In high school, we begin to experience freedoms not previously given to us. It’s an exhilarating experience to be able to venture these new emotions on our own. We start working, driving, flirting, exploring. The floodgates open for us to try new things, live differently, and create friendships with longevity. However, many teens find themselves aimlessly meandering through their first real relationships.
As teenagers, we are constantly exposed to the turbulent, unpredictable, and terrifyingly permanent world of social media. We are bombarded with information: ads, pictures, videos, bright colors and images. Our scrolling leads us down a never-ending rabbit hole. We become distracted for almost hours at a time, scrolling and analyzing the pictures that only document the sunny side of certain situations. All this seemingly “ideal” content only shows us what people want us to see.
According to the Pew Research Center, 9 out of 10 teens between the ages of 13-17 use social media. The majority of said group (71%) use more than one platform. That’s a lot of teens!
But have we ever taken a step back and really looked at the content we ARE consuming? What’s on your page? Cool makeup looks, at-home workouts, influencers, celebrities?
One of the most damaging things we as teens are exposed to is this fairy-tale, picture-perfect narrative of the perfect couple. Two attractive, able-bodied, stylish people going on dates, watching the sunset, surprising their significant others with love letters and meaningful gifts; the romance envy NEVER ends.
These cute, warm, almost painfully emotional depictions of high school sweethearts have thrown us for a loop. What does being in love even feel like? When am I even supposed to fall in love? Does anyone really know what a relationship consists of at our age? And more importantly, what on EARTH does a girl have to do to get some flowers around here?
Love outside the familiar and platonic parameters is a new experience for our age group. Who can blame us for desiring these partnerships? One of the most damaging things we as teens consume is the never-ending cycle of “relationship goals” and “I wish I had a boo to do this with”. We see two attractive human beings that not only have material wealth, but they seem to have the perfect lives. Not to mention, there are certain algorithms in place that make sure the content consumed caters to a particular racial demographic. Even though divisiveness might not be the intention, these predetermined biases carry the essence of discrimination.
As much as we would love to believe that as teens we all experience these partnerships and the sweet, beautiful memories that come with it, we have to understand that there is not one perfect relationship. Social media is only a façade of what really occurs behind closed doors.
Sorry to burst your bubble, but chances are if you’re a teenager that HAS experienced the high school dating scene, it hasn’t really worked out for you. However, I interviewed some people who HAVE been successful in their endeavors in the name of love, and some who -to put it bluntly- haven’t.
The Do's and Don'ts of Teenage Romances
In my personal experience meandering through the dating pool of hormone-fueled monsters (also known as teenagers), I have experienced some wonderful moments, and the not-so wonderful ones. I have experienced the picnics, the fancy dates, going to the movies. However, my relationships are no strangers to brevity. I have experienced the lying, the cheating, the late night tears and the nastiest arguments. Too much to tell.
To keep a long story short, I realized something that is very important about people my age. Sometimes, kids don’t really know what they want.
Correction: Do we even know what we want, at all?
Before I ended my previous relationship, I asked myself a set of questions:
Do I see a future with this person?
Does my partner respect me?
How is this relationship affecting my mental health, well-being, and overall quality of life?
After that breakup, I learned a lot about who I was and what I wanted in my life. It wasn't until we took that very long break and reconnected that I realized that this person and I weren't compatible at this moment in our lives.
It takes a long time to learn that much about yourself. Self-reliance manifests itself in different ways. Taking initiative and choosing yourself over another person isn't selfish at all. Prioritizing your happiness isn't a sign of weakness or a sign of “giving up on a relationship”. It is a sign of growth.
A lot of teenagers think that when they break up with their significant other, there won't ever be somebody like that in their lives again. That's simply not true. We're still developing, we're still growing, and we're still learning how to be better human beings. Our lives are just getting started.
After that breakup, I decided I would take more initiative for myself and prioritize what makes me happy. However, I was really curious to see how other people deal with relationships, long-term relationships and breakups.
I interviewed couples and single teens between the ages of 16-18 of various sexualities, races, ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. (*Some names have been changed to protect their identities).
When I asked these questions, I expected pretty similar answers. My first interview was with Esmeralda (F,17). When I asked Esmeralda what the most important value in her relationship was, she replied with what seems to be the most common answer: trust.
“I think the most important value in a relationship is to have trust…” says Esmeralda, who has been dating her current boyfriend for a year and three months. “There's no point to the relationship if you don't trust that they won't cheat and respect and support what you want in the relationship. If you don't trust your significant other, then there's a problem.”
