Dear Dr. Wes and Katie: I’m 16. You say that teenage dating is the foundation for adult relationships. If that’s true, I’m going to die alone. What happens to those of us who don’t date at this age?
Katie: Most of the questions on Double Take this year have posed challenging problems with which I have no personal experience. I could have written this letter from our teen Twitter feed (@DrWes4Teens) myself. I hate to boast, but between you and me, I might hold the record for the longest-standing period of singleness: This May, I will graduate from high school without ever having had a so-called “high school sweetheart.”
I am currently in search of a bow tie collar for my cat. He is thus far my only potential prom date.
Though I may appear to be degenerating into the stereotypical cat lady of popular legend, that is not my destiny, nor is it yours. Love can find a person at any age, and it’s rare for individuals to meet a life partner before reaching adulthood. In fact, contrary to what the grocery store’s three-month Valentine’s Day gala would have us believe, I’ll bet my last remaining self-purchased, heart-shaped chocolate that only a minority of our peers are actually in relationships.
The patterns of one’s future relationships are defined not so much by when they start as by how they start. That’s the foundation you mention above.
Think of your love life not as an empty glass but as one yet to be filled. Every relationship will add water to our glasses, and we can hope that when our glasses are full, the water will be clean and clear. Every unhealthy dating experience will instead add murky water to the glass, mixing with and tainting what’s poured on top of it.
It’s better to wait for a healthy dating life than to let one’s glass grow murky with relationships that aren’t based on love and respect. You and I aren’t skipping a step in adolescence by waiting for someone with whom we can have a meaningful relationship. We’re just going to have those experiences a little later on.
Dr. Wes: Dealing with teen sexuality, as we often do in Double Take, our books and monthly radio shows, it’s too easy for me to generalize what’s true for one group of young people on to another.
Your tweet reminded me that it’s as important to talk about the aloneness that many kids experience in adolescence and to put it in context, just as Katie has done. In fact, I know lots of young people swimming in the dating pool and drowning. Better to sit on the beach and bide your time.
The tweet you cite is drawn from an earlier column. So, using the same analogy, if you’re going to swim, do so wisely because every relationship you experience at this age is practice for those that come later on.
If what you’re practicing is waiting patiently (even if you don’t want to), that will, as Katie suggests, pay off in the future.
For now, study love. Read good books and watch good movies about romance. Seek stories in which couples actually struggle with their love and sexuality, where it means something to them.
I’m talking “The Notebook” here, but I especially like “500 Days of Summer” because (as we know from the first three seconds of the movie) the couple does not end up together. They teach each other about love before they break up. Sad but real. While fictional romance can be a little contrived, there are things to be learned in those pages that teach real love.
Where quite a few young people go wrong is in losing patience and diving into the shallow end of the dating pool. That turns out in love about as badly as it does in a real pool, so don’t just decide to get with a guy who pays some attention to you. You’re in a better spot than you think you are because you can afford to be choosey. Choosey is good.
In fact, as we’ll discuss next week, the most important part of dating is breaking up. Without breaking up, there is no selection process. So waiting (or being forced to wait) will actually expose you to a slightly more mature peer group down the road.
Don’t worry — the dating pool is there for you, and you will in time find yourself safely in it.