Previous studies of adolescent development have established that romantic relationships and dating are very common among teens. For example, data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 (NLSY79) Children and Young Adult Surveys indicate that more than half of all teens have had some dating experience by the time they are 16 years old and more than 40 percent of those who have ever dated said they were currently “going steady” with someone (Cooksey et al. 2002). Consistent with these statistics, data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health (Add Health) indicate that more than 80 percent of teens experience their first romantic relationship before they turn 18 (Carver et al. 2003). Although many of these relationships end soon after they begin, it is not uncommon for a teen’s closest or most important relationship to last a year or more (Carver et al. 2003).
Mounting evidence suggests that these early experiences with romantic relationships can have long-standing impacts on teens’ relationship behaviors that stretch into adulthood. For example, drawing on data from the Add Health survey, a recent study by Raley et al. (2007) found that the odds of getting married or cohabiting before age 25 are at least 50 percent greater for men and women who were involved in a romantic relationship in their junior or senior year of high school than for those who were not in a high-school relationship, controlling for family background and other personal characteristics. Teens’ relationship experiences have also been tied to a range of other outcomes, including mental health, delinquency, and marital expectations (Crissey 2005; Haynie et al. 2005; Joyner and Udry 2000).
Although most teens have romantic and dating relationships, studies suggest there are substantial differences in teens’ experiences, attitudes, and interests. Next, we summarize the research on differences in romantic relationships across various groups of youth, in particular those defined by gender, race/ethnicity, and income level.
Research on gender differences in teens’ romantic relationships, for example, suggests that boys and girls express similar levels of love and emotional engagement in their romantic relationships but that boys have more trouble navigating relationship issues, such as breaking a date or communicating how they want to be treated (Giordano et al. 2006). There are also gender differences in teens’ attitudes and expectations concerning marriage, with girls somewhat more likely than boys to say they expect to get and stay married (Thornton and Young-DeMarco 2001).
In terms of racial/ethnic differences, research shows that African American teens are less likely to date or participate in serious romantic relationships than teens from other racial/ethnic groups (Cooksey et al. 2002; Crissey 2005). African American teens are also less likely to say they expect to get married, even controlling for their more limited dating experience (Crissey 2005). Operators of adolescent relationship and marriage education programs have expressed concern that existing relationship skills programs are not always age-appropriate or culturally sensitive for diverse populations (Karney et al. 2007). Therefore, information on such racial/ethnic differences in teens’ experiences and attitudes is especially important for the development of new program models.
There is less evidence concerning possible socio-economic differences in teens’ relationships and attitudes. Many studies have documented the unique challenges low-income couples face in forming and sustaining healthy adult marriages, and have noted that rates of marital distress, divorce, and nonmarital childbearing are higher for low-income couples than for similar couples with higher income levels (Amato et al. 2003; Fein 2004; McLanahan 2004). However, few studies have examined whether such socio-economic differences are reflected in teens’ attitudes and experiences (Karney et al. 2007). This omission is important, given the recent emphasis on low-income couples in a growing number of relationship skills programs (Dion 2005).
Finally, there is also relatively little evidence on how teens’ attitudes and relationship experiences have changed in the last decade. Studies by Schulenberg et al. (1995) and Thornton and Young-DeMarco (2001) used nationwide data from the Monitoring the Future study to examine changes in teens’ attitudes toward marriage and family from the 1970s through the mid-1990s. Both studies found that although teens remain generally supportive of marriage, a growing number want to delay getting married until later in life and most now support the idea of couples living together before marriage. Studies have not examined whether additional changes have occurred since the mid-1990s. Information on changes in teens’ attitudes and expectations concerning marriage is important to ensure that adolescent relationship and marriage education programs take account of the common views of today’s teen population.