Headline writers of the world, please put the words “correlation does not equal causation” on a sticky note, put it on your monitor, and look at it before you start to write your headlines. I beg you. Today’s example of why this matters so much comes courtesy of Your Tango . The headlines suggest that a bad relationship in high school “can lead” to depression later on in life, implying that the 95 percent of women out there who broke up with their first boyfriends are facing serious mental health consequences.
But if you read the actual article, you get a much different story. The study being reported on showed that a specific kind of dysfunction is highly predictive of later in life depression. Someone who is always worried that her boyfriend doesn’t really love her and constantly needs reassurance is likelier to be depressed. This isn’t necessarily causal, though I can imagine in some cases, having a boyfriend who is abusive and creates in you a constant need for reassurance could negatively impact your mental health in the long haul. But in many cases, it’s probably just a correlation.
Think about it: Young women are trained from their pink-draped childhoods to believe that male validation is the most important kind of validation there is. And this kind of thing continues throughout your life. One of the most, if not the most, common way to denigrate a woman is to suggest she doesn’t have what it takes to achieve that precious male validation. If you’re someone with low self-esteem, therefore, you’re both prone to having more depression and to need constant reassurance that you’re getting the most precious kind of validation a woman can get. The cause in both cases is the low self-esteem; the results are correlative.
Still, as the study authors argue, bad habits can be reinforcing. Constantly seeking validation can really do a number on your self-esteem, particularly if you end up in a relationship with a toxic boyfriend who manipulates this aspect of your personality. It would be better for girls not to feel like they need constant reassurance that boys and men find them lovable. But the best way to get there is not just to scold them, but to build a world where women are encouraged, like men are, to find their sense of selves in accomplishments and skills, not in being validated by relationships.