When teenagers fall in love, what have they fallen into? The answer is: into a depth of caring more complex and compelling than they have known before.
From what little I’ve seen in counseling, the majority of dating adolescents in high school do not fall in love. They don’t experience in a single relationship that magical match that includes: sexual attraction, mutual enjoyment, emotional knowing, social compatibility, sensitive consideration, physical affection, friendship feeling, and romantic excitement all combining to create a sense of caring, commitment, and completeness that make the other person the only one for you. This experience is reserved for a comparative few, for no more than about 15 percent would be my guess.
Life changing is how “in-love” feels in adolescence because it is a far more moving and compelling relationship than the young people have known before. The experience is all consuming — so each is always on the other’s mind. This is the person they want to spend all their time with — so time with good friends is often set aside. It is a merged relationship — so each one feels part of the other, not quite whole when they are not together. They are highly sensitized to each other — so both are alert to subtle interpersonal signals and are easily hurt by small slights from each other. The intimacy is deeper than with anyone else. Too feel so deeply known and deeply knowing makes other relationships seem shallower by comparison.
There can be a sense of a desperate attachment — so the joy of having each other is coupled with the fear of losing each other. And there are conflicts of a painful kind as they wrestle with issues of freedom and possessiveness, honesty and deception, trust and jealousy, togetherness and separateness, satisfaction and sacrifice.
It’s important for parents to be mindful of these tensions in order to appreciate the complexity with which their son or daughter is dealing. In-love comes at a price of periodically being very unhappy when harmony is temporarily lost or obstacles are encountered.
Parents usually become concerned when their teenager falls in love in high school. Perhaps they don’t want their adolescent to get so serious so young. Perhaps they don’t trust, feel comfortable with, or approve their son or daughter’s chosen love. Perhaps they suspect some mistreatment might occur. Perhaps they fear the increased likelihood of sexual involvement. Of course, they can try prohibiting the relationship, but in doing so their opposition can intensify the attraction they are trying to stop.
In most cases, they gain more influence with the young people by befriending the relationship, welcoming them to hang out in their home when parents are present, providing an empathetic response and listening ear when the relationship hits a hard spot, and making their wishes known about how sexual activity is to be safely managed — because in most adolescent in-love relationships, sexual intimacy is sought to affirm emotional intimacy that the couple feels. In general, I believe it is better for parents to count themselves in with support than to factor themselves out with opposition. Parents can be useful sounding boards as the young people try to sort out the complexities and perplexities of love.
What parents may not appreciate are a number of positives that come from these in-love relationships. For example, by focusing on each other and time together, the couple often excuses themselves from a lot of the wilder partying and trouble making that goes with high school socializing. By experiencing a level of caring with each other that is far deeper than that of casual dating relationships, the couple socially matures in ways many of their less involved peers do not. By trying to honor the love they feel through treating each other sensitively and well, they can learn loving skills for later relationships.
Of course, the reality is that most high school in-love relationships do not survive. They fall out of love or cannnot bridge the separation that graduation brings, when separate paths diverge, new directions are taken, and fresh opportunities and challenges open up. In most cases there is no pain-free way to bring an in-love relationship to a close. At least one party is going to feel injured when the other is ready to move on.
Break ups of in-love relationships in high school are particularly painful for the one who is broken off and feels hurt, helpless, betrayed, abandoned, or rejected. Sometimes the response to being jilted in an in-love relationship seems to be sex-linked.
Young women often grieve pain from loss and may respond more depressively. Allowing themselves to feel deeply saddened, they are often able to reach out for social support to help them though a hard passage. At worst, they are at risk of doing themselves harm. "I can't live without him!" "I'll never be loved again!"
Young men, by contrast, who are more accustomed to toughen up, suppress hurt feelings, and go it alone, may respond more aggressively. They may be more inclined to manage pain from loss by turning it into anger. They may decide to do something about it, responding to get the woman back for hurt received, to reassert control, to save social face, to get even. At worst, they are at risk of doing harm to the other person. "She was just out to hurt me!" "She'll pay for this!"
Often young men seem to fall in-love harder perhaps because they are more starved for emotional intimacy than young women who often have enjoyed it with close female friends over the growing up years. Young men may not have been used to opening up and emotionally sharing with anyone, least of all with male friends. In high school, young men in love who are jilted can be more deeply hurt than they let on, less likely to seek emotional support, and more prone to retaliation too.
So the guideline for parents is: take falling in love and in-love breakups seriously with your adolescents. Don’t dismiss them as just the rough and tumble of “puppy love.” If your son or daughter in high school is jilted in an in-love relationship, you should put that young person on a watch for any signs of a depressive or aggressive response.
You need to encourage talking the painful experience out so that destructive acting out does not occur, and to make sure they are moving through the loss in a healing way as they contemplate some grown up lessons sadly learned when broken love occurs.
Love is risky because the person we love the most can hurt us the worst. Love that feels forever does not necessarily last forever. And we can’t always measure the other person’s love for us by our love for them.
Next entry: When Adolescence Becomes the Enemy of School Achievement