The View from My Section: When it Comes to Your Teenage Children, How do You Know When Love is Real?

To quote an old Paul Anka song made popular by Donny Osmond, “They call it puppy love”—but is it really? As the father of two teenagers, I know I have a lot ahead of me in this area. However, back to my original point, is young love really something not to be taken seriously? Personally, I’ve seen couples who’ve been together 50 years or more that wed when they were 16 and 18. I also knew a couple who were happily together 10 years before they got married in their early thirties. Unfortunately, they divorced a year later. So age and time together before marriage are not absolutes when it comes to predicting success or failure in relationships. I know for everyone, but teens especially, love is a very powerful emotion that can consume them if they’re not careful. When a teenager says, “But mom, I really love him!” in truth, that may actually be just as real as the twenty- something couple who met in the workplace and fell in love. Of course the opposite could also be true, being that it’s their first real experience with this emotion and they think it could never happen again like this. Which, in and of itself, has a ring of truth (after all, who ever really forgets their first love?). Therefore, the question we should be asking might be: how do we know then when it’s real?

Philippa Perry, a psychotherapist and the author of How to Stay Sane, (Pan Macmillan, 2012), in an article published by has an interesting take on this question. When most of us think of romantic love (which includes teenagers), we think of a strong physical and emotional attraction we feel towards another person, a sensation that bonds us together in a way unlike any other. What I found interesting about Perry’s opinion on the matter is how she breaks it down to its simplest terms.

She indicates that the “love at first sight” phenomenon, along with what most of us perceive as “love,” is simply just the process of our “transference” with another individual. She states that transference in this situation is when we “make unconscious assumptions about the person before us, based on our experience of people we have known in the past.” Therefore, this feeling of love may be that we’re simply seeing positive, attractive qualities in someone we’ve met that emulate those same qualities in someone in our past that we were close to. She advises that it’s possible we may have long forgotten about this person in our conscious mind, even though our subconscious mind still remembers.

I’ve read several accounts from others in the past about how our initial “gut feeling” isn’t always the best indicator of how we should react in a given circumstance, in spite of the old saying, “go with your gut.” The premise to this advice is similar to Perry’s, in that our gut feeling is based on previous experiences which may or may not be indicative of right and wrong in a particular environment.

So with that being said, how can we be sure to find true love without being fooled by our emotions from past experiences clouding our judgment? Perry’s comments are similar to a familiar statement that most long-term married couples already know, “relationships are a work in progress.” As she indicates, couples must continue to nurture the relationship with compromise, sacrifice, listening, communicating with each other, appreciating and making one another a priority, and remaining committed to the relationship.

If all this sounds like a lot of work, it’s because it is. The interesting thing I found was how she conveys that the initial physical attraction which naturally occurs in romantic relationships, whether you believe it’s based on transference or not, fades over time and does not sustain itself without the other efforts being made. In fact, she indicates it’s those other efforts that create the “real true love” in the relationship over the long haul.

How then do we explain this phenomenon to our hormonal teenagers who already know far more than we do (in their opinion)? Well, I’m not so sure we can, at least not for the moment, anyway. It’s more like something they’ll need to personally experience in life, and then perhaps later on, when the time is right, we can explain this integral part to them in a way they can truly understand. We might even consider using one of Perry’s quotes that I found to be the most interesting. “Feelings of love come and go, just like feelings of sadness or happiness. It is commitment that does not waver.” Now that’s some sound advice, even we adults can benefit from.