At some point in our adult lives, most of us will feel compelled to say something useful to a young man or woman struggling with a romantic relationship. Perhaps this hypothetical youth falls for someone who looks (to us) like nothing but trouble, or things seem to be going too far too fast, or he or she is distraught following a bad fight or breakup. In these situations, it is difficult to know what to say. We are at a loss for words partly because we were once young and we know that in the realm of romance, wisdom and experience mean little to new initiates. Most of us made bad decisions in choosing romantic partners, and made mistakes about how we treated past loves. Yet, we know that we needed to live through and learn from these experiences and would have been unlikely to listen to advice offered by our elders.
We are also at a loss for words because we have only our own experiences to guide us. Although we have some ideas about what sorts of relationships are bad for adolescents, we recognize that the process of distinguishing between “healthy, normal, adaptive” and “unhealthy, abnormal, maladaptive” relationships is fraught with difficulties. Definitions of normal relations vary widely, depending on contextual norms, social constraints, cultural values, and developmental phases. Moreover, adolescents in relationships that appear healthy may experience a great deal of psychological distress when problems arise. Adolescents in relationships that seem troubling to us might feel happier than ever. These ironic twists make it difficult to offer useful guidance. How can we make sense of this?
While we know that there are no simple solutions to the difficulties posed by love and sex, it is nonetheless our responsibility to help youth in our care to sort though the issues and reflect upon their feelings. We need to provide a developmental context that helps adolescents make thoughtful, heartfelt decisions about love and sex. We need to help them acquire the tools they will need to build and maintain healthy relationships. First we need to identify those tools for ourselves.