Helping Older Adolescents Evaluate a Love Relationship

Since school provides no class in Relationship Management, parents can help.

Posted Oct 17, 2016

Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.

Actual love relationships become more frequent in older adolescence, during the high school and college age years. 

Before that, "love" is more frequently confused with crushes. These are idealized projections on another person that result in a romantic attraction, mostly of the fantasy kind, which is why most crushes fail the test of reality and do not last.

It's when loving feelings for and from another person motivate the desire to continue and deepen this attachment that it can become increasingly challenging and confusing to navigate.  

The more caring the relationship grows, the more complicated to manage it becomes. Intimacy is demanding that way. And because love is such a dominant emotion, it is easy to lose perspective on what is happening  and to lose judgment about what to do.

It is when a young person is feeling frustrated, uncertain, confused, injured, or ambivalent in her or his attachment that parents of the empathetic and non-judgmental kind can be of supportive use. They can give the young person some frameworks for considering the nature and conduct of a healthy and loving relationship to help inform understanding and to guide decision-making

To that end, what follows are several aspects of such relationships to which parents might want to speak: Treatment, Sharing, and Mutuality.


In a significant caring relationship, how young people involved act toward each other and toward themselves matters. The more caring the relationship, the more there is emotionally at stake, the more carefully they have to monitor their own and each other’s conduct. To that end, they need to be able to affirmatively answer four treatment questions for the relationship to be okay.

“Do I like how I treat myself in the relationship?”

“Do I like how I treat the other person in the relationship?”

“Do I like how the other person treats me in the relationship?”

“Do I like how the other person treats themselves in the relationship?”

So, for example, if I treat myself as a person of equal standing in the relationship, if I treat the other person in the relationship as worth listening to, if the other person treats me with empathy when I feel down, if the other person takes a fair share of responsibility when we don’t get along, then the relationship sounds like it is going okay.

However if, for example, I treat myself as inferior in the relationship, if I automatically defer to the other person, if the other person becomes hostile when we disagree, if the other person treats themselves as entitled to get their way, then there may be work to do in the relationship.

Caring or love is never a good excuse to treat the other person, be treated by the other person, or treat oneself badly.

Because treatment behaviors determine the quality of the relationship, it is the responsibility of the teenager to monitor all four treatment questions to make sure it is proceeding on a constructive course.      


One definition of caring relationship is anytime two young people actively share a positive emotional connection with each other that they want to continue. The outcome is complicated because now they have to manage the interests of three competing parties in their relationship – of Me, of You, and of Us. For the relationship to go well, the needs of all three parties must be met, and there are times when this is hard to do. When the sharing is not working well for one party, any of four sharing complaints can be expressed.

“This relationship is all You!” Here one partner feels like they are living too much on the other person’s terms, that the other person is making all the important decisions. “I do and we do whatever you want to do!”

“This relationship is all Me!” Here one partner feels they have too much responsibility for directing and maintaining the relationship. “Whatever you do or we do is always left up to me!”

“This relationship is all Us!” Here one partner fees like they have no individual freedom in the relationship for a life apart. “We do everything together; we spend all our time together; I need to have a separate life too!”

“There is no Us in our relationship!” Here one partner feels like they have insufficient contact with each other and are living too much apart. “You do your thing, I do my thing, and we hardly spend any time together anymore!”

Whenever a sharing complaint is expressed on either side of the relationship, how sharing with each other is being managed needs to be discussed and perhaps renegotiated. Usually, when sharing doesn’t work for one party, then the relationship is no longer working well for both.


Mutuality is about both parties making sufficient ongoing efforts to maintain the equity in their relationship. This means:

There is adequate Reciprocity so each party makes valued contributions to each other’s and their joint well-being; 

There is adequate Consideration so each party is responsive to each other’s sensitivities and welfare through little acts of tenderness that can signify so much;

And there is adequate Compromise when wants diverge so each party moves off immediate self-interest to find a common solution both can support.

If the relationship looks like it might or has become a sexually active one (which is increasingly likely in adolescent love relationships) parents should give their opinion about this advisability. In addition to explaining how love doesn't require sex, how sex doesn't guarantee love, and how sober sex is safest, parents could choose to explain what healthy sexual mutuality might be if that physical intimacy is going on.

For example, in terms of Reciprocity: The experience would be conducted in a way that brings pleasure to both parties.

For example, in terms of Consideration: The experience would be observant of each other’s comfort and safety.

For example, in terms of Compromise: The experience would be governed by joint consent of both parties, with no manipulation or coercion in play.

Although first love is usually not lasting love in adolescence, the conduct of that caring relationship can have lasting influence, particularly when positive treatment, adequate sharing, and basic mutuality are learned. Although the magic may wear off, good lessons from good experience can linger on as adolescent love matures young people for later love experience to come.

Perhaps the most important young lesson to come away with is a precautionary one. Since love increases emotional vulnerability to each other, the one you love the most  can hurt you the worst; and hurts will happen. Thus it's important to remember that love does not entitle the other person to harm you, does not obligate you to accept this mistreatment, nor does it make it okay for you to unmindfully or willfully harm them. So when inevitable injuries are given or received, they must be talked about. On these painful occasions, expressing sorrow, apologizing, even making amends, are not enough unless accompanied by this commitment to reform: "I will never act this way again."

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE,” (Wiley, 2013.) Information at:

Next week’s entry: Adolescence and “Getting Over” Parental Divorce