Romance and dating are typically at the forefront of teens’ minds. The teenage years, after all, mark the beginning of romantic attraction and the time to begin exploring dating, romance, and sex. Moreover, these experiences are often viewed as symbols of status among adolescents, with more frequent dating and sexual experiences as markers of greater social standing.
Aside from a potential bump in popularity during the teen years, how helpful are these experiences for long-term romantic success? Recent research suggests they may matter less than teens think.
In a study examining 165 teenagers from ages 13 to 30, my colleagues and I found that the key predictors of romantic life satisfaction at ages 27-30 turned out to be related to their adolescent experiences with friendships as opposed to romantic relationships.
We identified the abilities to form and maintain friendships as key ingredients for predicting later satisfaction with romantic life. Because adolescent romantic relationships tend to be more short-lived than friendships, friendships may offer teens better opportunities to develop the social skills required of more adult-like romantic relationships.
Perhaps even more striking, however, was that several types of romantic experiences during adolescence failed to emerge as predictors of long-term romantic satisfaction. Adolescent romantic experiences including romantic relationship satisfaction, sexual experiences, number of previous dating partners, and physical attractiveness had no link to long-term romantic satisfaction.
This isn’t to say that romantic experiences during adolescence aren’t important. Instead, certain types of romantic experiences and relationship contexts might have greater long-term benefits than others. For example, research has suggested that teens may benefit the most from having a few deep relationships rather than many casual flings. And although early adolescent involvement in romantic relationships can sometimes be associated with problematic outcomes, consistent (as opposed to sporadic) romantic involvement during the teenage years has been associated with having more supportive future romantic relationships during the 20s.
Importantly, the development of social skills in friendships noted above was not tested as a predictor of current romantic relationship involvement, nor of current romantic relationship quality. Instead, it was a predictor of how young adults felt their overall romantic life was going, regardless of whether or not they were currently in a relationship. Thus, establishing key social skills within friendships may not only help young adults find success when they are in a future relationship but also resiliency to feel good about their romantic lives when they are not.
Despite the sometimes obsessive fixation on accruing romantic experiences during adolescence, teens may be better off tending to their friendships to reap the benefits of romantic satisfaction in the future.
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Allen, J.P. & Narr, R.K. & Kansky, J. & Szwedo, D.E. (2019). Adolescent peer relationship qualities as predictors of long-term romantic life satisfaction. Child Development, 1-14.
Madsen, S. D., & Collins, W. A. (2011). The salience of adolescent romantic experiences for romantic relationship qualities in young adulthood. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 21, 789-801.
Seiffge-Krenke I. (2003). Testing theories of romantic development from adolescence to young adulthood: Evidence of developmental sequence. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 27, 519–531.