Our Adolescent Model of Adult Love and Sexual Relationships

February 2nd, 2010

Like most men and women today, you and your partner are almost guaranteed to descend into what I call the “Functional Relationship.”  One that lopes along OK, but with declining energy and connection, emotionally and sexually.   That’s because most people learn a way of relating within romantic and sexual relationships that is a version of adolescent romance.  “But I’m an adult,” you may protest.  “I grew out of that teen-age romance stuff long ago.”

Not quite.  We’re socially conditioned into intimate relationships that are basically extensions of the adolescent experience.  That is, the features of normal adolescent romance shapes and defines most of the expectations, behavior, and experience about romance and sexuality that you carry into your adult life.  Few realize it, because most don’t learn any other way.  And that’s a big problem, because adolescent romance is incompatible with building an adult love relationship.

Take a look at some typical features of adolescent romance:  Short-term intense arousal from a new partner.  Infatuation and idealization of the new love, often followed by deflation and feelings of loss.  Intense longing and yearning — especially when the person is unattainable or elusive.  Emotional upheaval and turmoil.  The novelist Graham Greene captured much of this in The Heart of the Matter, in which he described  “…the intense interest one feels in a stranger’s life, the interest the young mistake for love.”

Emotional tumult and intense emotional-sexual arousal by a new partner are part of what a person experiences when such feelings are new - physiologically and emotionally.  That’s a part of normal developmental experience for hormone-driven teenagers.  Dion captured the anguish this can cause in his classic song, “Why Must I Be A Teen-Ager In Love?” The problem is, most people are still singing the same tune at 40.

Men and women tend to become frozen within the residue of adolescent romance by the time they enter adulthood.  It morphs into the Functional Relationship the longer a couple stays together.  The reason is that adolescent love extended into adulthood undercuts sustained the vitality and connection needed for a long-term relationship.  You can see the features of adolescent romance in what adults do when they are seeking or forming a new relationship.  For example, manipulation and game playing; trying to find the right “strategy” to get and possess the partner; jockeying around for control, and so forth.  Generally, we learn to associate intensity of feelings with “real love.”

Even though most people don’t really enjoy being caught up in all this, most learn to accept it as part of “normal” love relationships. But a more accurate understanding is that such experiences reflect an enthrallment with our own feeling of being “in love,” much more than a response to the other.  The former is part of the adolescent experience.

In Western culture, our model love has its origins in the middle ages.  Back then, as de Rougemont described in his classic book, Love In The Western World, romantic love became associated with separation from the love “object.” In effect, marriage became the “enemy” of passion.  And remember, back then, people didn’t live long enough to have much of an adulthood.  It’s no surprise that the quintessential portrayal of romantic love is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  The lovers were thirteen and fifteen.

de Rougemont explained that romance and sexuality became split off from marriage during that historical period.  Passion came to be seen as the “enemy” of marriage.  Feelings of romantic and sexual passion became linked with the experiences that first arise with adolescent awakening.

For most, adult expectations, beliefs and behavior in love reflect much of the same sort of  intoxication, tumult, maneuvering and struggle that are part of the adolescent experience.   Most of what we call “love” today consists of variations of these adolescent themes: possessiveness, intense longing, chronic desire for newness and excitement, and fear of loss of identity if you “lose” the other.

We are conditioned into associating love with that hormone-driven intensity of lust, the desire to “possess,” and the tendency to idealize.  This first experience of romance remains the core of adult love relationships.  Our culture reinforces it, through media portrayals of love that are equated with intense excitement within the moment.  At the same time, the message that passion must decline in an ongoing relationship feeds a belief that excitement can only be felt through the experience of newness.

Long after we’ve passed the threshold to adulthood, after we have gotten our careers underway, perhaps begun families, taken on adult financial and other responsibilities, we remain driven by a version of adolescent love.  Adults tend to equate feelings of intense attraction with someone who’s new and unknown.  We expect a struggle to control and possess; or to submit and surrender.  We equate yearning and nostalgia for genuine connection.

The bursting forth of new emotions and desires around being  “in love” is so intoxicating because it’s often then when you feel you’re at your best – in your most alive and passionate state.  In effect, we like being the person we are when we are enthralled with another.  But we don’t know how to evolve this excitement into a lasting form after the new person becomes familiar, or ceases to be a challenge to win over.

As that initial intensity declines, you become vulnerable to losing interest.  Or, you may think that your partner no longer loves you.  It becomes increasingly difficult to navigate the changes that occurring within a relationship and within ourselves over time.

What is normal for the adolescent is crippling for the adult relationship.   We haven’t learned how to transform what we’ve learned to define as “love” into an adult form that sustains emotional, sexual and spiritual vitality.  I’ll say more about that later, in a subsequent post.

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Midlife Conflict and Renewal, Modern Love, Sex & Relationships, Psychological health in a post-globalized world

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