Why Teens Might Repeat Their Romantic Relationship Patterns In Adulthood
New research attempts to understand why teenagers get stuck in unhealthy relationship patterns.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | February 26, 2023
A new study published in the Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy explains how teenagers can form healthy or unhealthy 'templates' of romantic relationships that can replicate as they grow up.
The researchers, led by Kay Bradford and Brian Higginbotham of Utah State University and Jacqueline Miller of the University of New Mexico, believe that relationship education, much like sexual education, may be the key to helping adolescents build healthier current and future romantic relationships.
"Teen relationships are related to their well-being – and what they learn in relationships helps shape their relationships in adulthood," explains Bradford.
According to the authors, relationship education focuses on imparting research-based information to adolescents to help them make informed decisions in their relationships. This includes:
- Improving communication skills
- Establishing realistic relationship expectations
- Encouraging healthy relationship 'pacing'
- Discussing ways to reduce the risk of dating violence
"Outcomes of adolescent relationship education include the prevention of unhealthy relationship patterns, increased self-esteem, and stronger family cohesion," says Bradford.
Their study took inspiration from the 'four pillars of relationship cognition,' as identified in previous research. These are:
- Romanticism – The idea that love can conquer all. Romantics may overlook the need for growing positive relationship skills.
- Decision-making/pacing – The desire to get to know a potential partner before trusting and committing to them.
- Refusal of unwanted physically intimate behavior – This is an essential skill for teenagers to learn so they stay true to their values and wait until they are physically and mentally ready for intimacy. Low self-esteem and a desire to preserve one's relationship can make it difficult for teens to say no to unwanted contact.
- Control tolerance – An expectation of, or tolerance for, controlling behavior. Tolerating control and manipulation can lead to psychological abuse and dating violence.
In the study, the researchers collected data from over 2000 students to understand how these four relationship cognitions mapped onto real-life teenage dating behavior. The study identified five types of teenage daters:
- Low risk: This group includes students that have healthy romantic templates. These students were at lower risk on all four of the cognitions measured above.
- Blindlove: Teenagers in this group were low risk in all dimensions apart from romanticism. They held extraordinary beliefs about love and its power to conquer all.
- Sliders: This group describes teenagers who were less thoughtful about their decisions and therefore ended up 'sliding' into relationships with little thought.
- Blindlove Sliders: This group represents a combination of the second and third groups. Teenagers in this category endorsed strong romantic beliefs and were prone to making rash dating decisions.
- Control Tolerant: Teenagers in this group showed a lower likelihood of rejecting a partner that exhibited controlling behaviors.
The study produced two crucial findings:
- Only 1 in 3 teenagers fell into the low-risk class of relationship cognitions. In other words, a majority of teens fell into the riskier classes of relationship skills and behavior.
- Teen boys tend to engage in more problematic relationship cognitions as they showed a higher endorsement of romanticism and 'sliding' tendencies compared to teen girls. Girls appeared to think in 'low risk' terms while boys seemed more likely to be manipulated and controlled.
According to the researchers, a parent or guardian can nudge their teenager's romantic relationship in a healthier direction by following two simple steps:
- Discuss relationships and sex with teen boys too. Past research has pointed out that we tend to discuss sex and intimacy with our daughters more than our sons. To protect both teen boys and girls from unhealthy relationship dynamics, don't wait for 'the talk' – rather, talk often with both.
- Do not fear adolescent relationships. Thinking and talking about what should be valued in relationships helps teenagers build better relationships and sets a stronger overall foundation for their relationships as adults.
A full interview with the researchers can be found here: Do our teenage romantic relationships set the tone for our relationships as adults?