A Psychological Perspective of Teen Romances in Young Adult Literature
Cheryl L. Dickson
As a high school teacher, I find it impossible to ignore the bantering of teenagers in love. One week Susie loves Johnny; the next week Susie loves Tommy. Then she hates both Johnny and Tommy and loves Billy. Girls chatting about their hopes of a romantic, candle-lit, pre-Prom dinner; and boys promising to return home from college to be reunited with their true loves in high school. Each adolescent is certain that his/her love is true and will result in a lifelong commitment. Each one dreaming of the emotional fireworks, picnics on the beach, a honeymoon in Paris, and the names of his/her first-born. As I sit and listen, I can't help but shake my head and wonder where they get these ideas. I then realize how disappointing it can be when their dreams of romance and love are crushed. I question who gives them the impression that love is always fireworks and roses.
Automatically, I blame the media. With teen movies like She's All That and television programs like Dawson's Creek, it's no wonder adolescents have unrealistic views of love. Teens watch these programs for a number of reasons. Most viewers enjoy the fantasy world they can enter, or they enjoy seeing other teens facing situations similar to situations they encounter. A problem occurs when teens expect their lives to be like their favorite character. Just as violence on television is hypothesized to increase real-life violence, television romance can likely affect views of real-life romance.
In order to critically analyze the portrayal of teen romance, it is necessary to understand the make-up of their relationships. According to White, the typical adolescent relationship is self-focused. Each person's wants overshadow the wants of the other (Paul, White 3). The relationship is largely based on convenience and shows few signs of strong emotional intimacy. Intimacy, which is typically not attainable until late adolescence, is characterized by empathetic behavior, trust, commitment, and effective communication (12). Young adult relationships are highly egocentric, and these traits are not likely. In addition, Roscoe, Diana, and Brooks determined that teen relationships are motivated by immediate gratification, recreation, and status attainment. Teens want to date the most popular person and have fun. Reciprocity of feelings and support is generally not a major concern (12).
Being a literature teacher, I hypothesized that literature could undo television's mistakes and bridge the gap between real love and fantasy love. In my mind, the literature had to be real fiction, not the supermarket romance novels. I believed teen romance series were likely to be just as damaging as teen movies. I predicted that quality literature would more accurately portray images of teen love than teen romance novels. However, during my comparison of two novels from the Love Series published by Bantam Books and two novels recommended by the American Libraries Association, I learned that I had made some hasty assumptions.
The American Libraries Association (ALA) "Booklist" magazine recommends Nicholas Sparks's A Walk To Remember for young readers who have an interest in reading adult books. According to the "Booklist Editors' Choice '99" list, the novel is a "bittersweet tale" which will "enthrall teen readers." ALA recommendations are based on the quality of literary work. Agreeably this book is well-written based on literary merit. The dialogue is realistic, and the plot and character development permit the reader to feel empathetic toward the characters. However, psychologically, this book neglects to portray teen intimacy development realistically.
Told from the first-person point of view of Landon Carter, the novel captures the reader with, "When I was seventeen, my life changed forever." As Landon Carter stands outside the Beaufort Hills Baptist Church in April 1999, in his mind he travels back to 1958 when he was a senior at Beaufort Hills High School in North Carolina. He is not a student who excels in classwork or extra-curricular activities. He is content to spend his senior year hanging out with his friends at the local diner or a nearby cemetery. Landon never expects for his senior year to be so memorable.
Throughout the first chapter, Landon is characterized as an average high school senior interested in girls and not school. By the second chapter, the novel loses its realism. While on a failing mission to find a date for the Homecoming dance, Landon realizes the only girl left to ask in his small school is Jamie Sullivan, the minister's daughter. Jamie, who always wears her hair in a tight bun, "almost looks like a spinster without a touch of make-up" (21). She wears the same brown cardigan and plaid skirt every day and never leaves home without her Bible. She was plain yet not completely unattractive. All the adults love Jamie because of her sweet and caring disposition. While all her classmate think she is irritating because of her constant reference to the Lord's plan, and she was "always so damn cheerful." Since Landon was a child, he and his friends have taunted both Jamie and her father.
