Stylist’s Moya Crockett has always suspected that her attitude towards romance was influenced by her youthful female friendships. And now, new research confirms it.
As a teenager, I had one serious boyfriend and a smattering of disappointing flings. Those boys were my first real induction into feelings of lust and longing and heartbreak, and for that, I’m grateful. But if you asked me what I actually learned from any of them, I’d struggle. OK, I’ll give it a go: one was incredibly passionate about the fiction of Bret Easton Ellis, and another taught me how to smoke weed without coughing. But I am now 27, and find both marijuana and Ellis’ writing intensely boring.
My female friends of that era, in contrast, taught me almost everything. I don’t want to sentimentalise or fetishize adolescent female friendships, which are rarely the intense, dreamy melodrama of popular imagination. (My own formative years were much more Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging than The Virgin Suicides.) But it’s not an exaggeration to say that those relationships were the foundation on which the rest of me was built.
It was through endless conversations with my teenage best friends, for example, that I really learned how to talk about my feelings. It’s because of those girls that I know how to navigate arguments with people who have every right to walk away. It was them who taught me the importance of nurturing relationships, and what it means to know another person so intimately that you can practically read their mind.
These are priceless lessons in many contexts, but I’ve found they’re particularly useful when it comes to actual, adult romance. I am cheerily, unabashedly affectionate towards my boyfriend, both physically and verbally. (If I think something nice about him, I say it.) And if I sense trouble brewing, I don’t dwell; I insist on a conversation. He is approximately 250% more reserved than me, and would probably be quite content to leave some things unsaid. But thanks to my teenage girlfriends, talking about everything – good and bad – has become a reflex for me. I couldn’t stop even if I wanted to.
So I was delighted, but not surprised, to read a new study that confirms that strong same-gender teenage friendships are closely linked to positive romantic relationships in adulthood. The research, which was published in the journal Child Development, shows that you’re likely to enjoy happy romantic relationships as an adult if you also had healthy, platonic, same-gender relationships during adolescence.
On the flipside, a person’s teenage romantic history – such as whether they dated, had boyfriends or girlfriends, or engaged in sexual activity – was found to have little bearing on their adult relationship satisfaction.
“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,” said Joseph P Allen, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, who led the study. (Who’d have thunk it?)
“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.”
Isn’t that the loveliest thing you’ve read in weeks? 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. And the research gets even more heart-warming when you dig into it a little.
Essentially, teenagers learn different skills through friendship at different stages – and the benefits are felt well into adulthood. Those who could “establish positive expectations of relationships” and “be appropriately assertive” with their peers aged 13 were generally found to have healthy romantic relationships in their late 20s. And those who could establish and maintain close, stable friendships between the ages of 16 and 18 were most likely to be satisfied romantically as adults.
The group of teenage girls who helped create me are women now. Almost all of them are still present in my life, offering wisdom and humour and telling me to shut up when necessary. It comes as no surprise to me that our friendships have made us all more capable when it comes to navigating the choppy waters of romance – but it is rather lovely to have it confirmed by science.
Images: Getty Images / Moya Crockett