Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Why Are Teen Breakups So Painful

June 9, 2008

Dear Dr. Farmer, I live in a rural area of a county in northwestern Minnesota and have worked most of my life with young people - as a nurse in various hospital settings, as a teacher in a public school, as a youth leader and as a Sunday School teacher in my church.

In the past few years, I've noticed that when our teens and young adults break-up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, the feelings are so much stronger, depression often complicates the process, the grieving can be horrific, and sometimes the young person needs medication to cope. This surely wasn't the case ten years ago.

It seems to me that because premarital sex is involved, these break-ups are like a divorce and can be very detrimental to our young people. Would you please consider writing a column addressing this issue?

Here are four ideas on why teen breakups are harder. I do believe they are tied to premarital sex.

1. Premarital sex and needy young people. One reason for a painful breakup is the inadequate personality development of the young person who is experiencing rejection. In the beginning, the relationship develops nicely. Needs are met. The needy partner experiences emotional security, perhaps for the first time in his or her life. Add the intensity and commitment implied by premarital sex to the situation and you get a boyfriend or girlfriend from hell - the "fatal attraction" lover whose tantrums, theatrics and tenacity defy rationality.

With the inevitable problems and because of personal insecurity, he or she becomes jealous, possessive and easily threatened by potential rivals. The desperate lover reacts in a demanding, needy, self-centered and controlling manner. His or her partner feels suffocated.

When the lover pulls away, that makes everything worse. The relationship is so prized, so valued and their partner so idealized that the jilted party is likely to experience an intense emotional reaction. It's not love; it's symbiosis.

The lover's pulling away triggers feelings of abandonment, anger, depression, anxiety and mistrust. Distress from a breakup is greater when the dropped partner feels he or she doesn't have alternatives to the relationship being lost. Because of an increase in dysfunctional families, we have more teens who lack the maturity, self-esteem or support system to handle relationship breakups.

2. Sex without commitment causes confusion about intimacy. The need for young adults to pursue education and career aspirations means putting off serious consideration of marriage until the mid-or-late 20s. Yet our sexualized media and culture push young people to experiment with sexual expression long before they are ready to settle down with a long-term partner.

Our popular culture would have us believe that we can divorce our feelings from our bodies - that love and sex are two different things. Sex without caring and commitment is shallow and fleeting. Sex can't simultaneously be a personal toy used with almost any partner and still be the highest expression of love, commitment and intimacy reserved for marriage. It doesn't compute.

The deeper feelings connected with love-making can't be turned on and off like a water faucet. Teens and young adults become confused by the powerful bonding of physical intimacy and their inability to cement their relationship with marriage.

Without marriage, time and bad habits takes a toll on relationships. Differences strain the relationship. When love-making is introduced into a relationship, it implies a strong commitment and may frighten the less committed lover away. Cohabitation is a blind alley that makes breakups even more painful.

3. Sex clouds judgment in courtship. Once introduced into a relationship, sexuality is so powerful and captivating that it quickly becomes the centerpiece of the relationship. Sexual intimacy substitutes for real intimacy. Lust kills the opportunity for love to develop.

How? It interferes with the slower process of getting to know one another, of learning slowly the puzzle of another person's life and character. The explosive nature of sex crowds out the time for sharing personal feelings about dreams, goals, background, habits, faults and values. Introducing sex creates a pseudo-intimacy that substitutes for good communication and knowledge of common values and interests.

The desire for physical intimacy becomes an end in its own right. Motives are disguised or rationalized to make the relationship appear to be more than it is. An illusion of caring is created to justify self-gratification.

Which is it? Is it love or hormones out of control? It's a tough question. Sadly, young people are entirely capable of fooling themselves - or using someone for selfish purposes.

4. Premarital sex in courtship intensifies heartbreak and rejection. A rejection will hurt, but it will hurt less if sexual intimacies haven't been shared. Sexuality is close to the core of one's identity. A rejection after a sexual relationship has been initiated is a direct challenge to self-esteem and sexual adequacy.

The amount of pain and unhappiness is greater with longer and more intimate relationships. How close a couple has been is the chief factor in how much pain is experienced.

Many teens and young adults believe sexual relations outside of a committed relationship are wrong. A breakup violates their romantic and religious notions of the meaning of sexual relations in a relationship. They experience strong guilt, regret, self-blame and anger. The failed relationship shows their poor judgment in failing to live up to their own standards of who they are and what they really want.