February 14, 2001

Studies in Adolescent Love: Experts Analyze Young Romance

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Valentine’s Day. It’s one of the most anticipated (or dreaded) holidays of the year. For couples it’s a time of bliss, but to singles Cupid serves as a painful reminder of being alone. Many singles see a couple holding hands and long for the euphoria of being in love.

A new study, however, shows that the idea of romance being the key to happiness might be unfounded.

According to the research conducted by Cornell Prof. Kara Joyner, policy analysis and management, with the assistance of her mentor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Prof. Richard Udry, romance leaves many teenagers more depressed, especially girls.

“A lot of research compares married individuals against single individuals. A number of studies have shown that those who are married are psychologically better off. I wanted to see if the effects were similar with adolescents,” Joyner said.

To see if Cupid’s arrow really does sting, Joyner and Udry looked at the differences in depression over one year for adolescents who were single at both interviews compared to those who were romantically involved at both interviews. The study found that teenagers who are romantically involved are more likely to have increased levels of depression than single adolescents.

Yet the differences in depression were slight. The difference for boys of all ages was only one-half point on a 33-point scale. For girls, however, there was a two-point difference at age 12, which dropped off to a one-half point difference around age 17.

These results were based on the responses of approximately 8,200 adolescents who were selected country-wide using a multi-staged random sample.

Joyner and Udry then looked for possible ways to explain the difference in trends for adolescents compared to adults. For boys, the level of depression was greater if they had a recent break-up. The results for girls seemed to be based more upon a deteriorating relationship with their parents. Joyner said that this result might be due to the arguments between parents and their children over dating.

Boys who are dating can also experience tension with their parents.

“When I was a teenager I worked for my parents and they gave me money to go out and buy gifts for my girlfriend. It always made me terribly guilty that my parents’ money was supporting my romantic relationship,” said Claudio Gualtieri ’03.

Although boys can have minor depression due to relationships, girls still tend to suffer more. Another possible explanation for this discrepancy is that many girls experience a reduction in self-esteem when they are romantically involved.

“I can definitely see how girls can suffer from a reduction of self-esteem when they are in a relationship,” said Abby Ambrose ’03. ” I loved my boyfriend; however, I was overcome with feeling like I always had to look good for [my ex-boyfriend] or in general impress him, which led to severe self-insecurity and extreme issues with food and compulsive working out.”

Also, if teenagers believe that a relationship will solve their problems, there can be serious effects if they are not happy once they enter a relationship.

“As teenage girls, at some point, we all think that everything would be perfect if only we had a boyfriend,” said psychology major Melissa Lacey ’03. “But what happens when we get that boyfriend and we are still feeling depressed? Feeling lost, we are left with a sinking feeling, like something inside of us saying ‘I’m not happy alone, and I’m not happy with him, so I must be incapable of happiness.'”

Joyner and Udry also found that both boys and girls who were romantically involved were more likely to be delinquent and have more problems with alcohol.

However, some students who remember their adolescent relationships disagree with the findings of this study. They believe that the research dwelled too much on the negative and overlooked the happiness associated with relationships.

“I remember my relationships in high school being one of the happiest parts of my life. I know that I tend to only remember the good times, but they must have outweighed the bad. I definitely enjoyed being single too, but having a boyfriend is special and incomparable,” said Danielle Rutner ’03.

Many other students disagreed, saying that societal pressures to be in a relationship contribute to unhappiness when a person is single.

“I definitely enjoy being single but when I was in a relationship as a teenager, it was great to be with someone and to share that part of your life with them,” Rebecca Yagerman ’03 said. “Also society conditions teenagers to want to be with someone, so when you are single, you almost feel as if you should be with someone. So you can feel really alone when you are single.”

Professors at other universities have also looked into adolescent relationships and report different findings than Joyner and Udry. Prof. Reed Larson, psychology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has conducted studies that monitor adolescent emotions every hour.

“[Adolescent emotions] can oscillate within the same day. The same child will tell us at one moment in time they’re just on top of the world because they just had this great talk with John, and then a few hours later, they’re totally depressed because John is suddenly seeing somebody else. Then they’ll come back up because they had a good talk with John, and things are back on track,” Reed told the Associated Press.

Although some critics do argue that happiness was not adequately considered in the Joyner and Udry study and that the differences were too minimal to measure anything, Joyner points out that although the differences are slight, they are similar to many other highly-respected studies. She says that studies based upon the effect of marriage on an individual’s happiness often have differences that would be considered slight by some, but are still interpreted as very influential by others.

“It depends what you consider a large effect. Some consider this to be small, others large. The effects obviously have an important impact,” Joyner said.

She thinks that her study just scratches the surface, and there could be a lot more research in this field focusing more on the happiness involved in relationships. Joyner said she believes that the impact of relationships on depression levels begins leveling off around age 18 or 19. Therefore, one possible direction of further research could be to focus more on college students.

Archived article by Katherine Klein