Letter to a Teenage Girl
KELLEY KIDD

To Future Me,

I get through my days by listening to music. I escape into it, and hidden between my headphones, my mind is safe to be itself. Mostly, I listen to songs about love. I have an entire playlist entitled “Love and Melancholy,” full of my favorite songs about the haunting relationships filled with equal parts pain and longing. These are what I dream of having for myself when I float away on the lyrics. My favorite versions are haunting, with lots of minor chords, but I can’t help but notice that the themes I find in those quietly painful songs are just as easy to find in the pop songs I like to blast when I drive around with my windows down.

Why is this what I want more than anything in the world? To be ripped apart by falling in love?

Halsey (Source: John Lamparski/Fuse TV)

Halsey | Source: © John Lamparski/Fuse TV

One of pop’s most beloved artists, Taylor Swift, has built her entire career on describing her experiences in all-consuming, enchanting, excruciating relationships.

Halsey, another of my latest guilty pleasures, has songs that seem to be crafted with the primary purpose of launching her up the charts. A third are about her screwed up relationship with the music industry, and the rest are ballads to current or former lovers about her love-hate relationship with her own desperation for them (Her latest song appears on the Fifty Shades Darker soundtrack — need I say more? Not that I think BDSM is bad, but my impression of their relationship is that it’s pretty screwed up).

In middle school, everyone was obsessed with Twilight. We all dreamed of finding the kind of love where, if it left us, we would find ourselves incapable of leaving our rooms for months at a time, just like Bella. The coolest girls were the ones who had already had their hearts broken.

Twilight (Source: IMDB)

Kristen Stewart as Bella Swan and Robert Pattinson as Edward Cullen in the 2008 movie Twilight | Source: IMDB

Eminem and Rihanna have a habit of creating hit songs whose subject matter is abusive relationships and their addictive nature. When I hear them come on the radio, I get totally lost in signing along, I find myself in their inability to let go of the pain they cause one another. “Wicked Games” by The Weeknd explicitly acknowledges that he feels only able to be confident and vulnerable with a woman he is paying for sex, while on drugs. It includes the phrases — if you haven’t heard it — “Let me see that ass / Look at all this cash” followed by “Bring your love baby I could bring my shame / Bring the drugs baby I could bring my pain.” The hook includes “Listen ma I’ll give you all of me / Give me all of it / I need all of it to myself” and “I need confidence in myself.”

As I’m writing this to you, a song just came on my Spotify called “Haunted” by Stwo and SEVDALIZA. It leads with the question, “Let me fuck with you / Is that what you want? /

Even if it rips you apart?”

Why is my answer to this question an absolute and wholehearted “Yes”?

Why is this what I want more than anything in the world? To be ripped apart by falling in love?

The girls in my school who I dream of being like — the cool ones, the pretty ones, the ones the boys want — seem to be able to be with anyone they want. But when I talk to them, the relationships seem to more miserable than they are fulfilling. They sound like the women (or The Weeknd) in the songs and books, spending more of their time wishing things were different, getting further away from feeling ok about themselves instead of closer. We spend nights drinking and swapping stories of longing for someone who stays just out of reach, or being wrapped up in something fiery — burning hot but deeply painful. It seems like it’s burning them alive, but we’re drawn so desperately towards the flame.

The coolest girls were the ones who had already had their hearts broken.

I feel trapped. I am magnetized by my longing for completion in another. I need to feel what these girls are feeling. It feels like this pain is how I’ll know I’m alive and in love — it isn’t real love unless it can rip me open, right? Why do I long so deeply for this experience of romance where the main experience seems to be aching, longing, desperation, and pain? Why does every movie I see remind me that I’m not enough, but none of the relationships seem to make it better?

Sincerely,

Looking For That Troubled Love


Dear Troubled Love,

There is a subtler piece to the popular romantic narrative, which I would argue sources the oh-so-familiar longing for pain you’re describing. It drives us again and again to relationships that hurt more than heal.

Jerry Maguire (Source: Giphy)

Tom Cruise as the eponymous character in the 1996 movie Jerry Maguire | Source: Giphy

Jerry Maguire, one of the most beloved and wholesome rom-coms out there, is famous for the line “You complete me.” We celebrate this as the grandest statement of romance, though it comes from a man who throughout the movie is openly acknowledged as incapable of being alone.

Romeo and Juliet, the ultimate romantic narrative we have, tells the story of two teenagers who fall so deeply and passionately in love with one another that they can’t imagine life without each other.

Romeo and Juliet (Source: Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr)

Romeo and Juliet | Source: Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr

These stories, shown to us again and again, swirl with the challenges of our personal experiences — trauma, high school, photoshopped models skewing our body image.

You will simultaneously receive the message that you are too much and not enough.

This happens, I believe, to both men and women, though it tends to show up differently for each.

Men, speaking very broadly, receive an image of masculinity where emotion and vulnerability are dangerous to show. To experience emotions intensely is to be “too much” because you are not enough — not strong enough, powerful enough, in control enough to keep it together. Emotional distance becomes the safest distance, and pairs with images in pop culture of hot guys who are just super chill about everything, bro. For women, the message is encapsulated in the shapes we are told our bodies should be. You should, those bodies say, take up exactly enough space to be feminine, sexy, and nurturing, and then no more.

Fifty Shades Darker (Source: Marie Claire)

Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele and Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the 2017 movie Fifty Shades Darker | Source: Marie Claire

Both examples lead to burying insecurities and loss of control, distancing ourselves and others as far as possible from our vulnerabilities in whichever ways we’ve learned how. We erase ourselves, and then end up with an ache where we have deprived ourselves of the chance to be.

Lonely, empty, starving ourselves in order to be sufficient, you grasp to whatever you believe will give us access to sufficiency — or at least to control.

