Shaping expectations. How you talk about love and relationships will have a significant influence on what your kid expects out of their beloved. Young love-ers are romantic idealists. Their model for love will be fairy tales, cartoons and a naïve, superficial view of dating and dating partners. (We won’t even get into what happens if they have already been watching R rated movies with the ubiquitous portrayals of relationship-as-sex.) They will need your help in learning how to think about infatuation, lust, love and romance. They need to have some ideas about the ideal partner and, especially early on, the ideal date. You will be fighting an uphill battle to counteract the media and popular culture who have been presenting an unrealistic view of the ideal human form and an exclusive focus on sex and sexuality.
Setting boundaries. It is easy for experienced adults to lose themselves in the experience of love. Young love-ers will need lots of help learning how to clarify their part in a relationship and their beloved’s part; what is their responsibility and what is their beloved’s responsibility; what is too much to ask and what is too much to be asked of. Make sure your kid knows about the importance of having personal boundaries in love. Help them make some decisions about what is too much and what is not enough before they are in the middle of it. This would include both the physical and, more importantly, the emotional. (It won’t save them from violating these boundaries but maybe it will reduce the number of times they try to merge their soul but lose themselves in the process.)
Maintaining respect, dignity & integrity. There are so many sacrifices you are willing to make for a beloved. Unfortunately for romantics (which are most teens), this can include sacrificing their dignity and their integrity. Talk to your kid about how their beloved deserves to be treated. What does it mean when they are treated badly, disrespected and required to compromise core values or beliefs. And then turn it back around on them. What do THEY deserve as someone’s beloved? What are THEY going to require as someone’s beloved. Talk about the importance and the problems with honesty (and dishonesty) and commitment (and infidelity). Talk about the right way to be in a relationship and the right way to end a relationship.
Having fun. Young love should be fun. Not the carnal desire form of fun (though, of course, that IS fun). Young love should be enlivening, exciting, invigorating, playful, energizing, positive, empowering, supportive, joyous, uplifting, encouraging and confidence building. It should not be overly serious, depressing, conflictual, oppressive, undermining or demoralizing. Adolescence is a time to practice the empowering and uplifting aspect of a loving relationship. Once they have that down, then they can start in on the more complicated serious aspect of love in a stable, committed relationship.
Differentiating love from sex. One of the most confusing aspects of love is its close association with sex and sexual desire. You need to help your kid be able to tell the difference (and understand why it is important to tell the difference). This means they need to be sexually educated beginning with a clear understanding of how sexual equipment operates, how the parts go together and what happens at all levels (physically and emotionally) when they do go together. But, most importantly, they need to know about sexual relationships. They need to be able to differentiate love from lust and make some decisions about the conditions under which they will (and won’t) have sex.
Establishing family dating rules. The most direct influence you can have on how your teenager approaches loving relationships will be the rules you establish for dating and intimate time together. When can they hang out with potential dating partners? How old do they have to be for actual one-on-one dating (hint: not until 16 years old). Get these rules in place early on so there is no confusion (and less arguing) when they actually find someone worthy of dating.
Educate about manners. There is still a place for manners and considerate behavior in loving relationships. Sure, some people are offended by you opening a door for them (because it suggests a power differential in which the door opener is asserting their superiority and social dominance over the door openee). Whatever. Manners goes in both directions (since either person can open the door for the other). The point is that there are social graces and polite considerations of others that familiarity can start to erode. Help your kid remember to retain well-mannered behavior regardless of how long they have been in a loving relationship (or whether love has begun to fade).
Provide perspective. Love is not enough. It feels like it is enough. It seems like it is enough. But, love is not enough. It is not enough to keep a relationship alive. (That requires commitment and trust and communication.) It is not enough to survive stress and trauma. (That requires compassion and fortitude.). It is not enough to keep the passion alive. (That requires openness and sharing and playfulness.) They will experience some of these (mostly the importance of commitment, trust and communication). It will be important for you to throw in that love is great and all that but there is more they need to learn if love is going to last. “Love is so wonderful. It is what really gets the relationship started so you can build in the other things that keep it going.” “Love is so pure that you have to be careful about putting other pressures on it unless you are really ready to assume all the responsibilities that come from committing yourself to each other.”
Love evolves across adolescence (and young adulthood). Unfortunately, our culture does not provide any consistent or clear information about the evolution of love. And, the information that is provided focuses almost exclusively on the infatuation and romantic aspects not on the committed partnership that marks a lasting relationship. Your kid needs your help in learning about what love really means.