During my training in psychodynamic therapy, I was obliged to write a long essay on the subject of my choice. Having previously been given a syllabus to follow, this sudden freedom paralysed me with writer’s block. Eventually, at my supervisor’s suggestion, I asked myself, ‘What do you encounter most in your clinical practice?’ This ended the impasse and provided the title. I would write about adolescents in and out of love, specifically girls in their first romantic encounter with a boyfriend.
There is surprisingly little on this subject, even if one knows where to look. Unlike the importance of transference or the therapeutic frame in work with adolescents, romantic love, its impact on the client and how it might affect the work seldom feature in the literature. I believe this is an oversight, considering thes cope it gives the therapist to demonstrate care and containment, and the clues it provides about clients’ family culture and their current developmental state.
So how do we get to grips with this subject that seems to hide in plain sight? As a school counsellor, I am aware of the immense capacity adolescents have to fully love or hate an object and I’m often especially struck by the honesty and depth of feeling expressed in girls’ narratives on the subject of their boyfriends, where their struggle to make sense of their emotional world comes through so clearly. I hope these vignettes – composites drawn from the amalgamation of all my therapeutic experience – will start you thinking on a different level about adolescents in love.
Katie, a shy, studious girl in Year 10, comes alive when she talks about Carl. Gobby, stroppy and prone to excessive use of his middle finger in class, Carl is a regular on the detention list. When I first realise that Katie is talking about that Carl, I want to scoop her up and carry her to a place of safety where she can come to her senses. What I actually do is ask her about why she thinks he’s so special. ‘He just knows what I’m going through. His mum and dad argue all the time, like mine do. I don’t have to keep explaining stuff – he just knows.’
I can only imagine Katie’s parents’ reaction when they are presented with Carl, but I get the impression that this is part of his appeal to Katie. Choosing a partner manifestly at odds with her parents’ ideals could express Katie’s desire to escape their sphere of influence. This is extremely attractive at a developmental stage where Katie feels driven to establish a new sense of self and to experiment with ideas. The fact that Carl is a ‘bad boy’ adds to the appeal, not because of any James Dean glamour, but because he needs to be rescued. Katie is staging an intervention. She would probably like to have done this with her parents’ marriage years ago, but she felt powerless to heal their marriage or divert any of their attention her way. Now she is a teenager, her story is no longer bound up with that of her parents. Perhaps Carl’s ‘don’t care’ reputation gives Katie permission to cut loose from her parents’ authority, extricating her from their relationship issues.
I make a bet with myself that she gets a reaction when she presents her new partner, and the more her parents protest, the closer Katie will want to be to Carl. The reworking of the Oedipus complex, which marks separation through sexual identity, desire and fecundity means that Katie is trying to repair her parent’s relationship through healing Carl. Paul van Heeswyk comments that romantic love replaces the erstwhile idealised image of the parental couple, ‘who are now – through the incestuous breakthrough of the Oedipal longings – the object of disillusionment and contempt’.1 Adolescents need to push against something, but they also need to know they can retreat back to childhood when necessary. When a romantic relationship ends, along with the breakdown in parental affections, the adolescent can be plunged into hopelessness of ever experiencing love again.
Hayley, another of my hypothetical Year 9 clients, comes into the room, face red and swollen, and her mouth a tight, angry line across her face. Slumped on the chair opposite, she stares at me hard, her eyes challenging me to initiate the session, knowing I am powerless in the face of this new apocalypse.
‘Hayley, what’s happened?’ (I have a pretty good idea.) ‘Simon’s dumped me! We had an argument. Now he won’t speak to me.’
‘I know you were having a tough time. Was this about him going out with his mates when you had to stay at home?’
‘Yeah! He said I was really controlling, but I knew he would be looking at other girls.’
‘And you thought he might do more than look?’
‘Yeah. It’s not him, but there are these girls and they’re really flirty and slutty and I don’t like them, so they’ve been saying things about me to Simon’s mates and then it gets back to Simon what they’ve said.’
