Couples who begin dating in their teens and early twenties can struggle as each partner continues to grow
I see a number of couples and individuals in my NYC virtual therapy practice who have been dating since their teens/early 20s. A decade (or so) later, they come to therapy struggling in their relationships, often in ways that are hard to pinpoint or articulate.
Individuals grow like weeds in their late adolescence into their late 20s (this is a developmental period newly demarcated as “emerging adulthood”). Current research in Neuroscience and Psychology indicates that the brain itself is not fully developed until age 25. Similarly, the needs of a 21-year-old are different in nature, depth, and substance than their needs a decade later.
Single folx try on different relationships as they begin to grow themselves. But couples that commit to the partnership in their teens or early 20s don’t get that option and can develop a system that inadvertently shapes growth, sometimes compromising it. Partners in these couples often have missed opportunities to assess if their needs are getting met and then opt-in/opt-out of the relationship. These couples tend to let fear have the loudest voice in the system; partners are more scared of losing the relationship than they are interested in demanding that the relationship works for them. Our work in couples therapy, as I will highlight in the second half of this two-part series, is to flip that equation, disrupt the fear, and dig into demands.
Why do these relationships include so much accommodation in the first place?
The partner you pick in your young life is sometimes someone that compensates for a component of safety or comfort that was missing or limited in childhood. For many individuals, this comes with years of being hungry for elements of nurture, attunement, or anything that feels like unconditional love. When this hunger begins to be satiated with a new partner outside of the family system, individuals tend to put more investment in maintaining the relationship than asking it for more. Furthermore, loss is scary for emerging adults; they are less stable and secure in the world, and more heavily lean on their relationships to fortify their identities. Thus, any threat of loss can feel destabilizing and incredibly disruptive to a younger individual’s sense of self.
In addition to partners making some tough relational decisions (staying together pre/post-high school or college, moving together, moving in with each other) in their early 20s with the abovementioned fear of loss front of mind, young adults face other obstacles. They don’t always have the necessary skills to facilitate a difficult conversation, nor the earned faith in themselves to tolerate painful relational moments imbued with unpleasant and intense feelings, often with the added pressure of high-school sweetheart trope coloring the way they perceive the relationship. This context enhances fear and limits freedom; it encourages young adults to both consciously and unconsciously shy away from difficult conversations that could lead to one partner “opting-out” of the relationship.
The relationship that develops has been constructed quite passively
Given the limitations of both partners (through no fault of their own), the relationship begins to be absent of moments where partners endure the difficult conversation of advocating/asserting their needs. In these absences, homeostasis is prioritized, and “growing around each other,” an elaborate system of silently accommodating the other and/or minimizing oneself in order to continue the relationship, often occurs.
For example, if one partner had a more taxing schedule or high-pressure commitments earlier on in the relationship, the relationship often prioritizes his/her/their needs automatically, even if things have changed. Also, couples might continue to reinforce patterns or rituals that are pleasurable for one partner and not the other in an effort to align their interests so tightly that the couple doesn’t have to grapple with difference. However, partners aren’t clones of one another; rather than working through different interests or perspectives, partners end up minimizing parts of themselves in an effort to make difference go away. In other instances, partners take a stance of “agree to disagree,” and begin to live lives quite separately from one another. Couples tolerate shared spaces and shared moments by repressing anger or disagreement and continue to foster their independence.
This is where partners’ mutual fear of loss has the loudest voice in the relationship. Often, partners create hefty defense mechanisms for themselves in order to alleviate cognitive dissonance and justify why their relationships are set up the way they are. Partners come up with some pretty airtight narratives around the relationship, all with the goal of not rocking the boat. Frequently, I hear partners name the importance of independence, the merit of “compromise,” and sometimes the importance of “being challenged” by the other as code words to describe a struggling relationship or absence of intimacy. Further, couples lean on the way their lives have intertwined as examples of relational success. In fact, couples that text all day, are on the same page about “everything,” and finish each other’s sentences can be overly dependent on sameness.
As couples grow up together, partners feel close to the other’s family, develop a network of tight-knit mutual friends, and understandably relish in the community they’ve built around the relationship. In turn, friends and family are biased–most people love the story of young love so much that we see and support what we want to see and support, reinforcing the homeostasis of the relationship. To be clear, the relationship is almost never entirely a sham. The connections, networks, and history couples develop are meaningful and special. Thus, these narratives are difficult to dismantle unless actively examined and worked through, so they tend to remain intact until the individual or couple reaches a tipping point.