The Hidden Heartache of Teen Romance

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The Hidden Heartache of Teen Romance

A research review reveals the strangely under-researched topic of first love.

KEY POINTS

  • Teens’ emotions are powerful and strange, and they deal with new interoceptive signaling arising within their changing physiology.
  • Contrary to expectation, boy teens are at greater risk of mental upheaval from heartache than girls.
  • Teens benefit from parents’ understanding and support in regulation of this trauma.

Valentine’s Day celebrates the golden and glorious side of romantic love. But when romantic love first emerges—generally during the teen years—it is new, strange, and powerful, and can wreak havoc on both teens and their parents.

Parents, researchers, and policymakers are more concerned about the dangers of teen sex than teen romance, yet romantic love—something different from sexual yearnings—takes up a huge proportion of teens’ emotional energy. Girls attribute 34 percent of their strong emotions to romantic relationships, whether fantasy or real. Boys attribute 25 percent of their strong emotions to these.1 This is more than any other single topic—more than friends and more than school. While there is no comparable data about teens who do not feel at home in their assigned gender, they tell me that “thinking about who will love me and how it will be” is a constant preoccupation, “always there, even when it’s not right in front of me.”

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Having recently trawled through three decades of interviews with teens for my new book The Teen Interpreter,2 I am convinced that few adults understand the force and depth of teen romance. “It’s puppy love,” or “It’s just a crush,” they say. Yet, when teens fall in love, and when they lose love, they feel that their life depends on getting the right answer to the question, “What is this?” and “What does this mean?” When parents minimize their pain, teens feel a loss of support that compounds their love grief.

Unfamiliar Interoceptive Signals

Teens work hard to understand their new range of emotions. Their efforts are comprised by interoception—that sixth sense of ourselves as embodied, with sensations from the internal state of our organs—the pumping of our heart, the digestive activity in our stomach, the filling and emptying of our lungs, the heat, wind, touch, and texture on our skin. With their rapidly developing brains and bodies, along with a new supply of hormones, teens confront unfamiliar interoceptive signals, including “that strange feeling in my stomach when he notices me” or “that shameful freeze when she talks to me.” With a romantic partner, they can join forces to express their feelings. When they lose that romance, they suffer not only from loss but also from loneliness. When they seek support from a parent, they are often disappointed.

When a teen’s first love ends, parents interpret this loss via the myths that their grief is short-lived, and that, during its acute phase, girls are more vulnerable than boys to the impact of love grief. This month’s annual celebration of romantic love is an opportunity to sharpen our understanding of teens’ romantic loss.3

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Differences Between Girls and Boys During a Breakup

Girl teens are said to be more dependent on close relationships than boy teens; hence, they are expected to suffer more from a breakup. But this is among many common assumptions about what girls feel versus what boys feel that turn out to be false. In fact, when it comes to romantic relationships, teenage girls are less vulnerable in the wake of a breakup than teen boys. Those on the frontline of teen mental health have known this for many years: A high-school counselor explained, “The boys fall apart when they break up with a girlfriend. They can’t study. They [sometimes] start to drink. If they come to me with problems about their work or their parents, I can help them. But when they come saying they’ve just broken up with a girlfriend, I see a red flag.”

The difference is that girls have a greater friendship network to draw on. Close friends act as co-regulators of emotions; through intimate conversations, friends help them reflect on their feelings, stimulating the brain’s executive functions that then calm anxiety and despair. But boys, because they tend to shut down friendship intimacy in later adolescence, when the guy code exerts its demands to be “strong” and “independent” and to carry emotional burdens in silence,4 are more dependent on a romantic partner who may be their sole source of intimacy. Moreover, boys tend to have more stable friendships and are less practiced in the hard lessons of rupture and repair that girls learn in late childhood. A first romantic breakup then becomes a trauma that they are very slow to process.

THE BASICS

This difference can be seen in the language teens use to describe their experiences. While teenage girls describe breakups as “really hard” or “a shock” and admit they feel “lost” or “stuck,” teenage boys use words such as “falling apart” and “shipwrecked” and “tailspin,” which imply severe disruption and disorientation. Rejection by a lover threatens their identity, health, and mood. No one should add to their loneliness by minimizing their pain.

References

1. Wilson-Shockley, S. (1995), in Furman, W., Bradford Brown, B., & Fiering, C. (Eds.). (1999). The Development of Romantic Relationships in Adolescence (p. 5), Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

2. Apter, T. (2022). The Teen Interpreter: A Guide to the Challenges and Joys of Parenting Adolescents. W.W. Norton.

3. Florence Williams has done this for adults. See Williams, F. (2022). Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey. W.W. Norton

4. Way, N. (2013). Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection. Harvard University Press.

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About the Author

Terri Apter, Ph.D., is a writer and psychologist specializing in family dynamics and adolescent development. Her new book, The Teen Interpreter, will be published in March 2022.

Online:

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