Teen Love Really Is Complicated, Research Suggests

Two teens snuggling in the street
The dynamics that govern teen relationships seem to be different than those found in adults, new research suggests. (Image credit: Petrenko Andriy | Shutterstock.com)

Like Stonehenge and Atlantis, the rules of teen love are an enduring mystery. And, for now at least, they may stay that way.

The factors that predict whether adults will stay together or part ways don't seem to apply to teenagers, new research suggests.

"In marriages, and also more committed relationships, it has been repeatedly shown that the way you resolve conflicts is really predictive of how good you feel about your relationship, and that predicts whether you stay together or not," said study co-author Thao Ha, a developmental psychologist at Arizona State University. [I Don't: 5 Myths About Marriage]

But talking through conflicts well doesn't seem to predict which high school relationships will last. The findings, detailed today (April 17) in the journal PLOS ONE, suggest that other mysterious dynamics are at play in teen love.

Mysterious dynamics

Whereas the fate of adult relationships can hinge on the ability to address conflicts well, only teenage girls’ level of depression can be tied to the odds of a breakup, past research has found. But even then, it wasn't clear whether girls’ depression caused the breakups or if teens were depressed because breaking up is sad.

In order to gain a better understanding of how teen relationships work, Ha and her colleagues interviewed 80 couples in high schools in the Netherlands, and then videotaped their interactions as the teens talked through a conflict. At several points in the next four years, the researchers followed up with the teens.

The teens described conflicts such as jealousy, differences in "liking to party," falling out of love or a lack of respect.

In general, the teenagers took their relationships very seriously, Ha said. At the end of the study, only nine couples were still together, with relationships usually lasting six or seven months.

But one finding, in particular, surprised the researchers: The way teens interacted while hashing out a conflict did not predict their likelihood of staying together.

"The ones that are pretty negative — we coded contempt a couple of times — you would think that would predict breakup, or when adolescents say they don't have any issues at all and they're very sweet to each other in the conflict, it doesn't predict breakup at all," Ha told LiveScience.

Other techniques

The findings suggest that other factors are at play in relationship breakups, though it’s still a mystery what, exactly, those factors are.

One possibility is that teen peer groups play a bigger role in a couple's longevity than in adults, though that's pure speculation, Ha said.

If, "all of a sudden, your best friend is deciding that your boyfriend sucks, that might actually be more predictive of breakup than how happy you are," Ha said.

As a follow-up, Ha wants to see whether using a diary to get a snapshot of people's feelings during the day can better reveal the dynamics of teen love.

It's not all that surprising that teen-love dynamics differ from those in adults: The issues teens face — such as having nowhere to go on dates, jealousy or their partner not calling — differ from those that bedevil married or live-in couples (who often fight about housework, money or substance abuse), Deborah Capaldi, a researcher at the Oregon Social Learning Center who was not involved in the study, wrote in an email.

Follow Tia Ghose on Twitter @tiaghose. Follow LiveScience @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on LiveScience.com.

Tia Ghose
Managing Editor

Tia is the managing editor and was previously a senior writer for Live Science. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Wired.com and other outlets. She holds a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington, a graduate certificate in science writing from UC Santa Cruz and a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Tia was part of a team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that published the Empty Cradles series on preterm births, which won multiple awards, including the 2012 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.