Give Me Back My Girlhood
Taylor Swift and Olivia Rodrigo singing their songs about 19-year-old relationships

Why Was Everyone In The Same Terrible Relationship At Age 19?

Blame the “Dear John effect.”

by Morgan Sullivan

Picture the person you dated at 19. For me, it brings me back to a college party. I can still hear the muffled music from outside the bathroom door locked behind me. It's fratty, and the lyrics say something cliché about being young only once. I'm dressed in a costume — a toga or ugly sweater (I can't remember now, nor do I want to). I’m crying because the guy I’ve been dating has been blowing me off for the entirety of this party. Now he's in the bathroom, standing over me, telling me I'm crazy for being upset. “I only invited one person,” he says. “And I chose you.” He pleads for me to come back. “No one here gets me like you do,” he says. Now I'm feeling special and OK with his hot-and-cold behavior. This is not a red flag at all.

Perhaps you’ve been in the same position. (Even Taylor Swift has cried in a party bathroom.) Perhaps your story is completely different from mine, but there’s one thing in common: The person you dated at 19 was capital-B Bad.

I know I’m not alone in this experience because the dreaded 19-year-old relationship has transcended into legend — a great equalizer of sorts. If you were to approach a random group of women during happy hour and ask about their love escapades at 19, their responses would sound something like a horror movie blurb: “Soul crushing!” and “Traumatizing!” TikToks, tweets, and pop songs have all warned against the dangers of falling in love at this age. “Any man you meet at 19 and you get involved with romantically?” popular TikTok creator Aliyah says in a TikTok with 1.8 million likes. “Run for the hills.”

Sound familiar? From the “Dear John effect” to a mix of developmental factors, your rocky experiences in relationships at 19 might not be just a coincidence.

An Age Gap, Combined With Inexperience, Can Spell Disaster

After a summer of renewed interest in nostalgia — whether from a trip through Barbieland, Taylor Swift’s evocative eras, or a fictional TV universe with viewers picking sides in a love triangle between one high school girl and two brothers — it makes sense that discussions about teenage relationships have taken center stage. And while not everyone had a bad relationship at 19, for those who have, social media memes serve as a symbol of connection and solidarity, an acknowledgment that many have experienced this hellish phase in their dating lives.

Perhaps no one can articulate these horrors quite like Taylor Swift or Olivia Rodrigo, especially when age gaps and power dynamics come into play. Swift’s ballad “Dear John,” the fifth track on Speak Now, explicitly calls out someone she dated when she was 19 (“Don’t you think 19’s too young to be played by your dark, twisted games?”) over a bluesy guitar riff that sounds suspiciously close to John Mayer’s musical stylings. Ten years later, on Midnights, the more retrospective “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve” finds Swift reflecting on the choices she made in her youth, particularly a relationship she had at 19 where she sings, "Give me back my girlhood; it was mine first.”

Most recently, Rodrigo’s gritty pop masterpiece, GUTS, serves up a tantalizing musical diary of her tumultuous 19th year, including lead track “Vampire,” which unravels the wounds of a torturous six-month love affair disguised as a “forbidden paradise.” Rodrigo also hints the person she dated was older: “'Cause girls your age know better.”

These songs are hitting particularly hard for women with similar experiences. Alicia, 26, a Los Angeles-based project manager, tells Elite Daily she often sought refuge in “Dear John” due to its relatability, mainly because it’s a song about a relationship that becomes inconsistent at the slightest provocation, and because of their major age gap.

It taught me that I never want to be treated that way again.

Alicia was a student at UCLA studying communications when she met what she refers to as her “Dear John effect.” He was inconsistent and emotionally unavailable, moody, and sullen. “Think of your typical sad boi; that was him,” she laughs. He was older, a grad student while she was still in undergraduate studies, who never called her his girlfriend, although he sometimes treated her like one. Eliciting emotion from him felt like earning his affection; sometimes, irregular intimacy could even feel like winning a prize. At the time, Alicia recalls, being mistreated seemed better than nothing. “I was so young,” she says. “I spent my best college years painstakingly waiting on a text back from a classic avoidant, and I had no idea.”

Alicia acknowledges that her 19th year situationship was never a match. "It's laughable, actually, to think that we could have ever made it work,” she says. “We were both too different — and at different life stages."

This, Andrea Dindinger, a licensed marriage and family therapist, notes, is a key reason why many people have similar heartbreak stories. At 19, as you seek independence and self-identity apart from your parents, your inexperience may lead to misjudgments, like dating someone older who has nothing in common with you. When you don’t have to face adult responsibilities or make grown-up decisions about the future, your tastes don’t reflect that, either. “Your brain is growing; your hormones are regulating,” she says. “There's a tremendous amount of emotional immaturity.” TL;DR as you mature, your taste in partners matures.

Somewhere in your early to late 20s, as Dindinger puts it, “You start being like, ‘Oh, I really do have to pay rent. I really do like to travel. I'm working really hard at my job. I don't want to take care of somebody.’”

You’re More Reckless & Less Discerning Than Later In Life

When Maggie, a 25-year-old registered nurse in Washington, D.C., sees online chatter about 19-year-old relationships, she remembers getting entangled in the snare of dating what she affectionately called a "Big Personality™." He was funny, loud, and extremely charming. “It’s so funny to think of how my taste has changed,” Maggie tells Elite Daily, saying she always went for classically handsome and brimming with overconfidence — those seemingly untouchable types.

She and this guy attended different colleges in the same state, though she opted for a smaller, quieter institution while he ventured off to a sprawling party school. Maggie recalls nights in her first apartment when she would anxiously monitor his whereabouts when he went out or discreetly check his Instagram activity, hoping to uncover any new followers. Those new followers often turned out to be girls he had flirted with or, worse, cheated on her with.

Though Maggie’s taste may be different now, it’s not like you can rewind the tape and edit your dating history from years past. Still, you can certainly learn from it. Many call these dating disasters "canon events" — those pivotal moments that shape your life or personality. According to Dindinger, there's truth to that idea. At 19, you’re more likely to ignore warning signs, whether it be justifying a partner’s active Tinder account or repeatedly allowing them to cross your boundaries. Dindinger also notes that having a scarcity mindset at this age is common, making you believe your current partner is the only one you’ll ever find.

With age (usually) comes wisdom. Feelings of abandonment, inadequacy, and deep-seated insecurities might lead people to tolerate behaviors at age 19 that they'd never accept later in life. I can attest: As I’ve grown healthier, better partners have followed. Being in a stable relationship makes me realize just how far I’ve come. It catapults me back into that bathroom, fratty music blasting, and it’s a bittersweet moment.

Alicia agrees. “It taught me that I never, ever want to be — or will be — treated that way again,” she says. When I ask if she’d ever want to go back, even to warn her past self about the 19-year-old curse, her answer is clear: No. “It’s a canon event,” she says. “You can’t interfere.”

Expert source cited:

Andrea Dindinger, licensed marriage and family therapist