On Romantic Love: A New Year’s Message To My Teens
Before any more time passes, here are some things about love that I probably didn’t cover, but want you to understand
As we usher in another new year, my wish for each of you — my three, beautiful and brilliant teens whom I believe deserve the world — is the same as always: a safe and healthy year ahead that’s filled with blessings, happiness, success, and love. But as I was just thinking about this, it dawned on me that we haven’t really talked that much about love. Not the unconditional love of family, but the kind of love that comes with romantic or serious relationships. And now that you’ve been through a few, it seems a good time to bring it up.
I know, I know; the last thing you want from me right now is another “mom talk.” But honestly, you’re all three getting so much older and things just seem to be happening way too fast lately. And in my (sometimes guilt-ridden) mom’s mind, “Oh my GOD, I still have to teach you all the things, and I’m running out of time!” See, I keep remembering stuff I forgot to mention, and it seems whenever I have the chance to really have a heart-to-heart about those things, you’re already in the midst of a passionate crush or a devastating heartbreak, and well, timing is everything.
Around here lately, with your exceptionally busy school/work/life schedules the time for deep, in-person talks is scarce. So, I’m writing my thoughts down now. I want you to know some things about love that I’ve always meant to discuss with you, but life just keeps happening. So, on this first day of 2019, while you’re away at your jobs, hanging with friends, or doing your own thing, I’m attempting to pause time for just a few minutes. I’m stopping what I’m doing, sitting down, and putting pen to paper.
You already know that in our house, no discussion topic is off the table. Puberty. Social media. Crushes. Self-harm. Relationships. Sex. Liquor. Drugs. Legal stuff. Money. Politics. Racism. White privilege. Blah, blah, blah. I feel like we’ve probably covered it all. I’m sure you probably feel like we’ve covered it all. But in covering all the biggies, I don’t know that we’ve covered some of the finer points, like, what to expect when you’re in serious romantic relationships.
How do you know if you’re in love with someone? Did we ever talk about that? What even is love? How is love supposed to look? Act? Feel? Sometimes I wish I could slow everything down; knowing I can’t get back lost time hits me hard as hell and comes with more frequency now that you’re older and mostly independent. Which is the inevitable bittersweetness of raising kids. But, as Dad and I inch closer to being empty nesters, one thing I want you to know is this:
By the time you become a young adult and leave home, I want you to have a rock solid understanding of how love works.
I know I can’t cover everything, and you’ve already learned a lot from your relationships up to this point. But I never want you to stop learning. Always ask yourself if you know all your options. Do you know what you are and aren’t responsible for? Do you know what to expect — what’s realistic, what’s fair, what’s right — whether that’s now, or later in life? How will you know when you should stay and fight for it, or when it’s simply time to leave, and all of the things in between?
I hope Dad and I have made it transparent that we really don’t mind whether you choose to date or ever get married at all, and that we don’t care about your sexual orientation; we only care that you’re being safe and responsible, true to yourself, not intentionally hurting yourself or others, and that you’re happy. Likewise, we hope you know by now that we don’t care who you date, as long as that person is nothing but good to you. You deserve nothing less — don’t you doubt that for a second.
I’ll humbly confess (though I don’t say it enough) that your Dad & I haven’t been the ‘perfect’ role models for marriage, although I doubt a perfect marriage exists. After twenty three years, there’s going to be some baggage; I don’t care who you are. At our worst, you’ve overheard some of our petty bickering and our louder arguments; you’ve even overheard a few yelling matches, probably over finances. For that, I am sorry. No doubt we should’ve and could’ve done a better job of shielding you in that regard. Yet, in another way I’m sort of glad you weren’t too shielded, because you’ve learned that love isn’t always pretty and neat and convenient.
But the most important lesson here is, despite our bad times, you’ve never seen your Dad or me give up on each other.
This is what marriage is. This is what real love is. This is what it looks like, for better or worse. Caring enough to stick it out through the peaks and the valleys. Caring enough to not throw in the towel the moment a situation becomes inconvenient. Being mature enough to know when to put your partner’s needs ahead of your own. That said, the moment someone abuses you, in any way — mentally, physically, however — it’s past time to go. Other than that, how do you know when (or if) it’s time to go? For that and other reasons, I simply cannot stress enough how important it was for us (and I’d advise anyone else to do the same) to have many, many heart-to-hearts before you commit to a serious relationship like living together or getting married.
Before we moved in together, Dad and I discussed everything from politics to religion to the number of kids we wanted. Your father was the wisest, most mature man I’d ever met in my life, aside from my own father. It wasn’t “love at first sight for me,” but there so many evident signs that this was a good man that I somehow knew instinctively, deep down inside, not to let him go; I knew that this was the man I’d want to marry. And as our friendship blossomed, so did my romantic feelings for him, and man, what a powerful force that was.
