Growing up involves learning how to handle our emotions. As we enter our teenage years, our feelings and emotions become stronger. Interest in the opposite sex starts to develop. As we experience these changes, important questions start to surface. Primary among them is trying to understand what this thing called love is. Is falling in love the same as real love? Can there be simple friendship between boys and girls without romance being involved? Here are some typical situations:

  • Maya is so attractive. I really like to spend time with her. The other day I invited her to go to the cafe, and she said yes. We had a great time! She definitely likes me! We walked home together and just before she left I kissed her. Is it love already?
  • Three weeks ago I met a boy. He's two years older than me, very tall and handsome. I dream about him every night, imagine us going to the movies together, talking about everything. In my dreams I'm so cool, but in reality I'm afraid even to approach him. Plus, he doesn't pay any attention to me. What can I do?
  • I really like Rita. We have known each other almost from kindergarten. It's so great spending time together; we understand each other. But why is it that this year all our classmates have begun to tease us, calling us "love birds"? There is nothing like that between us. We are simply friends! Why can't they understand?
  • A year ago I fell in love with a boy named Mike. At the beginning it was so wonderful; I felt as if I had wings. The whole world seemed so sunny, happy and welcoming! I felt that my heart was really open for the first time in my life. I was able to embrace so many people. I wanted everybody to be as happy as I was. And Mike loved me too. But now—I don't even know how to explain it. We still love each other, but most of the joy has gone out of the relationship! Now I feel so exhausted all the time. I'm afraid it was too much for both of us. The feelings are so powerful; I simply don't know how to cope with them. Is this the way love is supposed to be?

Let's look at some of these issues.

Friendship and love

Let us state from the first that a boy and a girl can be just friends. The relationship does not have to become romantic. This is so because a person of the opposite sex is not just an object of attraction. He or she is a full person. If we are in control of our sexual desire and look beyond appearance into the heart of the other person, we can find similar interests and values to share in a friendly way.

Friends of the opposite sex can help us to grow in a healthy way. If we can keep the relationship non-sexual and become close in the manner of a brother or sister, it can actually help us prepare for marriage, since our spouse should really be our closest friend.

That's how one woman felt when she recalled her high-school years. She had learned a lot about relating to men as friends when she was a teenager.
"I remember when we were 15, a whole group of girls gathered together with a teacher, asking her how to create normal relationships with boys. And the main thing she told us was that there is a way to become friends with boys without getting involved in romantic affairs. We simply need to be sincere, not be afraid to appreciate our male friends, and notice and encourage them when they try to do something for us—even if it turns out to be clumsy."

Getting into the habit of being sincere, appreciative, noticing and encouraging with boys helped this woman be that way with her spouse later in life. The trials of day-to-day married life together are not always so romantic, but if a couple knows how to stay friends, it keeps the good feelings (including romantic ones) flowing.
High school is a time to build many friendships, including with the opposite sex, because this should be a time to grow in relating with many types of people. Friendship may grow into deep affection and still be non-romantic. These friends grow close, sharing their thoughts and values, always ready to support and help each other out. They practice the skills of loyalty, trustworthiness, and mutual giving to cement their friendship and their future with someone for whom they will feel more than friendship.

Infatuation or "Falling in Love"

When we "fall in love" with someone, it can make us dizzy. We see only the good in that person. No matter what others may tell us, we see only beauty in him or her and are blind to everything else. The very mention of the person makes us feel happy and uplifted. The person seems absolutely perfect and totally desirable in every way. This is called an "infatuation." As teenagers we are very idealistic, and we may attach ideal qualities to a person we are attracted to but do not really know very well.

This "falling in love" experience stirs up powerful feelings and thoughts that we probably have never experienced before. It's very romantic, but it’s far from reality. Usually when we experience such a feeling for the first time, we are in love with an image we have created in our minds rather than with the person himself or herself. We are often more in love with love itself or even in love with the qualities we think we see in the person that we would really like to develop in ourselves.

