2008-10-15 / Living & Style

Is teen dating like a dress rehearsal for divorce later?

Teen dating doesn't necessarily lend itself to preparation for life-long marriage
By Randy Hicks, president of Georgia Family Council

Everyone seems to love the rush of a new romance. So much so that marriages - not just dating relationships - often end up in crisis because one (or both) has lost the "buzz."

Here's the scenario: Two people meet, are attracted, feel infatuation, start dating, enjoy the buzz of being in a new relationship, and bask in the approving glow of their peers. But eventually the buzz fades, and things that were once hidden are revealed; a bad habit here, an annoying behavior there, and suddenly they're wondering if the relationship is worth it. The excitement is gone; the relationship ends, and they move on and start over.

Rinse and repeat.

Here's a question that may rile up some parents - including me: could it be that the seeds for future marital breakup are sowed by the dating relationships of our youth and young adulthood?

At some point daters will find themselves married, where this cycle can easily rear its ugly head again. Happiness fades; the excitement of raising a family fades. Someone else seems new and exciting, and once again the impulse to move on wells up. In other words, the stakes may be bigger and the relational cycles longer, but the game is the same.

Dating is widely accepted as a way to learn about other people and yourself - to figure out the kind of person you want to be paired with the rest of your life. But as we all know, dating relationships at any age can be driven by emotion, appearance and physical involvement. And because these relationships are often based on the excitement and feelings of being in a dating relationship and being with someone who reciprocates those feelings, it's not always easy to objectively evaluate what's really going on. In essence, we love being in love. We love the feeling.

While some teens have a deep sense of genuine "love," the fact is that teen dating often lends itself to shallow and temporary relationships. Infatuation is often mistaken for "love," and "romance" is devoid of anything substantive because the relationship is based on mutual attraction, not genuine friendship. And when the feelings are stripped away, you discover that the relationship was built on sand.

Rinse and repeat.

Do all these experiences, often repeated multiple times, seem like a good way to prepare for the challenge of making a marriage work? Perhaps we should ask ourselves the question: Instead of preparation for marriage, are teenage dating relationships really a dress rehearsal for divorce?

I know couples who dated in high school and have been happily married for decades, but that is the exception to the rule by a wide margin. By and large the dating environment doesn't prepare people very well for marriage.

Marriage requires unconditional love that transcends difficult times and persists regardless of feelings; love that desires the best for the other person even when they are unlovely. Romance is great and has a definite place in marriage, but when it comes to weathering difficult times, or just the everyday routine of life, it isn't enough.

The soil of healthy, lasting marriage is a sort of unconditional friendship out of which blooms the perennial of romance. Perhaps this is a bit of a forced metaphor, but don't miss my point. Sometimes romance might be dormant, but that doesn't mean it won't return.

In reality, a successful marriage really has more to do with friendship than with romance. Friendship creates familiarity and understanding that forms the basis of relating in everyday experiences. It is far better for young people to learn how to have friendships with the opposite sex than to just date, which is why it is important for us as parents to take an active role in our children's dating lives. Part of our responsibility as moms and dads is recognizing dangers that our children cannot. Here are a few suggestions to help them avoid dating pitfalls:

1) Teach them the importance of friendship over romance.

2) Don't let them date until a certain age and make that age clear to them years before.

3) Encourage group settings to develop friendships.

4) Know the parents of your kids' friends.

5) Have a curfew and stick to it.

6) Don't allow opposite-sex company when you're not home.

7) Talk to your children about sex early and often. Despite their dismissive attitude, they are listening and want to hear what we have to say about it. Having a boyfriend or girlfriend as a younger teenager significantly increases the likelihood of sexual activity.

Few things are as complex as relationships, especially for young people who can't process all of the emotions and experiences. Despite expectations to the contrary, dating is often more about getting what you want than the mutual self sacrifice so crucial to marriage.

We may have gotten it wrong in our dating lives, but as parents we can do a lot to help our own kids avoid what often resembles a dress rehearsal for divorce instead of preparation for life-long committed marriage.

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