Yet, when children are young, parents may regard these relationships as insignificant. If the family must move to a new community and the children's close friends must be left behind, so what? They will make new friends, the parents assure them. But, is a friend as interchangeable as a new toy for an old one, or is there more to friendship than that? Why are we so elated to rediscover long lost friends in our adult years if, as some parents believe, they were so dispensable to us as children?
Even more belittled by many parents is a teenager's (or preteen's) love for a boyfriend or girlfriend. Adults refer to these relationships with demeaning language, calling them "just puppy love," and these romantic bonds are not taken seriously. Parents question the ability of teenagers to know what love is, yet they accept their teenagers' statements, "I love you, Mom & Dad," with full appreciation and at face value. If adults accept that teenagers can love parents truly, then shouldn't they also accept that teen romances are "real" love?
Recreational dating is relatively new. Teenagers many years ago married their first sweethearts right out of high school. These men and women of the World War II Generation married at younger ages than their Baby Boomer children or their Generation X or Millennial grandchildren. But education has become prolonged, so marriage is later.
The age of puberty, however, has dropped. Whatever the reasons for this, reaching puberty influences the age of first love and first sexual experience. It is rare now to marry a first love. Today's teenagers date not for mate selection but for fun. However, the first love experience is no less powerful than it was in the 1940's.
Adults who underestimate the strength of the bond-- or the impact of the loss -- of a first love may have forgotten what a blow it was when they lost their own first loves. They may even try to comfort teenagers with lighthearted lessons: a surprising number of men and women wrote to me to bitterly complain about parents who joked years ago, "Don't worry! Boyfriends/girlfriends are like buses... a new one comes along every ten minutes!" This was not helpful, and it was not funny. The loss of a first love can be so crushing to some teenagers that they become suicidal.
The pain of the breakup will subside with time, but the love may stay buried and dormant for decades. While most men and women find satisfying partners after first love breakups, there are adults who spend their married years aware that "something is missing." They continue to think about their lost first loves. Perhaps if they had married their first loves when they were younger, they tell me, they could have formed lasting and fulfilling marriages, but they will never know. These romances were interrupted - often by their parents' interference.
In my recent survey of 1600 people (who had never tried a reunion with a lost love), ages 18 to 92, 56% of the participants said they would not want to go back to their first loves, 19% were not sure -- but 25% said they would!
Even the adults who had no current interest in their first loves, including those who had only bitter memories, revealed that these early romances influenced their life-long attitudes about love, and even about themselves.
The longer I study lost loves and lost love reunions, the clearer it becomes to me how important young love really is. First love, young love, is indeed real love. This intense love does not come along every ten minutes. For some people, it may come only once in a lifetime.
Copyright 2010 by Nancy Kalish, Ph.D.
"Recently, I have been catching feelings for one of my good friend's (recently) ex-boyfriend," an anonymous teen wrote on Tumblr. "I think something could happen but I don't know if I should go through with it."
Jasmin, another Tumblr user, wished the original poster good luck with the potential new romance, while simultaneously warning her to exercise caution.
"Especially if it's a fresh breakup you definitely want to respect your friend and give her time to get over him," Jasmin replied.
It's a fairly standard teenage dating dilemma, but one that was treated with the utmost seriousness in the discussion for the hashtag "#excerpt from a book i'll never write," which has hundreds of posts on Tumblr.
Every day, teenage girls flock to the Tumblr hashtag to divulge their stories of heartbreak or romantic fantasies and seek relationship advice from people they've never met. The stories are usually (but not necessarily always) melancholy love stories, colored by shades of vulnerability and secret desire or nostalgia. And often (but not necessarily always), they're a way to crowdsource romantic advice from other Tumblr users.
Most bloggers share their snippets anonymously, but last year 18-year-old Sue Zhao in Cambridge, United Kingdom, became one of the few to publish a series of excerpts under her own name. Now, after blogging on Tumblr for two years, Zhao has almost 150,000 followers on Tumblr. Thanks to the enthusiastic response to "Nothing But Strawberries," a florid short story about first love, she is working on her first full-length book. "Everything I write is directly or indirectly related to something that I have felt or experienced," she said in a Skype interview.
Like many of her popular Tumblr peers who amass a large online audience, Zhao has never been published offline; she's currently looking for publishers for her manuscript. In addition to writing her book, Zhao also responds to up to 125 readers a week, who submit their own love stories, comments and relationship questions to her Tumblr. Zhao publishes a small number of anonymous exchanges, many of which are incredibly earnest and evocative.
"How long do you feel it is appropriate to cry in my room after he smashed my heart into a million little pieces?" one such reader asked. Zhao offered her advice: "As long as it takes to glue the pieces together again sweetie. Take your time...Your heart can work just as well if the parts have shifted a little. The next time you love, you'll just love slightly differently."
"I really don't profess to be an expert, but I think lots of people who find themselves reading the things I write feel understood or like they can relate, so they talk to me," Zhao said.
Zhao views Tumblr as an "emotional safe-space" for teens to explore the confusion of young love. (It's also worth noting that she is one of many young women of color using Tumblr to build her readership without traditional publishing gatekeepers.)
What more experienced daters might see as trite or childish, their anonymous peers see as a reflection of their own struggles to grapple with the raw emotions of adolescence. "If you feel lonely or sad or heartbroken it's normal to look for answers — especially if you feel like you can't voice the question in real life," Zhao said.
Zhao is not the only budding romance writer on Tumblr. Across the ocean in New Jersey, 17-year-old Zoe, who asked that we not publish her last name, started collecting anonymous love letters and story excerpts in November and quickly amassed almost 22,000 followers.
"Most of the submissions I receive are about one person in a relationship getting hurt and having to deal with the loneliness that follows a breakup," Zoe said via Twitter direct message. "I think our younger teenage years are somewhat centralized around our love experiences."
Like most Tumblr hashtag trends, the concept spread to other platforms and now Zoe's corresponding excerptsofstories Instagram account has more than 294,000 followers.
Since Zoe began publishing anonymous submissions, her posts regularly start "trending" on Tumblr. She believes the anonymous and fragmented style of these love stories makes them more relatable for the teens sharing them every day.
"People's submissions provide different perspectives [and] can kinda serve almost as relationship advice," Zoe said. "People submit anonymously in the hopes that their feelings can be seen by others without the fear of judgment."
Through their Tumblr personas, bloggers like Zhao and Zoe are not only changing the way teen girls seek advice and support during their first romantic relationships, they're also changing the way these relationships actually unfold. Zoe said that one reader dealing with an unrequited crush sent her a private message thanking her for her Tumblr, saying it encouraged her to come forward with her feelings.
"I can be heartbroken...or miss someone and bam, there will be an excerpt that fits my situation," the reader wrote. "I just feel like your [Zoe's] account has made me change decisions for the better."