These infatuation or falling in love experiences are usually short-lived. It is best not to take them too seriously even though the feelings are strong. After all, we can have strong feelings for someone we hardly know (an image of a movie star on a screen, for instance) or a friend's older sibling. True, lasting love involves getting to know the person, seeing the many sides of his or her character and developing a deep care and concern for him or her over time. So-called "falling in love" is not really love at all but simply a passing attraction, more based on the "lover's" psychological needs than any deep or real care for the other person.

Identity Issues and "Love"

Adolescence is a time of growing independence during which children are becoming more separated from their parents. As this separation takes place it is common for teenagers to experience loneliness and to wonder, "Who am I?" To compensate, teenagers often want nothing more than to be accepted. However, in their eagerness for acceptance, instead of taking the time to build loving and sincere friendships, young people find themselves becoming strongly attracted to one person, mistakenly thinking this is the way to complete themselves. They feel they "love" the person because they want so badly to be one with him or her.

From a psychological point of view, the young man and woman are tending to merge their personalities before they have had a chance to form their own identity as persons. This is called premature bonding. The bonding process proceeds quickly in the emotional setting of sexual intimacy. The bonding that occurs in marriage is fine for two mature persons who are able to merge their personalities while maintaining their own individuality. But for young people still in the process of forming their identity, falling in love is usually an act of going backward rather than forward in personality development.

Let's try to describe a typical teenage "love" relationship. The couple is obsessed with each other, preferring to be with each other over anybody else. Concentration on studies becomes difficult. Everybody else seems unimportant. The two may keep away from family and friends, spending hours on the telephone or in each other’s company. There is an enormous longing for closeness. As they pour themselves into this intense relationship, they "short-circuit" the healthy development of their character. Their passion for each other makes it easy for them to cross the line and become sexually intimate. Their "love," however intense, is very self-centered. It does not enrich those who come into contact with the couple.

Eventually, reality intrudes upon the "love birds." Sooner or later, in response to the problems of daily life, each one's individuality starts to reassert itself. He wants to have sex; she doesn't. She wants to go to the movies; he doesn't. She doesn't like his friends; he doesn't like hers. Both come to realize that they are not really one with each other. Each possesses his or her own unique desires, tastes, and viewpoints. The two of them are not mature enough to respect and accept each other's differences but feel threatened or angered by them. The relationship becomes more and more difficult. They find themselves falling "out of love" and they break up.

A Teenage Love Story

Anne, a senior, says, "When I was a sophomore, I was in love with Jim, another sophomore. We went to the movies and for walks and talked on the phone for hours and always met at our lockers between classes at school. We were going steady. He was so handsome and clean and gentle. So different from the crowd he used to hang out with before he met me. But then one day he said he was leaving the school grounds to go smoke with his old friends. I got upset. You weren't supposed to leave school grounds, and smoking was against the rules. His old friends were the kind of kids who always got in trouble. I could just imagine what my parents would say if my boyfriend got suspended! He told me to stop "judging" him and his friends. We had an argument and broke up. Now I can't even remember what we talked about so much on the phone, or what we thought we had in common."

Real Love Is a Choice

Building a true and lasting relationship requires self-sacrifice, commitment and lots of personal effort. Whereas falling in love is effortless—it just seems to happen—real love requires the exercise of our will and extending ourselves beyond our limits. Real love nurtures our spiritual development, challenging us to grow in our ability to love. Falling in love does not.

People who fall in love do not feel the need to develop. They are totally content to be where they are. As we have said, they tend to idealize the person they are in love with and are unable to see their lover's faults; they think that the "perfect" other person will bring fulfillment into their lives without them making much effort to complete themselves on their own. Such people have surrendered their will and are dominated by their feelings.

