the Boone Center and a licensed marriage and family therapist, MarriageStrong is a nine-week course that helps couples address conflict, conflict resolution, and personality differences, as well as learn to operate as a couple in a strong partnership. Ministers and church leaders can be trained to lead this during a two-day seminar.
The program begins with participants discussing the early days of their relationships, considering what initially attracted them to their spouse, as well as what they learned about marriage within their family of origin.
According to Hargrave, the most prevalent problem found between couples in these sessions is a lack of understanding of themselves. They often expect their partners to change so they can be happy, not realizing that it may be their own actions and attitudes that need adjusting.
As she explains, “What we’re facing so much in society is this idea of people feeling like it’s the job of their boss, their spouse, or their church to make them happy, instead of learning the benefit of really investing in relationships.”
The program also acknowledges the unique plight of couples who serve in leadership positions, always juggling their workload with their family life and feeling exhausted and frustrated from the endless balancing act. Falling victim to the time and emotional demands of their stressful careers, they tend to isolate from God, deep friendships, and intimate relationships while on their path to higher levels of professional success.
One growing contributing factor to this isolation is the use of technology. “Brain research will tell us that we’re more effective if our brain has times of rest. We’re more creative if we take breaks,” she notes. “Being constantly connected to technology can lead to a lack of intimacy and connection with others.”
This lack of connection can lead to bad decisions, such as justifying physical attraction to a colleague because their indiscretions were occurring alongside periods of work productivity. If not properly addressed, “this leads to isolation and burnout, and the demise or breakdown of the family.”
Yet, even when the damage seems beyond repair, Hargrave believes in the possibility of hope and healing if the person struggling with temptations is open to seeking treatment.
“I believe there is healing through relationship,” she states. “I certainly don’t stand in judgment of anybody that decided to get out of a marriage because I’m a marriage and family therapist as well, and after 25 years in the therapy room, I know the pain of some people’s stories. But I also know there is a lot of hope, and our society doesn’t talk about that much. Many choose to solve marriage problems by getting out of them. We choose to give a different message.”
On the last night of the program, the couples are invited to a potluck dinner, where they share their vision for their marriage. Hargrave quotes Proverbs 29:18 of the King James Bible, “Where there is no vision, the people will perish,” and emphasizes the importance of this concept within a healthy marriage.
“When there is no vision for the relationship—for where you’re going together—you can get really caught up in the details: paying the bills, raising the children, going to work. You forget that there’s a bigger purpose for the relationship, the things that you dream about when you decide to marry each other,” she says.
It’s also beneficial for couples to hear each other’s stories and goals, so that they understand they are not alone in their personal struggles. As one newly married participant puts it, “Paralleling our relationship beside others provided perspective. It reminded us that all couples experience conflict and that conflict is a normal part of being in a relationship. What MarriageStrong taught us is that we have a choice as to whether we handle that conflict in a constructive or destructive way.”
This is an insight Hargrave hopes all couples embrace. “A lot of times when we have problems, especially in Christian communities, we think nobody else is having problems, so we isolate.” Her advice for people experiencing similar hardships is to not keep it hidden. “Find somebody that can help. Other people are struggling, too. You’re not alone.”