Considering psychological findings that conclude teens date primarily for recreation and status achievement (Paul, White 3), Landon should not even consider dating Jamie. He even admits that if he asks her to the dance, "My friends would roast me alive" (35). Dating Jamie, even just for one night, would certainly not improve his status with his friends nor would it be an enjoyable experience. To add to their differences, Minister Sullivan and Landon's father have had a long-standing family feud with one another concerning Landon's grandfather's business decisions. Nevertheless, Landon, who is so desperate for a date, asks Jamie anyway. While at the dance, Landon's friends avoid him and Jamie rattles on about the Lord's plan for everyone.
Feeling as if he has already "served his penance" (67), Landon does not talk to Jamie much after the dance. Although he was not miserable at the dance, he regrets asking Jamie because his friends continue to ridicule him. Two weeks following the dance, Jamie approaches Landon with a request to star in the Christmas play with her. Given that Landon finds drama class boring and has no obligation to help Jamie, it should be unlikely that he agrees. Nonetheless, Landon agrees, and no real explanation is given. Throughout the many weeks of play rehearsal, Landon remains polite to Jamie yet laughs at her when with his friends. Just days before opening night, he becomes so aggravated with her; he demands that she stop acting like they are friends.
It is unclear where, or why, Landon falls in love with Jamie. Somewhere between opening night and collecting Christmas money for the orphans that she visits, Landon begins to admit to himself that he has feelings for her. Still, he keeps his love and their relationship from his friends. Before their love has an opportunity to progress beyond a casual romance, Jamie discloses to Landon that she is dying of leukemia. Landon is by her side throughout the struggle, and in a predictable, yet unrealistic, ending marries her before she dies. The final chapter returns the reader to 1999, where Landon, now 57, shares that he has never removed the wedding ring and still loves her.
From the beginning their relationship is unrealistic. Their opposite lifestyles, Landon's unsupportive friends, and Jamie's father's hatred of the Carters, should prevent Landon from even asking Jamie to the dance. The lack of realism is carried throughout the novel; therefore, it is difficult to categorize their relationship into White's levels of intimacy because it is so unrealistic. Most teen relationships are self-focused, which means they only exist because of convenience, and each individual's wishes are his/her primary concern (Paul, White 3). Landon and Jamie's relationship is inconvenient to Landon both when his friends ridicule him and when she is dying. Therefore, it cannot be concluded that their relationship is at the self-focused level. This level is the foundation for all relationships (3). If this level is not achieved, which it does not appear to be, then the relationship should not even exist. The next level of intimacy is role-focused which requires that the relationship is socially acceptable, respecting and caring (3). The couple seems to leap to this stage rather abruptly, bypassing the self-focused level, when learning of Jamie's disease. This level is not completely unrealistic in teenagers, but such an abrupt jump into emotional intimacy is unlikely (4). A few months is generally not sufficient time to develop the trust, commitment and empathy needed marriage.
The subject of marriage raises another issue. Why did Landon marry a dying girl? This decision seems very selfless; however, he tells Jamie that he is doing it for himself, not her. Psychologically teenagers are egocentric, which prevents them from making decisions that do not directly benefit them. The benefits Landon may experience from marrying Jamie are limited to the positive feeling he would get from enabling her to fulfill her dream. Given that single benefit, one would assume that he would eventually love again, yet he never does. Again the realism of the plot is lost.
Taking into account the unrealistic portrayal of intimacy development, a young reader could get an inaccurate impression of high school love. Teen love is typically short-lived because of undeveloped interpersonal and social skills (Shaughnessy, Shakesby 4). By suggesting that teen love can withstand ridicule and even death is encouraging teens to believe that their high school relationships will have a lifelong impact on who they are and who they will become. High school relationships do encourage identity development (3), but because they are generally formed to improve status or have a good time they have much less of an impact than suggested in this novel. However, in Ellen Wittlinger's novel Hard Love, identity development is the only positive result of a one-sided love. Recommended by the ALA's "Booklist" magazine, this novel handles teen love brutally and honestly. Prom is not a fairytale fantasy, and the protagonist, John Galardi, does not share candlelit dinners and fireworks with his true love, Marisol Guzman. Like so many teen romances, this love is one-sided and quite painful.
