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The 5 Kinds of Teen Love

Low-risk, blind love, sliders, and more.

Romantic relationships among adolescents are the subject of literature since time immemorial—Romeo and Juliet were teens—more recently blowing up on social media and in popular entertainment, where star-crossed lovers and vampire heartthrobs meet on the field of binge-worthy battle.

According to Bradford, Miller, and Higginbotham (Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy, 2022), though, while research has looked at factors shaping adolescent relationships, it has yet to examine the kinds of relationships teens have.

Why It Matters

Relationships during the teenage years are important sources of both well-being and vulnerability. Furthermore, early romantic experiences influence adult relationships.

Understanding the current state of adolescent relationships allows us to see what kids deal with, and provide the best advice and support possible, with up to 75 percent of U.S. teens getting into a serious relationship.

Early relationships may be a source of resilience and satisfaction and, unfortunately, also abuse, unwanted sex, and unhealthy patterns of relationship and control, which may set the stage into adulthood. Getting it right, out of the gate, is the way to roll.

Starting with the Fundamentals

Bradford and colleagues looked at several key factors using an approach called “Latent Class Analysis” (LCA) to derive a final set adolescent relationship types based on distinct data patterns.

The work draws on behavioral systems theory, an outgrowth of attachment theory, positing that secure working models are associated with superior communications, healthy boundaries, and good self-care.

They considered the following factors1:

Sliding versus deciding, whether teens make spur-of-the-moment decisions or are thoughtful about beginning and staying in relationships.

Refusal of unwanted intimacy, noting that 40 percent of males and 62 percent of females report engaging in unwanted or ambivalent sex, connected with gender norms and societal expectations as well as sense of self-efficacy.

Romanticism, the idealized sense that “love will conquer all." This has pros and cons. Pros are that partners may persist through adversity to achieve durable, satisfying relationships; cons are that they tend to make poor decisions, sticking to them even when ill-fated. Boys tend to be more romantic.

Control tolerance, where factors like dependency and relationship role models (e.g. family, peer, and media relationships) lead to either acceptance of controlling, even abusive, behaviors or a stronger sense of boundaries, with the capacity to make decisions favorable for one’s own well-being to enchance mutual growth and autonomy, and reject inadvisable relationships.

Additional factors studied included age, prior relationship experience, gender and baseline attitudes about personal well-being.

Across 19 U.S. high schools, students in grades 9 through 12 were recruited from Health classes and Adult Role courses, with 2,682 students completing the study. About 50 percent were female, and 70 percent white. About 65 percent came from two-parent families, the remainder from either single-parent or blended families. Most were not in a relationship at the time of the study, with 22.9 percent in relationships of 8.7 months average duration. The completed items from various assessments were analyzed using LCA.

5 Classes of Adolescent Romantic Relationship

  1. Low Risk (29.8 percent). This group was characterized by low risk across all factors. They used thoughtful decision-making, noted they would be able to refuse unwanted physical intimacy, would not tolerate controlling partners, and were less likely to be romantic idealizers. Being female and reporting greater well-being were predictors of this class. They were more likely to be in a relationship. Membership in the remaining four classes was discussed relative to this class.
  2. Blindlove (28.4 percent). This class had high levels of Romanticism. Boys were more likely to be in this group, as were those with greater reported well-being, compared with those in the low-risk class.
  3. Slider (17.5 percent). Those in this group were similar to the low-risk class with one exception—they were less likely to use thoughtful decision-making. Those with greater well-being were less likely to be in this group.
  4. Blindlove Slider (16.3 percent). Participants reported greater Romanticism and less thoughtful decision-making. Boys were more likely to be in this group, those with greater well-being less likely. Those in this group were at elevated risk for succumbing to unwanted physical intimacy.
  5. Control-Tolerant (8 percent). Members of this group were more likely to accept control. They were moderately romantic and moderately inclined to thoughtful decision-making, more likely to be male. They were more likely to be in a relationship, putatively because those less tolerant of control ended relationships.

The Future of Teenage Love

This is an important step in defining the types and patterns, and associated risks and benefits, of adolescent romantic relationships.

For thoughtful and engaged parents, teens, educators and clinicians, this work is immediately relevant not only for understanding teenage love landscape but also for designing interventions to identify high-risk teens and provide informed health education for adolescents.

Such factors as Romanticism, likelihood of agreeing to unwanted sex and training in informed consent for sexual activity, cognitive style when making relationship decisions, and capacity for self-efficacy in rejecting unwanted sexual advances and controlling behaviors are important to assess on an individual basis, as well as social factors young people today face.

Future research with more diverse demographics, digging deeper into family influences, will deepen knowledge.

Notably in this study, whether parents were together or not, whether families were two-parent, single, or blended did not predict relationship style. Including measures of childhood adversity and individual parental attachment style, personality-related factors, and other variables will further refine understanding of this critical formative stage of relationships.

For adults, looking back and reflecting upon formative relationships, and how they have (or perhaps have not) changed since their early experiences with love, is certainly useful for self-knowledge. It's also helpful for potentially modifying how to approach adult relationships if they aren’t going as desired.

For those who remain preoccupied with unresolved youthful relationships, nursing broken hearts even years later, the work may help with coming to terms and moving forward by providing actionable insight.

The five factors discussed remain important for relationships of all sorts—romantic, family, professional, even with oneselfthroughout the lifespan.

Facebook image: Kzenon/Shutterstock


1. Measures used included 10 items from various scales: the “Love is Enough” subscale of the Attitudes about Romance and Mate Selection Scale (e.g. “Only a fool ever walks away from marrying the person he or she loves deeply”) , three items from the Relationship Deciding Scale (e.g. I know how to pace a relationship in a safe way”), refusal of unwanted physical intimacy (e.g. “If a girlfriend/boyfriend wanted to have physical intimacy, but I didn’t, I would find it pretty hard to say ‘no’”), the Control subscale of the Intimate Partner Violence Attitude Scale (e.g. “I would never try to keep a partner from doing things with other people”), and the Psychological Well-Being scale (e.g. “I am a happy person”).

Kay Bradford, Jacqueline A. Miller & Brian Higginbotham (2022): Good Love,
Bad Love? A Latent Class Analysis of Adolescent Romantic Relationship Cognitions, Journal of
Couple & Relationship Therapy, DOI: 10.1080/15332691.2022.2149651

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