In third grade, Valentine’s Day meant a class party in your homeroom. It meant Sweetarts, Hershey’s Kisses, and conversation hearts. It meant telling your crush on the playground that you like them, or passing them a love note under the desk. What does the word “love” mean to a third grader? What does the word “love” mean to a high schooler?
To some, an adolescent romantic relationship provides opportunity for emotional growth and support during a time of development. For others, it provides opportunity for peer pressure, risky behaviors and codependency. At South, opposing views of teenage romance seem to exist simultaneously and contribute to personal discovery in adolescence.
Junior Kaden Stuart* said he was in a turbulent five-and-a-half-month relationship. Stuart described the toxic relationship as a constant cycle of long, passionate fights followed by a short period of happiness. Stuart said he found himself acting differently towards his friends and family because of the control that his girlfriend had over his personality.
“I realized it was a really toxic relationship after I had broken up with her, and a lot of what I thought was emotional support was actually not,” Stuart said. “The relationship sort of changed who I was as a person, and it made me into someone that I didn’t really want to be. [My ex-girlfriend] made me think that I was really shy and that I had to come out of my shell, and as soon as I broke up with her, I realized that there was no shell and I wasn’t a shy person. It made me act and feel differently, and I had low self-esteem.”
Dr. Lillian Glass, a California-based communication and psychology expert who wrote the book Toxic People, defines a toxic relationship as “Any relationship [between two people who] don’t support each other, where there’s conflict and one seeks to undermine the other, where there’s competition, disrespect and a lack of cohesiveness.”
South Psychologist Kimberly Larsen estimated that about 25 percent of students asking for help in South’s student services department are looking for guidance on romance and, by that point, the relationship has become unhealthy for them. Larsen explained it is necessary for students to assess the health of their relationships.
“It’s important to pay attention to whether or not something is a two way street, [if] it is good for you, [if] it’s not toxic,” Larsen said. “I think it’s fine for kids to have relationships, but you don’t want it to be something where someone is taking advantage of you all the time, and it’s give, give, give, and you never get [support] back.”
Similar to Stuart, junior Tasha Prentice* found herself in a toxic, eight-month relationship in which her boyfriend became overly dependent on her. Prentice said that when she wanted to break it off, she was met with feelings of guilt and pressure while worrying that she was abandoning him.
“I regret starting it with this certain person, and I regret not breaking it off sooner,” Prentice said. “The relationship had a mental and emotional effect on my health because he was super dependent on me; I was coping with feelings of guilt and indecision and not really knowing what to do, and that consumed a lot of my time.”
Prentice struggled to find the strength to end their relationship. She pushed herself to initiate the break up after an experience of sexual abuse which allowed her to clearly recognize the toxicity of the partnership.
“When I broke up with him, it was more of a relief feeling than anything,” Prentice said. “Over the summer I had been grappling with intense feelings of not wanting to date this person anymore and then I had been planning on breaking up with him for a while. The relationship had turned into a mentally and sexually abusive relationship. The event that made me eventually decide to break up with him was [when] he tried to do sexual things with me and I said no, and he continued doing it after I said no, so that [was] the final straw for me.”
Jess Wenk, licensed clinical social worker at Youth Services of Glenview Northbrook recommended that students reach out to a trusted adult when seeing signs of toxicity in a relationship. She said that the choice to mend or abandon a relationship varies on a situational basis and it’s important to lean on those around you to evaluate further decisions.
“Relationships can be challenging in many ways,” Wenk said. “Working through these challenges with a partner can lead to a deeper connection. However, relationships that make you feel unsafe or cause hurt on an ongoing basis may be better to leave behind. This can be a very difficult time, so leaning on your support system and building upon it by seeking out therapy is very important.”
After going through experiences of toxicity, Stuart and Prentice managed to view their struggles as learning experiences. Prentice addressed how she will be more mindful of the way someone is treating her in the future and, in the meantime, stray away from relationships for the rest of her high school career. Similarly, Stuart believes he will now be more thoughtful and attentive in relationships moving forward.
“[My experiences have] pushed me away from jumping into a relationship like I did in the first one and now I’d say I tend to overthink things and I consider a lot of different aspects about a person,” Stuart said. “Now, I am a lot more careful, considerate, and cautious before getting into a relationship and I look for the red flags that it could potentially indicate a toxic relationship.”
In addition, junior Marley Barron* has been in five relationships throughout high school, each one teaching her something about partnership. After being cheated on twice, experiencing homophobia from her girlfriend’s parents and feeling emotionally pressured to progress a relationship, Barron said she still maintains a healthy outlook on relationships. She chooses to acknowledge what she has learned from them instead of how she’s been hurt.
“[Relationships offer] really good life experience and help you gain skills that you can use everywhere, and when you date people in high school, you meet a wide variety of people and you learn a lot about yourself through that,” Barron said. “You see how you react with different kinds of people in certain situations and not only do you learn about [partnerships], but you learn about how you function as a person.”
After coming out of relationships, 15 percent of South students believed they were in love, but now realize they weren’t, according to an unscientific survey of 300 students conducted by The Oracle. Larsen addressed that because adolescence is an intense period of learning about yourself, relationships offer modes of discovery and growth.
“In teenage years, it’s all about learning who you are and learning your vulnerabilities [and] your strengths, and you do that through friendships as you get to know people reflecting back to you,” Larsen said. “One of those ways of learning about yourself is through relationships.”
Barron realized that the reason her current relationship is so healthy can be connected to the fact that she has made different decisions based on unhealthy relationship patterns in the past. She emphasized that she has never felt this current sense of security in any relationship ever before.
“I feel like [my relationship] is an equal partnership,” Barron said. “There’s something good about having my friends and then having a person that I can always go to no matter how things are in school or in my friendships or with my family, and [my relationship provides] a stable homebase for me.”
Senior Phill Norton has had positive experiences in his adolescent relationships. He is grateful for the fact that he hasn’t experienced toxicity and has felt supported in his relationship. Norton firmly believes that he is in love and is comforted by the fact that he has a partner to share his life with.
“I love her, so she’s a priority [in my life],” Norton said. “I think that [the relationship] affects my emotional health positively because I have someone to talk to about anything. I know someone cares for me and actually cares about what I have to say and that’s nice.”
Wenk advises students to reach out if they are ever in need of advice. She said a therapist can offer guidance through feelings of anxiety or worry that are caused by a romantic relationship.
“I think it’s important for teenagers to seek help when they are struggling in a romantic relationship because it is always helpful to receive an outside perspective on the situation,” Wenk said. “A mental health therapist can provide a non-biased perspective on the situation and help the client make an informed decision on what to do.”
*Names have been changed