They kept their promise to each other and won scholarships to the same college with the idea that they would always be a couple. Now 20, each is more mature and less tortured by the insecurities of adolescence. They have found classes that interest them and teachers who are eager to mentor them. Joel continues to be somewhat shy, moody, and introverted. He doesn’t think he needs close friends. Myra, he says, is all he wants and needs.
But Myra has started to look around. For the first time she is making friends with other young women. She had never thought of herself as a “joiner” but new friends have pulled her into a club for women in science that she loves. Guys are asking her to hang out because they find her intelligent and funny. Because her brain is still plastic and developing, Myra’s new experiences are shaping her brain in new ways. Her prefrontal cortex is probably developing faster and with more complexity than Joel’s, regulating her emotions and causing her to interpret their relationship differently.
Myra now realizes that the choice for a partner she made at 15 might not be the choice she’d make now. What she once thought of as exciting about Joel now strikes her as immature. While she once thought their exclusivity made them special, she now finds it isolating. She feels sad and bad about it. After all, they’ve been through a lot together for 5 important years. Being a couple protected them both from having to deal with the usual turmoil of teenage dating and provided a kind of security. But while Joel was once a safe harbor, he now feels like a barrier to new experiences, new people, and new possibilities.
I’ve known dozens of young couples like them over the years. Growing up doesn’t reliably happen in sync. Two people who thought they were soulmates at 15 or 16 may gradually grow apart as both nature and experience shape them into separate young adults with different tastes, ambitions, and values. Sometimes the boy grows up first; sometimes the girl. It doesn’t matter. The one who wants to branch out feels guilty; the one left behind feels betrayed. They start to fight. They accuse and excuse. Often they go through several rounds of trying to rekindle the passion only to find that either the spark is damped way down or it’s not enough to keep them together. Both are mystified about where the love that had been so all-consuming went.
What will happen in the saga of Joel and Myra remains to be seen. After all, Joel’s brain is also growing and changing. Sometimes, things do level out and couples like them rediscover each other and are able to create a relationship based on new and different grounds. More often, each moves on and looks for a relationship that is based on far more sophisticated factors than adolescent attraction. If that’s what happens, I hope someone helps them understand that there probably isn’t anything wrong with either of them. They have just entered a new developmental stage where growing up sometimes, maybe even most times, means growing apart. They are now ready to make new choices based on who they’ve become rather than who they once were.