Teenagers need to be supported in their relationship choices - however bad they might be

My first foray into dating became a screaming, crying bloodbath of a relationship. But I didn't realise it was wrong, because nobody told me

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The Independent Online

I don’t think you could pay me to go back and relive my teenage relationship. I was a late bloomer, as they say, and despite having a stream of unrequited crushes throughout my youth, I only managed to solidify a real boyfriend late in my teens.

I’d grown up feeling left out, living vicariously through my less awkward and more appealing friends, as they found out that, yes, Tom from the year above did fancy them. I sat with pals in toilet cubicles as they cried after hearing that this week’s beau had been getting off with whatserface at the most recent party – which I never got invited to, by the way, not that I’m bitter.

I ached for a real relationship of my own to gossip about. Then I got one – and it was the absolute worst. Which is why it’s no surprise to me to discover there’s a proven link between bad teenage relationships and unhappiness, as revealed by researchers at the University of Denver this week.

Teens have little support to guide them through those early relationships. There’s the awkward personal, social and health education lessons, which lightly allude to the fact that teenagers will have relationships and may even kiss and touch each other, but warns both are bad and will automatically end in pregnancy or an embarrassing infection. So rarely are teenagers actually spoken to about the bare bones of relationships. Mutual respect, consent and how to spot the signs of emotional and physical abuse and manipulation are often missed off the curriculum – that’s if a curriculum is being followed at all.

I went through my teens watching the relationships of such greats as Meredith and Derek from Grey’s Anatomy, who were routinely breaking up and getting back together and shouting at each other down hospital hallways. My parents, while thankfully still together, were not overly romantic with each other but instead maintained a solid partnership – not the stuff of adolescent admiration.

No. I took my personal aspirations from informative TV shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Skins. Which is probably why, when I ended up in a screaming, crying, bloodbath of a relationship, I believed it was the norm.

Don’t get me wrong, when I got together with my First Real Boyfriend I thought our relationship was the bee’s knees. Sweet, charming, funny and taller than me; he had all the makings of a good suitor. It was an overwhelming whirlwind of love notes, bike rides and sleepovers.

Then things took a turn, as they do. Sex became a factor, and trying to mimic a grown-up relationship while having to balance the motions of growing up and studying took its toll. Intense bickering started and the lines between what was acceptable in a relationship and what was not began to blur. Except I didn’t realise that at the time, because no one had told me.

 

We take it as a given that young people will know the difference. Being pinched under the arms because I’d said the wrong thing in front of his mum was not OK. Being driven down the motorway at speed because he was mad that I was sad and thought we should break up, that was not OK either. But as a teenager I took it as part and parcel of being in a dramatic, loving and real relationship. What could be more real, as a teenager, than something that makes you cry on a daily basis?

Eventually, of course, me and the First Real Boyfriend broke up. I was devastated; he moved on pretty quickly and was fine.

If I could go back in time I would do a lot of things differently, but as an adult I’m glad I went through those terrible, terrible times. Now I know what I will put up with and what I won’t. I know the warning signs of loving toxicity. I know what it is that I want from a relationship because I’ve been through something that I really don’t. It sounds like a terribly self-destructive process, but hey, that’s love.

Young people are going to date each other. They’re going to play at love and happy families. We live in an age where teens are freer than ever to explore their sexuality. So much so that earlier this week another study by YouGov revealed that nearly half of young people describe themselves as “not 100 per cent heterosexual”. Young people should be supported in their relationship choices – even if for the most part they might be bad.

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