SUMMARY: I discuss two separate questions. First, how old must someone be to feel love? Second, how mature should someone be to handle love? I address the first question — which is a factual question — through science. I address the second question — which is a matter of opinion or judgement — through five measures or standards for maturity.
(About a 12 minute read)
After I had reached puberty, a number of adults — including my mother and some of my teachers — cautioned me and others my age that we were “too young to love”. No explanation was ever given for why we were too young for romantic love. It was just so. Lucky for me, I bought into the idea.
I say I was lucky because during high school I became deeply infatuated with a girl in my class. Had I not bought into the notion I was too young to love, I might have fancied myself in love with her — which would not only have been factually untrue, but I can only image the trouble it would have caused me at the time to think I was in love with her.
Yet, the question of whether I was too young to love is ambiguous. It can be interpreted in at least two ways. First, was I too young to feel love (had I actually felt it)? Second, was I too young to cope with love?
Today I am thinking about those questions once again because of Marysa, whose blog is here. Marysa is a teenager who for at least the past two days has been voraciously devouring my blog, including a post she came across yesterday on “Young Love”.
I kind of wish she had not.
I originally wrote the post in 2007, eleven years ago, and after rereading the post today after Marysa pointed it out to me, I have concluded I was a profoundly troubled child back when I was age 50. Today, both the writing and the ideas expressed in the post strike me as confused.
Moreover, I now believe my central conclusion — that people can indeed be too young to love — was so ambiguously expressed that I cannot now make out whether I meant teens cannot feel love, or merely that they cannot cope with the love they do feel.
The only good thing about the post is that I seem to have dimly recognized that there’s a learning curve to being able to deal with loving something, and that most teens aren’t too far along that curve, compared to where they most likely will be later on in life.
Marysa nevertheless had a few very good observations about the post and asked several insightful questions. I’ve long thought you can often get a much better idea of how smart someone is from the questions they ask than from the statements they make, and Marysa has asked such good questions that I now have her listed as a candidate for my “Pretty Darn Smart” list — a list I myself have never been able to put myself on due to the corruption and bias of the judge.
But rather than attempt to answer her questions immediately, I’m going to begin with a bit of science.
As most of us know, there is more than one kind of love. And as many of us know, all the different kinds of love are a bit like alcohol. That is, drinking alcohol changes how you feel. Or, in other words, it is a chemical that alters our emotions. And that is how it is like the different kinds of love.
Each kind of love is associated with a chemical that, when present in the body, causes us to have the feelings or emotions more or less specific to that kind of love.
Yet, it would be wrong to say that love is no more than various chemicals. And it would be just as wrong to say that various chemicals cause love. It’s more like the chemicals cause the emotions we feel, along with some of the perceptions we have, when we’re in love (Currently, the sciences do not explain everything there is to know about love — and in some ways, they might never).
So, for example, if I’m feeling what the ancient Greeks called “Eros” or erotic love — and which many of us today call “horniness” — then it’s because of the chemical everyone knows by the name of “testosterone”.
On the other hand, if I am feeling romantic love, then it’s because of a small group of chemicals that are dominated by one member of the group — a chemical called “dopamine”. Dopamine has a lot to do with pleasure, and people in romantic love with each other can experience each other’s company as intensely pleasurable.
And if I am feeling mature love — a sign of which is to feel “all warm and fuzzy” about your lover — then it’s because of yet another chemical called “oxytocin”.
Today, the leading scientist studying these three kinds of love is Helen Fisher. And she has discovered something quite interesting about the three kinds. Each kind of love is not only associated with a separate chemical or chemicals that cause the actual emotions involved in that kind of love, but each kind is also associated with more or less distinct neural pathways.
Or as we laypeople call neural pathways, “brain wirings”. That quite possibly means that each kind of love is a different way of thinking in addition to being a different way of feeling.
So where does all that leave us in respect to Marysa’s questions? Well, one of her questions (to paraphrase) was at what age can I experience love? And I believe we now have an answer to that, albeit not a perfectly conclusive one.
In theory at least, you would need two things to fully experience a specific kind of love. First, you would need the chemical or chemicals that are required for the emotions of that kind of love. Second, your brain would need to be wired for that kind of love.
Now I have reasons to believe that most or all of the chemicals are there early on in life. Among other reasons, I have memories of feeling horny as early as when I was eight years old, so sufficient testosterone to feel erotic love was present in me even back then — although most likely in much smaller quantities than it was a few years later, when I was sixteen.
Again, it’s certain the oxytocin and dopamine are present in the brain from before birth, so at the least, the main chemicals seem to all be there from a very early age.
As for when the brain is fully wired for love, I’m less certain. The human brain is not fully wired for somethings — such as foresight — until the early 20s. So it seems to me possible that it’s not fully wired for, say, romantic love at 15.
But if I had to bet on it, I’d bet it was fully wire by 15 or younger. I suspect a 15 year old and a 30 year old are more or less wired the same for any of the three kinds of love being discussed here. Which is not to say they would be likely to handle or manage their loves the same way.
