Thursday, April 12, 2007

Young Love

Nay, little one, it is not love as yet.
Dear as thou art, and lovely, thou canst not love,
Thy later loves shall show the truth of this.

- Laurence Hope

A 13 year old friend of mine professed to be deeply in love with a boy in her class. “People think I’m too young for it to be true love”, she complained to me, “but that’s not so: I know how I feel.”

In a way, she had a point, of course. Many a 13 year old is well enough emotionally developed to feel intense romantic love for a person, no matter how much parents, relatives, and older friends might wish they couldn’t. My young friend was simply reporting a fact when she told me she was in love.

Yet, how do you tell a 13 year old girl – a girl who knows full well how she feels when a special boy smiles at her, who knows full well how she feels when she doesn’t see him for a day or two – how do you tell her that what she feels is not mature love? Do you lie a bit and say it’s just infatuation? Do you try to explain the difference between the love she knows and the love she has yet to know? Or, is there something else you can do?

I’m personally terrible at explaining love to young people. The last thing I want to do is give them the impression I’m discounting their feelings. Yet, I know they are not capable of a mature love. Not only are they incapable of experiencing it – they are incapable at their age of really, deeply understanding what a mature love is. So, my usual strategy when a young friend brings up the subject of love is to simply listen, and listen well, to what she has to say. I refuse to judge her. I refuse to discourage her. But I sometimes try to gently point out there are unimagined depths to love that she can look forward to experiencing when she gets older.

The human brain is not fully formed until a person is in their early 20’s, so this matter of whether one can love well and truly at a younger age is very likely not just a question that applies to my 13 year old friend, but to all adolescents, and perhaps even to some very young adults. We shouldn’t confuse the question of whether a person can love well and truly with the related – but distinct – question of whether a person is ready for sex. Everything I know of that latter question suggests to me that most people are emotionally, physically, and mentally ready for sex sometime in their later teens. Yet, the capacity for love takes longer to fully blossom in our species than the sometimes related capacity for sex.

In general, the younger we are, the more likely we are to focus on our own feelings when in love. There could be a simple explanation for that. Perhaps we are more likely to focus on our own feelings because our feelings are so new and strange to us. But another explanation is we are more likely to focus on our own feelings because our brain isn’t yet developed enough to easily and accurately empathize with others. There is at least one study I know of that supports the second explanation. There might be other causes too, but whatever the cause(s), the fact is, when we are young, we tend to focus more on ourselves than on the people we love.

Compared to when I was, say, sixteen, at 50 I hardly notice when I’m in love. The people I love are more vivid to me than my feelings. That might be because I’ve been through those feelings so many times before that there is no longer anything surprising or novel about them. Hence, they are easy to simply acknowledge and then move beyond them. However, I can remember paying the utmost attention to my feelings when I was sixteen. In fact, I once paid so much attention to my feelings, and once paid comparatively so little attention to the people I loved, that today I could tell you much more how I felt about someone at sixteen than I could tell you what kind of person they were.

I don’t think that’s unusual. Far from it. When teenagers have told me about their love for someone, they have almost always focused on their feelings for that person, rather than on the person they loved. They scarcely notice that’s what they’re doing, focusing on themselves rather than on the one they love. I don’t fault them for that, but I recognize that it creates all sorts of problems for them. And maybe it’s because we older folk recognize the many problems with young love that we are almost always a bit alarmed when a young friend of ours tells us she’s in love.

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