Real love, while involving feelings, is also an act of will and implies choosing to love even when you don't feel like it. If a mother loved her child only when she felt like it, what would happen when her child angered, disappointed, or embarrassed her? Her disturbed feelings could quickly replace her feelings of affection. Fortunately, a mother's love is usually stronger than her changing feelings. If love depended only on feelings, it would come and go too easily.

We do not have to love. We choose to love. It is important to grasp this principle in light of all the propaganda suggesting that love is almost an uncontrollable feeling that comes and goes like the wind. So many novels, films and TV series are based on the idea that love is a just feeling that happens—or doesn't happen.
True love means living for the sake of another while maintaining our unique individuality. True love takes maturity and self-sacrifice.

This principle corrects a common mistaken idea: namely, that love is easy and requires neither thought nor effort. According to this belief, love does not have to be learned but is simply a matter of following our instinct. Many hearts have been broken because of this misunderstanding and many divorces have taken place once the easy feelings went away. In reality, love takes time and patience to grow and develop on the basis of sincere investment of heart.

Love is an art to be learned and a discipline to be maintained. The art of loving can be compared to any discipline. Once a person masters the basic techniques of art or music, he finds that he has greater freedom to express himself. The same is true for love. As we mature in our ability to love, we gain greater freedom to express that love.

Our business in becoming people capable of real love is to develop our characters and friendships. The more people we can love unselfishly—as friends—the deeper and more lasting romance will be when it comes into our lives.

Questions for Reflection

1. What is the difference between falling in love, friendship and real love?

2. How does parent's love compare to a teenage love relationship? Which is deeper?

3. Have you ever been disappointed by a love relationship? What happened?

4. How would you rate your ability to love others?

6. Why are people often fooled by feelings of love?

7. What does love involve besides feelings?

8. How would you know if you really loved someone?

9. What is premature bonding?

Exercise: "Questions and Answers"

How grounded are you in matters involving love? Does physical appearance matter most to you? Are you able to see others for who they really are, or are you easily blinded by your feelings of love? These questions will help you to see yourself more clearly.

1. Do you believe in “love at first sight”?
a) Why not?
b) No way, this is not love.
c) Sometimes it happens.

2. Could you fall in love with a person if your friends treated him/her with contempt?
a) Possibly.
b) Probably.
c) No way.

3. Would you go with your partner to a movie you’ve already seen?
a) I would if he/she asked me to.
b) I would be happy to do so.
c) No, but we could meet after the film if he/she wanted to see it.

4. If your group of friends doesn't like your partner, what will you do?
a) Discuss it with friends.
b) Doubt my choice.
c) I cannot imagine such a thing.

5. What do you mention first when telling somebody about your partner?
a) The external appearance, such as the body, face or hair.
b) Thinking ability, education level, manners, achievements, behavior, how he or she talks.
c) I like so many things about him or her that I'm not sure which I'd name first.

6. Do you know what your partner is doing when you are not together?
a) As far as I know I have no rival, so I don't worry about such things.
b) Yes, because we always tell each other what we have been doing since our last date.
c) We are both free, so he/she may do anything he/she pleases.

7. Can you imagine your relationship coming to an end sometime?
a) I never think about it.
b) It will happen anyway sooner or later.
c) We are so attached to each other that it will never happen.

8. Do you feel your life is wonderful only when you are together?
a) If a person is in love, that's the way it is.
b) Yes, I miss him/her when we’re not with each other.
c) Life can be wonderful only for those who are in love.

9. When you are together, do you discuss life’s "eternal "or important questions—like what you hope for in the future, what kind of person you want to be, what kind of family you want to have, war, peace, good, evil?
a) There is almost no time for it.
b) What for?
c) Yes, quite a lot.

10. Do you have the feeling that your partner is a different person now from the one he/she was at the beginning of your relationship?
a) He/she is just the way he/she always was.
b) He/she has turned out to be a different kind of person than I thought, but this way I like him/her even more.
c) He/she is not such a wonderful person as I first thought.
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