Sarah Swafford, founder of Emotional Virtue, speaks at St. Patrick School in Elkhorn Jan. 30 to seventh- and eighth-graders about healthy relationships in today’s social media-saturated culture. MIKE MAY/STAFF

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Relationship maven gets real with middle schoolers

Smart phones. Social media. Texting. Healthy relationships. What the opposite sex wants. Committing to virtue. Putting God first.

Those were just some of the topics a dynamic and insightful Sarah Swafford came ready to address for about 400 seventh- and eighth-graders from four Omaha area schools, who noisily filed into the gym at St. Patrick School in Elkhorn Jan. 30.

As they settled in and began to listen, their chattering turned to thoughtful silence, fidgeting, and even a few tears as they listened to Swafford talk about the challenges of growing up in today’s culture and their need for God to see them through.

Swafford is founder of the Emotional Virtue apostolate and author of “Emotional Virtue: A Guide to Drama-Free Relationships.” A graduate of Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, she went to work there as a residence hall director and learned about the quickly evolving relationship challenges young people face in a secularized and digital world.

Her message is an important one, Swafford told the Catholic Voice, as children are being confronted at increasingly younger ages with choices about things like alcohol, drugs, sex and social media.

But it also is a hopeful one as she encourages young people to always think of what kind of person God wants them to be.

She also talked about the positive qualities that both males and females look for in the opposite sex as a foundation for healthy relationships.

“I think it’s really important to know what guys are looking for, that it’s not always about looks,” said St. Patrick student Gracie Lambert after the talk. “Being yourself and not worrying about looks is going to take you far.”

In her presentation, Swafford also talked about the “cycle of use” present in many relationships, and asked students to close their eyes, reflect on times they may have been used or used others in various ways, and pledge to do otherwise in the future.

Powerful speakers such as Swafford supplement the school’s chastity program and enhance what teachers convey in the classroom, said Kami Landenberger, school principal.

“It’s important for them (students) to gain an understanding of chastity in the Catholic context,” she said.

Following Swafford’s presentation, students were excited, milling around her for selfies and hugs.

St. Patrick student Keaton Broz related to Swafford’s words about how God sees each person. “I care more about what God thinks of me than everybody else and caring about what he has in mind for me,” he said.

In addition to students from St. Patrick School, students from St. Cecilia School in Omaha, St. Columbkille in Papillion, and St. Gerald in Ralston also attended.

Swafford also spoke that evening to parish teens and other guests, and middle schoolers in the parish’s religious formation program.

That afternoon, she sat down with the Catholic Voice to talk about her apostolate, it’s goals and the kinds of difficulties young people face today. See the Q&A below.

Students from St. Patrick School in Elkhorn, St. Columbkille School in Papillion, St. Gerald School in Ralston and St. Cecilia School in Omaha enjoy Sarah Swafford’s lively presentation Jan. 30 at St. Patrick. MIKE MAY/STAFF

God the key to healthy relationships for young people

Q: Tell me about your apostolate, Emotional Virtue, what it is and how it got started.

About 12 years ago, I was an RD, a dorm director at Benedictine College. It was one of my first jobs out of college, and I was the dorm mom for 142 18-year-old women. That gave me a front row seat to that transition from high school to college. And also, there’s a male dorm right next door. So I actually got thrown into, how do people navigate relationships and friendships. It was also the year that social media really took off – it was 2007, 2008, when Facebook really took off.

I think texting has been definitely a major player as well. So it was a very interesting time to have gone through college without a phone. We had the Razr flip phone, but to go through college like that, to get married, to find my spouse, to navigate relationships, and then very quickly after that to be thrown back into a front row seat watching people navigate relationships with a (smart)phone, with social media. I remember one night I came back from hanging out with the girls and guys in the dorm, and I remember telling my husband, this is going to change the way they communicate forever.

I joke that I’m a prophet, but I just remember thinking how hard that would have been on me to navigate that. And so, what I started doing was, in my apartment, we just would have a bunch of people standing around, just talking about life. And then my apartment got too small, so we took it out to the lobby and then my lobby got too small. And so, one night a bunch of girls just told me, you need to give a talk on this. Because it’s not just the freshman girls and guys. And so that was kind of the beginning.

It was just like, man, if just standing around my island talking helps, how much more could it help if we drew everybody together and had this conversation? So that’s really where Emotional Virtue was born.

Sometimes chastity isn’t just physical. It’s not just the sexual …. Save yourself for marriage, yes, but there’s all of that, to be honest, drama and emotions that go with it. And then the social media, the texting, the phones just add another layer. What I was watching is them trying to navigate that without any help. And so I (thought), what would I have done and what would I do as an older sister, like a big sister?

So I became a big sister … And my husband became a big brother and that’s where it was born, right there in the dorm. And then I started getting calls from KU (University of Kansas), K-State, UNL. And then I started doing Steubenville conferences and FOCUS conferences and I did the Chosen Ascension Press Confirmation Program. And so I started doing things because people were all needing that help, and I absolutely love it.

