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Trends in How Today’s Students Handle Relationships

With the emergence of technology on portable devices and social media, there is a new kind of relationship pattern emerging with students today. “Generation iY” (which makes up the second half of Gen. Y) faces a new dilemma. You might call it the “artificial relationship.”

photo credit: Billie Hara via photopin cc

photo credit: Billie Hara via photopin cc

Finding out that someone doesn’t love you anymore is hard—not hearing anything at all is even harder. Getting coffee at Starbucks to tell them you no longer want to see them is painful—but not responding to a text is tacky. Breaking up is difficult, but not really every breaking up is messing up a generation.

Sound familiar?

As I meet with high school and college students, I am discovering a pattern in their relationships. I ask them to think about their last relationship. Maybe it was just a hookup, or maybe it was something deeper, but I ask them to reflect on how it matured over time—how it began, progressed and ended. The response I get from students who saw connections just evaporate (with no real closure) was overwhelming. In fact, their emotional pain was greater than the students who began and ended dating relationships with clear communication.

The big question is: Is the relationship even real if no one says goodbye?

Lauren Martin (who is a journalist and a Millennial herself) writes graphically about this emerging challenge:

There’s no denying that we live in the age of the unformed relationship. There’s no denying that we’re dating in a shallow, text-based world. There’s no denying that our relationships aren’t relationships at all.

We’re dating over platforms before meeting in person and connecting over messaging machines rather than face to face. We’re entering half-assed relationships and ending them with even less attention. Most of our relationships are over before we can say we know what that person looked like.

We’re just not responding, not answering and not giving a ****. We’re throwing our hearts at the first person who direct messages us, then taking them back at the first sign of something better.

The problem with today’s dating culture is that there isn’t one. There’s a hook-up culture, and within that hook-up culture, there’s shallow, biased and surface feelings that we’re trying to use to get away from the real ones.

We’re guarding ourselves so that we never really have to face that inevitable heartbreak that almost always comes with every relationship. We’re refusing to enter real relationships, and we’re also refusing to officially end any of them.

By constantly keeping people on back burners, refusing to end things with real closure and never starting or stopping on any real terms is more damaging than experiencing the heart-wrenching pain of a real, honest breakup.

Because at least with the pain of a terrible and sad ending, there’s the hope of a fresh start.

Building Good Social Habits in Students

May I suggest something?

In times past, every generation of young adults had to learn how to handle the pain of initiating, cultivating and sometimes ending a serious relationship. (Think about it: if you dated ten people in college, you can only marry one, so you had at least ten breakups). The problem today is—we adults have never had to train kids to sustain relationships through a portable device. Kids are learning poor habits.

Let me suggest some tips to pass on to students about handling relationships:

  1. If a relationship begins online that you want to deepen, take the step to progress toward a face-to-face introduction as soon as possible.
  2. Never share emotion digitally. Texts and Facebook posts are for information, not for depth. Emotionally-filled communication should be face to face.
  3. Social media is great for updates on your life, but don’t consider all the people who “follow you” as friends. Friends are people who you actually see.
  4. Dating relationships can’t be authentic if they are only done online. You may disagree, but up till now, we’ve not been able to navigate true depth digitally. We are social creatures who were made for interpersonal relationships.
  5. Genuine relationships have beginnings; they involved two or more people working to cultivate the relationship by investing emotionally in it. And if need be, they end with an encounter that defines the relationship. Too many people are left wondering as they wander through their connections.

As Lauren Martin points out, “Without this ending, without ever getting that closure we need, we’re refusing to let ourselves ever enter into something without carrying along our past five ‘failed’, still open, never-ended ‘relationships.’”

What do you think about this trend?


Find out how adults can equip young people to lead us into the future in our best-selling book Generation iY: Our Last Chance to Save Their Future.


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Generation iY helps adults:

  • Guide unprepared adolescents and at-risk kids to productive adulthood
  • Correct crippling parenting styles
  • Repair damage from (unintentional) lies we’ve told kids
  • Guide young people toward real success instead of superficial “self-esteem”
  • Adopt education strategies that engage (instead of bore) an “I” generation
  • Employ their strengths and work with their weaknesses on the job


  1. Ethan Morgan on December 18, 2014 at 9:31 am

    I work at a private high school, and this is something I try to instill in my students. That real people need real relationships. And real relationships happen face to face. Most kids I tell this to the first time swear up and down that a relationship over Facebook is genuine or that they can have a deep convetsation ot break up with their girlfriend/boyfriend with a text. But after a few conversations about how we are wired psychologically, they begin to see the sense of it. I feel like students these days have lost the sense of their need for community. Being bombarded by “You can and should do it by yourself”, “Reliance is weakness” type messages from the media, society and pop culture, doesn’t help either. But I have found that if you take the time to explain every human’s need for connection and community, students usually begin to introspective and find the Truth and strength of face to face relationships.

    • Tim Elmore on December 31, 2014 at 1:11 pm

      Great points, Ethan. Thank you for sharing and having the hard conversations today’s students need.

  2. Heather on December 18, 2014 at 9:33 am

    Although I agree with many of the points you make in this post, I think your suggested number one for handling relationships is irresponsible and dangerous. Before we should even suggest meeting someone from an online “relationship,” a young person (or anyone for that matter) needs to be taught to be a detective (a la “Catfish”) to really think about who that person is. We need to teach them that anyone can type words that fill a void in their lives, that anyone with a social sense can appeal to their likes and dislikes simply by reading through their Facebook profile, and that there are indeed plenty of people out there with, at best, selfish, if not ill intentions. It is very similar to teaching about persuasion, which has long been taught in the language arts classroom. Those appeals to emotion, bandwagon, bait and switch, etc. are no longer just product advertisement strategies, but ways that people persuade online to make others like them and fall for a “product” that isn’t at all what he or she may seem to be.

    • Tim Elmore on December 31, 2014 at 1:16 pm

      Heather – You make a great point and I hope adults will include that in the conversations they have with students. Thank you for being a part of the discussion.

  3. Guest on December 20, 2014 at 10:30 pm

    Interesting. I used to think that face-to-face communication was the only way you should have a relationship, hands down, no exceptions. But the conversations that I’ve had with my boyfriend via Facebook have been infinitely more complex, thoughtful, and fascinating than our face to face conversations, since we have time to reflect and think about what we want to say. We’ve been dating for a year and a half, and our relationship would be impossible without face-to-face interaction. But I don’t think that electronic or written communication should be shot down entirely. Nobody disparages a love letter or a novel for not being face-to-face. Human interaction is an essential part of life, but electronic or written communication can be a unique and interesting supplement if done in the right way.

    • Tim Elmore on December 31, 2014 at 1:17 pm

      Thank you for commenting. I agree that electronic communication can be supplemental, but like you said it must be done in the right way.

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Trends in How Today's Students Handle Relationships