But we talked about everything, even the awkward, uncomfortable stuff. We closed the bar down many nights discussing what our boundaries were, our expectations, our dreams, and our fears. We discussed our odd quirks, financial philosophies, and past hurts. We confessed our ugly baggage. We dissected our views on marriage, divorce, infidelity, honesty, trust, communication, child-rearing, and seemingly insignificant family traditions. It took a few gin & tonics a few nights, but we even delved into scary what-if territory, like the possibility one or both of us could struggle with infertility, incurable illness, or death. And, importantly, we discussed what behaviors we’d each consider to be non-negotiable, instant relationship enders. That way, both of us knew where we stood at all times; there was no room for ambiguity or interpretation or mixed messages.
Sure, we were always vastly different; when we met he was 24, I was just about to turn 22. He was at a stage where he loved (what I considered to be) geeky computer games, sci-fi, practicality, and playing D&D with a few close, introverted friends. I was at a stage where I liked partying — the more the merrier — dancing, socializing into the wee hours of the morning, and (what he considered to be) silly show tunes from all the musical theatre I was doing. He was a shy extrovert, I was an outgoing introvert. Later we came to appreciate this as our yin and yang, our ability to complement one another.
None of that mattered at the time, though. Our long-term goals were in sync. We may be old-fashioned in this way, but for your Dad and me, marriage was sacred. Our vows were not something to be taken lightly. Through my various illnesses and surgeries, and my ugliest, darkest days Dad has been there holding me up, and I believe he’d say I’ve done the same for him.
I believe everyone struggles with understanding exactly what love is supposed to look like. And of course there’s no one recipe that’s right for everyone. But there are a few things I hope you’ll have a clear understanding on:
Don’t mistake lust for love.
People can feel lust for anything: money, power, fame, etc. When we think of lust in regard to lovers or relationships, we tend to think of it in its most primal stage: a very strong desire, usually sexually-motivated. But I think it’s more than just the unbridled carnality of lovers, a pure craving. I also think it’s a gripping, emotional, powerful feeling that can overcome you at times, much like an addictive, dangerous drug. Be very careful with this. It’s easy to mistake being in lust with being in love. And the two couldn’t be more different.
Lust is sneaky. It often disguises itself as the “spark.” You know the spark that people talk about — the one they feel after they’ve hit if off with that special someone, and then they consume each other’s mind space for days, weeks, or months on end? Lust can disguise itself as that. It can present with all those feelings of newness, anticipation, butterflies in the stomach, excitement, wild passion, and more, all leading you to falsely believe you’re in love.
The thing about lust is it waxes and wanes. Sometimes it fades or burns out altogether. The ensuing absence of ‘spark’ does not mean you’ve fallen out of love, because love and lust are two entirely different human conditions.
A mistake I’ve seen too often is that people think the moment the “spark” is gone, they’ve fallen out of love. Sometimes of course, that may actually be the case. But if you really, truly love someone, and they really love you, you need to understand that the spark is not the be-all-end-all; it’s just one of those initial chemical reactions our brains experience in reaction to the sense of newness and all those powerful feelings that tie back to lust. It’s unreasonable to expect this to always burn as brightly as it did in the beginning. And if that is your expectation, you might be searching the rest of your life, unsatiated, chasing rainbows.
Love is different. Love is not always all consuming or edge-of-your-seat exciting. It definitely can be, but it can also just as much look fairly boring. Love takes time — lots of time — because it has to be built and sculpted and chiseled, upon layers and layers of groundwork of trust, honesty, or whatever your love language is. For this reason, I’m not one to believe in the concept of love at first sight. I think lust at first sight is way more likely.
Like lust, love also can wax and wane. In fact, when you’re committed in a longtime relationship or marriage and you love your partner, I guarantee that you’ll absolutely have a day or more where you look at your partner and think, “I really don’t like you today. At all.” There may not even be a rhyme or reason to it. The feeling might freak you out if you don’t know that it’s normal.
There will be days where you perceive your partner maybe isn’t fulfilling all your needs. Or vice versa. Stop and prioritize. If your partner depletes all your resources and still has unmet needs, consider that the problem isn’t with you. Likewise, don’t expect your partner to fulfill all of your needs. Remain a human who can function independently, with interests of your own. Co-dependency is never healthy.
In a serious or long-term relationship, know that you will have petty arguments. You’re going to butt heads sometimes. It goes with the territory. This doesn’t mean the romance is gone and it’s all over. The bottom line is, being with someone (and especially living with someone) is not easy. It’s actually work. Hard work, sometimes. If you’re only in lust, you’ll know it because these frustrations will get old much too quickly and you’ll be ready to move on, looking for the next high like the drug addict that lust can bring out in you. But if you’re in love, you’ll know it because it feels vastly different: mature, patient, humble, and healthy. It doesn’t leave you longing for more outside the relationship. But you (and your partner) must be in a very emotionally stable and mature place to discern the difference.
These frustrations will inevitably come. The love part takes over when you decide whether the relationship is worth it to stay and fight — simply because you recognize how important it is to attempt to rediscover even one ounce of the way you used to feel about that person, whether that was ten years ago, or yesterday. But if you’re both willing and equally committed, the hard work always pays off in the long run. I promise.
