This post originally appeared April 9, 2008.
In my women’s history class yesterday, we were making our way through Lynn Phillips’ Flirting With Danger, a text about which I have written before and which I have used in class for the last several years.
Phillips talks a great deal about discourses that impact the lives of contemporary young American women. Among these is what she calls the “Love Conquers All” discourse:
The love conquers all discourse does not limit itself to the notion that long-term heterosexual relationships are necessary for women’s fulfillment in love. Indeed, it suggests that finding the right man will somehow solve all of life’s problems.
Fed by Disney movies and pop songs, magazines and movies, most girls run into the notion that love conquers all early on. Some fiercely resist it, of course. The discourse suggests, however, that those who most fiercely resist making romantic love a priority are fooling themselves; from Jane Austen’s time to our own, we have countless fictional heroines who are initially dismissive of love, but in the end, succumb to its all-consuming power.
My students know all this, of course. It’s not news to any group of college students that they live in a culture that tries to impose a vision of happy heterosexual fulfillment on each and every one of them. But I’ve found another aspect of the “love conquers all” discourse that Phillips largely ignores: a great many young women (usually younger than typical college-age) go through adolescence with a vast over-estimate of just how much love they have to give to the “right person”.
When I first started working with youth group kids, particularly ninth and tenth-graders, I was struck by how often I would hear the same thing from so many of the girls with whom I worked. In group discussions or in writing, many would say something more or less like this:
I have so much love to give. I’ve never been in love, not really, but I just feel like I have this huge amount of passion inside of me. If I could just find someone whom I could really trust, then I could give him (usually, it’s a him) everything I have inside of me. I know it sounds corny, but I really believe love can heal all our problems. I feel like I have enough love inside of me to change the world, if I could just find a way to let it out.
Some girl would say something like this in a group, and most of the rest would nod vigorously. Clearly, we’re not only teaching many of our girls to see romantic love as a source of the highest fulfillment, we’re somehow sending them the message that their own capacity to give love is extraordinarily potent. It makes sense, after all. We raise most girls in our culture, still, to be “people-pleasers.” By the time she’s well into puberty, your average girl has spent most of her remembered lifetime trying to please others: parents, teachers, coaches, peers. She may well have become a first-class pleaser and “praise-junkie.” If she sees herself as relatively good at pleasing mom and dad and teachers, she may imagine that when she gets into an intimate relationship, she will be magnificent as a girlfriend.
Teenage girls are renowned for their vicious self-criticism. Time and again, I’ve heard young women criticize their own appearance, their academic shortcomings, their bad habits. But those same young women will often hasten to say, if they are or have been in a relationship, “You know, I’m a pretty awesome girlfriend.” Or if they haven’t yet been in one: “I am an incredibly loving person, and I would give so much to the right guy.”
Many of us suspect, of course, that there’s a connection between this over-estimation and the “bad boy phenomenon”. After all, if you really believe you’ve got this amazing well-spring of love inside of you, so strong it has the capacity to change the world, what better way to demonstrate its power than to use it to “tame” the wild guy? After all, doctors demonstrate their craft by healing the sick, not merely keeping the already well, healthy! The “my love will change him” discourse is a powerful one, and it’s rooted less in young women’s poor judgment or self-destructiveness and more in a whopping miscalculation of their own power. A woman who believes her love will change a man may simultaneously believe she isn’t worthy of a truly nice guy and, even as she lacks vital self-worth, believe that her selflessness and her love has this capacity to redeem. In some young women, this belief in the purity and intensity of their own love borders on the Messianic.
Long-term relationships have many benefits. One of the best of those benefits is that they tend to destroy any illusion one has about one’s own unique power to heal or change another person. People can and do change, and sometimes they change with the help of a partner. But ultimately, all growth and change is an act of individual will. You can’t love an alcoholic into sobriety, or a sex addict into fidelity, or an anorexic into healthy eating. No human love is strong enough to conquer another’s addiction or to heal the hurt of a terrible past. That kind of healing is an inside job, though others may help; the only love I’ve found that has that kind of capacity to heal is not a mother’s or a lover’s but that of God Herself. Too often, we give ourselves far too little credit for our own ability to change — and we give ourselves far too much credit for our ability to change others.
Feminism , if it stands for anything, stands against the notion that a heterosexual relationship is the sine qua non of each woman’s happiness. Those of us who teach and write and mentor from a feminist perspective almost always do a good job of stressing that simple message that you “don’t need a man to be happy.” Most of us, of course, think that a feminist perspective actually improves the quality of our romantic connections, whoever they are with. But when we talk to our “younger sisters” about sexual relationships through a feminist lens, we need also to have this conversation about love. The greatest attribute that we have may well be our capacity to love, but that love, as powerful as it may seem to us, has its limits. Our bodies and our hearts do not have the capacity to change romantic partners or solve their problems for them. Our hands, however, backed up by willing hearts, can do much to make the world a better place. We do well to remind our younger sisters and ourselves about what love can, and cannot do.