Blossoming Hearts by Brad Sachs, Ph.D.

By Brad Sachs, Ph.D.

“There is always some madness in love.
 But there is also always some reason in madness.” 
Friedrich Nietzsche
The adolescent journey is both an ancient and eternal one because this journey is ultimately what sustains the human race—only by differentiating from their families of origin and voyaging forth into the world to initiate the process of finding intimacy with a partner will our children arrive at the juncture in their lives when reproduction takes place, and the next generation begins to germinate and take its place in the world. 

Watching our children begin their incipient pursuit of love can be a source of tremendous delight and pride, and stir pleasant memories of our own first, fumbling but exhilarating steps in the direction of the courtship that may have ultimately led to our children’s existence. Of course, necessary as it is for teenagers to find and forge an enduring relationship with a loved one, the process of discovering and nurturing healthy intimacy is generally a long, and sometimes harrowing, one, often comprised of one or more relationships that do not appear to be quite as healthy and suitable as caring parents would like them to be. With this in mind, it is helpful for mothers and fathers to have a blueprint on hand regarding how to make sense of, and intelligently discuss, their teenagers’ relational matters, particularly if and when warning signs begin to reveal themselves.

One place to start is by constructing a working definition of what a loving relationship consists of and is characterized by. As we all know (and may very well remember!), most teenagers who are in a romantic relationship, even one that appears to be nothing more than a superficial infatuation, will steadfastly insist that they are “really in love”. And it is invariably impossible to argue a young adult out of this position—nor is it generally necessary to do so.  Unless, of course, the relationship is a troubled one and seems to be creating more problems than it is solving for one or both of its constituents. 

With this in mind, I often advise parents to explain to young lovebirds that a truly mature and loving relationship is one in which both partners value each other, and are showing evidence of thriving and prospering as a result of valuing each other. For example, if two young romantic partners are treating not only each other well, but also their friends and family members well, that is an indication that their bond is indeed a meaningful one. If they display enthusiasm and energy for important endeavors such as academics and hobbies, and a good-natured, generous spirit when it comes to completing their chores and responsibilities, that, too, should be held up as an indication that their partnership is a loving one. If, on the other hand, one or both partners seem more irritable than engaged, more contentious than cooperative, more distracted than focused, then we, as parents, have the legitimacy to then dispute their frenetic insistence that they are indeed “in love” and encourage them to question the value and vitality of their affection for each other.

Teenagers’ sexual and romantic unfolding is often a challenge for parents not only because we worry about the direction their relationship is moving in and the impact that it will have on them and their future, but also because it is one of the most profound reminders of our own mortality. Nothing nudges us more forcefully into the twilight of insignificance than seeing the adoration and adulation that used to be directed our way now being directed towards someone other than us. We all yearn to be part of our children’s lives, but that yearning becomes increasingly unrequited and unanswered as they grow into adolescence.

Similarly, I have seen many parents take an inappropriately harsh stand against their child’s nascent romance because it reminds them of the romance that they no longer feel, either because they are alone (single, separated, divorced, or widowed), or because the marriage or love relationship that they reside in has been sapped of richness and vigor. The envy that we (sometimes ashamedly) encounter when we watch our children blossom into the springtime of their lives can be painful indeed, and if we do not pay attention to and understand the basis for that envy, it can sometimes get the best of us, prompting us to want to squelch a teen relationship that is either harmless and likely to be short-lived anyway, or potentially long-standing and growth promoting.

On the other hand, I have witnessed many parents attempt to re-experience the love that they are lacking in their own lives through vicariously tapping into their teen’s love relationship, leading a mother or father to inappropriately support or subsidize a connection that is imbalanced or misguided, and/or to neglect to set the necessary limits that prevent immature teens from “getting in too deep”, resulting in a premature fusing together into an amoeba-like state that suffocates the development of the two confederates. 

Of course, it is also not uncommon or inappropriate for parents to be concerned about adolescents’ amorous attachments for reasons that may in fact be legitimate, and, at these times, it is important to proceed thoughtfully and strategically. As noted above, adopting an overly critical, condemning viewpoint often artificially solidifies a puerile relationship, creating a “Romeo and Juliet” situation in which the star-crossed lovers actually savor their parents’ antipathy as nutrients that fuel their relational growth, despite how dysfunctional the relationship has become. On the other hand, simply backing off and adopting too much of a laissez-faire attitude can yield decidedly problematic outcomes, as well, some of them potentially irreversible, such as an unplanned pregnancy or the transmission of an STD, some of them simply dangerous, such as the infliction of emotional or physical abuse. 

