Identity formation in the teen years can be complex, yet surprisingly simple. The main objective of identity development is simple and straightforward: youth develop a clear sense of self and the role they play in the larger world around them. Youth need to know who they are and how they fit into the “bigger picture.”
Healthy identity development is an essential precursor to healthy intimacy. That’s because intimacy involves the sharing of one’s self. A good definition for intimacy is that intimacy is the vulnerable sharing of one’s self that is received with kindness and often returned.
Intimacy involves vulnerability and risk. When we share our deepest thoughts, feelings, dreams, fears, and (in marriage) our bodies, there is the risk that we might be rejected, unwanted, or ignored. When we take the risk to share our deepest and most revealing parts of ourselves, we hope that the other person will understand us, love us, and receive us with kindness and tenderness. When they do receive us with such kindnesses, we feel bonded and connected to them. If they, in turn, share deep and tender parts of themselves with us, the bond of intimacy is strengthened.
The term “often” is also essential to the definition of intimacy. It suggests that such intimate moments occur in the context of an ongoing, committed relationship. It means that intimate moments are to be repeated with frequency if they are to help the intimate relationship grow. One-time intimate exchanges, however intense, cannot build relationships that long endure. Rather, marriages are built on the repetition of small but meaningful shared kindnesses that happen often and consistently. Such predictable patterns of kindness lead to the pattern of trust in a loving relationship. The marriage commitment provides the assurance of lifelong opportunities to often share such intimacies.
That’s why identity is so essential to intimacy: we cannot share ourselves if we do not know ourselves. If our identity is not formed and clear, then we cannot present a clear, coherent sense of “self” to our partner for them to receive with kindness and then respond to. We have to know our own self before we can share that “self” with another. We cannot be successful at intimacy if we haven’t mastered identity development!
This insight gives new understanding to why the writers of biblical texts often used the term “know” or “knew” to describe physical intimacy. The physical union in marriage becomes the one authorized relationship where there is a covenanted responsibility between spouses to share their deepest, most personal, and most vulnerable parts of themselves. They have to do this trusting that the other partner will receive them safely and kindly, as well as return the open, full sharing of self in like manner.
Marriage is the one place where we can share all things and trust in our spouse to receive us kindly and return the favor. That’s another reason why physical intimacy can only properly be shared in the sacred, safe, and exclusive covenant of permanent marriage. To be physically intimate outside of the commitment of marriage is to be so deeply vulnerable without the promise of safety, security, permanence, and exclusivity in return. That’s just too great a risk for our youth to make when their identities have yet to be fully formed.
How Casual Physical Encounters Harm Identity and Intimacy Development
Today, there is an increasing trend among teens in high school and young adults of casual physical encounters called “hooking up.” Dr. James Fowler, Emeritus Faculty of the Center for Ethics at Emory University in Georgia used developmental theory to explain why “hooking up” intimately is extremely harmful to the development of emotionally healthy physical intimacy. He said,
“…hooking-up often begins with youth early in their teen years. With a classmate, casual friend, or someone met for the first time at a party, one engages another in having sex.
“The prevalence of this pattern creates subtle—and not so subtle—pressures to comply. Symptoms of hurt, shame, and self-loathing are suppressed. The consequences of hooking up can bring depression, health and physical problems, and a sense of isolation and distraction from study and social life…
“The risky drama of hooking-up reflects a culture that is losing its capacity to help youth and young adults form a sense of identity and to grow toward a capacity for intimacy. It obscures the knowledge that genuine intimacy involves much, much more than acts of fleeting and risky sexual sharing.” (Fowler, 2004)
Wisely, parents must teach their youth and young adults about the dangers of such “fleeting and risky sexual sharing” to their overall development. Physical intimacy was always meant to be expressed solely within the developmentally safe, lifelong context of marriage relationships. “Hooking-up” is developmentally damaging and unsafe for physical, emotional, spiritual, and social reasons.
How Premature Physical Encounters Harm Identity and Intimacy Development
So perhaps your youth might be quick-minded and think, “Okay, so casual hook-ups can be harmful, but what about when two young people really love each other and believe that when they are old enough to marry, they will; isn’t it okay then to be intimate if they are in a committed relationship that they hope or believe will eventually result in marriage?” The answer is a resounding no! Even in a strong and semi-committed relationship of young pre-marital love, premature physical relationships can be very harmful to their human development, their capacity for long-term physical intimacy-related health, and their vitality in their eventual marriage.
Let me tell you a very common story I hear. I often have a young adult woman in her early or mid twenties comes to therapy. She tells me that she and her husband started dating in their late teens, fell in love, were frequently physically involved with each other, and eventually she got pregnant as a teen or early young adult. They got married.
Life for the last five to ten years has been rough with no college education for either and little money. Since they had “put the cart before the horse” and were physical (and got pregnant) before marriage, their own relationship has suffered. Their first child was born before the two of them had even adjusted to married life. She has struggled with parenting her first and subsequent children, feeling some resentment toward them for trapping her in a life that became about everyone else but her when she was still young herself and her own identity wasn’t fully developed. The newlyweds’ sex life quickly deteriorated, partly because she felt so guilty for getting pregnant that now sex just seems to represent everything that’s wrong in her life. She can’t imagine sex as anything other than dirty, bad, and guilt inducing. Her husband fights with her about intimacy all the time. He doesn’t understand. Unlike when they were dating, she now she acts like she can’t even stand him touching her at all. He feels cheated, rejected, and resentful.
