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Romantic competence is a construct that includes a set of cognitive, emotional and interpersonal skills that allows the individual to adaptively deal with the sentimental experience, both the positive and the more challenging and potentially critical aspects that every relationship entails. (Bouchey, 2007)
Adolescence represents a period of change and transition towards adulthood and during this phase of life many tasks are related to:
- physical changes: the adolescent’s body from childhood is transformed into an adult and sexually mature body;
- cognitive, emotional and relational: cognitive and emotional changes make adolescents more capable of reflecting, recognizing and regulating their emotions, mentalizing their bodies, making decisions and solving problems in a more mature and conscious way.
If these changes are faced with commitment, exploration and experimentation by the adolescent, it will allow him to arrive at a definition of identity very close to the adult one. However, this series of changes can arouse fears and anxieties in the adolescent, leading to experience mixed sensations.
The first sentimental experiences occur in adolescence and often arise between school visits, in groups with which activities are shared outside of school or in even more occasional situations, which can lead to real relationships. Therefore, falling in love in adolescence is a common experience and the peer group plays an important role, i.e., as a gym and antechamber for future relationships (Confalonieri, 2020).
Relationships with peers play an important role in the life of adolescents: they are functional to development interpersonal skills and competences (communication, negotiation, empathy, maintenance of intimate relationships) necessary for future adult relationships, affecting aspects of values such as love, intimacy and sexuality.
Romantic competence therefore, is acquired starting from the first romantic experiences conducted in adolescence. Being sentimentally competent does not imply the absence of challenges and stressful experiences, but it facilitates negotiation in positive or negative situations allowing you to “function well” in sentimental relationships.
Bouchey (2007) was one of the first authors to conceptualize romantic competence, focusing on the subject’s personal perception and examining relationship, adjustment and well-being in adolescence. The author claims that some aspects of romantic competence predict good psychosocial adjustment and she identifies six domains of the perceived romantic self:
- Romantic Appeal, perceiving oneself attractive;
- Sexual Competence, competence of the adolescent in the sexual field;
- Communication, ability to confront and communicate with one’s partner;
- Relationship Maintenance, carry on the relationship;
- Power Balance, balance in the relationship;
- Partner Acceptance, perception of the adolescent to be accepted by the partner.
To define romantic competence, we rely on three theoretical reference models:
- the socio-cognitive models of problem solving;
- attachment theory;
- emotional regulation models.
- Among the socio-cognitive models, the ability to think about interpersonal situations presupposes an adaptive type of problem solving, to solve problems by recognizing the causes and consequences of a given situation, taking into account the implications of all people involved and their needs (Brion-Meisels, & Selman (1984), Yeates, Schultz, & Selman, (1991), Spivack, Platt, & Shure, 1976). Using adaptive problem solving allows for better functioning in adolescence (Beardslee, Shultz, & Selman, 1987).
- According to attachment theory there are several cognitive skills, such as insight, reflecting on the self and others, and learning from the past, which form the basis of adaptive functioning as well as a secure attachment style (Bowlby, 1969, 1972, 1983). On the other hand, those who develop anxious attachment styles or avoidant attachment styles tend not to function well on a sentimental level. Furthermore, attachment theory also maintains that the ability to regulate emotional distress, maintaining levels of esteem for oneself and for others, is adaptive (Mikulincer, Shaver, & Pereg, 2003).
- The last theoretical model referred to is inherent to emotional regulation, which consists in maintaining a coherent and positive self by modulating emotions flexibly according to the context, thus providing coherent emotional responses. Developing a rich emotional regulation skill means being able to give coherent responses, characterized by appropriate expressions, while maintaining an emotional attunement to oneself and to others (Cole, Michel, & Teti, 1994; Salovey, Hsee, & Mayer, 1993).
Starting from these theoretical references, Davila and colleagues (2009) conceptualize romantic competence as a set of skills such as: the ability to think about relationships in their reciprocity, the ability to learn from one’s experience, the ability to control emotions and the ability to think about relationships by reflecting on them. Therefore, they later articulated the romantic competence in 4 dimensions:
- Mutuality: ability of the subject to consider his own and the other’s needs, balancing the needs of intimacy and autonomy;
- Insight: knowing how to reflect on relationships, that is, recognizing the causes and consequences of behaviors and being aware of the motivations and purposes of both;
- Learning: the adolescent’s ability to learn from sentimental relationships, not only of his own but also of others. Therefore, reflecting on relationships that have similarities with his/her own to avoid, making the same mistakes despite repeating maladaptive behaviors is typical of the adolescent.
- Emotional regulation: competence that allows you to be aware of your emotions and to regulate them according to situations using effective copying strategies.
One of the variables considered in the research on romantic relationships is related to the possible presence of gender differences in the way of living and considering romantic relationships. In terms of frequency, males and females would not seem to differ, but in fact sentimental relationships are experienced differently by both. Males, in fact, start sentimental relationships earlier, but females are the ones who report more lasting relationships, and this persists throughout adolescence (Connoly & McIsaac, 2011).
Therefore, romantic competence is connected to the subject’s sentimental experience, it develops during adolescence until early adulthood, since personal experiences make the subject mature and learn from past experience.
Regardless of how long a relationship lasts, relationships are emotionally important experiences that lead to lifelong consequences, both positive and negative. In this way the adolescent can experience and evaluate his/her relational skills which are indicative in the process of adaptation and transition towards adulthood (Bouchey, 2007).
Di Selene Amonini
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