Is she the one for me?

Contrary to what many adults might think, teenagers are capable of lasting romantic relationships -- and they can get tremendous benefits from sexual experimentation.

Published February 4, 2003 8:26PM (EST)

Dear Dr. Ponton,

I am 19 years old and will turn 20 in February. I have been dating my current girlfriend for almost two and a half years. I know that I love this girl, but she is also the first girl that I would ever seriously call my girlfriend, and she is the first on many other levels as well.

As the relationship progresses, I wonder if she really is the one for me. She is two years older than I am, and has been in at least one long-term relationship before me. My question is this: Is there a way I can broach this subject, or maybe even cool things off for a bit, without killing this poor girl's feelings? I am the one who is afraid here, not her. I don't want her to suffer because of my inadequacies.

-- Confused Baltimore Boy

For several months I have wanted to address several well-written and thought-provoking letters that I've received from adolescents about a key topic for them -- dating and falling in love.

I am in debt to this young writer for his openness. It is clear that he cares deeply about his girlfriend, and that he and she have developed a caring relationship over the past two and a half years. This is an unusually long-term relationship for people of their age, but not too much of a stretch. On average, teen relationships last for 18 months, a fact which often surprises adults who tend to believe that kids get together and break up with lightning speed.

And the longevity of adolescent romances makes sense. A relationship offers the possibility of intimacy and self-knowledge through testing out and learning different roles with a partner. A relationship also brings further separation from parents, and, for many, the excitement of sexual experimentation. All of these are benefits tailor-made for adolescents, who struggle with confusion on all of these fronts. But it isn't just the perfect timing and developmental circumstances of romance that fuel longer relationships between teens. They are, contrary to what many adults may believe, capable of deeply felt attachment -- of love, even -- and of making the commitment that attachments like these require.

Teenage relationships are deeply felt, as this boy's letter reveals. Although adults often see teens as "just goofing around" and minimize the importance of their romances, many are quite developed. A serious teen relationship shows the compassion, caring and curiosity that is seen in serious relationships at all ages. For many, they are not superficial, and they can have lasting consequences. An unhappy breakup as a teenager can negatively affect a young person's future, sabotaging how they feel and act in later relationships. One teenage boy that I worked with several years ago was so disheartened after a breakup that he anticipated breakups in all of his subsequent relationships. But adolescent relationships, even if they are lasting and serious, don't have to become a blueprint for future relationships. Therapy can help a teenager resolve issues around an unhappy relationship or breakup while the wounds are still fresh.

The role of relationships during the teen years changes, reflecting adolescent development and growing maturity. Initially, there is often a focus on having a relationship in order to gain status or popularity, which works in part, but certainly has limitations. There is also excitement about simply having a boyfriend or girlfriend. This is effective because kids acquire a certain "coolness" for having a boyfriend (and, to a lesser extent, a girlfriend) and this sometimes helps teenagers prove to themselves that they are both normal and lovable.

There are complications linked to gender in early teen romances, however. Girls, in particular, often lose status for having sex but gain status for having a boyfriend, while boys usually gain status for having sex, but either lose or maintain status when they remain in monogamous, long-term relationships. As teens mature, having long-term relationships and developing a greater capacity for companionship and intimacy, these attitudes tend to change. But there are still key gender differences. One recent study, for instance, shows that by the time they got to college, men rated their partners as the most supportive person in their interpersonal network, while women gave equal ratings to their partners, mothers, same-sex friends and siblings. This gender difference underscores the fact that girls are more socially connected than boys, even as teenagers. This also touches on the fact that both sexes are often more comfortable being vulnerable with women.

At the same time that teenagers experience romantic relationships and develop the ability to create intimacy with a partner, the issue of sexuality becomes central to the relationship. Sexual risk-taking evolves early in adolescence, usually beginning with only limited physical contact. It's key, though, to understand that even something like kissing involves a certain degree of emotional risk. Learning how to be with another person in a close physical situation -- and feeling "good at it" -- enhances an adolescent's self-esteem and sense of sexual identity. It helps teenagers to understand what makes them feel good, and to begin to develop their sense of pleasure and eroticism.

I have learned this largely from listening to teenagers, who talk fairly openly about their sexual activities such as kissing, fondling, oral sex, etc. Given an opportunity, they are able to underscore the tremendous benefits that they have gained from sex. It also has dangerous aspects, well known to everyone, but it is important to focus on the often forgotten positive. Adults are so often are blinded by their own fears -- of STDs, unplanned pregnancy, premarital sex -- that they are unable to look back on their own adolescent experiences to see the intense love and thrilling newness of teenage romance.

Basic guidelines for teen relationships are identical to those required in trusting, responsible relationships for individuals of any age, and include treating the other person as an equal with mutual respect and caring, and communicating ideas and feelings, as well as listening to those of your partner. All intimate relationships involve taking risks and letting go of certain aspects of yourself -- your concept of the "ideal" relationship, your unfettered independence. A lot of adults don't think that teens are prepared for this type of relationship, but many are. Unfortunately, by underestimating a teenager's capacity for healthy relationships, adults fail to discuss with their kids how to have them.

A vital aspect of teen relationships -- of all relationships -- is that they change, and change requires both partners to learn to accept this mutability. Baltimore Boy is worried that he will hurt this "poor girl," that he might even kill off her feelings entirely, if he voices his questions about the future of their relationship. And he has reason to be concerned. Bringing up questions or doubts can threaten the stability of any relationship and this is often more difficult for teens than for adults because teens have not had as much experience telling other people difficult things (although it is a tough thing to accomplish at any age).

There is no way to bring up these feelings without causing an impact. First off, all conversation should be grounded in empathy and concern for the other persons' reactions. Having several conversations over an extended period of time, where the couple has time together and time apart, is often valuable. It is also important not to gossip or share the process with mutual friends, even though there can be a strong temptation to do so. Finally, teens should try not to second-guess how the other person will respond or what will happen after several conversations. Baltimore Boy should not assume that his expressed doubts will kill her feelings; in fact, it might result in quite the opposite.

I believe that it is important to have these types of conversations in person, particularly for teenagers who have not had as much experience instigating difficult conversations. Face-to-face interactions honor the importance and value of the relationship and the young people involved. There is often a strong temptation to avoid face-to-face contact in order to reduce pain or embarrassment. As teenagers often know better than anyone, e-mails, instant-message conversations, letters, notes, phone calls, and other indirect means of communication usually prolong pain and misunderstanding, stifling the kind of open and honest discussion that needs to happen.

Baltimore Boy's questions are normal in relationships. In fact, they are an integral part of the process of creating true intimacy, and they don't necessarily point to underlying inadequacies as he fears. However, since he has termed his concerns as inadequacies, it may be worth considering whether some therapy might help him better understand himself. There is an undercurrent in our culture that devalues teenagers and often makes them feel inadequate. I think that part of growing older is learning through self-exploration, a search for knowledge, and from the support of those who can help a teenager become more compassionate toward himself (or herself).

Is she the one, Baltimore Boy? It is a tough question that only he and his girlfriend can answer. He needs to remember, though, that there is nothing wrong, nothing inadequate, in wanting to find out. His concern shows how vital teen relationships are. They can be scary, but they offer the capacity for intimacy, pleasure and knowledge. They take tremendous courage, but they most often prove to be worth the great emotional and social risks that they require.

By Dr. Lynn Ponton

Dr. Lynn Ponton is a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. She is the mother of two teenagers and the author of "The Romance of Risk: Why Teenagers Do the Things They Do" and "The Sex Lives of Teenagers: Revealing the Secret World of Adolescent Boys and Girls."

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