The New Resilience

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Why Your Love Life Is a Version of Adolescent Romance

Your adult relationship is probably a version of adolescent romance

I'm being descriptive, not cynical, when I say that you and your partner are almost guaranteed to descend into what I call a "Functional Relationship," over time.  It's one that lopes along, more or less, but with ever-declining energy and connection, emotionally and sexually.  

Sound familiar?  Well, don't start blaming yourself or go looking for articles about "7 different ways to..."  Instead, reflect on this: Most people learn a way of relating within their romantic and sexual relationships that's actually a version of adolescent romance.  And that's not adult love.

"But I'm an adult," you may protest. "I grew out of that teen-age romance stuff long ago."  Not quite. We're socially conditioned into intimate relationships that are basically extensions of normal adolescent experience. That is, the features of  adolescent romance shape and define most of the expectations, behavior, and experience about romance and sexuality you carry into your adult life. Few realize it, because our culture offers little alternative. And that's a big problem, because adolescent romance is incompatible with building an adult love relationship.

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Take a look at some typical features of adolescent romance: Short-term intense arousal from a new partner. Infatuation and idealization of the new love, often followed by deflation and feelings of loss. Intense longing and yearning - especially when the person is unattainable or elusive. Emotional upheaval and turmoil. The novelist Graham Greene captured much of this in The Heart of the Matter, in which he described "...the intense interest one feels in a stranger's life, the interest the young mistake for love."

Emotional tumult and intense emotional-sexual arousal by a new partner are part of what you experience when those feelings are new - physiologically and emotionally. That's a part of normal developmental experience for hormone-driven teenagers. Dion captured the anguish this can cause in his classic song, "Why Must I Be A Teen-Ager In Love?" The problem is, most people are still singing the same tune at 40.

Men and women tend to become frozen within the residue of adolescent romance by the time they enter adulthood. It morphs into the Functional Relationship the longer they stay together.   A major reason is that adolescent love extended into adulthood undercuts the vitality and connection you need for a sustaining, long-term relationship.

You can see the features of adolescent romance in what adults do when they seek or form a new relationship. For example, manipulation and game playing; trying to find the right "strategy" to get and possess the partner; jockeying around for control, and so forth. Generally, we learn to associate intensity of such feelings with "real love."

Even though most people don't really enjoy being caught up in all this, most learn to accept it as part of "normal" love relationships. But a more accurate understanding is that it's an enthrallment with your own feeling of being "in love," much more than a response to the other. And the former is part of the adolescent experience.

In Western culture, our model of love has its origins in the middle ages. Back then, as de Rougemont described in his classic book, Love In The Western World, romantic love became associated with separation from the love "object." In effect, marriage became the "enemy" of passion. And remember, back then, people didn't live long enough to have much of an adulthood. It's no surprise that the quintessential portrayal of romantic love is Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Remember, the lovers were thirteen and fifteen.

de Rougemont explained that romance and sexuality became split off from marriage during that historical period. Passion came to be seen as the "enemy" of marriage. Feelings of romantic and sexual passion became linked with the experiences that first arise with adolescent awakening.  No wonder, the popular comment that a "passionate marriage" is the mother of all oxymorons!

For most people, their expectations, beliefs and behavior in love reflect much of the same sort of intoxication, tumult, maneuvering and struggle that are part of the adolescent experience. In short, most of what we call "love" today are variations of these adolescent themes: possessiveness, intense longing, chronic desire for newness and excitement, and fear of loss of identity if you "lose" the other. We're conditioned into associating love with the hormone-driven intensity of lust, the desire to "possess," and the tendency to idealize. This first experience of romance remains the core of adult love relationships for most men and women.  And our culture reinforces it through media portrayals of love that are equated with intense excitement within the moment.  Men and women will equate feelings of intense attraction with someone who's new and unknown. (And that can lead to affairs, as I wrote about in a previous post).

So - we've become conditioned to expect a struggle to control and possess; or to submit and surrender.  That bursting forth of new emotions and desires around being "in love" is so intoxicating because that's often then when you feel you're at your best - in your most alive and passionate state. In effect, we like being the person we are when we are enthralled with another. But we don't know how to evolve this excitement into a lasting form after the new person becomes familiar, or ceases to be a challenge to win over.  Then, as that initial intensity declines, you become vulnerable to losing interest. Or, you may think that your partner no longer loves you. It becomes increasingly difficult to navigate the changes that occur within a relationship and within yourself over time.

What's normal for the adolescent is crippling for the adult relationship. We haven't learned how to transform that into love that sustains emotional, sexual and spiritual vitality.  In future posts I'll write more about that could look like.  Stay tuned.

Personal blog: Progressive Impact

Web site: Center for Progressive Development

©2010 Douglas LaBier


Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., is a psychologist and the Director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, DC.


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