Hear me out: I’m not saying you should lower your standards or “settle” for anyone. I’m also in no way endorsing marrying the first person you fall in love with — I’m a firm believer in the importance of experience before settling down. But regardless of your season in life, do take some time to prioritize your needs and wants as well as your partner’s, and above all, be realistic. If you’ve got a good thing going — even if there aren’t fireworks every time you kiss, it might be worth sticking it out through both peaks and valleys for the long haul. I trust that you, like me and your Dad, will just know when that’s the case.
Never underestimate the realness of someone who has grown up in a toxic home.
Through no fault of your own, you might have relationships where you may never be able to fulfill your partner’s needs, especially when those needs stem from the baggage of growing up in a chaotic environment, or an abusive, neglectful, or otherwise unstable home. It’s therefore really important to know something of your partner’s family and their values before committing to a serious, long-term relationship.
My mom always told me, “when you get married, you not only marry that person, you marry their family, too.”
This is very true.
If you get along with their family, and moreover, if you like their family and they like you? That’s jackpot. That’s all the better for everyone involved. I mean, plenty of people aren’t crazy about their in-laws, but they can still tolerate them. And of course there are people who loathe their in-laws, which is never an ideal situation. But, there’s a big difference in being able to tolerate, and utter toxicity. Learn and know the difference. Don’t be afraid to set boundaries for yourself and your partner. If your partner has a toxic relationship with their family, it’s not your job to provide their therapy or provide for their long-standing unmet needs. You can be supportive and loving and helpful, but understand that people can only fix themselves — and even then, only if they choose to.
We all have likely experienced a time where our own parents were the most annoying, embarrassing, overwhelming people in our lives. For most of us, that time went hand in hand with adolescence. But if your partner has an ongoing seething hatred of one or both parents well-into adulthood, it’s worth your time to find out why. You’ll have to decide if your relationship will be hindered by or even sustainable due to this element. Severely strained parent-child relationships come with their own unique set of baggage, and we aren’t all equipped to handle that adequately.
Other times, children of a toxic parent (or parents) swear they’ll never grow up to be like that parent, only to grow up and become (often subconsciously) exactly like that parent, even down to the specific behavior they thought they hated and would never repeat. Unfortunately, growing up in toxicity makes people especially vulnerable, because this becomes the child’s role model for how relationships look. Even if one parent or other live-in family member is stable and strong, it’s often difficult for a child to recover and heal from emotional damage done in early childhood.
As a side note, a child’s relationship with their mother is one of the first relationships in life. We may not realize it, but this relationship will impact how we view ourselves, and how our other relationships will unfold and play out. Research has shown that toxic mothers, even moreso than absentee fathers, affect our ability to find & maintain healthy relationships as an adult. The problem with toxic parents in general is that the child has been eating this poison since infancy and has, at least for many prior years, believed that eating this poison was normal. By the time they realize it’s not normal, it may already be too late, unless that person is willing to do some deep and difficult introspection, preferably with the help of an unbiased professional.
Even if someone swore they’d “never be like him/her,” if they grew up in a home where healthy relationship boundaries were not modeled or taught, then as an adult they’re more vulnerable. They’re more likely to struggle in relationships, and most likely to adopt the same behaviors that once repulsed them, often without even realizing it.
This person has a few hallmarks: they’ll have boundary issues or poor judgment. They’ll fail to see where they end and you begin. They’re terribly insecure and will feel threatened when someone gets “too close” to you. They’re more likely to over-attach, become dependent on you, and act clingy. In fact, they’ll cling to their romantic partners or friends with intensity, eventually exhausting them of all their resources. They’re more likely to not know a good thing when they have it because they’re also more likely to mistake lust for love, forever in search of the next “high.” These are just a few reasons why it’s important to understand someone’s backstory and family before getting too serious.
At the end of the day you ultimately want and deserve a partner you feel comfortable with. Someone you can be real with. Someone who’s mature enough to respect boundaries, and who possesses a healthy level of self-confidence, not someone who demands reassurance or exudes jealousy all the time. Someone who has seen you at your absolute worst and still loved you. Someone who is patient enough to put up with your worst mood and most annoying habits. And vice-versa. It goes both ways.
You deserve someone who also understands that even when the spark burns out, as it’s apt to do, it isn’t over; it’s just beginning. Once you’re there, you’ve graduated from the intense but immature lust phase, to the stronger, sturdier, more reliable & mature, (and yes, sometimes boring) love phase.
Remember that as time passes, youth will age, looks will fade, faculties will become hazier, health problems will crop up — especially ones you never dreamed of having to deal with — whether for yourself or your partner. Life will inevitably throw you a few curveballs, challenge you more than you thought possible, take you off the beaten path a time or two. But I guarantee that having a partner along for the ride who’s more like a best friend than a slightly unattainable, perfectly formed, romance novel star will make your life way happier and more fulfilling. I promise.
Martie sir-ROY (she/her) writes on a variety of cultural, political, and social topics and has been a featured contributor for HuffPost, Scary Mommy, The Good Men Project, NPR affiliates, and SiriusXM Insight, among others. Martie is a wife, mom of 3, and trans advocate. She founded and facilitates a program at her local LGBT Center for trans & gender nonconforming youth. Connect with Martie here on Twitter, here on Facebook, or here on her website.