Do Our Teenage Romantic Relationships Set The Tone For Our Relationships As Adults?

Professor Kay Bradford and demographer Jacqueline Miller explain how teenage romances help adolescents develop crucial relationship skills.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | February 20, 2023

A new study published in the Journal of Relationship and Couple Therapy describes how the choices a person makes when dating as a teenager may affect their adult relationships.

I recently spoke to researchers Kay Bradford and Jacqueline Miller of Utah State University and the University of New Mexico respectively, to understand how relationship education can help build healthier teenage relationships. Here is a summary of our conversation.

Could you give us a brief description of relationship education for adolescents?

Teen relationships are related to their well-being – and what they learn in relationships helps shape their relationships in adulthood. That's a big reason why relationship education for adolescents has become more common.

It guides teens to make more informed decisions about dating so they build healthier romantic relationships. This research-based information usually includes information on:

  • Communication skills
  • Realistic relationship expectations
  • Healthy pacing
  • Reducing risk of dating violence

Outcomes of adolescent relationship education include the prevention of unhealthy relationship patterns, increased self-esteem, and stronger family cohesion.

Can you walk us through the concept of relationship cognitions and the four dimensions of relationship cognitions that your study investigated?

How a teen thinks about relationships is the buildingblock of healthy versus unhealthy relationships. The study examines Furman's ideas of working models, which extends Bowlby's work. Over time, children develop sets of ideas of self and others in relationships. In turn, these cognitive representations influence behavior and become a template for future relationships.

We drew on four constructs that are important to relationship health:

  1. Romanticism ("love is enough"). The idea of blind love ("love can conquer all") may discourage the use of positive relationship skills. Conversely, relationships that are committed and where good skills are common are stable and satisfying.
  2. Decision-making (pacing). Relationship education for teens includes information on pacing – getting to know the person before trusting and committing to them.
  3. Refusal of unwanted physically intimate behavior. CDC data (2015) shows that 40% of males and 62% of females reported that their first sexual experience was either unwanted or they were ambivalent about having sex. Low self-efficacy and wanting to preserve the relationship make it difficult for youth to refuse unwanted sex. To have healthy relationships, adolescents need to develop skills to refuse unwanted sexual behaviors, whether holding hands, kissing, or sexual intercourse, so that those behaviors can occur in a way that is congruent with their values and when they are both physically and emotionally ready.
  4. Control tolerance. This means allowing or even expecting a partner to be controlling. Tolerating control and manipulation is linked to psychological abuse and acceptance of dating violence.

Could you talk more about the five classes of adolescent relationship behavior your study identified?

This study used a technique called Latent Class Analysis to try and identify underlying patterns of adolescent relationship beliefs within our sample. Through this process, we identified five latent classes:

  1. The first we labeled Low Risk because it was associated with lower risk in all of the indicators related to romanticism, decision-making, refusal of unwanted physical intimacy, and control tolerance. This is the class where you'd want to find most teens, but only 1 in 3 teens in our sample fell into this group.
  2. The second class we labeled Blindlove. Those in this class were similarly low risk in many areas, but were high in romanticism – endorsing beliefs that love alone is enough to sustain a marriage and that only fools walk away from marrying someone they love.
  3. The third class we labeled Sliders, as this group was defined by less thoughtful decision-making. Instead, they seemed to slide into decisions without clear intentions.
  4. The fourth group combined the romanticism of the Blindlove class with the lower probability of endorsing thoughtful decision-making of the Sliders group. We thus labeled this class as Blindlove Sliders, however, teens in this class were also the least confident in their ability to refuse unwanted physical intimacy.
  5. The fifth and last group we labeled Control Tolerant, as the teens in this group were less likely to report rejecting control of one's partner or saying they would leave a controlling partner.

What would you say was the most critical finding of your study? Could you shed some light on how gender affects how adolescents think about relationships?

Teen boys were more likely to endorse blind love and to 'slide' (rather than intentionally pace a relationship) compared to teen girls.

Conversely, girls had lower odds of thinking in 'risky' ways. So, boys were more likely to have attitudes that reflect things like 'love conquers all,' to 'slide' (versus decide), and to be more tolerant of manipulation and control in a relationship.

Does your study have practical takeaways for an adolescent's guardian?

How teens think about relationships really does matter – and includes protective factors as well as risk factors. Past studies suggest that parents tend to discuss sex and how to refuse unwanted intimacy with daughters more than with sons.

Our findings reflect those outcomes: that boys, on average, tend to have more risky cognitions about relationships. We found that being in a relationship was associated with less risky relationship cognitions.

That fits with other research. A teen relationship is often linked to positive outcomes, and can help teens develop skills that support future relationships. Being intentional, realistic, and rejecting controlling attitudes helps keep relationships in the safe zone.

The overall takeaway for guardians is that adolescent relationships aren't necessarily things to be feared, but that guardians should talk about what they value in relationships and what healthy relationships look like regardless of gender.

How do you see your research contributing toward relationship education interventions designed for adolescents?

Only 30% of teens in our sample were found to be in the 'low risk' group for relationship cognitions, so there's room for improvement. Our other research shows that relationship education for adolescents changes these cognitions in positive ways.

So, these current findings further underscore the potential benefit of relationship education for teens. We can give them a foundation for healthy, stable relationships.

Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where would you like to see research on this topic go in the future?

We are currently providing relationship education for youth in behavioral health settings – which is important in the post-pandemic mental health context. There is definitely a need for research on how relationship education supports mental health, and how it shapes relationship behaviors. That is our next step.