Teenage boys have feelings, too, and when it comes to matters of the heart, they may not be so fleeting after all. Not far beneath the bravado often on display is an unsure adolescent who finds it hard to express emotions that, while new, are nonetheless often sincerely felt.
Boys are more vulnerable and emotionally engaged in romantic relationships than previously thought, according to the Toledo Adolescent Relationships Study led by Drs. Peggy Giordano, Monica Longmore and Wendy Manning of Bowling Green State University (BGSU).
Also contrary to traditional belief, girls in the study, on average, scored higher than their male romantic partners in terms of decision-making power.
The sociologists' findings appear in the April issue of American Sociological Review, the flagship journal of the American Sociological Association.
"These early relationships matter for boys, as well as for girls, and even though they may not last forever, the young people are taking important lessons from them about how to conduct social relationships, and about themselves and their emerging identities," said Giordano, a Distinguished Research Professor of sociology at BGSU.
"They (teen romantic relationships) really have important socializing influences," added Longmore, a professor of sociology.
Early dating experiences have been a relatively neglected subject of study, according to the BGSU researchers. That's due to assumptions that such relationships are short-lived and shallow, and therefore not very influential, Giordano explained. The focus has been almost exclusively on sexual behavior rather than on the relationship itself, she said.
More is known about adolescent influences from parents and peers, with whom romantic partners are often lumped, Longmore noted.
But the study, supported by funding from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, has sought to change that. Considering that about 80 percent of teenagers have had a romantic relationship by age 18, what it means to them should be of interest, Giordano said.
For the study, 1,316 junior high and high school students from seven Lucas County, Ohio, school districts were interviewed, primarily in their homes. The students recorded their responses on laptop computers. In-depth "relationship history" narratives were also elicited from 100 of the teens (51 girls and 49 boys).
Giordano said that in general, the boys revealed a self-portrait far removed from the confident, dominant image seen in the existing research literature. They reported significantly lower levels of confidence, as well as greater "communication awkwardness," in their romantic relationships.
Girls may be better prepared for those relationships because of more experience with intimate communication with friends. However, boys as well as girls reported feelings of heightened emotions toward their current or most recent romantic partner--contrary to the notion that boys are only looking to "score" and are not emotionally invested in the relationship.
Boys in the Toledo sample also perceived being influenced more by girls than vice versa and, while most participants from both sexes indicated they shared equal decision-making power in their relationships, the tilt was toward the girls when power was thought to be unequal. These findings go against not only prior research but also against the common belief that men routinely exert more power and influence than women, the BGSU sociologists pointed out.
"If, in marriages, men are more powerful, there must be some point where there's a switch," said Manning, a professor of sociology and director of the University's Center for Family and Demographic Research, with which Giordano and Longmore are also affiliated.
It is interesting to consider how aspects of adolescent relationships might influence boys' and girls' relationships as adults, Manning said. Intriguing new research possibilities present themselves as adolescents enter the workforce and get married, Giordano added, calling her colleagues' and her data "a rich reservoir of information about their early histories."
"What we're trying to argue in our research is that romantic relationships do play a role in development," she said. "While parents and friends continue to be critically important, the romantic partner also matters in multiple respects," she noted, saying the relationship "can be a life-affirming, identity-enhancing element of one's development."