A Bumpy Road at Best: Another Look at Teenage Romance

"I don’t think teens think a relationship is that important. But, there is a general expectation that you must have a girlfriend or a boyfriend – or you’re not a real human being. You’re one of those scary alone people who don’t date."-- Derek, 17

Welcome to the world of teenage dating. Where one’s desirability is directly proportional to one’s self-worth. Before you’ve had time to put away your red scooter and Malibu Beach Barbie, all of your friends have coupled off. In the span of a single summer, your worth as a person is reduced to whether or not you can attract the opposite sex. If you're in a steady relationship by the time you’re 15? Normal. Never dated before 15? One of the scary people. And who wants to be a scary person?

As we get a little older, our education (and the messages) change somewhat. They become linked to sex. We are surrounded by warnings about pregnancy, STDs and what not to do. But, if fears about what can happen if you don't take the most responsible approach to sex aren't enough, a study that was released this year may give some of us one more reason to hold off a little on romance.

The study, by sociologists from Cornell University and the University of North Carolina, has shown that the more interest teens in the US have in romance, the more likely they are to develop the symptoms of depression. In fact, the study suggests that, particularly for young girls, the younger she takes on a serious relationship, the higher her likelihood of developing depression. Falling in love before the age of 17 also has a particularly significant effect on a teenager’s vulnerability to alcohol abuse and suicidal thoughts. Let the entire cast of all nine seasons of the Real World be your guide.

But the melodramatic angst of "seven strangers picked to live in a house" aside, depression is a huge problem among the US population, teenagers in particular. (In fact it affects one in ten of us.) These rates of depression among adolescents have been linked to how well young adults will fare in marriage later in life, and to how good they feel about themselves as they get older.

Ok, so we all know that love is a battlefield, but is it really that simple?

"Some romance, especially for a teenager, can be really harmful, especially if it eclipses other things that are important to you or begins to determine how much you’re worth as a person."

According to the study, those who reported being involved in many romantic relationships showed the highest rates of depression. Romance increases a girl’s risk of developing symptoms of depression by up to one third. This in comparison to boys of the same age who reported the same involvement, and teens of both sexes who reported no involvement in romantic relationships.

This is not to say that an interest in romance is a bad thing. Quite the contrary: The same research has shown that in adults, romantic relationships have a positive effect, giving grown-ups a positive feeling of wellbeing and self-esteem. But some romance, especially for a teenager, can be really harmful, especially if it eclipses other things that are important to you or begins to determine how much you’re worth as a person.

Maybe it is more about how one engages in romance, than when or if.

On analyzing the findings, the researchers came to the conclusion that when teens get involved in romantic relationships, they neglect relationships with family members, their lives at school and their friends. The relationships they rely on for stability during hard times begin to falter because they haven’t been maintained. The study suggests that maintaining those other connections, and having a support system that includes more than one person is vital to becoming a healthy adult.

Then again, it's always hard to tell whether faltering relationships and emotional instability are symptoms of depression in the first place. Perhaps the findings are a part of a vicious cycle. Feeling unloved (a big part of depression) leads teens to seek love through romantic relationships -- pursuing a deep need to be part of a unit larger than one. The end of these relationships reinforces the feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness and feeling unloved -- especially after one has poured large amounts of one's self into the relationship.

When I started talking to some teens about this, some of the guys were surprised to hear that relationships would impact mental health. But many of the girls were not surprised at all. The researchers explain that girls are more vulnerable to messages about romance.

This goes back to what it means to not be in a relationship. The idea that we suck if we’re single isn’t new. But don't question it as we go about our everyday lives. It can feel as if it’s an accepted truth, lodged in our minds. A truth we can hardly talk about.
"The idea that we suck if we’re single isn’t new. But don't question it as we go about our everyday lives. It can feel as if it’s an accepted truth, lodged in our minds. A truth we can hardly talk about."

"It’s a superficial, status thing," explains nineteen-year-old Dominique. "You want to be in a relationship with someone to show that you capable of attracting someone."