John considers himself to be "immune to emotions" (2). Not interested in girls, yet not homosexual, he calls himself a "neuter" (114). A junior in a suburban high school, he is lonely and annoyed by other teen's obsessions with love. He thinks, "I can't even imagine being in love with somebody, and letting her touch me, and tell me things I wouldn't know whether to believe" (19). The he meets the writer of his favorite zine, Marisol, the self-proclaimed "Puerto Rican Cuban Yankee, Cambridge, Massachusetts, rich spoiled lesbian private-school gifted-and-talented writer virgin looking for love" (9).
They share a common interest in zine writing, and their relationship escalates from acquaintances to best friends. John eventually admits to himself that he has feelings for Marisol. He admits, "It (his feelings) was the reason I was no longer comatose after an entire life of sleepwalking. It seemed that, all of a sudden, Marisol was necessary to my existence" (135). In a mistake that nearly costs him her friendship, he misinterprets her subtle touches for similar affection and attempts to kiss her. She does see their relationship as something special not love, but a deep connection (165) between two people who are largely misunderstood by those around them.
Although Marisol makes her feelings clear, John realizes that he cannot change his feelings (175). With an egocentric attitude typical in adolescents, he continues to believe that Marisol will change her mind. Her feelings never change. Like so many teens, John feels lost without her, he is clearly disappointed when he remembers the impact she has made on his life. He decides his life is meaningless without her, "When I look back at my life before Marisol, it seems blank. Erased. Whited out. What had I done then? Who had I been? Who could I be now, without her? What would I do?" (211) For one brief moment, Marisol's existence triggers thoughts of the end of his existence. He is nothing without her. By the end of the novel, John has not fully accepted Marisol's absence, but he is not ready to give up. He is ready to move on slowly.
To achieve realism, Wittlinger perfectly integrates pieces of John's and Marisol's writing to enable the reader to enter the mind of both characters without straying from the firstperson narration. The poems and essays provide a means of communication between characters as well as insight into their feelings. In order to develop a realistic view of the relationship, both characters' thoughts are needed. Without the addition of the writing, knowing Marisol's feelings about her sexuality would be impossible. John's feelings are expressed mainly through his thoughts that are so typical of a teen who does not understand himself let alone the world around him. He remarks on the absurdity of teen love, prom, his mother's second marriage, and his promiscuous father.
In addition to realistic thoughts, the relationship, although never progressing beyond platonic, portrays teen relationships accurately from a psychological perspective. The relationship was extremely self-focused. John's interests cause him to ignore Marisol's feelings. He wants her to be his girlfriend, so when they attend the Prom he pretends that she is. He wants to kiss her, so, not considering her feelings, he attempts to kiss her. He is feeling everything necessary to make a commitment to her, so her assumes she feels the same. He is unable to understand her perspective, which would be essential in attaining intimacy in their relationship. The couple does achieve moderate behavioral intimacy that is common in young adult relationships. They trust one another enough to share personal thoughts. They are each committed to their friendship. They both enjoy the same recreational activities, and they are able to assist one another in developing a deeper sense of identity. Ideally, their relationship would have progressed into a deeper intimate relationship, if not for Marisol's sexual orientation.
This novel provides a useful message for teens through its well-written text, an engaging plot, and realistic expectations for love. Love is not fireworks and roses; it is difficult and hurtful at times. But, the reader is also encouraged to accept that, although it may take time, life will go on without that love. Love can change who you are, but it does not have to. For a typical adolescent all events seem life-changing (Stringer, 46). Young adult literature needs to dispel this belief that every mistake they make or every word they utter will affect their lives.
