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Dating Could Be Leading Our Teenagers to Depression

Marriage may well be in retreat in society at large, but among the young, matrimania is still messing with their minds.
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If you are an adolescent or a young adult, what could you do that could put you at risk for becoming more depressed, more sexist, and more likely to have problems with drinking and delinquency? If you are a young woman, what related experience might turn you off to science, technology, engineering and math?

The answer to the first question is: becoming romantically involved. The answer to the second is: just looking at a few romantic pictures.

This surprising side of adolescent romance have been documented in a number of studies, including one in which a nationally representative sample of more than 8,000 American adolescents were interviewed two years in a row. The authors found that:

1. Depression often increases over the course of the mid-adolescent years, but it increases more for those adolescents who become romantically involved (especially for the first time) than for those who do not become romantically involved. This deepening depression occurred even for those who got involved and stayed involved -- so the findings were not simply a matter of feeling badly about a break-up.

2. Depression among the romantically involved increased for both the males and the females, but it increased more for the females.

3. The increase in depression among the romantically involved was also especially great for those adolescents who reported attraction to people of the same sex and for those who reported no romantic attraction toward either sex.

4. Both the males and the females who became romantically involved reported more problems with drinking and delinquency than did their peers who were not romantically involved.

(I described more of the details of the research, including the authors' speculations as to why romance might be linked to such vulnerabilities, in this post and this one from my "Living Single" blog.)

Another study of more than 1,000 Spanish adolescents examined the link between romantic experience and sexist attitudes. The authors found that the males with more romantic experience were more likely than those without such experience to endorse beliefs indicative of "benevolent sexism." Benevolently sexist attitudes seem superficially positive, but can actually be patronizing -- for example, "Women should be cherished and protected by men."

In contrast, the females with more romantic experience were more likely to endorse attitudes of "hostile sexism." That variety of sexism is typically directed at women who don't stay in their place. An example of such a belief is "Most women fail to appreciate fully all that men do for them." (I described this study in more detail, with more examples of the different kinds of sexism, and some discussion of possible explanations, in this post.)

One more set of studies (discussed in more detail here) asked whether matrimania really matters. Matrimania is the over-the-top hyping of weddings, couples, romance and marriage.

Everyday brushes with mild versions of matrimania could include exposure to stereotypically romantic images, or overhearing people discussing their dates in a context that is supposed to be about research and scholarship. Those are just the kinds of casual experiences the authors examined in their research with college students. Yet, these wisps of matrimania mattered -- though only to the women.

College women who had just seen pictures of beach sunsets and romantic restaurants were less likely to express an interest in majoring in math or science, or pursuing careers in those areas, than were women who had just seen pictures of books and eyeglasses. The same thing happened to women who had just heard an experimenter discussing her date, compared to those who heard the experimenter discussing an exam.

In one last study by the same authors, women who had already expressed an interested in pursuing math and science careers, and who were currently enrolled in a math class, kept daily diaries of their feelings and activities relevant to romance and to math class. They found that the women who spent time with a romantic interest, or just communicated with that person, paid less attention in math class and spent less time on math homework. Their neglect of math class even continued into the next day. However, the women did say that they felt prettier on the days when they were in touch with their sweetheart.

The studies I've described so far document the "damned if you do" implications of romance in adolescence and early adulthood. In my own research, I've explored the "damned if you don't" aspects.

A popular misperception about singlism is that it is only targeted at singles who have passed a certain age -- maybe mid-30s. From that perspective, 20-something singles are not viewed any more harshly than 20-something couples or married people. Wendy Morris and I have looked into that, and we found that the stereotyping really is harsher with regard to 40-year old singles than 25-year olds. But the 25-year old singles are still perceived more negatively than the 25-year old married people.

The stigma even attaches to people younger than 25. In another study, we found that college students who were currently in a romantic relationship, or who had previous romantic relationship experience, were viewed as more mature and less self-centered than the students who did not have romantic relationship experience.

Marriage may well be in retreat in society at large, but among the young, matrimania is still messing with their minds.