Many young people, it seems, still harbour dreams of love, of romance and even of marriage. Lessons that we do with 13-15 year olds explore what they consider to be the foundations of a good relationship. Without exception their answers reveal their hope that a relationship will last and that it will be exclusive. They’re looking for a love that lasts.
Unfortunately, they live in a world where there are few good examples of what this will look like. In one group of 14 and 15 year olds we spoke to the students estimated that about three quarters of them had parents who had split up. This is not universally bad news either – one girl told us she had a better relationship with her step dad than she had ever had with her natural father who now ignored her. In spite of this, marriage is still highly regarded. In the survey of young people’s spiritual and moral beliefs that we did in the autumn, 90% agreed or agreed strongly with the statement, “Marriage is a very special relationship”. Note that this doesn’t indicate whether they intend to wait until marriage before living together or entering a sexual relationship, but the esteem and respect for marriage was a surprise to us. When discussing this one girl in a group spoke about her parents relationship as a brilliant example of what she believed real love looked like. Her parents had first met as teenagers of 13 and 15, and at 40 and 42 are still happily married and evidently still in love. The rest of the group, some with divorced or separated parents, were clearly highly respecting of this girl’s parents who, for the group, represented an ideal to aim for.
With reference to a magazine article about a terminally ill partner it was recognised that love is sometimes about making a tough choice, perhaps the toughest choice. Helping the terminally ill partner to die was seen as a supreme act of love, perhaps best summed up by rewriting Jesus definition to read:
“greater love has no-one than this, that they lay down the life of their friend.”
But the man who continued to love his wife even while she was openly having an affair was seen as plain stupid. Here, there seems to be little room for the concept of forgiveness.
It is almost universally held to be true that you should love people for who they are, not for the image they project. In an image obsessed society, such a strong ethic rejecting image as a basis for love is probably an act of self defence as much as a deep seated value given by the creator. To give in to the idea that you are loved principally for the image you project is, for most young people, a declaration that you’re unlovable and represents the death of possibility when it comes to a relationship. Here then is another teenage dichotomy. Believing in public that love is about what’s inside, whilst believing in private that appearance matters… really matters.
One trend we’ve noticed over many years of working with young people is a move away from the expectation that everyone should have an exclusive boyfriend/girlfriend relationship as soon as possible. A growing number of young people now relate in long term platonic friendship groups where to form an exclusive relationship would be out of place. Attachments tend to flow gently from one to another without jealousy or intensity. Couples may go out together, but it’s not a girlf/boyf thing – people really are “just good friends”. However, that’s not to negate the pressure of ‘the urge to merge’ which can lead to short term, often sexual, relationships, and among Christian young adults a pressure to marry early, perhaps in keeping with the apostle Paul’s advice to marry rather than burn with lust.
But it’s not just about ‘relationships’. Among friends, young people readily acknowledge that love is a quality of friendship, sticking up for someone when it’s not easy or going out of your way for a friend. Putting yourself out for someone is an act of love.
Where do these ideas about love come from? Most young people don’t seem to know how they know what love is. They say things like, “It’s just an instinct” or “You just recognise it.” At one level there is the golden rule, treat others as you want to be treated. But this still leaves open the question about why we should want to love and be loved in the first place.
A number of young people, none from church backgrounds, cited the creation story of Adam and Eve as a kind of explanation for our desire to love – we were created for it. However, the caveat was that this only worked if you believed the story.
If we are indeed made in the image of the God of love, then I firmly believe that to love and be loved is an essential part of our created self. Sin, degradation and suppression may cause the image of love to burn low, but it can never be extinguished. When I talk to young people about love I encounter this greatest of aspirations, that we were born for love; and alongside it I observe the tragedy of broken relationships.
I believe that we need to do two things for young people to enable them to grasp the hope of love that is within them.
Firstly, we must keep telling the story of love. That’s not just the story of God’s love, but the stories we have of love that works out in real life. There is a tragic paucity of real life examples, but they are there, just like the girl’s parents who are still in love. Where these examples exist they are generally seized upon as inspiration. When Collective, the girl band that works with us, get asked questions about sex before marriage you can almost cut the incredulity with a knife when they tell horny 15 year olds that they have made the choice to wait until marriage before having sex. Nevertheless, some young people come back and say they’re helped by knowing that they are not alone in having made the same decision. (A recent UK survey of 13-15 year olds found that 5.6% have decided to wait until marriage before having sex.) And because God’s love image is imprinted in all people, there will also be stories of real love from outside the church – I believe we should celebrate and tell these stories too.
And secondly, we who are Christians must continue to make God’s love visible and tangible through our relationships with one another and with others in the world. Crucially, this will include loving through loss, disappointment, betrayal, and failure. Because this is the kind of love that people are really looking for and see so little. It’s the only kind of love that’s worth the name.
[slightly updated: 12Feb, 1200GMT]