Surviving (Your Child's) Adolescence

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Confronting the Complexity of Young Love

Why is a love relationship so complicated to manage?

“Why do love relationships have to be so complicated?”

It was a college-age complaint about the difficulty of managing the transition from romantic attraction to ongoing attachment. In response to this question, here is an oversimplified response.

First of all, I think relationships tend to grow more complicated the more caring they become. For example, compared to a casual acquaintanceship or a social network connection, love is an extremely complicated relationship because it is so powerfully caring, so intimately knowing, so full of future promise, and so deeply emotionally felt.

In general, it is easier to fall in love than to grow in love. Falling in love requires yielding to the excitement of an involuntary infatuation. Contrast this to growing in love that takes hard effort and continual work. Now is where managing the complexity comes in.

What complexity? Consider the love relationship as a mix of three factors: Rewards, Responsibilities, and Risks. Each of these terms encompasses a category of behaviors over which partners have significant choice. Take these factors one at a time.

Rewards

Why does a couple want grow in love together anyway? I think they want the relationship because of the Rewards its yields – rewards of two kinds. There are rewards from what one loves to give: contributing affection, interest, and support, for example. There are also rewards from what one loves to get: receiving attention, friendship, and confiding, for example.

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So long as these rewards remain high, the couple feels happy in the relationship. Neglect the giving and getting of these rewards, however, as people are often mistakenly inclined to do during times of trial, and the relationship can lose value as the couple becomes discontent. Without ongoing rewards, motivation to keep caring is diminished during a hard time when a couple needs the support of caring the most.

If there was a “rewards only” arrangement, then the management of a loving partnership would relatively easy. However, there is no “free love” because the relationship is costly, and the name of that cost is Responsibility.

Responsibilities

Responsibilities in a relationship must be shared, and that sharing is done by sacrificing what most people are reluctant to give up – personal freedom. For the sake of each other and the relationship they must give up some personal freedom by accepting limits on what they can do and honoring obligations for what they must do.

Limits might include: no competing flirtations, no sharing of secrets, no breaking one’s word. Obligations might include: keeping each other adequately and accurately informed, participating in each other’s family, fairly splitting living expenses.

So now the compromise begins as rewards must be qualified by responsibilities. However, if this were not costly enough, there is an even costlier factor to add to the mix. There are Risks from being at the emotional effect of how the other person chooses or chooses not to act.

Risks

The risks of love are founded on the principle of vulnerability: the person we love and depend on the most can hurt us the worst. This is why love is such a risky proposition.

There are acts of commission that can hurt, like criticism, dishonesty, or temper from the one you love. And there are acts of omission like forgetting a promise, not listening, or not expressing appreciation by the one you love.

Mostly, these injurious acts are unintentional or done unaware. Sometimes they are thoughtless and neglectful. And sometimes they are done on purpose and meant to hurt. Unless openly addressed -- the hurt expressed, amends made, and commitment not to repeat given – unresolved injury can sew distrust in the relationship, the injured party becoming less involved or more on guard for self-protection’s sake.

Thus, even supposing there were just three factors to manage in a young love relationship (and of course there are infinitely more); creating a working compromise is hard to do.

The compromise of love begins by each party being content with “some” of what they want and don’t want. Some rewards are going to have to be enough. Some responsibilities will have to be accepted. And some risks will have to be experienced.

Not only are the three factors in relationship always in play, but they can compete. At such times, what constitutes a mutually acceptable definition of “some” must be negotiated and worked (or re-worked) out.

Factor Conflicts

Rewards and responsibilities and risks are interdependent. Satisfying the needs of one can adversely affect the others. So another aspect of managing the complexity of a love relationship is keeping these competing factors in mind. It’s easy for conflicts to occur.

Enjoying rewards can violate responsibility. “It’s not okay for you to spend on whatever you like when it increases our indebtedness. A happy relationship means we share decisions about money.”

Exercising responsibility can create risk. “It’s not okay for you to work such long hours that you’re too tired for us. A happy relationship means we have time for each other.”

Enduring risks can do damage that rewards cannot repair. “It’s not okay for you to keep criticizing me and then assume by suddenly acting nice that will make everything better. A happy relationship means that we treat each other well.”

Imbalance in rewards can create resentment. “We always do what you want, not what I want. A happy relationship means we both do some of what pleases the other.”

Conflicts about rewards, responsibilities, and risks need to be taken seriously because they create the possibility that the compromise is not working and needs to be adjusted. At least for one party, the relationship may be feeling like a ‘bad bargain.”

The Bad Bargain

So what is a bad bargain? It is a realization that, at least for one partner, the current costs (responsibilities and risks) of the relationship outweigh the benefits (rewards), and that as currently constructed and conducted the efforts and sacrifices made are not worthwhile.

The rewards may feel inadequate or absent. The limits of responsibility and loss of freedom may feel excessive. The hurts from risks may feel ongoing and seriously harmful.

There is a danger remaining too long at the bad bargain point. When sources for it are not addressed, resentment and estrangement can build. At worst, when a couple adjusts to a bad bargain, outside flings or affairs can begin, casual relationships that are meant to fulfill what is being missed.

Not speaking up at the bad bargain point for fear of making trouble or looking foolish or arousing disapproval or causing conflict means that you have agreed to settle for dissatisfaction. Willing to adjust to what you don’t like, you may continue to grow the relationship in this unhappy way. So, what is a better answer? I believe it is to contract for love.

Contracting for Love

Consider whether the following pledge feels like something you and your partner want to make.

“We each accept that the best love relationship is going to be a mutually satisfying compromise of rewards, responsibilities, and risks.”

“We each declare the rewards that matter most to us, the responsibilities that we are willing to undertake, and the risks of injury to which we are most sensitive.”

“We each promise to speak up and talk about the relationship whenever the compromise has reached a “bad bargain” point and is seriously not working for one or both parties.”

“We each commit to continually readjust the compromise in response to inevitable life changes within us, between us, and around us.”

“We each strive for a relationship that for both parties maximizes the rewards, moderates the responsibilities, and minimizes the risks.”

“And we both agree that a long lasting, loving relationship between us is well worth compromising for.”

So the answer to the question about why young love relationships have to be so complicated is actually quite simple: they are inherently complex.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE” (Wiley, 2013.)

Next week’s entry: Twelve ‘Labors’ of Adolescence

 

Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D., is a psychologist in Austin, Texas. His most recent books are: The Connected Father, The Future of Your Only Child, and Stop Screaming.

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