Unlucky in Love? Can You Blame Your Teenage Self?

Teenage good looks and sexual experience don't guarantee healthy adult romances.

Posted Mar 21, 2019

fizkes/Shutterstock
Source: fizkes/Shutterstock

When you think back on your high school years, which relationships stand out in your mind? Intense friendships and your BFF? Feeling like you weren’t one of the “popular kids,” but still having a group of kindred spirits who were there for you during the drama of adolescence and the everyday boredom, as well? Experimenting sexually in short-term, insignificant relationships? A lot of high school experiences won’t necessarily predict the future. The kids voted “Most Likely to Succeed” may wind up in a drudge jobs making a lot less than the guy who was overlooked completely during the “senior superlatives” elections. The “Most Attractive” students may have been the fantasy date of half the high school, but that doesn’t mean that their ability to develop healthy dating or committed relationships as adults will be any more developed or successful than the rest of the student body. High school is often considered a microcosm of the larger civilization. It’s also a place where peer pressure and social status has greater power over young adults than it likely ever will again. What’s fascinating, though, is that the authors of a just-released research study (Allen et al., 2019) have found an interesting relationship between your high school sex life (or lack thereof) and your adult romantic relationships.

Step-by-Step, Not All at Once

It turns out that it doesn’t matter what your level of sexual experience in high school might have been when it comes to your success in adult romantic relationships. In fact, the most reliable predictors of being able to find and maintain healthy romantic relationships in adulthood are a slew of adolescent relational skills. Allen et al.’s (2019) findings exhibit an interesting chronological and developmental trajectory which gives evidence that we don’t just show up in adulthood ready to live happily ever after our tumultuous teen years.

Your Awkward 13-Year-Old Self

Thinking back to your awkward, 13-year-old self, how positive were your expectations for your peers and your friendships? If you were all about being there for your besties and expected them to be there for you, those early relationship lessons probably contributed to a higher level of relationship competency today as an adult. But if you had low expectations for others, that may have been a sign that you’d be more willing to settle for a less satisfying romantic relationship as an adult.

Not only did your 13-year-old peer expectations influence your adult relational behaviors, so, too, might your level of assertiveness with peers at 13. If you entered your teen years with enough confidence to assert yourself when you needed to with friends — in a healthy, appropriate manner — then it’s likely that you’re also able to assert yourself in romantic relationships in such a way that you can ask for what you need and feel confident that you deserve it.

Turning the Corner at 16

Now, go back to who you were in those mid-teen years. Did you feel good about your ability to engage with peers socially and to form strong, enduring friendships? Around 15 or 16 is when our ability to master and sharpen our intimate relationship skills seems to really matter. Building healthy intimate relationships with our adolescent friends is a keystone marker for being successful in serious, long-term romantic relationships 10 or 15 years later. Think about the ups-and-downs and potential for drama in our adolescent lives — if you were able to hold together a friendship or two when it can feel like the world is spinning out of control, or school or parents are closing in on you or your freedom, it’s a good sign that you will be able to hold together a romantic relationship as an adult when faced with the stressors and critical incidents that adult relationships can face.

Interpersonal development is a process that doesn’t happen overnight. Learning to be a rock-solid friend or partner happens over time as we learn more about ourselves and the ways we need to be in order to attract the type of relationships that we will find most satisfying. Self-confidence is important, but narcissistic beliefs are not. Self-respect is essential, but respect for friends and partners is equally important, as well. Having the ability to hang in there and weather the storms that relationships encounter is key; being mindful and avoiding any tendency to create or intensify storms within your relationship is mandatory, as well.

When a partner accuses you of acting like a spoiled child or being immature, don’t dismiss the feedback out-of-hand. Perhaps your partner sees an area ripe for growth that would be worth the effort of refining.

References

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.

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