Adolescent Mental Health
New research by UNM Sociologist Brian Soller discovered that profound health and developmental consequences can result from early romances. Photo credit: Anya Kubilus.

The consequences of being “caught in a bad romance” can be extreme, according to UNM Sociologist Brian Soller, who reveals that not being true to oneself in an early relationship can severely impact an adolescent’s mental health and sense of development.

“Girls’ risk of severe depression, thoughts of suicide, and suicide attempt increase the more their relationships diverge from what they imagined,” Soller said.

Soller, assistant professor of sociology and senior fellow of the Robert Wood Johnson Center for Health Policy at UNM, recently published, “Caught in a Bad Romance: Adolescent Romantic Relationships and Mental Health,” in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 2014, vol. 55 (1) 56-72. The study uses data on more than 5,300 high school students from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health and examines the mental health consequences of mismatches between adolescents’ ideal and actual relationships.

Soller reveals that profound health and developmental consequences can result from early romances.

Soller explores relationship inauthenticity – comparing how adolescents described their ideal relationship in an initial interview with how their first relationship after the interview actually played out. “The adolescent establishes ideal progressions of actions and emotional states within romantic relationships – such as holding hands, kissing and such. Those are meaningful components of romantic partner roles that reflect individuals’ idealized romantic selves,” he writes.

When the relationship evolves following the “ideal script,” it verifies the person’s sense of self and enhances their mental wellbeing. On the other hand, when the relationship deviates from the idealized version, it compromises psychological health. “If the relationship diverges from the idealized version, it can result in everything from emotional distress to suicide attempts,” he said.

Mental health consequences of relationship inauthenticity are particularly strong among girls. “Girls tend to interpret romantic relationships as especially important aspects of their identity. When the relationships are not ideal, it may hurt their emotional wellbeing. Boys, however, have many other things that they use to identify themselves,” he said. 

“I found that girls’ risk of severe depression, thoughts of suicide, and suicide attempt increase the more their relationships diverge from what they imagined,” Soller said.

“In the initial interview, researchers gave adolescents 17 cards describing events that often occur within relationships – everything from hand holding and kissing to sex,” Soller said. Respondents kept the cards that represented events they would engage in throughout an ideal relationship. They and then placed the cards in the order in which the events should take place in a hypothetical relationship. Roughly a year later, the respondents repeated the exercise, only this time they indicated which events took place within their relationship, and then provided the order in which the events actually transpired in their relationship. Using sequence analysis, Soller measured discrepancies between the content and ordering of ideal and actual relationship scripts to measure the extent of relationship inauthenticity.  

Relationship inauthenticity occurred when the subsequent relationship didn’t follow the cards.

As for why relationship inauthenticity increased the risk of mental health problems for girls, but not for boys, Soller said, “Romantic relationships are particularly important components of girls’ identities and are, therefore, strongly related to how they feel about themselves — good or bad.  As a result, relationships that diverge from what girls envision for themselves are especially damaging to their emotional well-being.”

On the other hand, Soller said relationships are likely not as important to boys’ identities. “Boys may be more likely to build their identities around sports or other extracurricular activities, which could be why they are not affected by relationship inauthenticity,” he said. 

In terms of the study’s policy implications, Soller said parents, educators and policymakers should think about how to help girls construct identities that are less closely tied to romantic involvement. “They need to be provided with other options to mitigate the effects of relationship inauthenticity on their mental health,” he said.

Soller also suggested that creating programs and interventions aimed at providing adolescents with tools to help them better control how the events in their relationships play out may lead to romances that enhance adolescent mental health and other developmental outcomes.