Wednesday, January 29, 2003

Adolescent love

Child's Play

Love is an emotion interwoven with a web of confounding components that is very difficult to unravel. Infatuation is shallow love that is based on appearance, sexual arousal, or selfish desire. True love is based on commitment, empathy, and compassion - components that give rise to physical arousal rather than following it.

Prior to adolescence, a child is capable of loving another person, but that love is based on the need for comfort and attention. A child can fall in "love" with a teacher, classmate, or neighbor but his love is based on the person's appearance (she is pretty or he is handsome), an undefined raw emotion from within, and the attention that the child gets from the person.

Children think about marriage, but their ideas of marriage are shallow and egocentric. Even though they are capable of doing nice things for the object of their devotion, their love is largely based on what they receive.

Adolescent love is the beginning of real hopes of marriage, sex, and commitment. Theorist Robert Sternberg proposes that healthy adult relationships have three components: commitment, intimacy, and passion. Adolescents are capable of commitment, which is the drive to stay together, but their commitment is limited. Few high school romances lead to marriage. Adolescents are capable of intimacy as well.

Intimacy is the ability to share one's emotions, thoughts, and dreams. Teens can form powerful bonds with friends in whom they confide their secrets, hopes, fears, and dreams. Likewise, teens are capable of passion, which is the erotic or sexual component of a relationship. They experience erotic arousal even if they do not act upon it.

Even though teens are capable of experiencing all three of these components, they cannot balance these three components over a long period of time. For example, two adults can coexist quite happily in a marriage without sex if one or the other is incapable of performing sexually (i.e. a spinal injury). The reason they can do this is because their passion is based on more than simple sexual desire. It is also balanced by their intimacy and commitment to stay together.

Few teens can balance these three components, but adolescent romance allows time to learn these components and what place they hold in one's relationships. During these years, they learn for themselves the importance of each component and how to most appropriately express them. Learning to express love and the place love holds in ones life is one of the difficult tasks about learning about love and romance.

As they struggle for a place in the world, especially in the world of relationships, broken romances are very painful for teens. Not only do they have difficulty identifying and coping with their feelings, but their egocentric world-view makes them feel as though their hurt will never go away, no one will ever love them again, and they will be alone the rest of their lives.

Even though adults experience these same feelings when their romances dissolve, they usually have the ability to cope much better than most adolescents because they have experienced broken relationships and they are aware that time heals wounds. For teens, their limited experiences inhibit this confidence. Therefore, broken relationships are extremely hurtful. In fact, one of the risk factors for suicide during adolescence is a broken romance. Take seriously the pain that your teen feels when rejected by a girl or boyfriend.

Emotions are confusing things. We learn to identify emotions by context and experience. Something in the environment arouses our affect, we search our experience for context and prior similar situations, and then we label the emotion. As we get older, we recognize that we rarely feel a single emotion. More often, we have many emotions operating at any one time - happiness, nervousness, apprehension, excitement, etc.

Sorting out these emotions and learning how to handle them is a skill that takes years to refine and some adults never fully master it. You can help your child through love's ups and downs by helping him or her label emotions and find ways to cope with all of the complex feelings that make us human.


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