Dear Wes and Samantha: My teenager is involved in a long-term relationship. I think she needs to not be so serious at this point in her life and needs to have more than just one boyfriend. What do you usually advise about this?
Wes: There are roughly two-and-a-half dating styles among teens and young adults right now. Your daughter is in what I call the radical monogamy group.
The other group engages in what is commonly referred to as hooking up. While it lacks a precise meaning — as most terms in modern “dating” do — hooking up can mean anything from making out to having sexual intercourse, but it is by definition casual and recreational. I have no stats to prove it, but I’d say hooking up is probably more the norm at this point, and I don’t see that trend changing.
Needless to say, I’m not a fan of this trend. I’ve seen too many young adults who by age 22 are repulsed by their own teenage behavior, and for some it even wrecks havoc on their adult sexual development. I’m no prude, but I’ve yet to see anyone look back with joy on those years and remember fondly a long series of meaningless sexual encounters with random people they met at parties. Those who differ are free to write in.
Radical monogamy is more than a refurbished version of “going steady” — that quaint old tradition that had something to do with actually being a couple. The modern version is a little more militant by my estimate, maybe even a direct reaction to casual sex. Some young people are defining themselves as exclusive boy and girlfriends for years, beginning as early as seventh or eighth grade. Sometimes these are on-again, off-again relationships that always seem to end up reconnecting.
The “halfway” manner of doing things is referred to as friends with benefits, and I don’t have much good to say about it. When you’re having sex with a friend, you are begging for a bad outcome. The friendship is usually damaged, and the absolute confusion that comes with having ill-defined boundaries and emotional bonds is difficult to avoid. Bottom line: One friend is always pushing toward a romantic relationship and the other is always resisting, so the resulting power differential is usually harmful and disappointing.
So if I’m given the choice of one of these options, I have to go with the one your daughter has selected. It’s the closest analog for a healthy marital relationship later down the road. Unfortunately at this age, even monogamy has shortcomings. You’re correct that locking in on one guy may limit an essential part of her developing identity. She may choose a partner at a very young age and then cling to that relationship tightly and for too long. Initiating sexual activity with the partner only serves to reinforce the relationship, often pushing it past its expiration date and making some radical monogamists emotional victims of their own good sexual boundaries.
My “rule” is this: Everyone needs to experience two dating behaviors as they grow up — exclusivity and exploration in a reasonable balance. Your daughter has favored one over the other. Getting her interested in that balance is probably beyond your control, however, and you may be better off just celebrating what she’s trying to do, leaving yourself free to support and guide her when the nearly inevitable breakup comes.
Samantha:Although I understand you are concerned about your daughter’s choice to be in a serious relationship at a relatively young age, I think there may be more to this story. If you saw the relationship as healthy, I have a feeling you wouldn’t be writing us for advice. It’s human nature to want to simplify a situation so it fits into a familiar mold and can be solved with a generic answer, such as “long-term monogamous relationships are bad.” However, you need to dig deeper and find out why you are uncomfortable with your daughter’s relationship.
In your opinion, is the relationship emotionally and/or physically damaging? If he insults her or tries to make her feel guilty all the time, it’s a bad sign. If he constantly keeps tabs on her, asking where she is or whom she is with, that behavior is another sign. If your daughter seems scared of him, her fear is yet another. If you believe any of these to be true, have a talk with her immediately and help her get out of the relationship.
Beyond this, do you think the relationship is stunting the growth of the couple’s individual identities? If they are losing friends and isolating themselves because of their relationship, you need to discuss it with your daughter. Talk to her about qualities she likes about herself and what she wants to do with her life. Ask her if her friends ever feel left out because she’s in a relationship, and encourage her to hang out with people other than her boyfriend. Of course, some teenagers go through periods of being absorbed with one person. Learning how to balance her relationships may simply be a life lesson she has to learn right now.
If your daughter’s health and safety are not at stake, you should try to accept her choice to be monogamous. Try not to be nit-picky about her boyfriend. He may be her perfect match or just another guy she dates. It doesn’t matter. Having a serious relationship teaches her important lessons about how to meet another person’s needs without sacrificing her own, respecting another person’s boundaries and working through disagreements. Being monogamous at this age doesn’t come with a tag that says “right” or “wrong.” It all depends on the kind of relationship one is in.
Next week:Our season of dating advice continues with a discussion age differences in dating. How old is too old?
— Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Samantha Schwartz is a senior at Lawrence High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.