When I first met Joel he was 15, embattled with his parents, failing in school, and deeply, desperately in love. Bright, sensitive, and troubled by what he saw as an older generation that simply didn’t get it (“it” being almost anything), he couldn’t be bothered with homework, after-school activities, or a job. Instead, he holed up in the library reading everything he could about microbes, a subject he found endlessly fascinating. Then he met Myra, another science whiz kid who also retreated to the library stacks as a refuge from the teen world where she was considered at best eccentric, and at worst a loser.
It was love at first encounter. To them, their accidental meeting in a remote corner of the library was nothing short of a miracle. Each found in the other someone who understood; someone who commiserated about the stupidity of high school, parental rules, and authority in general; someone else who found the order they were longing for in science. Best of all, there was a magnetic attraction. One kiss was all it took for them to decide they were destined for each other. Nature and hormones took over and soon they were doing more than reading behind the bookshelves. Their passion was intense, unrelenting, the stuff of the most steamy of adolescent fantasies.
Everything changed now that they had each other. Now they could ignore the opinions and taunts of classmates. They could tolerate their teachers and families. They motivated each other to get good grades with the promise that they could then go to a top college together. They talked endlessly. When they weren’t hanging out, they were connected on the phone or online. They just knew they’d be together forever.
Fast forward 5 years. Joel has asked to see me. He remembered that I’d been helpful back in high school when he and his parents were at war. Now he has a new problem. Myra has told him she wants some space. Myra, his Myra, wants to date other people. He was going to ask her to marry him this summer. “What happened?” he asks plaintively. “Where did the love go? What can I do to win her back? Why won’t she come to her senses?”
It’s all in their hormones and their heads.
We all know, or think we know, about the effect of the hormones released at puberty. But it’s actually more complicated than that. The hormones that determine the physical changes of puberty are in a recursive loop with the brain and involve multiple neural systems. The result is the moodiness, risk-taking, excitement seeking, and changes in sleep patterns common in teens. The kids are drawn to new and intense experiences – including intense experiences in love, romance, and sex.
Meanwhile, parts of the brain are getting older, responding to experience, and maturing on a course that it now seems is quite independent of the hormones of puberty. New developments in neuropsychology and advanced medical technology are helping us understand what happens to the brain during adolescence. The prefrontal cortex, for example, the site that manages planning, reasoning, judgment, and decision-making, isn’t completely developed until ages 19 – 24.
The hormonal changes of puberty can start quite early; in some kids, as early as 9 or 10. But the changes in the parts of the brain that exercise judgment and responsibility may not be fully developed until the early to mid-20s. This means that kids can look like adults in their mid-teens but aren’t fully capable of acting as adults until as much as a decade later. No wonder they – and their parents – are often confused.
Back to Joel and Myra.
When Joel met Myra, they were both ripe for adolescent romance. One kiss and they were obsessed. The possibility of being caught made their liaisons in the library stacks all the more thrilling. Both were moody and depressed but even their mutual depression said to them that their love was meant to be.
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.