The summary on the back of Up All Night by Karen Michaels tempts the reader with images of a girl who, while not looking for love, unexpectedly stumbles upon a summer romance. "Will Lauren give in to the fireworks of Jesse's kiss? Or will she pass up a chance to have the best summer of her life?" Both questions imply that a major life-changing event will occur for Lauren. This luring image of a first love and a life-changing romance is typical of most teen romance novels.
At a first glance, this novel could give a teen reader unrealistic expectations for love which should always include moonlit walks on the beach and a deep emotional commitment. The novel, which is written from Lauren's perspective, begins with a declaration of her tainted feelings regarding love. "Number one: I will never be stupid enough to fall in love" (1). Much like John in Hard Love, her negative attitude stems from her parents' divorce. She remembers watching her parents' happiness on their wedding video. Her mother "looking so beautiful in the white lace wedding dress that she borrowed from her mother," and her father shouting, "'I'm crazy with love!'" (25). After eight months of divorce proceedings Lauren concluded that "love, marriage and the rest of it was a total sham" (26). The memories of her parents' divorce were coupled with the experience of being abandoned by her Homecoming date when he left the dance with someone else. So how did this girl who swore off love become caught up in a summer fling? And was her relationship realistic?
Against her better judgment, Lauren agreed to go on a double date with her boy-crazy friend Rachel. While Rachel giggled the night away with her "perfect summer boyfriend" (54), Lauren struggled to make conversation with a rude, unwilling boy named Jesse. Lauren was attracted to Jesse's body and noticed his sincere smile. Their date ended disastrously, and left Lauren more convinced than before that love was not going to be part of her summer.
The next day, Jesse apologized for his behavior and explained to Lauren that he too was forced by his cousin to go on the double date. He had also been scarred by a failed love and had no intention of having a summer fling. From his admission, they realize they have something in common, and their friendship begins. As friends, they enjoy the typical teenage activities. They rent rollarblades and rowboats, hang out, and eat dinner. Each day of fun brings them emotionally closer until finally they admit they were wrong about not wanting summer loves.
The development of this relationship is similar to most adolescent relationships. Throughout their friendship, Lauren revealed how Jesse's appearance affected her physically. While Lauren caught his brown eyes shining in the moonlight, she "could feel a spark rise in my chest" (66). She noticed the "twinkle in his warm brown eyes" (72), and she felt her heart sink when she remember his disinterest in love. Much like most relationships, the initial attraction is physical, then develops into a friendship.
The progress from friendship to romance was logical. The relationship was providing recreation. While riding the carousel, Lauren realized that she was having more fun than she had had in a long time. Like most teen romances the relationship was largely based on recreation. According to research conducted by Skipper and Nass, teen relationships are also based on status achievement (Paul, White 11). However, their relationship did not seem to be affected by status achievement. Lauren's friend, Rachel, approved of Jesse; however, Lauren was not dating him in an effort to improve Rachel's opinion of her. Therefore, status was not a factor.
Similar to most teen relationships, their relationship can be characterized as stereotypical and superficial by Orlofsky and associates' scale of intimacy (4). No deep commitment between the two is felt; the main purpose of the relationship was having fun. To further the likeness to real teen relationships, conflict is added. When Lauren discovers that Jessie has not been completely honest with her about his cousin's feelings for Rachel, Lauren quickly determines that "trusting Jessie Shaw was a mistake" (143), and she returns to her early summer views that "Relationships don't work out. Love is for suckers" (70). She reaches these conclusions before allowing Jesse time to explain his situation. This hasty judgment is typical of a self-focused adolescent relationship (3). Because Jesse's dishonesty could affect her relationship with Rachel, it was no longer convenient to commit to Jesse. Lauren continued her dislike for Jesse until she was sure Jesse would not negatively affect her friendship with Rachel. When it was convenient to commit again, she returned to him.
