Teen Love & Dating in Today’s New World
Part II in a Three Part Series on Teenage Dating, Love, and Sex
Posted December 22, 2015
Ah, love. The stuff that makes the world go ’round, leaves us swooning, and creates that feeling of walking on air with butterflies in our bellies, barely able to catch our breath. Also the stuff that makes us want to pull our hair out, scream at the top of our lungs, and declare all-out emotional warfare. Love, despite its ups, downs, and unpredictability, is something we’re all after. Young, old, male, female, gay, straight…when we are asked about our greatest hope or goal in life, our response usually centers around obtaining a stable and loving relationship with a romantic partner. In fact, love is such an important construct that researchers have studied it for years, investigating the different types, taxonomies, and styles, as well as how to keep it once you’ve finally found that elusive and magical potion. But what I want to explore in this chapter is that transformation from the loving bonds we share with our parents and family to the passionate union we seek in a romantic partner, and which we seemingly need for survival as individuals and as a species.
What is love, anyway? The word is tossed around, overused, misused, quoted, and commercialized so much that it’s difficult to determine what it really means. Certainly, the context in which we consider this emotion matters: I love to read; I love Chinese food; I love my mother. To be clear, I am interested in how we develop and pursue the takes-my-breath-away, euphoric, romantic love that is so sought after. My two daughters and I were watching a movie the other night called Wedding Crashers (we’re all suckers for rom-coms), and we heard Owen Wilson say, “True love is the soul’s recognition of its counterpoint in another” . . . sigh. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary lists various definitions: “a feeling of strong or constant affection for a person”; “attraction that includes sexual desire”; and “the strong affection felt by people who have a romantic relationship.” But do any of these descriptions really answer our question?
As children, we experience love in the form of unconditional care and affection from our parents. That is indeed love, but does that concept somehow shift as we get older? When we become teens, is one form replaced by another, or is it the same construct on some blissfully complicated continuum? Some researchers have argued that the “targets” of our intimacy change over time, so that intimacy with peers replaces intimacy with parents, and intimacy with peers of the opposite sex replaces intimacy with same-sex friends. There are two problems with this line of reasoning: first, the terms intimacy and love, despite much overlap, are not the same thing and should not be used interchangeably. Romantic love is basically intimacy with the added bonus of sexual attraction and passionate commitment—the beautiful sexual icing on the delicious intimacy cake, if you will. Second, most researchers contend that, instead of anyone being replaced or made unimportant, as we get older and expand our social network, new targets of intimacy and affection are added to old ones. I propose that the same thing happens with love. Not only does our concept and understanding of love shift from that which we feel for our parents, siblings, dogs, and so on to a richer and deeper feeling for another person outside our familial circle, but it also cumulatively adds to the concept of love that we began with. This is why so many people exclaim, “I never knew love could be so . . . amazing, deep, fulfilling, complicated, exhausting...” You get the picture.
Before we continue with how romantic love develops in adolescence, let’s consider dating. I realize that many parents labor over if and when to allow their teen to begin dating. I clearly recall, when I began to show interest in dating boys, my father saying something about putting me into a convent until I was thirty! But again, because I truly believe that knowledge is power, I would like to offer some historical perspective, so as to alleviate any angst over your little girl or little boy going out with some kid you don’t know or trust. In past generations, dating in high school or college, for at least some, served a very specific function: mate selection. That was certainly the case for many in previous cohorts of college women seeking what was so optimistically termed an “MRS. degree.” Offended? Don’t shoot the messenger: I’m simply relaying historical factoids. Because marriage today, if it occurs at all, is happening much later in life (the average age is around twenty-seven for women and twenty-nine for men) dating for high school students has now taken on an entirely new meaning.
In today’s world, dating in adolescence no longer holds the sole purpose of mate selection; rather, it has become an introduction to the world of intimacy, relationship roles, sexual experimentation, and, yes, romantic love. It’s almost like practice for the real thing that is yet to come. And despite the fact that high school dating for today’s teenagers has little to do with long-term commitments and/or marriage, modern-day romantic relationships among teens are very common, with approximately one-fourth of twelve-year olds, one-half of fifteen-year olds, and more than two-thirds of eighteen-year olds reporting being in a romantic, dating relationship in the past eighteen months.
To help you put things in perspective (i.e., is the age at which my teen begins dating normal?), on average here in the U.S. teens begin dating around the age of thirteen, and by the age of sixteen more than 90 percent of teens have had at least one date.5 And finally, the average duration of romantic relationships in high school is about six months. Some of you will read this and think, “Dating? My baby? At twelve?” That thought will quickly be followed by a sense of dread that feels like someone unexpectedly delivered a hard, swift kick right to your gut. But let’s think about this: when we contemplate teens dating at twelve, or perhaps even fourteen years of age, what we must realistically consider is what dating means at that age. What are they really doing?
Most often, dating during early adolescence involves exchanging contact information (i.e., giving cell phone numbers for texting, becoming friends or followers on social networking sites); engaging in harmless communication via text and SMSs; seeing each other at school; and maybe even holding hands as they walk through the halls, displaying their “couplehood” so that peer onlookers can eat their hearts out with envy. It’s a social status thing. By the age of fifteen or sixteen, teens move toward qualitatively different and more meaningful romantic relationships; certainly, by the time they are seventeen or eighteen, they begin to think about their romantic relationships in a much deeper, more mature, and long-term way, with significant growth in both emotional and physical interests and commitment. These older adolescents tend to form more adult-like versions of romantic love and attachment, and stay in relationships that last over a year, on average. This is, whether we like it or not, when things get real.
You recall me stating earlier that dating during the teen years serves as a type of practice for future relationships? In fact, in addition to helping to develop intimacy with others, dating serves many purposes for our teens. This is good news, really. Despite our reluctance and fear that our “babies” are venturing into the big scary world of dating, love, and sex, (most certainly to get their hearts shattered into a million pieces), by allowing our teens to date, we are actually helping them to become healthy, mature, informed individuals who are training to be good relational partners. Dating not only helps teens establish emotional and behavioral autonomy from their parents, it also furthers their development of gender identity, helps them learn about themselves and their own role as a romantic partner, and establishes social status and perhaps even popularity in their peer groups.
Having said all this, I should note that there are a couple of potential pitfalls when it comes to teens in the context of romantic relationships. First, studies have shown that early and intensive (exclusive and serious) dating before the age of fifteen can have a somewhat stunting effect on adolescents’ psychosocial development. By getting involved in serious relationships, spending virtually all their time with only one person, teens can run the risk of missing out on other types of social interactions (building other types of relationships, practicing intimacy, gaining different perspectives, and simply having fun with other friends!). This can prove limiting to them in terms of achieving their full potential of psychosocial growth and development. Conversely, research has also shown that adolescent girls, specifically, who do not date at all may tend toward underdeveloped social skills, excessive dependency on their parents, and feelings of insecurity when it comes to meeting romantic interests or potential partners.
In sum, allowing our teens to date and explore romantic relationships (in moderation) is a good thing. So, the next time you cringe at the prospect of your teen dating and possibly even becoming romantically involved or falling head-over-heels in love with another teen, remember that it is yet another way for him to grow and develop into the well-rounded, caring person you want him to be, particularly in the context of long-term, loving relationships.
More information on Love, Sex, Dating, and many other important topics related to Parenting Teens can be found in my book "The Angst of Adolescence: How to Parent Your Teen and Live to Laugh About It (link is external)" published by Bibliomotion, Inc.(link is external)Copyright © 2015 by Sara Villanueva