It’s been less than three months since Taylor Swift’s feverishly anticipated fifth album,1989, hit the shelves with another dose of catchy tunes we can’t seem to stop singing. The twenty-five year old’s first all-pop album sold 3.66 million copies in its first nine weeks, outrunning Disney’s Frozen soundtrack as the top selling album of 2014. Adding to Swift’s mound of accolades, we can easily expect her to walk away with at least one Grammy next month for her single “Shake it Off”.
Alongside her irresistibly upbeat single, Swift devotes several tracks on 1989 to exploring emotionally-charged relationships that spiral out of control. A prime example is “Blank Space”, which Swift reportedly wrote as a quasi-parody of how the media represents her history of broken relationships. However tongue-in-cheek the lyrics are meant to be, the music video openly glamorizes an emotionally abusive relationship, in which Swift refers to herself as a “nightmare dressed as a daydream” for boys who “only want love if its torture.”
This theme of unhealthy, yet addictive, relationships presented as the norm (and even as desirable) isn’t new to Swift’s musical repertoire. Singing about relationships that crash and burn, scar and bring hell into one’s life is becoming her specialty.
I love a catchy TSwift song as much as the next girl, but this on-going theme begs the question: Have we, as a culture, accepted unhealthy romances as the norm because we no longer believe in relationships free of emotional use and abuse? Like Swift, many of us have gone out looking for long-lasting love—followed pop culture’s dating playbook to the letter—only to watch our efforts crash and burn. There has to be a better way. So how do we hop off the roller coaster of emotion-driven relationships? And where do we begin to build a long-lasting relationship that points to Something bigger than itself?
Enter Sarah Swafford, founder of Emotional Virtue Ministry, who is passionate about helping young adults find answers to those very questions.
Swafford graduated from Benedictine College in 2004 with degrees in Theology and Business. A few years later she returned to her alma mater as a Residence Hall Director, where she served over 140 freshman girls.
Talking about her time in the position Swafford recalls, “It was such an amazing experience! I received a front row seat to the hearts of men and women transitioning from high school to college.” Gifted with an accessible, empathetic nature, Swafford became a natural mentor, especially to the girls. Success in this role led Swafford to give a talk at the college titled “Love, Emotions, Taylor Swift, Mental Stalking & Mr. Right.” The evening proved to be a huge success. “Over 300 women came,” Swafford recalls. “I knew I was on to something.”
In 2012, Swafford used her experience to found Emotional Virtue Ministry, though which she helps young adults navigate the dating scene—made especially complex by what Swafford calls the “Emotocoaster.” Describing the emotion-sickness young adults in relationships often put themselves through she says:
“It’s like a roller coaster: you’re waiting in line for hours, you think it’s going to be the most amazing thing in the world. You get on; it throws you upside down and gives you whiplash. Then you get off and throw up in front of everyone. Unfortunately, a lot of relationships look like this.”
The cure? Referencing St. John Paul II, Swafford says that the key to healthy relationships (romantic or otherwise) is honoring the other person’s dignity and never using them as a means to achieving your own pleasure, either emotional or physical. “The answer is love. Love says, ‘I desire your good not for my sake but for yours’…Love is the conqueror of use—selflessness over selfishness.”
The second key to building lasting, Christ-centered relationships, Swafford says, is remembering that we are called to be the masters of our own emotions. “It’s important to remember: emotions happen to us. Virtue concerns what we do with them.”
Emotions and passions aren’t bad things in themselves. But Swafford takes care to point out that if we don’t learn to control them, they will in turn control us. “When [our emotions] control us, we are no longer free to love. Emotional virtue, therefore, frees us to truly love with an undivided heart.”
To serve as a framework for growth, Swafford offers specific lists of virtues for men and women. This “Virtue Challenge” has become touch-stone for Swafford in her ministry, and is discussed at length in her recent book Emotional Virtue: A Guide to Drama-Free Relationships.
The “Virtue Challenge”, Swafford says, is especially helpful for single persons seeking concrete ways to prepare for marriage. After all, becoming the most virtuous version of ourselves is not only a wise way to attract a spouse committed to Christ, but can pave the way for the long-lasting love we crave. “Can you imagine this couple coming together?” Swafford muses. “What chemistry! Lasting chemistry, because it is not all about emotions…it’s not all about themselves, [but about] striving for virtue together and helping each other grow—how amazing that would be!”
Indeed, the image of relationships Swafford upholds is dramatically different from the one presented in pop culture. And with the hook-up culture failing to generate a pattern for relationships based on anything but pleasure and emotional highs, it’s fortunate individuals like Swafford are engaging the culture on these issues and offering another way.