Saturday, 31 March 2012

Adolescent Romantic Relationships in Interpersonal and Societal Context

Although adolescents’ romantic relationships would seem like an obvious and important area of study for developmental scientists interested in adolescents’ psychological development, until recently the topic has languished, for both pernicious and benign reasons. Currently, however, research on adolescents’ dating and
romantic relationships is burgeoning. Dating and romantic relationships are a significant part of adolescents’ social world; current research has corrected the misperception that these relationships are fleeting and transitory, as had been presumed.

Instead, the research has shown that romantic relationships are normative during middle adolescence, that they are relatively stable after early adolescence, and that they influence both current functioning and later psychosocial development. By tenth grade, interactions with romantic partners are more frequent than interactions with parents, siblings, or friends and provide as much support as relationships with mothers. Moreover, high school students spend a great deal of time thinking about these relationships. By the end of high school, nearly three-fourth so fall U.S. adolescents report having had a romantic relationship in the last 18 months.

Research on dating and romantic relationships during adolescence has proceeded in several directions. One direction has been to chart normative changes in the features of romantic relationships. In very early research, it is proposed that adolescents progress through a five-stage sequence of structural changes in peer relationships that entails transitions from small unisexual cliques to associations between male and female cliques, to the formation of a larger heterosexual crowd, which provides a context for dating (first among clique leaders and then later more broadly among all members), and finally, crowd dissolution in favor of a loose association of heterosexual couples. Although this account stood unexamined for nearly half a century, recent research has provided evidence for its validity among contemporary youth (although the sequence may unfold over a longer time span, as the average age of marriage moves upward to the mid-twenties). Studies have shown that early adolescents spend a great deal of time thinking about (but not actually interacting with) the opposite sex and that initial interactions with the opposite sex typically occur first in mixed-sex contexts. More experience with mixed-gender friendship groups facilitates adolescents’ involvement in romantic relationships.

The social context, including relationships with friends and parents, has been examined as sources of influence on the quality and progression of romantic relationships. Thus far, researchers have focused on either peer influence or parental influence or their additive effects, but more complex models of the interactive influences of parents, friends, and peers on adolescents’ romantic relationships have been lacking. Peer relationships may influence the development of romantic relationships by providing a context for establishing romantic relationships, by influencing the nature of those relationships and the choice of romantic partners, and by influencing relationship processes. The quality of adolescents’ friendships has been shown to be closely associated with the quality of romantic relationships.

Likewise, researchers have examined continuity between earlier parent-child relationships and adolescents’ romantic experience and relationships. According to attachment theory, representations of attachment to care givers formed early in life influence later romantic relationships through expectancies about closeness and intimacy, but some evidence suggests that attachment representations of friendships mediate the relationship between adolescents’ working models of their relationships with parents and their views of romantic relationships. Parental socialization practices, such as effective parental monitoring or a history of parental responsiveness and autonomy support, also may influence the development of romantic relationships, eitherdirectlyorthroughtheireffectonsocialcompetence,self-esteem,andself-worth.

Relatively little research to date has examined the meaning of romantic inter-actions and relationships to adolescents, but some evidence indicates that early adolescents’ notions of romance are very idealized and stereotypic and primarily meet needs for status attainment, sexual experimentation, and recreation. Overtime, as adolescents gain experience interacting with the opposite sex, romantic relationships begin to fulfill needs for support or care giving.

Another line of research has examined individual differences in dating, with the focus primarily on the consequences of early dating. Research has consistently shown that for both boys and girls early dating is associated with poorer psychosocial adjustment, including poorer self-esteem, lower academic achievement, more alcohol and substance abuse, and earlier involvement in sexual activity. The causal relationships are not clearly established, however, and youth who are involved in these activities may begin their involvement in dating earlier than other teens. Moreover, the desired timetable for dating, pacing of sexual intimacy, and tolerance for diversity may vary by friendship group and reputational crowds, as well as by ethnicity, cultural background, and gender. Furthermore, individual differences in dating among older adolescents need further study.

Despite the rapid progress made in recent years in understanding the development, features, and significance of adolescents’ romantic relationships, research in this area has been largely focused on middle-class, European American, heterosexual youth. More research on the normative development of romantic relationships in ethnic minority and sexual minority (e.g., gay, lesbian, or bisexual) youth is needed. Furthermore, to date, research has focused primarily on individual self-reports rather than considering the dyad as a unit of analysis; future research should examine the perceptions and experiences of both romantic partners as well as the influence of discrepancies in their perspectives for adolescent development and adjustment.

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