This novel did not end with the happy couple making plans for a long, joyful life together nor did it portray them as having a highly strong sense of the other's needs. Their communication skills were poor, and they had difficulty resolving conflicts. Both Lauren and Jesse were involved in the relationship for the memories of a fun summer not a life-long commitment. Therefore, this novel provides another useful message of love what love really is.
A life-long commitment is also not the intention in Stolen Kisses, by Liesa Abrams. The reader is invited to enter the mind of both the girl and the boy involved in a good-girl/ bad-boy love conflict. From the girl's perspective, Laura knows she shouldn't risk her relationship with Ted Legum, "the most gorgeous senior at Parks Hills High" (3), to take a chance with Mark Adams, a boy with "insanely blue eyes (40)" and a reputation for being a "smooth talker" (40). After an unexpected kiss between Laura and Mark, Mark reminds her that he has no interest in a serious relationship. Scolding herself for her poor decision, Laura brushes off her obvious lapse of judgment and becomes engrossed with Ted and their up-coming date. Eagerly awaiting her date, she comments that if she becomes Ted's girlfriend it would be "the most absolutely and completely perfect experience of her life" (13). Her heart pounds when she thinks of Ted, who she believes is the perfect boy for her. These extreme emotions are typical in adolescent relationships.
During her growing involvement with Ted, she and Mark become partners in planning a surprise party for a mutual friend. As result, Laura realizes that Mark is not a horrible person, and they can have a good time together. Although they bicker over trivial matters, she enjoys his company. With her growing interest in Mark, she begins to doubt her feelings for Ted. Again, her relationship mimics real-life teen black-and-white thinking. Teens are likely to view people as either all good or all bad. If a single characteristic or action offends teens, they will view the person as completely flawed (Stringer 76). Laura automatically labels Mark a bad person based on rumors, but as soon as she can find some element of good in him, she changes her opinion.
Meanwhile, Mark is struggling with his bad-boy image. He lives in a much different world than Laura. He is occasionally bitter toward Laura and reminds her that not everybody lives a perfect life. In addition to their conflicting worlds, Mark is having difficulty accepting that he could be devoted to just one girl. He hopes that a "meaningless hookup with a girl" (94) would help him forget about "these annoying Laura fantasies" (94). He is typically interested in only the appearance of a girl; however, Mark feels himself falling for both Laura's looks and her intellect. He notices her sexy voice, her short shorts, and also her strong opinions and love of language. Just as Laura is falling for the wrong kind of guy, Mark is falling for the wrong kind of girl.
Their relationship eventually grows from friendship to romance after Laura realizes that, although comfortable with Ted, she could not depend on him in a time of emotional need. Mark, however, was there to listen to her and could understand her frustration with her family. Eventually, Laura leaves the popular boy for the bad boy whom she can have fun with and who can offer her the emotional support she needs.
There are two relationships to consider, and both appear to accurately portray teen relationships. Ted and Laura's relationship is largely self-focused. Laura dates Ted not because of his fabulous personality but because others perceive him as the "most unattainable guy at Park Hills" (4). If Laura could win his affections, she too would become popular. The relationship is stereotypical and lacks intimacy. The main function is to achieve status. This type of relationship is like most high school relationships.
Her relationship with Ted had problems also similar to real teen relationship problems. According to Sullivan, one cause of failure in young adult relationships is few or no social or interpersonal communication skills (Shaughnessy, Shakesby 3). Ted is unable to support Laura during an emotional time. When Laura discloses her overwhelming feelings about her sister's clinical depression, Ted responds with, "God, that really bites" (155). Then he suggests that a fancy dinner might help Laura forget about her sister's problem. This response was obviously not the response Laura had hoped for from a boy who made her feel so safe. This example illustrates the self-focused aspect of the relationship when Ted's wants outweigh Laura's needs. Ted is more interested in the date that he planned than he was interested in Laura's problems. His lack of verbal skills and empathy send Laura running to someone who she can become more emotionally intimate with. Overall, Ted and Laura's relationship falls into the same conflicts as many other teen relationships.