‘So what now?’
‘I hate him! He’s just treating me like crap when he’s the one who didn’t want to be with me! Now I’ve got to see him at school and he pretends I’m not there, but I know he’s talking about me. It’s horrible!’
Later in the session, Hayley tells me that ‘no one understands’ how she is feeling. When she asked her mum for advice, the answer was ‘I don’t know. I’ve never been dumped!’ Year 9’s manager at school, who found Hayley crying, jauntily reassured her there were ‘plenty more fish in the sea’.
A therapist knows that the client will most probably survive and benefit from her first romantic encounter, but the client may not. In this situation, the adolescent needs to feel contained in a relationship that recognises, but does not fear, loss. I am drawn to Van Heeswyk’s1 commentary on adolescent girls’ diaries, where he writes: ‘The diary is her secret confidant, the one to whom anything can be told without fear of reproach, without shame […] It holds her memories, but knows nothing until it is told. And it does not presume, nor does it intrude.’
It may be that, like the diary, or the lover, the therapeutic relationship also provides a developmental space, confidential and affirming, where feelings can be explored and shared. The child’s association between love and physical satisfaction begins with the mother’s feeding and nurturing of the infant. The feelings of safety, warmth and satisfaction derived from the mother, along with her stroking, speaking softly to and holding her baby, will be echoed later in the child’s sexual life, creating the blueprint for loving relationships. Jacobs2 explains that the distinction of boundaries between ‘me’ and ‘not me’ is not only a feature of the mother and infant relationship, but a psychological awareness challenged by relationships throughout life. Jacobs sees this confusion reassert itself particularly in romantic encounters, where ‘the language which lovers use expresses frequently the interpenetration of each by
The relief of being loved
The first romantic relationship, where adolescents are constantly looking for reassurance that they are loved, can powerfully echo the adoring, indulgent gaze the infant receives from the parental couple. The adolescent contends with intense feelings of wanting to ‘get away from’ their parents, while at the same time yearning for the care and security they experienced as a child. I often get the impression that, behind the obvious joy and excitement expressed by clients who speak to me about their first experiences of being in a couple, there is an undertow of relief. I think being in love provides relief from many pressures, but the two that come to mind most strongly are normality and lovability, the reassurance that, in existing for another person, they do actually exist. As Freud puts it: ‘Loving in itself, in so far as it involves longing and deprivation, lowers self-regard; whereas being loved, having one’s love returned, and possessing the loved object, raises it once more.’3
The institutional framework of family and school, of crucial importance to the young child, is now there for the teenager to challenge. In terms of the task of identity, it is often easier for the adolescent to state what she doesn’t, rather than does, want, and this rejecting of comfort from old sources often precipitates a crisis of self-esteem, identity and fear for the future. In taking adolescent relationships seriously, the therapist recognises their developmental significance. ‘The feeling of security that comes from being able to love is, in the unconscious mind, closely linked up with keeping loved people safe and undamaged.’4
My clients’ therapeutic relationships with me have, in most cases, lasted longer than the girlfriend/ boyfriend relationship. Both therapeutic and romantic encounters are often the first relationships embarked on and sustained by the adolescent outside the family. Identifying someone to love and trust, to take emotional risks on their own judgment and to survive the ending of that relationship is of vast developmental significance. Walking around the school grounds, I can easily spot the teenage couples, even when the whole school population is outside conducting their conversations and games. It occurs to me that psychodynamically, these couples share features with the nursing dyad of mother and baby. Kissing, touching and whispering are all conducted in the public space and remind me of the mother and baby bond. There is little sense of separation or individuation, no selfconsciousness in their actions and I wonder whether this intense relating represents a ‘last look back’ at the safety and comfort experienced in infancy.
I recently presented this subject at a workshop for school counsellors. All the delegates were therapeutic practitioners and I’m sure we could have talked all day about developmental stages and what might be going on analytically with young people in love. But at the workshop, I wanted to play with Winnicott’s idea that the adolescent’s world is full of hidden language, not meant to be ‘read’ by adults.5 However much we profess to understand as therapists, we have to go back to adolescence ourselves in order to begin to grasp what adolescents know instinctively.
