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Why Your Love Life Is a Version of Adolescent Romance

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,
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I'm being descriptive, not cynical, when I say that you and your partner are almost guaranteed to descend into what I call a "Functional Relationship," over time. It's one that lopes along, OK, but with declining energy and connection, emotionally and sexually.

Sound familiar? The reason is that most people learn a way of relating within their romantic and sexual relationships that's a version of adolescent romance.

"But I'm an adult," you may protest. "I grew out of that teenage romance stuff long ago." Not quite. We're socially conditioned into intimate relationships that are basically extensions of adolescent experience. The features of normal adolescent romance shape and define most of the expectations and behavior about romance and sexuality that you carry into adulthood. Few realize it because most don't learn any other way. That's a big problem, because adolescent romance is incompatible with sustaining an adult love relationship.

Take a look at some typical features of adolescent romance: Short-term intense arousal by a new partner. Infatuation and idealization of the new love -- 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, writing of "...the intense interest one feels in a stranger's life, the interest the young mistake for love."

Emotional tumult and intense arousal by a new partner are among your experiences when such feelings are new -- physiologically and emotionally. That's a part of normal development among hormone-activated 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 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 because adolescent love extended into adulthood undercuts the vitality and connection you need to sustain a long-term relationship.

In Western culture, our model love has its origins in the middle ages. Back then, as de Rougemont described in his classic Love In The Western World, adult romantic love became associated with separation from the love "object." Feelings of romantic and sexual passion became associated with the experiences of adolescent awakening. And remember, back then, people didn't live long enough to have much of adulthood. It's no surprise that the quintessential portrayal of romantic love is Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. The lovers were thirteen and fifteen. Consequently, romance and sexuality became split off from marriage, and marriage became the "enemy" of passion.

Our adult expectations, beliefs and behavior in love reflect much of the same intoxication, tumult, maneuvering and struggles that are part of adolescent experience. We're conditioned into associating love with hormone-driven intensity of lust, the desire to "possess," and the tendency to idealize. This first, internal experience of romance remains the core of adult love relationships. But these experiences reflect enthrallment with your own feeling of being "in love," much more than a response to the reality of the other.

Long after we've passed into 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 -- variations of the same themes -- possessiveness, intense longing, chronic desire for newness and excitement, and fear of loss of identity if you "lose" the other.

You can see the features of adolescent romance play out in adults' relationships. For example, in manipulation and game playing; trying to find the right "strategy" to get and possess the partner; jockeying around for control. Also, in expecting feelings of intense attraction to occur when someone is new and unknown... but then decline with familiarity. We expect a struggle to control and possess; or submit and surrender. And we equate yearning and nostalgia with true connection. Most people don't really enjoy being caught up in all this but learn to accept it as part of "normal" relationships.

On the positive side, feeling "in love" is 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 after you've "won" his or her affection.

Then, as the initial intensity declines, you're vulnerable to losing interest. Or, you may think your partner no longer loves you. You may look for an affair. And it becomes harder to navigate the changes that occur within your relationship and in each other, over time.

In short, what's normal for the adolescent is crippling for the adult. We have yet to learn how to transform that into an adult form that sustains emotional, sexual and spiritual vitality. I'll offer some ideas about that in subsequent posts.