Q: Emotional Virtue – How do you advise young people to put those two aspects of their lives together?

I think virtue is kind of a lost word sometimes. If you sat down 100 high schoolers and said, “What’s virtue?” I think you’d probably get a few blank stares. And it’s not that they don’t know what it is, it’s just that they’ve never put it in that context before.

And so if I had to describe Emotional Virtue, it would be to rise above those emotions, passions, sexual desires in the moment, to set that aside and to choose the true, the good and the beautiful for yourself and for your beloved. And that’s really hard in an instant-gratification world. So for a junior high student or high school student, or a college student, to be able to step back and say, “Is this what’s best for me?”

“Is this what’s best and healthy and true and good for my future marriage?” It’s so hard for them to see that, because it seems so far away. And we don’t address the emotions very often. I think back in the day there was just a little more direction for what do you do with this kind of stuff. And I was just seeing a lot of people very lost with, “What do I do with my emotions, my passions?” … Emotions and passions, they’re neutral, they’re like money. It’s how you use them. It’s how you spend them that counts.

Q: Describe what you refer to as the cycle of use that often occurs in relationships.

It’s really painful. I don’t think I came up with the term, but I’ve been using (it) for a long time, and one of the things that I saw – a lot of women and men, especially college age, using each other, whether it was emotionally or physically, and I think it’s just really easy to not call it out, because a lot of times in our world it’s seen as not use but love. It’s like, “Well if you really loved me then you’d prove it to me, show me.” People can see it physically a little bit more when there’s sexual abuse going on, but I wanted everyone to take even another step backwards and say, “Can you use someone emotionally? And can you use them to affirm yourself or fill yourself up in a way that isn’t healthy? Or are you so obsessed with a person?”

Even if you’re not sleeping together, there’s a level of use. Even in friendships, unfortunately, sometimes people will use people just to get ahead. I think C.S. Lewis would say it’s the whole utilitarian pleasure (versus) virtue friendship. That’s one thing I pride myself (on) in my ministry – if I got up there and said that today, at any high school, I think everyone would understand. But trying to put real world scenarios and real world examples to what “pleasure friendship,” what “utilitarian friendship” and what “virtuous friendship” looks like. I think that’s really important for them, because sometimes it’s not easy to connect all those dots and real world settings.

Q: How is today’s hookup culture hurting the emotional and faith lives of young people that you’ve seen?

I think that the hookup culture is real. It’s sad because we’re seeing it take many forms. So you have Tinder, you have dating apps, where in the name of dating, it’s really become just like a hookup app. And so you got that whole mess and then you also have sexting, and the whole idea of very emotionally saturated, sexually saturated texts and Snapchats and things like that, where I think a lot of teens and young adults don’t realize the damage that it either does to them or can do to them.

It’s the hookup culture, it’s some forms of social media, it’s some forms of texting, it’s just like this monster. And it’s really leaving people very wounded and very broken and it’s starting at very early ages. And so I’ve been counseling and helping 12-, 13-, 14-year-olds who are … maybe they’re not headlong into the hookup culture, but they’re dabbling in things that are hurting them just the same. What I’ve been seeing is, there’s a lot of loneliness, there’s a lot of insecurity, there’s a lot of fear, there’s a lot of isolation, and that worries me.

And, one of the things that is very hard for them to see is that – I talk about it in all my talks – you are a beloved son or daughter of God. That is your identity. And I think they see their identity as their physical appearance, their accolades, their successes, their grades, their sports achievements. But more than anything, they see their identity as who they’re with – “Who am I dating? Who’s interested in me? How many guys are interested in me? How many girls?” So it’s very hard when you are struggling with your identity. It’s very easy to have that identity filled up with the opposite sex. And I think it snuffs out the faith life because it’s looking for love in all the wrong places. It’s emotionally draining and so I see a lot of them, they’re almost too exhausted to even care.

And that’s probably the thing that breaks my heart more than anything. God is the last-ditch effort instead of the first option. And so inviting them into a relationship with our Lord – it’s something I do in every talk.

Q: Do you feel there’s something in their faith in God that can help them to meet these challenges?

The two things I see, more than anything, is hurt and hunger. Radical amounts of hurt, and a hunger for something more. The things that I say on stage are not easy truths. But what I think is so beautiful, though, is when I encourage them, when I tell them they’re beloved, when I tell them their identity is in Christ and that he’s pursuing them and he loves them no matter what, and that you can take everything into the confessional and drop it off. I can physically see the students: It’s that hunger. It’s like, “I want that.”

And so I think that we as the church need to whet that appetite. We need to feed that. The world is feeding them a constant assault of lies. So where can they go to hear the truth about their identity, about our Lord, about his love for them? We get drowned out. And so I always say, we just have to be louder, and not obnoxious. I think most of them walk away going, “Wow, I don’t have to play the games of the world.”

Q: So, you see a sense of relief?