I asked the group to work in pairs and share their story about their first romantic relationship, paying special attention to how they felt when recalling the scenarios. The room became suffused with energy, made visible in hand gestures, sympathetic nodding and shaking of heads. When we reconvened, it was astonishing how detailed the members’ narratives were; it seemed they had time-travelled! Descriptors such as ‘confused’, ‘dangerous’ and ‘embarrassing’ came into the room, along with stories of heartbreak, ambivalence and of heated negotiations of terms with parents. It reinforced my view that, to be remembered in this sort of forensic detail and after so much time has passed, these relationships must be of lifelong significance.
What can we make of this as therapists?
The ‘trial identification’ we practised at the workshop transported us back to an especially uncertain time of our lives. The reworking of Oedipal drives in adolescence means that relations with parents are fraught. At a point where Hayley might feel rejected by her parents and at her most unlovable, her boyfriend has withdrawn what she sees as her only means of emotional support. Katie may feel that Carl is a safe person to transfer her love onto when her parents seem incapable of demonstrating or holding onto loving feelings. Like Katie, Hayley feels understood by Simon on a level that is sympathetic with the desire to return to non-verbal expressions of belonging and love.
For the teenagers that I see, the end of the first relationship always comes too soon. Even if the decision to end the relationship is shared by both parties, there seems to be an element of betrayal colouring the ending. Of course, there may be infidelity or unkindness, which is bewildering and shocking, but more often, there seems to be a sense of betrayal at a deeper, less literal level. Betrayal is the direct experience of the client, but what I sense in the room is more like a disillusion. This must be particularly hard to bear under the weight of so many disillusions taking place during adolescence, some of which are connected with the earliest disillusion the infant receives from its mother. This echoed sense of loss becomes palpable in the room as I hear the first relationship’s ending described.
When I see teenagers in such pain, I instinctively want to reassure them, to reach for the clichés like Hayley’s Year 9 manager. I could tell Hayley that of course she is not the first girl to be ‘dumped’, that of course she will go on to have another, possibly better, loving relationship. Adults might hear themselves utter these words and think them wise and comforting, but to Hayley, such platitudes would only make her feel more empty and less understood. Perhaps, like the adolescent who finds it hard to cope with feelings rather than gratifying spontaneous urges,6 adults too must resist the urge to conjure up short-term diversions from the developmental struggles taking place.
One of the reasons adolescents feel the loss of their first boyfriend/girlfriend so acutely is because it is areflection of that first loss, as well as a portent of future losses to be borne and somehow survived. To live with our vulnerabilities and shortcomings is to be human, and to love is to bear those imperfections in others so that we are not alone in our struggles. These struggles start from the moment we are born and are perhaps given their freest voice when they are re-encountered n adolescence – the physical and emotional watershed of love and hate, and the fear of being alone.
Laura McDonald is a psychotherapeutic counsellor. This article was inspired by her interest in adolescent issues and the role of the school counsellor. Her master’s dissertation in psychodynamic practice from Oxford University examined work relationships between the school counsellor and other school staff.
1 Van Heeswyk P. Analysing adolescence. London: Sheldon Press; 1997.
2 Jacobs M. The presenting past. Milton Keynes: Open University Press; 1986.
3 Freud S. On narcissism: an introduction. In: Strachey J (ed). Complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud. SE Vol XIV. London: Vintage; 1914 (pp73–103).
4 Klein M. Love, guilt and reparation. In: Klein M. Love, guilt and reparation and other works 1921–1945. London: Vintage; 1937 (pp306–343).
5 Winnicott DW. The family and individual development. London: Tavistock; 1965.
6 Hewitt P. Confidentiality and transference. In: Barwick N (ed). Clinical counselling in schools. London; Routledge; 2000 (pp52–65).