Another challenge in these situations is that the individuals whom an adolescent surrounds him or herself with are generally an accurate barometer of his or her self-regard, especially when it comes to a romantic relationship. In other words, the higher a child’s self-esteem, the higher will be the quality of the romantic partner and the more appropriate and mutually beneficial the relationship between them. So when an adolescent has become entangled in a relationship with someone whom we do not approve of or who is, in one way or another, “bad” for him/her, it is unwise to simply besiege him or her with acid commentaries and scornful criticism, since these will only further corrode his or her self-esteem, which may in turn further solidify the maladaptive bond.

With this in mind, rather than just taking a stand against the relationship, or trying to obstruct or obliterate it, a better tactic is to ask questions that attract the teens’ curiosity regarding why s/he is engaged in this relationship, and what the potential risks and pitfalls of continuing it, or concluding it, might be. 

Here are some examples:

I know that you have said that you are in love with your girlfriend, yet I have to say that the two of you don’t seem very happy when you are together—do you have any sense of why this is?

Sometimes I wonder if you have outgrown your relationship with your boyfriend, yet you seem hesitant to put it to rest—what are you concerned would happen if you broke up with him? Are you more worried about how he would handle it or how you would handle it?

Have you ever thought about the difference between someone “loving you” and someone “using you”? What do you think the difference is? When you think about your relationship, do you think it’s like being used or more like being loved?

Another common tendency on the part of parents is to make the mistake of over-reacting to a juvenile crush that is unlikely to endure. In fact, parents who become fretfully preoccupied with a temporarily intense relationship will often see this preoccupation backfire, as their adolescent may take great delight in having captured their parents’ attention and unnerved them so thoroughly. Sometimes the crush will be directed towards someone much older than the adolescent—an admired teacher, coach or mentor. Assuming that the beneficiary of the teen’s fawning worship doesn’t exploit this relationship to his/her advantage in emotional and/or sexual ways, such heated veneration does not have to become problematic. It is normal and healthy for adolescents to idealize cherished adults, and for that idealization to at times radiate a romantic or sexual glow, because that is how they begin the process of incorporating the aspects of the cherished adult that are most meaningful to them. In essence, falling in love with a glorifiedadult is a way for the adolescent to fall more deeply in love with his or her embryonic adult self, a process that in turn generally translates into a more appropriate loving relationship with a peer over time. Subsequently, unless there is evidence that a boundary is being crossed by the beloved adult, I don’t believe it’s either required, or wise, to intervene, as these kinds of passionate obsessions usually fade out over time when left to follow their own, usually limited, course. 

An often neglected component of helping our adolescent children to establish a solid foundation for meaningful love is to provide them with a model for hearty intimacy in our own lives, so that they enter the province of relatedness with a useful template to build from. It is obviously easier to provide this template if we are engaged in that kind of intimacy ourselves, such as a respectful, affectionate, enduring marriage. But even if we aren’t—even if we are separated or divorced or perhaps never found ourselves in a gratifying, flourishing relationship—we can still provide our children with an understanding of what may have gone wrong so that they are more likely to seek out and promote the relational bond that turns out to be right for them.  

“Your father has many strengths but, looking back, I can see that I married him because I was lonely, and scared of staying alone, rather than because I really loved him.”

“I did care about your mom, and there were many interests that we had in common, but I did not see her as a life partner. However, I felt too guilty about ending the relationship so I just kind of went along with it, year after year, until I realized that we were never going to be happy together."

The reality is that human beings are, in essence, creatures of love. From my perspective as a family psychologist who treats individuals throughout the life-span, from very small children to very old adults, I have come to the conclusion that healthy development ultimately depends on the capacity to pursue and find adult love, and to gradually allow that love to soften and heal the unavoidable pain that remains from our childhood.

Our adolescents’ pioneering efforts to seek out this sustaining and sustainable adult love, clumsy and consuming as these efforts may sometimes be, still deserve to be honored and respected by their parents. In so many ways, the more that we honor and respect these efforts, the more likely that the attachment that they ultimately choreograph and co-create with their eventual partner of choice will carry both of them forward towards lives of significance, depth, wholeness and dignity, lives that are guided and enriched by the infinite possibilities of love.
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