EMOTIONAL HEALTH
February 8, 2019

Good Friends Are Good for Your Love Life

Teens' friendships, not their romantic relationships, are the best predictors of romantic success in their 20s.

Parents worried about the romantic dramas their teenagers become involved in can rest a little easier. It's teens' non-romantic relationships that set the stage for successful intimate relationships in adulthood, not their first, or even second, loves, a recent study finds.

Your son's or daughter's friends at school, on sports teams and other activities are who will help them learn the skills they need to navigate the ups and downs of romantic relationships in young adulthood.

It didn't matter who or how many people a teen dated, or whether they were sexually active or physically attractive. What mattered was the quality of his or her relationships with peers.

“In spite of the emphasis teens put on adolescent romantic relationships, they turn out not to be the most important predictor of future romantic success,” explained Joseph P. Allen, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, who led the study, in a press release. “Instead, it's the skills learned in friendships with peers of the same gender — skills such as stability, assertiveness, intimacy, and social competence — that correspond most closely to the skills needed for success in adult romantic relationships.”

The study used information from a longitudinal study following adolescents from age 13 into adulthood. The teens in the study were racially, ethnically and socioeconomically diverse and were asked to describe the quality of their social and romantic relationships. The researchers, from the University of Virginia and James Madison University, also gathered reports about individual participants' relationships during adolescence from their friends over three years.

Teens' social development, not their romantic relationships, tended to predict their success in romantic relationships in their mid- to late-20s. It didn't matter who or how many people a teen dated, or whether they were sexually active or physically attractive. What mattered was the quality of his or her relationships with peers. As Rachel K. Narr, a coauthor of the study, put it, “Romantic relationships in adolescence are much more likely to be fleeting, and as such, they don't appear to be the main way teens learn skills needed for the future.”

For example, having positive friendships at 13 and being able to assert themselves with peers predicted teens' romantic satisfaction years later. Those who at 15 and 16 who were able to handle a range of different kinds of friendships — academic, athletic and social — were also likelier to have a romantic relationship in their 20s. And the best predictor at age 16 to 18 of romantic satisfaction down the road was the ability to establish and maintain close, stable friendships.

The study is published in Child Development.

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