That brings me to a second question Marysa asked, which (again, to paraphrase) is when will I be mature enough to wisely handle or manage love?
To me, that’s the most important question here. And the hardest to answer because so many variables are involved. So, instead of trying to list and address all the variables, I’m going to simply offer five suggested measures of maturity.
If you can answer “yes” to all five measures or standards, then my guess is you’re most likely mature enough to get into a relationship with someone. Also, in some ways, I’m setting the standards pretty high here on purpose. I’d rather set it too high than too low.
But here’s the caveat. You can’t just take my word for these things. You should think them through, and use your own judgement about their relevance to you. After all, it’s your life, not mine. These work for me, but do they work for you?
Here, then, are my five measures of maturity.
First, do you know how to recognize when someone is abusing you, and do you have the will and wisdom to get out of the relationship, rather than try to fix it? Abusers are almost never “fixable” — they only get worse over time, so getting out is the only real option.
If you are not sure how to recognize abuse, please start off by reading my post on eight warning signs of it, which you can find here. Be sure to read the comments, too. I have also written about the general nature of abuse here. Once you’ve read those two articles, google up as much information on it as you can possibly stomach. It’s crucial you know these things. Everyone should.
Second, are you certain you yourself will not intentionally abuse someone? This question is just as important as the first. The key word here is “intentionally”. We all sooner or later hurt the people we love — sadly, that’s inevitable. What is not inevitable is our willfully or intentionally hurting someone we love. That’s genuine abuse.
If you are not confident that you can avoid intentionally hurting someone you love, then you should at least seriously consider counseling — especially if the problem cannot be reduced to something simple, such as impulse control.
Cut yourself a little slack here because you’re young. If you lash out in anger at someone a couple times, don’t despair. Instead, use the incidents as spurs to learning how to better control your impulses.
But if you frequently lash out in anger, then perhaps its best you delay getting into a relationship for a year or so.
Are you mature enough to respect his or her boundaries, as well as mature enough to set your own and enforce them?
For instance, if you don’t feel ready for sex, but he or she is pressuring you for it, are you mature enough to both clearly see you have a right to say, “I’m not ready”, and then to enforce that right — up to and including leaving them if they themselves do not respect your boundaries?
Again, if the tables are turned and you’re the one who wants sex, are you willing to respect their desire not to have it?
Boundaries great and small are necessary to any healthy relationship. If you are unable to respect theirs, or enforce yours, I think that’s a good sign you’re not ready yet.
Boundaries change as you mature, but when you change yours, make sure you’re doing it to reflect the changes you are going through, and not for the sake of the other person.
A willingness to compromise is absolutely necessary in any relationship. Are you mature enough to talk over your differences in order to come up with workable compromises? It’s not a good idea to get involved with anyone before you’re able to do that.
Boundaries, by the way, should not be compromised, but so much else is up for compromise in most healthy relationships.
This one is a little tricky to explain. Basically, there are two ways of treating a person. One is as an end in themselves. The other is only as a means to an end.
When you treat someone as only a means to an end, that means you don’t really care about them as a person, but only as way of getting something. That something might be anything.
For instance, you might want to go out with someone only because they are popular and you want to be popular. Or because they have something — say, a boat or fast car — that you want a ride in.
You get the picture. It’s ok to like being popular or like rides in boats and cars. But if that’s all you want from someone, you really should pass them by because they’ll be happier with someone else.
When you treat someone as an end in themselves, however, that means you do care about them as a person. This is how it should be with someone you really love and want to get into a relationship with.
So are you mature enough to treat someone as an end in themselves, and not only or merely as a means to an end?
The campsite rule is that you should leave someone as well off or better than you found them — just like a good camper leaves the campsite he or she uses.
Now, the rule might sound a little crazy because you probably don’t intend from the start to dump your lover anytime in the future. But if you always act according to the rule, then your lover will always be getting your best effort to be good for him or her.
And — if worse comes to worse — and the two of you don’t work out as a couple, you will have the satisfaction of knowing you were still good for them. You might even stay friends, and old lovers who are now friends can sometimes make very good friends.
So are you mature enough to make every reasonable effort to leave your lover as well off or better than you found him or her?
Those, then, are the five standards or measures I’ve come up with. I’m fallible, so be sure to think them through for yourself.
In sum, I’ve set some fairly high standards because I think high standards in love are good. If you adhere to them, I can pretty much assure you that you — at least — will be keeping up your part of the relationship. There might be other standards you can think of that you’ll want to add to the list.
But don’t aim for perfection!
No one is ever going to be perfectly ready for love. There are just too many things to learn. Even wise old people are still learning how to love better.
I once asked a friend of mine if she thought I was fit enough to hike a particularly hard local trail. Her reply? “You’ll never be ready for that trail. No one is. So you might as well give it a shot now.” I think if you answered “yes” to the five measures or standards I gave you — plus any of your own — you “might as well give it a shot now”.
Best wishes for a happy love life!