There is nothing wrong with us if we aren’t part of a couple and we shouldn’t have to be in a relationship to be happy. Many of us seem to know this, in theory anyway -- but that concept is a little harder to hold onto on an emotional level. However, the gender roles we play still give girls less outlets for self-expression and self-esteem. None of the girls I talked to came right out and admitted this, though. Gender roles are slowly changing, but now girls may often be put in a double bind; many of us still evaluate our selves based on whether boys find us attractive. It's just not cool to let on that that's the case.

But, is he immune from feeling like a loser if he’s not coupled off? No, boys struggle with gender roles, self-esteem issues and expectations, too. Society expects him to prove his masculinity and heterosexuality through a sexual (or otherwise) relationships with a woman. With this expectation in mind, we can see how dating can be just as harmful to the self-esteem of teenage boys.

A study conducted by Penn State University proposes boys tend to bring fewer communication skills to a relationship. According to the study, boys also report being "in love" more than girls do, but they lack the communication skills to convey emotions. One’s ability to tell a person your wants, needs and feelings effectively is what can make or break a relationship. When guys are ‘dumped’, they tend to have a hard time bouncing back. The reason, the study explains, is that many boys start dating before they’re ready.

"Boys act differently when they’re around their friends, says Gina, 15. "They act like assholes and then they’re like ‘oh my God, I’m so sorry. I just had to do that because we were in front of my friends.' "

Feeling the need to constantly prove your heterosexuality and your manliness eventually takes its toll on a relationship. It can feel like being confined in a small box. "There are certain criteria set for boys," Dominic, 19 stresses. "If you don’t conform to the criteria, you’re outside the box: You’re a prissy, a bitch and a punk. So, when you go into a relationship the box has an effect on how you treat your partner." And it has an effect on how one copes with loss and grief -- the telling signs of depression. It also has an effect on the self-esteem of the other person in the relationship.

But what happens when you’re a teenager who doesn’t want to live up to these ideas of gender? What happens if you’d rather date boys than girls? On the one hand, you risk being alienated and ridiculed. But if you do succumb to expectations of masculinity, it can be hard to maintain a healthy relationship.
"Look at Dawson and Joey! They went out, they broke up, Joey went out with Pacey. She broke up with Pacey and then she started going out with Dawson again. If you let it get to you can really feel bad about yourself."

It’s difficult to share a real part of yourself with someone else, but it’s practically impossible if you don’t like yourself and or feel comfortable with who you really are. The fear of being alone is not enough fuel any healthy relationship, and this kind of fear can actually make relationships crumble.

We’re constantly pelted by messages about romantic, heterosexual relationships -- especially within our daily media diet. Predictably, products and television shows aimed at teen girls (take a look at most of the WB lineup) are responsible for much of the pelting. Characters navigate their worlds looking for romance to spark up the plot. Everyone is unhappy with her singleness.

Ana, 15, is quick to point to the television show Dawson’s Creek as an example. "The characters are never single," she moans. "Look at Dawson [the title character] and Joey [his childhood friend and love interest]! They went out, they broke up, Joey went out with Pacey [Dawson’s best friend]. She broke up with Pacey and then she started going out with Dawson again. If you let it get to you can really feel bad about yourself." Of course, what she's getting at, is just how rare it is to see a beautiful female heroine who chooses to be alone and is happy. And, with characters like that all around us, is it surprising that we end up feeling that we need relationships to be whole people?

"Your Life is Your Own"

Perhaps it's a step in the right direction that there are social scientists out there studying this stuff. That some people are stopping and paying attention to these patterns, so we can become aware of them, even if that awareness doesn't suddenly make us invincible, thick-skinned super-heroes who will never again feel that cringe of attraction, that desire to be noticed, that roller coaster of love.

Mikhaila Richards was this year's WireTap summer fellow. This Fall, she has returned to start her second year at Smith College, where she will also be working as a reporter for Big World Radio.

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