First love: unpacking the psychology behind adolescent relationship dependency

Julia Jacobs, co-editor in chief

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There was a time in the not-so-distant past when teenagers didn’t exist at all. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, there was no gaping space between childhood and adulthood like there is now. Children as young as age 13 would become adults when they began to take on tasks like working in factories or caring for younger children.

It makes sense then that ideas about adolescent relationships are as new as the idea of adolescence itself, Josh Mark, a Winnetka-based licensed clinical social worker, said. There is no single understanding, no guidebook that can provide teenagers with bullet points on how to navigate through their first love.

One thing is for certain: a teenager’s need to differentiate from their parents can cause romance to become the most important thing in their life, Janice Liten, counselor at Links, a reproductive health center in Northfield, said.

That profound attachment between a couple can mean something different for every teenager, Mark said. For some, it’s a positive term that equates to loyalty or deep connection. To others, it signifies some sort of imbalance in caretaking or power between the two partners.

Joined at the hip 

J.*, a senior at South, accepted her boyfriend P.*’s attachment until the pressure on her grew to be too much to bear, she said. When P. moved across the country 18 months into their relationship, breaking up wasn’t presented as an option. While her friends were doing typical high school activities like going to parties, out to dinner or having movie nights, J. began spending her weekends at home talking to P. from the other end of a telephone wire or a palm-sized video chat box on the computer screen.

“He had nothing to do,” J. said. “He just depended on me for everything, which I didn’t mind. It was sort of just who we were.”

Within months, J. and P.’s time-consuming relationship progressed into an exhausting attachment characterized by hours on the phone discussing P.’s loneliness.

“I’m not a psychologist; I don’t know how to help him, ” J. said.

J. did not think that it was her duty, as his girlfriend, to fix his emotional problems. However, breaking up with him would mean that she was leaving him at a time when he needed her the most. J. broke up with P. three times in the span of their three-year relationship, only to return to the person who she is both crazy for and who drives her crazy, J. said.

“He wasn’t just my boyfriend,” J. said. “He was my best friend, so I wanted to help him but he couldn’t help himself first, and that was a really big issue.”

Senior Randel Drake* said that his attachment to his longterm girlfriend was fed by their near-constant texting communication. It wasn’t that Drake had to talk to his girlfriend- it was that he had to talk to her to know what she was doing. At the core of his dependence was a fear that his girlfriend could be hanging out with another guy without him knowing it, Drake said.

But when their relationship splintered for the first time, the texts screeched to a halt. The communication went from all to nothing in an instant: no more “how are you” texts or “goodnight” texts to keep his phone buzzing every few minutes.

“[The breakup] was just weird because you’re not texting someone every second,” Drake said. “So you just talk with your friends, but your friends are always texting someone. […] So you’re actually trying to talk to people and you just feel ignored by them, and then you’re obviously ignored by the person you just broke up with or who broke up with you.”

This withdrawal from constant communication propelled Drake and his ex-girlfriend not once, not twice but three times back into a relationship, Drake said.

According to Dr. Jann Gumbiner, licensed psychologist and clinical professor at the University of California, Irvine College of Medicine, the potency of a person’s first love means that there is the likelihood that the separated couple will reunite even if the relationship has gone sour.

“I know guys who, the first girlfriend they had sex with, they’re head over heels in love with her for the rest of their lives,” Dr. Gumbiner said.

Although it seems counterintuitive for a person to stay with a partner that makes them feel bad, people tend to seek out someone that confirms their own view of themselves, Dr. Gumbiner said. It all has to do with self-esteem: if your view of yourself is negative, you’ll select somebody who doesn’t treat you very well.

“I think relationships can help self esteem if they’re healthy,” Liten said. “I think that you can feel good about yourself that you’re able to have a relationship and that someone cares about you. […] But self-esteem, in general, comes from within. It’s where you find strength and comfort with the person you are.”

Finding yourself

The most important thing about committed, monogamous adolescent relationships is for each individual to “get their head together”: know who they are, what they want and what their strengths and weaknesses are in relationships, Dr. Gumbiner said.

To senior Andjela Vukosavljevic, who has been dating senior Luke Pilliod for 19 months, a pitfall of high school relationships is when individuals grow and change in different directions. However, it requires a balance. Over-attachment to a partner can lead to them monopolizing your energy, Vukosavljevic said.

“Everyone’s still their own person, and I feel like when people are that dependent on each other, it gets in the way of what they want for themselves,” Pilliod said. “You still have to think about what you want for yourself first, in a way.”

One thing adolescents should try to understand about themselves is what their  “coping style” is, Dr. Gumbiner said. When faced with conflict, people employ coping styles such as denial, avoidance, detachment or aggression. Coping styles tend to be associated with temperaments that people are born with. So long as people’s temperaments remain constant, they tend to be consistent with their coping styles throughout their lifespan, Dr. Gumbiner said.

“All of those coping styles can be very healthy and self-protective, except when they’re interfering with your daily life,” Dr. Gumbiner said. “So if they’re causing you a problem in school or work or your relationships, then they’re dysfunctional.”

According to J, the night she and P. broke up for the last time over the phone, J. went to a party and kissed another boy- a mistake not deserving of P.’s response when she confessed to him. P.’s threat to “ruin her life” by sending photos of her to her parents and telling her friends secrets that would sever their relationship with J. were left unfulfilled but served to convince her that this separation was the right decision, J. said.

P.’s aggressive coping style convinced J. that despite the “on and off” nature of their relationship for the entirety of high school, the switch would be flipped resolutely “off” for a long time- until P. gains control of his words and actions by seeking help from a professional, J. said.

“I think that he wanted me to help him find himself, and if I did that with him then I’d still be a part of that identity, and he needs to be his own person without me,” J. said.

*Names have been changed

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