The Role of Romantic Relationships
in Adolescent Development
University of Denver
Most of us would characterize our adolescent romantic relationships as shortlived and superficial. In some respects, this description is correct. Most adolescent relationships only last a few weeks or months; it is unlikely that these relationships have the depth and complexity that characterize long-term committed relationships.
At the same time, the characterization of these relationships as short and superficial is incomplete. These relationships are central in adolescents' lives. They are a major topic of conversation among adolescents (Eder, 1993;Thompson, 1994). Real or fantasized relationships are the most common cause of strong positive and strong negative emotions—more so than friendships, relationships with parents, or school (Wilson-Shockley 1995). Moreover, adolescents are not the only ones who see these relationships as significant. The formation of romantic relationships is often thought to be one of the important developmental tasks of adolescence (Sullivan, 1953), and these relationships have significant implications for health and adjustment (Bouchey & Furman, in press).
Not only are adolescent romantic relationships significant in their own right, but the thesis of this chapter is that they play an important role in shaping the general course of development during adolescence. In particular, adolescents face a series of tasks that include (a) the development of an identity, (b) the transformation of family relationships, (c) the development of close relationships with peers, (d) the development of sexuality, and (e) scholastic achievement and career planning. In the sections that follow, we describe how romantic relationships may play a role in each of these key developmental tasks.
Three caveats are warranted. First, the research primarily has been conducted with heterosexual adolescents in Western cultures, and we know little