It’s complicated. Our high school students have been in a conversation for the past few weeks about dating and relationships. No one can ever honestly try to relate to the opposite sex and come away with any other conclusion. Men find women mystifying. Women find men frustrating. The differences between people abound, and relationships can be a major source of confusion, frustration, and drama. It can leave you wondering: is it worth it? I think it is complicated because all our relationships have been damaged by sin. We often think about the way that sin damages our relationship with God, but one of the clear ideas in the Bible is how sin damages our relationships with other people. I am including our individual sinful choices, the way that we hurt one another, use and abuse one another; but I am also including sin in the corporate sense of our culture’s posture of rebellion against God. This means they will all be affected by selfishness, ugliness, and human imperfection. The result is a struggle to relate to one another in healthy ways – to establish community where often choose isolation and to learn to love despite our innate tendency to lust.
There is a very interesting cultural phenomenon occurring right now as we learn to date and relate in a digital world. Teenagers have been pairing off and breaking up for generations, but never before has their constantly evolving relationship status been made so public. You can watch relationships develop and unravel, complete with photos, status updates, and status changes. This enables everyone from friends and teachers to grandparents to have a front row seat on the relationships of others. Talk about being a DRAMA major. This is an area of cultural evolution that has dramatic implications. Dating is DRAMA. In the time I have been in youth ministry, as well as when I was a teenager, I have seen students confused, hurt, and mixed up by this reality more than any other.
Don’t jump to conclusions: I am not “anti-dating.” I am not opposed to teenage relationships, but I do think some caution and a few warnings are in order. What we have been trying to do in echo for the past few weeks is have a conversation and challenge some things that our culture takes for granted that might not be true. There are pitfalls that await you and that you could possibly fall into and get ripped up by. Romance is a HUGE part of life – when right, it can lead to so much joy and peace it will blow your mind. When wrong: hurt, heartache, pain, jealousy, bitterness, and more await you.
What are the most common mistakes teenagers make when it comes to dating? Here is my opinion:
- It’s dangerous when teenage romance is too intense. If your teen stops hanging out with his or her friends and their boyfriend or girlfriend becomes the center of their universe, they are in headed for trouble. Romantic relationships rush ahead quickly, but teens need to learn to ride the brakes. When a relationship stops being fun and starts being “serious,” a line has probably been crossed. We encourage teens to be careful about overusing and abusing words like “love” and “commitment.” I am not saying you cannot experience real love as a teenager, I think you can. I am just saying that those are really intense words, and you shouldn’t abuse them. The constant warning in Song of Songs, which is a Hebrew Love Poem in the Bible, is “Do not awaken love before its time” (2:7, 3:5, 8:4). This warning is major part of the celebration of love throughout the book in its proper place. This is more than just a simple “don’t,” it is about understanding the forces at work and the intensity of our wiring as human beings. You are built for connection, so it should not surprise us that we desire deep and intense connections. Yet this design of God has been distorted by sin and selfishness, and we require some boundaries to protect our hearts. I am talking here about late night phone conversations and constant connection through text and social networking. I am talking about being inseparable as a teenage couple. Teenagers need space, it is healthy. They need space to figure out who they are individually and to appreciate other relationships. The only relationship that should have this level of prominence in ya teen’s life right now is God.
- It’s dangerous when teenage romance is too Involved. I am talking here about the controlling, “I need to know where you are every minute” or jealous or possessive kind of relationship. This isn’t healthy. If your teen can’t have a conversation with another girl or guy without their bf or gf freaking out, they are too involved. People should not “own” others as teenagers. They should not need another teenager’s “permission” to do anything. If that is true, they have given someone else a level of authority over them that is improper at this age. It is tempting to be flattered by jealousy, but don’t fall for it. Severe jealousy is an expression of ownership and possessiveness. This is not about concern, it is about control. It is not love being expressed. Love is a relationship of mutual respect and equity. Controlling behavior should not be tolerated. I have witnessed girls text and call their boyfriends dozens of times in an hour. They manipulate and pull stunts to control their boyfriend. I have seen guys intimidate and bully their girlfriend. I have also seen guys that can turn on tears instantly to manipulate and control, even to the point of threatening suicide. If your teen’s relationship sounds like an emo song, help them get out of it! Trust me on this, such behavior in a 17 year old will only get uglier and more severe with time. How do you know when there is a problem? How can you help your teenager recognize the problem? We taught that they should watch for warning signs: If you feel like you shouldn’t have a good time without your bf/gf around, you might have a problem under the surface. If you are ever interrogated by your boyfriend or girlfriend, there might be a problem lurking under the surface. When your relationship stops being fun, when it stops giving you energy, there is a problem. Whenever you are afraid of your boyfriend or girlfriend hearing something you said or seeing something you are doing, there is a problem. If you start feeling burdened or weighed down by your significant other, it is time to adjust the relationship or end it. The last thing you want is a relationship defined by control, fear, and instability. One more important caution here: infatuation has a way of blinding you to another person’s character, especially their faults. If your parents or your good friends are seriously concerned about your bf/gf, LISTEN to them. Take their concerns very seriously. They may be able to see things you cannot. Love is built on trust and respect. If you do not treat each other with trust and respect now, it will not get better later.
- Teen relationships are dangerous when they are too Intimate. It is natural for everyone to want to express physically the intimacy you feel emotionally, but this can get really complicated quick for teens. There is a time and a place for physical intimacy, but high school isn’t it. I have never met anyone that ever said: “I wish I had been more intimate with my high school boyfriend.” Yet I meet people all the time that are filled with regret about their sexual activity as a teenager. So often people have to deal with guilt and frustration because of boundaries tested and compromises made in this area. He wants to go further, she doesn’t, or she does and he doesn’t. There is a great cost to experimenting sexually except in one situation: marriage. We teach teens that intimacy is dangerous without the covenant of marriage to protect and channel it. They are dealing with something powerful, so it has the potential to cause great pain. The power of sexuality is protected by chastity before marriage and by fidelity after marriage. This is the channel that prevents the flood from being destructive. Ask this question: how well do you want to know the body of someone else’s spouse? How well would you want someone else to know your spouse’s body? Every person you date is someone’s son or daughter, someone’s future husband or wife.
Questions for Parents:
- How well do you know the romantic life of your teen? How much do you want to know about their relationship status? Are you waiting for them to come to you, or are you pursuing your teen on this issue?
- What do the lines of communication look like on the issue of romance and sexuality in your home? How often do you initiate these conversations? Your teen needs your guidance here more than anywhere.
- How can you help your teenager establish the right boundaries emotionally, physically, and relationally? What do you want these to look like? Remember it is always easier to give freedom than to take it away once they have experienced it.