Reality Check: Your Love Does Not Necessarily Conquer All

"I have so much love to give."

Few things could be more obvious than to point out that young women are hard on themselves. Self-criticism (often as a device for warding off even harsher critiques from others) is something many girls learn before they become teens. But even as they critique their appearance, their smarts, and their work ethic, there's one attribute these same young women rarely seem to have much trouble praising: their capacity to love.

For years, I've used Lynn Phillips' "Flirting With Danger" as a supplemental text in my women's studies course. In the text, 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. It's not exactly news to any group of young people that they live in a culture that tries to impose a vision of happy heterosexual fulfillment on each and every one of them. But there's 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 overestimate of just how much love they have to give to the "right person".

For seven years, I led a high school youth group in a progressive Pasadena Episcopal parish. When I first started working with the kids, particularly ninth and tenth-graders, I was struck by how often I would hear the same thing from so many of the girls. In our 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 — inadvertently or otherwise — 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 teen has spent much 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. But those same young women who criticize their own appearance, their academic shortcomings, and their bad habits 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." (Or "right girl." Young lesbians aren't exactly immune from the pressure to people-please.)

There's a connection between this self-overestimation and the enduring (though thankfully not universal) "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 asshole? Doctors demonstrate their skill 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 good guy and, even as she lacks vital self-worth, believe that her selflessness and her love has this capacity to transform the jerk upon whom everyone else has given up.

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 a bulimic into healthy eating. No human love is strong enough to conquer another's addiction or to heal the hurt of a terrible past.

When we're talking to our daughters and younger sisters, most of us probably do a good job of stressing the simple message that you "don't need a man to be happy." Most of us also probably do a good job of warning against the dangers of falling for destructive bad boys. We'd do well to add in a more basic reminder: self-worth isn't measured by the oversold ability to love another human into changing.


Jezebel columnist Hugo Schwyzer teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College, and is a nationally-known speaker on sex, masculinity, body image and beauty culture. He also blogs at his eponymous site. Follow him on Twitter: @hugoschwyzer.