The Real Reason I Write About Love
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I was only 12.
That objective bit of data -- 12 years old -- stuns me now as much as it must have worried my parents then.
Of course, I didn't think of myself as only 12, certainly not now that a ninth-grade boy with a carefully cultivated air of mystery had spent the second week of the school year slipping notes addressed to "Miss Beautiful" (so very original!) into my locker and asking at what point in the junior high basketball tournament were we going to sneak behind the gym "to talk."
His interest was strange to me, but I suppose it was my young, female nature that made me so excited about being noticed.
"I'd like to...know you better," I shrugged when he moved in to kiss me, feeling hormonally charged enough by the mere act of resting my cheek against his.
Back on the sidelines with the cheerleaders I warmed up with my friends, confident my boundary-setting had urged him to respect me more.
Instead, a mutual friend tapped the shoulder of my cheerleading turtleneck and moved his lips resignedly to one side. Sorry," he said. "You've been dumped."
That same night at the middle school dance, my first real boyfriend -- now my first ex-boyfriend -- took the floor with a girl a year ahead of me who was known for wearing see-through blouses with our school dress code and holding hands in the hallways when teachers weren't looking.
Saying no to that kiss was the first time I ever voiced my values in front of a male I liked...and a bravery it took me two decades to get back.
Had it ended there, I wouldn't be writing this. That push-and-pull between him and me established itself as the painful cycle of our relationship for the next eight years.
Today I have enough perspective to articulate the pattern: with sweet words, intense attention and affectionate apologies, he'd bait me.
I'd hold off with self-discipline and then finally respond in a fever when it looked as though he'd withhold his interest and ditch me like that first time.
Then with slyness he'd groom me to compromise on something I held important; something that I loved about myself.
Over and over, this was us; resembling military tactic more than love. Knowing how heartless he was, it's tough to comprehend how he knew so well what a young girl needs to hear.
Knowing who I am now, it's tough to imagine I'm the same person who ever put up with it.
Twelve. Infant, trusting and raised by a family of men who applauded my goals and encouraged me to see how unique I was, I spent all of my teens trying to singlehandedly prove that kindness and unconditional love can make someone good -- like in Disney movies.
When that didn't work, total neglect of my wellbeing was my Hail Mary.
In my attempts to win him over I abandoned everything that made me, me: my commitment to my academics, my courage to speak out against jokes about women and cultural slurs, my affinity for happy-go-lucky pop artists in exchange for his angry heavy metal taste.
To spend time with him I missed the innocence of slumber parties with friends and even the funeral of my great-grandmother, an Italian immigrant who'd told me when I was eight years old: "I see something in you, you're curious and very strong. Promise me: don't have a baby until you can support yourself, and don't let a boy stop you."
I'd promised her, and now I was letting a boy stop me. I gave up my virginity, I gained 20 pounds to prove him right -- I was too unattractive for anyone else to want me.
I forgave him for cheating, lying and one time slamming me up against a wall, and I almost followed him to college...until he got arrested and expelled for something involving alcohol.
Or maybe that was the episode with the stolen money?
I realize now that was the universe's last-resort way of wrestling me out of my addiction to him.
College presented me with a choice: I could either re-calibrate my focus and my standards for myself, or I could fail out, academically and socially.
By my second semester I emerged as Krissy again, fitting in and even excelling...and I resolved to never experience suffering like that again.
Today, when I hear about teenagers who want to take their own lives, I can feel my old pain grow inflamed again.
I remember the uncertainty in that time of my life, with values like moist cement -- laid out with determined intention, jut not quite set.
Our psyches at that stage are in a vulnerable period of development, and many of us will give absolutely anything to be validated.
It's not stupid or naive; it's social survival in a phase of life for which it's impossible for anyone to be prepared.
I remember curling up in a ball on my bedroom floor when I was 13, just praying for any possible solution to make the tears stop.
If I hadn't had a family who'd instilled in me the knowledge that I was loved and that my purpose in the world was significant, I really might not be here today.
What fed me in those years of moral starvation was my interest in psychology.
I figured if I could understand the way he and all males think, then I could act accordingly and finally make him see: this was the perfect girl he didn't want to lose.
I read the Mars & Venus books; I studied dream and handwriting analysis; in high school I earned college credit for a course I took in adolescent development.
As bound as we were, I never did get my head around what could have hurt him so much that he would want me to experience his pain...but over time I did gain an appreciation for the courage it takes to really have emotions, for the inherent strength that is being born female, and for what an absolute warrior I am when I love someone.
So when my most recent partner turned to me out of the blue one afternoon and said, "Why do you write about relationships?" I explained to him that I do it for women -- not because I think romance is all we care about (hardly), but because it's through relationships that I've gained the most awareness of what I stand for and, truly, how pure my heart is.
I was a child when I first had to face what a woman risks by loving a man...and I am so grateful I got that lesson out of the way before I ever had to make a decision I couldn't take back.
At the core of a romantic relationship is the requisite for two people each to treat the other as the most important person in the world.
It's where both the magic and the danger lie. I know how far a woman will go in her fierce will to express her capacity for love.
And I hear from young women -- one who even canceled her wedding -- who use their voices of intelligence and authenticity to share that through reading about my experiences, they're better equipped to reflect about whether they're getting the kind of love they need.
Being female grants us with a hopefulness in love, but the most enlightened realization a girl can have is clarity about whose job it really is to take care of her.
Kristine Gasbarre is the author of How to Love an American Man (HarperCollins, 2011) and a blogger on psychology and relationships. Go here to subscribe to her mailing list and save $25 on registration for her Oct. 20 relationship conference in New York City, identity&intimacy.