Adam (17) also describes his emphasis on trust. His longest relationship in high school lasted 2 years. “It is the most important value in a relationship. You just have to be straight up and forward about the boundaries you want to establish. You can't beat around the bush with those kinds of things.”
Boundaries… What does that word mean?
Establishing and Comprehending Boundaries
As teenagers, experiencing urges for romantic and sexual companionship can often blind us from the situations we end up in. It is important to lay down ground rules before we jump headfirst into relationships. Communication ends up being our best friend when it comes to this! Think about where your priorities lie. Are you dating to marry? Does the word ‘forever’ come across often in your conversations? Is it bad to date with the intention of experience rather than longevity? Do you want to be intimate with this person?
When we are young and in love, oftentimes these priorities don’t really phase us. To be completely honest, they shouldn’t be defining our futures in the ways we think they should. After all, these are the most important learning stages. There’s no reason we, as teenagers, should hold the responsibility of defining a lifelong relationship.
If the shoe fits? Wear it. Own it, in fact.
Emily (F,17) and her boyfriend Max (M,17) have been dating for almost two years. When I asked these two what they value most in their relationship, they both emphasized communication. “Without communication, it's almost impossible to solve arguments and [the] relationship is bound to fail. I always establish boundaries by having a heart-to-heart when necessary. It's always important to have boundaries so there's nothing that could offset your trust with your significant other.”
Another wholesome, long-lasting relationship that I had the privilege of learning about was that of Charles* and his girlfriend Michelle*. He finds love to be a motivating force. Being in love has elevated his outlook on life. “When I’m down or feel like there’s no point, I remember her and that motivates me.” Charles* and his girlfriend have been together for over a year. They both just graduated high school. “My biggest advice is to just be patient. It took 2 years to get my girl to like me.” What a lot of teens fail to realize is that love doesn’t come when called. This was a very common piece of information that was shared by the majority of the people who were interviewed.
Susan* (F,16) has been dating her girlfriend Jane* (F,16) for a little over a year and a half. They both agreed on emphasizing trust, comfort, and gratitude. “You have to get a feel for each other first,” says Susan*. “[Being in love] feels like you met someone who fits perfectly in sync with your soul. You don’t feel judged being intimate… [most importantly], you can be your true self at all times…”
I also interviewed some people who AREN’T in relationships. The factors behind their desire (or lack thereof) to be single really varied. However, their answers seem consistent with those of the couples.
“A healthy relationship should have compromises, but anyone that truly hurts you or makes you uncomfortable you shouldn't be with. Having a bond with someone you love is exhilarating and happy and fun,” says Evan, who is 17. His last relationship lasted 8 months. Newly single Evan gets raw and real about his values when it comes to his relationship. “Let them know how you truly feel. If they can’t respect your feelings, they can’t respect you.” Being complacent in these so-called “situationships” won’t make the problem go away. Clearly and rationally expressing your needs, goals, and desires is the only way to effectively establish these “ground rules”.
Some different interpretations of love also arise. Adam states “Love is what everyone searches for one way or another. People love money, sports, cars, makeup, books. They love their career, kids, mother and father. Love is the bond, the connection between two people.”
The Greeks have seven words for various types of love. After all, there are different magnitudes of attraction, relation, and intimacy. Whether or not you experience these kinds of relationships during your teen years, remember that our teenage brains have not entirely developed. We have only experienced a fraction of what we WILL live through.
However, some of the teens that I DID interview had some unique and valuable experiences that were more painful than romantic. This specific interview was one of the most thorough, inspiring, and yet heartbreaking to hear. Sarah*, who is only 16, recalls a relationship (of sorts) that she was involved in back and forth. “I was ‘on and off’ again with someone who was very manipulative and who just knew what to say, when to say it…” This toxic relationship affected her in quite a big way. “I used to desire that need for love and touch but not anymore. He ruined it for me… that lasted 4 years.”
Sarah* also emphasizes how important boundaries are for her. Even though she chooses not to pursue dating after the situation, she provides a very insightful perspective on establishing boundaries. “Establishing boundaries isn't just a physical thing, it can also be mental. A boundary I have is [to not talk] me into doing something I am not ready for. Also, not to use things against me. Boundaries aren't just a “don't”, though. It can also be something you want in a relationship.”
The majority of these interviewees disclosed what they really look for in the relationship. The answers (no surprise) tend to be pretty similar. The majority of people were really just looking for someone to grow, spend time and have fun with. Some said they “date to marry.”