Laura and Mark's relationship wavers between being self-focused and role-focused. Role-focused relationships generally are socially accepted (Paul, White 3). Their relationship is not socially acceptable; however, they do acknowledge and respect each other's feelings more than in a self-focused relationship. For example, they openly discuss the differences in their lifestyles. Mark is not ashamed to admit that his father left him and his mother nor is he hesitant to reveal his feelings toward his father's absence. Self-focused relationships are the foundation of more mature relationships (3). Their relationship slowly evolves from self-focused to the next level, role-focused. At first the main function of the relationship was recreation then it developed into a more emotionally committed relationship. The novel ends with the "softest, most passionate, heart-stopping kiss she had ever imagined" (172). Although this description could possibly contribute to a false perception of love, the reader is not led to believe that Laura and Mark lived happily ever after. The novel is accurate psychologically; however, the writing style was not of the same quality as Hard Love. The syntax was simple with flat conversations, and the plot contained a few underdeveloped characters.
Teens are bombarded everyday with images and standards of true happiness that they could not possibly live up to. Through a comparison of four novels, it is clear that if chosen carefully both teen romance novels and quality teen literature can provide an accurate depiction of love. Teen readers need to know that they are not alone in their emotions. It is essential that authors who write for young adults consider the false notions that they could create when writing fantasy romance novels. Teens read for the same reason they watch television, to see if there are other people in the world like them or to pass the time. If they believe everyone's love experiences will include candlelight and fireworks, they are bound to be disappointed. Hard Love provides clever prose and attractive characters that a reader could instantly become attach to along with an accurate account of teen love. There are no falsehoods in this novel; love is hard. A Walk to Remember is also a novel written with sharp emotions and images; however, these images are misleading. Realism should not be sacrificed for good writing. Although teen romance novels may not have the same quality writing, they are still capable of providing meaningful and useful life experiences. Stolen Kisses and Up All Night admit that love is not always easy nor is it going to last a lifetime. These books provide an excellent stepping stone for a young reader. What these novels lack in powerful writing, they make up for in realism.
As a teacher, I was surprised, yet thrilled, to learn that the more widely read teen romance novels are actually quite valuable for a developing reader. It may take some time for me to stop cringing when I see my students reading supermarket novels. But rather than dismissing the books as useless, I must remember that this type of teen literature should be a bridge, not a gap, for the reader between real life and media fantasy.
Abrams, Liesa. Stolen Kisses. New York: Bantam Books, 1999.
Michaels, Karen. Up All Night. New York: Bantam Books. 1997.
Paul, E.L. & White, K.M. "The Development of Intimate Relationships in Late Adolescence." Adolescence. Summer 1990, p375. Academic Search Elite. Online. 10 March 2000.
Shaughnessy, M. & Shakesby, P. "Adolescent Sexual and Emotional Intimacy." Adolescence. Summer 1992, p475. Academic Search Elite. Online. 10 March 2000.
Sparks, Nicholas. A Walk to Remember. New York: Warner Books, 1999.
Stringer, Sharon A. Conflict and Connection: The Psychology of Young Adult Literature. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Boyton/Cook Publishers, Inc., 1997.
Wittlinger, Ellen. Hard Love. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.
Editor's note: For those interested in the psycological development of adolescents as reflected in young adult literature, please see the Greenwood Press series, edited by Joan Kaywell, Using Literature to Help Troubled Teens Cope . . . Individual books in the recent series focus on Family Issues (J. Kaywell, editor), Social Issues (P.S. Carroll, editor), Identity Issues (J. Kaplan, editor), and Health Issues (C. Bowman, editor). -psc
Cheryl L. Dickson is a 1998 graduate of Ohio University. She is currently teaching journalism and English at DeLand High School in DeLand, Florida.
Reference Citation: Dickson, Cheryl L. (2001) "A Psychological Perspective of Teen Romances in Young Adult Literature" The ALAN Review, Volume 28, Number 3, p. 43.