You will simultaneously receive the message that you are too much and not enough.

You come, through the romantic narratives, to believe that another person can fill this void you believe you have within you. Jerry Maguire’s famous “You complete me” echoes through the loneliness inside you, and you come to seek completion in the form of another person.

You may attach yourself to another person, clinging to the myth that they will complete you. You will find this to be disappointing over and over, but believe that it is because you are not trying hard enough, or you are trying too hard. You are either too much or not enough, you tell yourself.

You are neither. You are disappointed because merging with another human is impossible, despite the longing we may feel for it. There will be distant troubled people to whom you will be drawn — perhaps for the challenge, perhaps simply by the vacuous forces within each of you simultaneously seeking completion. You may tell yourself that if you can be enough to make this person feel full, then you too will be enough.

Before Sunrise (Source: Giphy)

Julie Delpy as Céline and Ethan Hawke as Jesse in the 1995 movie Before Sunrise, the first of director Richard Linklater’s critically acclaimed romantic trilogy featuring this couple | Source: Giphy

You may attribute to them the power to complete you. Perhaps they make you feel all tingly, or perhaps the first time you locked eyes sent you reeling. Maybe they are just a friend, but one who symbolizes to you everything that it would feel like to be good enough. They are cooler than you, prettier than you, richer, chiller, fitter, funnier — they, to you, exude the experience of sufficiency, and their approval becomes equivalent to your worth.

Being around these people, whoever they may be, feels, momentarily, as though it covers over that void. It does not, however, necessarily lead you to believe that you are enough. Often, the experience is actually quite the opposite. The “wholeness” you find in that person’s presence feels more like an unfulfilled promise. You find a sense of possibility of reprieve from the ache within, and you believe that if you can get just a LITTLE bit closer to that person, you will find that relief. You will, finally, be enough. That is what the movies have promised — they have promised you an “other half,” that completion is equivalent to a lover, and that the lovers who spark the flame in you are the ones who allow you to feel complete.

Sitting on the Edge

Before Sunset (Source: Giphy)

Julie Delpy as Céline and Ethan Hawke as Jesse in the 2004 movie Before Sunset, the second of director Richard Linklater’s critically acclaimed romantic trilogy featuring this couple | Source: Giphy

There is a major flaw in the logic here, though. It is impossible to believe that I am enough while I also believe that another person will complete me. The latter inherently contains the premise of my insufficiency alone.

The draw of allowing someone else to erase my flaws is so seductive. You want it to work so badly, because it seems simpler than digging up whatever let us to believe these awful things about ourselves in the first place. The process of creating my own sufficiency is a long, arduous, and likely endless one. It involves saying no to people who want us sometimes, and being rejected and living through it. Wouldn’t it be so much simpler if we could just envelope ourselves in another and exist in a state of permanent high from their affection?

When I encounter someone who I believe can offer me that, I become obsessed. Sometimes, it looks like someone who can save me. Sometimes, it looks like some I can save. In the former, I can be endlessly affirmed. I can offer myself up to them to be my savior and worship them for it — they will create worth for me where I do not create it for myself. In the latter, I can be deeply, desperately needed. I can feel crucial to that person’s worth and be the object of worship. In both, I see the other person as a well-spring of meaning, purpose, identity, and worth — they become my source of permission to exist. I infuse the relationship with fantasy of what it would feel like to believe I am enough. I seek it there, and sometimes they seek it in me as well.

This is the longing that is romanticized — this wild, desperate, can’t-sleep-at-night craving.

Every interaction, then, is saturated with that expectation. “Promise me you need me,” becomes the refrain of the relationship. We beg, manipulate, demand, recoil — all out of fear of what will happen to us if they don’t promise this time. The fear, rather than the relief we expected, flows through our veins. We make it the responsibility of our partner to assuage that again and again, and we grow to depend upon it more. We become progressively more afraid of what would happen if it disappeared, and try to limit the possibilities for that to happen. We submit all needs, wants, and personality traits to being the person they want, who can complete them. We isolate ourselves and our partners from other sources of growth, identity, and self-esteem, to keep them from finding anything but us. We create a cycle that continuously escalates our isolation and our fear, augmenting our growing reliance on their need for us.

We continue to see this as love, growing in depth and intensity. We feel the fire in our veins as the longing for relief courses through them, and the desperation for this person to be the fix we believed they were. Thinking we simply have to get a little closer for it to work, we attach ourselves to the point of trying to pour ourselves out into the other person. We try our best to fuse with them completely, to lose the self (which has been so troublesome this whole time) within them. We think that perhaps if we can become one, we will both be whole. This is the longing that is romanticized — this wild, desperate, can’t-sleep-at-night craving. We convince ourselves that we literally cannot live without the object of this craving. When we feel like we obtain a new closeness, we get a small hit of hope that it’s working, that it’s slowly filling the emptiness we feel, when in fact it is simply being sucked into a vacuum perpetuated by the craving itself.

We erase ourselves, and then end up with an ache where we have deprived ourselves of the chance to be.

Before Midnight (Source: Giphy)

Julie Delpy as Céline and Ethan Hawke as Jesse in the 2013 movie Before Midnight, the third of director Richard Linklater’s critically acclaimed romantic trilogy featuring this couple | Source: Giphy

You must be enough for yourself. Making yourself small, depleting your own reserves to fill the bottomless well of another will not make you feel sufficient. Starvation will not fill you. You may seek control of your own emotions, fearful that they are too much, that your open heart frightens people. The ways you try to control it, though, will slowly spin you out of control. You will find yourself, starving and in pain, in situations where you have less agency than when you started.

Sincerely,

Would You Do That For Me?

 





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