Gabby (F,17) has been dating her boyfriend Davis for about a year and a half. She considers him her best friend and boyfriend all in one. “Honestly, I don't know how to describe what being in love is like. It's always wanting to be around that person because they make you laugh and bring you so much joy. But it's also just a feeling of completeness when they are there.”
“I think for people looking for love, you want to find a best friend who you also want to have a relationship with, but for me, Davis was my best friend before my boyfriend,” says Gabby.
Sometimes, relationships fabricate themselves organically and require little to no searching. From all of the people I talked to for this interview, I’ve noticed it's the most common way that people end up together. Love falls right in front of them when they least expect it. However, some people don't have much luck and end up meandering through a talking stage and getting stuck there for a while.
Not a lot of people have the privilege (or luck) of falling in love with their best friend.
Not all of us can be like Eric and Donna from “That 70’s Show”, or Jim and Pam from “The Office”. Of course, in the absence of such a strong, predetermined, platonic bond, the notorious talking stage enters the mix. Weird, virtual romances can be tricky to navigate for some.
Jessica (F,17) recalls the ups and downs of the “talking stage” many teens go through before they fully commit. “Early on, don't drag on the talking phase just because someone is quote not ready to commit”. They could be playing you… Someone who wants to be with you should be willing to go through anything with you. But if someone doesn't, that might just mean it's not the right time.”
Especially in LGBTQ+ relationships, teens are often faced with pressure from their families to conform to the heteronormative standard. Of the several people I interviewed, a good portion identified as LGBTQ+. A lot of the queer folks expressed some sort of negative memories about coming out, experiencing emotional trauma because of family finding out, or having to end relationships because of the nature of their relationship.
Of course, at Teen Connect, we are all about inclusivity. We encourage members of the LGBTQ+ community to seek sexual health services as much as their cisgender, heterosexual peers. However, a lot of people fail to recognize that LGBTQ+ relationships can affect people in ways outside of sexual health.
Emotional trauma also comes as baggage to some of these relationships. Sometimes, families are not as supportive or much less encourage these relationships with their
children. “He had a lot of stress being a senior, figuring out what to do after high school...,” James* recalls his relationship with an ex-boyfriend. The relationship came to an end for a variety of reasons that remain personal to his ex-partner. However, one big reason that he did share with me was one that seems to cut deeper than some of the other break-ups we’re used to hearing about. “People underestimate the trauma gay kids go through (and the second-hand trauma). It's like… that's not even my own mother and it's still so painful to think about her and the things that she taught her kids by saying they are wrong for loving who they love.”
“Sometimes, it's not your own parents. Sometimes it's their parents. That doesn't matter because it still hurts just as bad.” Says James*. And unfortunately that is the case for so many LGBTQ+ youth.
Carla* has been in a long-term, same-sex relationship with her girlfriend for about two years. “It's definitely required a level of trust because in my case, being in my relationship caused chaos in my family.” She says. A lot of sacrifice is necessary for her relationship. “When the bond is real you just know.” Especially in these types of situations where your family doesn't see eye to eye with you, it can be difficult to feel safe with your partner or with your family. “That going through hell was worth it just to stay together.”
Another form of perseverance which many teens do not often see is religion and spirituality. I interviewed Jade and Charmaine, who have been dating almost two years. Their label as a same-sex couple transcends those paradigms of LGBTQ+ relationships by embracing a connection with God. Charmaine says that “the most important value to me in our relationship is each other's happiness and our relationship with God. We both take these things very seriously in our happiness and our relationship with God is what brings us together as one.”
Jade states that “[Charmaine and I] definitely had our ups and downs, but once we centered God in our relationship and really committed to changing our lives for the better, it turned our whole relationship around. It turned our bad habits into good ones.”
According to a national survey conducted by the Human Rights Campaign, teens who are out to their families are happier than those who are not. It’s evident that different cultures, situations, and circumstances warrant different reactions from parents/caretakers of LGBTQ+ youth. Regardless, LGBTQ+ youth experiences are oftentimes overlooked.
Love is a complex concept. What we don’t understand as teenagers, we’ll learn eventually. These are the baby steps we take before running headfirst into the real world. If you feel left out of the loop, just remember this: love can and will find us unexpectedly. So don’t panic, don’t rush, and enjoy the moments of sincerity.
Remember to check out www.TeenConnectTampaBay.org if you have any questions on relationships, birth control, clinics near you, LGBTQ+ resources, and mental or sexual health. You can also submit a question and have it answered by a doctor in our Ask the Expert blog series.
Kiara Vazquez, Teen Connect Youth Advisory Board Member