Adolescence and What High School Dating Has to Teach

Dating begins the practice for more intimate social coupling relationships

Posted Oct 28, 2019

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

Is it normal to date in high school? Yes. Is it normal not to date in high school? Yes. Which is best? Neither. Readiness to date varies enormously, and this variation should be respected. 

Dating is complicated

While dating can bring the enjoyment of acting older and more intense social knowing, it can also create pressure (“What do I wear?” “What do I say?” “What will we do?”) And when any degree of romantic attraction is aroused, it can create common questions and concerns.

“How much time should we spend together and apart?” 

“Why does more caring make me more easily hurt?"

"How honest should I be about what I feel and want?"

“Whose needs should matter most – mine, yours, or ours?”

This last is complicated because all three sets of competing needs are now demanding attention in the two-party dating relationship. 

Dating is challenging

Enjoyable as it can be, dating in high school is challenging. It demands interpersonal risk-taking and coping with some emotional discomfort. In this sense, non-daters who only hang out with friends for company in high school often lead simpler and less stressful social lives.  

Sometimes parents dismiss adolescent dating: “It’s not serious.” I disagree because it’s formative. Even casual dating is a practice exercise in how to conduct oneself, how to treat the other person and to be treated, in a social couple relationship. 

Significant decisions are constantly being made. “When she criticized my inexperience, I kept apologizing.” “When he didn't want to stop, I gave in.” By the same token, a romantic break-up can leave both ex-partners better prepared for the next caring relationship. “Even though we didn’t see a future together, we were always able to talk out and work our differences. So that was good.” 

Dating is a process of approximation as young people learn important social coupling skills that bear on how they will enter a significant partnership later on, which young people are increasingly likely to do in the young adult years—around ages 23 – 30.

Dating has much to teach

Three sets of coupling skills to learn as ongoing dating becomes more frequent and serious are sharing, mutuality, and resolving a disagreement.

1) Consider the need for sharing. A continuing dating relationship requires the sharing of joint decision-making, like choices about how and when to spend time together, and sharing sufficient information so the relationship feels current and close. 

Now there are four common sharing complaints in dating that can arise:

  • This relationship is all you (control): “You make all the decisions.”
  • This relationship is all me (responsibility): “I have to decide everything.” 
  • This relationship is all us (inadequate separation): “I need room for life apart.”
  • There is no us in the relationship (excess separation): “We have no time together.” 

When these kinds of complaints are expressed the couple needs to pay attention and address how sharing is being conducted and how it might be managed differently. 

2) Consider the need for mutuality. Mutuality is the capacity for equitable two-way living in the relationship. This requires:

Reciprocity – each party contributes to the other’s well-being (“You emotionally support me and I emotionally support you.”) Problem: “I do more for you than you do for me.”  

Consideration -- each party respects the other’s needs for safety and sensitivity (“We observe the little things that make a big difference to each other”). Problem: “I’ve told you that I don’t like to snuggle that way!”

Compromise – couple partners sacrifice some self-interest to maintain the relationship (“Both of us give in some to each other to get along.”) Problem: “I’m always expected to be flexible when we disagree.”

Monitoring mutuality is the job of both parties.

3) Consider the need for resolving disagreement. Human differences in characteristics, values, habits, and wants beset every human relationship. Dating couples, no matter how casual or serious, have to work through and around these differences, which in fact is a lot of the “work” in any working dating relationship. 

Conflict can result in the couple when both parties agree to disagree over some significant opposition or incompatibility between them. Now the challenge is to bridge this human difference by crafting an arrangement that both can support, thus unifying a relationship that has momentarily become divided.

“I don’t like going to that kind of party!” “Well, I do!” They are invited or expected to attend as an established couple; now what? 

They have to treat conflict not as a contest or competition, but as a time for working together as a team. By what creative problem solving, by what communication, by what compromise, by what concession, by what changes, by what combination of all of these can they craft a solution that supports their ongoing relationship?

Maybe something like this: “We’ll go for an hour, we’ll hang together, we’ll talk to people we like, and we won’t get into vaping or smoking or whatever else people are doing. And then we’ll leave to go out and eat together. People will understand. They know that as a couple we like special time by ourselves.” 

A realtionship checklist 

Finally, parents can offer the teenager a quick checklist for assessing the treatment given and received between the couple. In a healthy dating relationship, the young person should be able to answer "yes" to four basic treatment questions. If a "no" comes up, that means the relationship needs work.

  • "Do I like how I treat myself in the relationship?" like a person of equal worth.
  • "Do I like how I treat the other person in the relationship?" like listening to what they say.
  • "Do I like how the other person treats themselves in the relationship?" like admitting mistakes.
  • "Do I like how the other person treats me in the relationship?" like respecting my needs and limits

Parents should treat adolescent dating seriously because the experience is educational.  They should observe what lessons the young person seems to be learning, recognizing the good and suggesting those that might risk harm. Among these is for the adolescent to remember that when navigating the complexity of dating, to help keep it safe, it’s always best to keep dating substance-free