She becomes morosely depressed in response to their marital problems. She begins to be confused about her own identity and what she wants out of life. At one point, she will say something like this: “I know I’m a wife to my husband, and a mom to my kids, but I don’t know who I am!”
What I’ve learned is that while this couple was too busy being physically intimate in their teens and young adult years, they never allowed themselves the time and process of identity development. Premature physical intimacy stifles identity development. You can’t “put the cart before the horse” and expect it to work.
The process of human development mandates that a human adolescent must first master their identity development before they can be successful at intimacy. In both temporal and developmental terms, the order of identity and intimacy absolutely matters. Identity must be formed, coherent, and secure before one can successfully engage in deep intimacy. That’s why when I work with such individuals and couples in therapy that have physical intimacy problems, I often “go back” and work on identity formation before I address intimacy concerns.
Allow me to illustrate how identity development should be fostered (and often is not fostered) by contrasting two case examples of teens and dating.
Suzy is a sixteen-year-old girl being picked up for a date by Preston (also sixteen) who is in the same seminary class with her. He’s taking her to dinner and then to go see a play at his high school (they attend different high schools). Afterwards, Suzy enjoys their discussion about the themes and symbols of the play on the drive home. She discovers that she likes deeply thinking about plays and symbolism, and decides she may want to try to write a play or may also consider becoming a drama critic. She also discovered that she could talk with a boy (Preston) about the play and be respected for her opinions and ideas. At the conclusion of the date, Preston hugs Suzy before driving himself home.
Candace and Ryan (both sixteen) like each other at school. They have been flirting a lot in chemistry class in 5th period. One day Ryan asks Candace to meet him out behind the Ag Shop building after school where there’s some privacy. Candace is aroused by the invitation, after all, Ryan is “way cute.” She texts her mom to tell her she’ll be about an hour late coming home because she has to stay and work on some homework project in the library with a friend. Candace goes and meets Ryan after school. They have their first kiss and it’s so romantic to Candace. She starts meeting Ryan after school most days and they make out for an hour or so. This goes on for several weeks and they become a exclusive dating relationship. Each time they make out, the passion and intensity grows. They eventually start doing much more physically intimate things.
Of the two girls, Suzy or Candace, which one is developing a stronger identity? Which one will be better capable of total human intimacy (intimacy on multiple dimensions such as emotional and intellectual intimacy, as well as physical intimacy) in her twenties and later adulthood?
In the first example, Suzy is learning about theater and how to have meaningful discussions with other people. But most crucially, she’s learning about herself. She learns that she really likes theater and might want to consider some possible interests, activities, and careers related to that experience. This is important information about herself and her identity that she gains because of her dating experience.
In contrast, what did Candace learn about herself, others, and the world around her? Not nearly as much as Suzy, right? She did learn how to lie to her mom effectively and repeatedly. Depending on the extent of her experience, she may have learned about some physical intimacy behaviors she hadn’t known before, but that won’t help her much in future relationships with other guys and in her eventual marriage (most men don’t like hearing about their woman’s previous physical encounters with former partners). But really, that’s about it.
In terms of identity development, Candace’s experiences with Ryan were not very developmentally rich and informative. If anything, it probably robbed her of other opportunities to learn, develop her identity, and experience enriching activities. Since she paired off with and was exclusively dating Ryan, she also missed out on dating other boys, hanging out with friends of both genders, and (if Ryan was indiscreet in the locker room) perhaps developed a reputation that will prevent other boys (like Preston) from dating her, even if Ryan and Candace break up. Certainly, she has had a considerably less enriching identity-formative experience dating Ryan than Suzy did going out with Preston. Measured in opportunity costs, Candace’s choice to date in a physically intimate way is staggeringly expensive. She loses out on countless formative experiences that would benefit her personal growth and identity development.
In these examples, it is easy to see how premature physical intimacy stunts identity development and that dating in non-physically intimate ways allows for greater opportunities for discussion, exchanges of ideas and feelings, opinion formation, and the strengthening and enrichment of one’s identity.
Teach Our Children Why Identity Needs to Be Developed Before Intimacy
Our youth do want to live the law of chastity, but they need support. Specifically, they need to know why it is important and how they can live that law effectively. By using positive examples and solid, logical information in ongoing discussions, our youth can grow confident in their capacity to obey this sacred law. Our job, as parent, is to equip them for the task at hand. Emphasizing the importance of adolescent identity development as a precursor to intimacy in the young adult years is an effective way to teach them.
Kyle N. Weir, PhD, LMFT, is a Professor of Marriage & Family Therapy at California State University – Fresno, a Part-time Clinician at LDS Family Services – Fresno Agency, and author of Intimacy, Identity, and Ice Cream: Teaching Teens and Young Adults to Live the Law of Chastity.