Oh, total relief. Yeah. Which is so powerful. I think a lot of the world, and maybe even people in general think that, well they (young people) don’t want it, they don’t care, so why would we waste our time? But, I wouldn’t be so fast to say that. That’s what gives me a lot of hope. And today, you could tell they were so jazzed afterwards, they were excited about another way. They’re so lonely and they’re hurting and they’re like, “I’ll do anything.” What’s sad is, those were seventh- and eighth-graders. And so a lot of them don’t carry quite the experiences of the high schoolers. To be honest, it just gets heavier and heavier. But I love giving junior high talks, because they’re the ones that you can catch before they walk into that storm.

Q: How is social media fundamentally changing the way people, particularly boys and girls, relate to each other, and how does it manifest itself in unhealthy choices?

I think social media and phones are kind of like emotions and money. They’re neutral. It’s what you do with them that counts. So I don’t ever want to throw social media completely under the bus, because I think about how much good it’s done. On the other hand, I always say that I have a love-hate (perspective), because it’s also the devil’s playground. So I just feel like social media has changed the way we communicate. I think the thing I’ve seen the most is the inability for people to just be. So you’re standing in line, you’re on your phone. You’re at an airport, you’re on your phone. You’ve got a bunch of teens sitting around waiting for the bus, they’re on their phones. You have a bunch of adults in the line of the DMV, they’re on their phones.

I’m concerned that, when it comes to the younger crowd, they struggle with casual conversation. They struggle with just being. One example I give is, I was flying to an event and I was at the airport and I was working and I was talking on the phone and there was a guy sitting really close and he was younger. He ended up telling (me) he’s 27 and he was like, “What do you do for a living?” Because he was trying to figure me out … and he’s like, it’s really interesting.

And he looked at me and he said, “My entire divorce went down over text messages.” And I was just blown away. This was like, five years ago, so this isn’t even the Snapchat generation that’s coming. And I said, “Wow.” And he goes, “Yeah, the lawyers had to go through all of our text messages as when we were arguing for all this stuff.” And I just couldn’t believe it. And he looked at me and said, “She just never felt comfortable telling me in person how she really felt.” And I just was blown away by that. What are we going to do in a world where we can’t look at each other and share our heart and share our problems? So I say social media has a place, but I worry about conflict resolution. I worry about vulnerability.

The other thing I would say for all the parents out there with young kids or high schoolers, there is no accountability with this. Even myself, who’s going to stop me from being on it for an hour and just wasting time on Pinterest? No one’s going to. And so, if your teen comes home and just takes his phone or her phone and goes to their room for six hours, you have no idea. And it’s not that they’re even doing anything wrong, you don’t know. But you also don’t know who they’re talking to, what they’re talking about.

I know that it’s not popular to say, “Keep your phone downstairs or let’s keep the phones charging where I can see them.” I have one family I stole this from, I really liked it. They had what they called the nest. And so she (the mother) had a basket that sat in the kitchen and all the chargers were there. And so, when you come home, your phone goes in the basket and it doesn’t leave the charger. And she’s like, “They can go over there and they can text their friends and they can talk on the phone. It’s not like I’m taking it away, but I can see you, and I see you standing there and you’re not going to pull up anything inappropriate because you’re standing in my kitchen. There’s that little added element of, if you’ve been standing by the basket for an hour, it’s like, get away from the basket, let’s go do something else.”

A lot of teens will be like, “My parents are on their phones all the time. They never pay attention to me.” And it used to be that the parents would come to me and say, “My teen is always on their phone, I can’t get their attention.” It was like that my first five years of ministry. But these last five years of ministry, the parents don’t come to me anymore. They’ve given up. Now I have teens come to me and say, “My parents are always on their phone. How do I get their attention?” Total flip.

Q: If you could tell young people only one thing about how to have happy, healthy relationships, what would that be?

I gave a whole talk just on this at the FOCUS conference, at the SEEK conference. I spoke to the women and the men separately. And one of the things that I said in both of those talks is, you cannot make anyone your savior. If you try to make someone your God, you will crush them under the weight of that, because they cannot be that for you. So I don’t care if they’re the greatest thing that’s ever happened to you, you will always end up disappointed because you have to put our Lord first and you have to build that relationship with him.

I see it all the time. I lived it. But when you put the Lord first, all those other relationships fall into place because they’re ordered. And this is very hard in our day and age to not look for someone to fill you up, to affirm you, to be your everything. And that’s the way I see a lot of marriages fail, because they walk into it thinking, “This person’s going to heal me, put me back together. This person is my everything, I feel great when I’m with them.” There’s a lot of emotion, but that stuff is all shifting sand.

I always say that one of the greatest gifts my husband ever gave me was, when we got engaged, he sat me down and he said, “I love you but I’m going to fail you because I’m not perfect and I can’t be your everything. But I’m always going to point you to the one that is your everything. I’m always going to point you to the Lord and I want to run to heaven together, not run at each other but run with each other.” And man, if I could just have five minutes with anybody, that’s always what I say, once you sort that out, everything else falls into place.

To find out more about Sarah Swafford’s apostolate, visit www.emotionalvirtue.com.