When I was 15, I met a boy. He was 16 and he took a fancy to me. I would have been content to have someone to go to movies with and neck with, but he had to talk serious about it. I didn’t have my present strict code of conduct then, or any religious restraints (which I have in abundance nowadays), so he didn’t have to claim he was in love with me and generally put on his convincing show of devotion to score. Indeed, when he broke it off, one of his chief complaints about me was my enthusiasm for physical affection. (That is why he was the only Catholic I ever dated.)
So this boy, not content with getting companionship and sex, introduced completely unnecessary emotional involvement into what I had intended to be a casual, fun adolescent fling. How could any ardent young girl resist such romantic courtship? He put a great deal of effort into making me fall for him. And then, once I was securely hooked, he unceremoniously and without warning dumped me, with a list of vague complaints.
I was, of course, devastated. I lost ten pounds because I couldn’t eat. I had to take two weeks off of school because I couldn’t function even in the most minimal way. One night I came within a hair of swallowing an entire bottle of sleeping pills. Some adults are fond of pretending that teenagers don’t “really” fall in love – invalidating the emotions of the young gives them license to abuse those emotions. As so often happens, science has vindicated what I knew all along; in The Female Brain, Louise Brizendine explains the very painful and very real neurochemical reaction a young woman, even a teenager who has not been issued the permit to experience valid emotions that everyone is issued on their eighteenth birthday, experiences when she loses a romantic partner.
While I was trudging around in that miasma of heartbreak, I remember reflecting on the irony that if that boy had stolen my wallet, he would have been sent to jail, and yet he had done something far more harmful and vicious, and there were no consequences whatever for him. At the time, I considered this one of life’s inherent ironies; I could see no way that society could have restrained him from breaking my heart for a whim or punished him after he did so.
Of course, until very recently, society did a fairly capable job of just that. A century earlier, he probably would have had to settle for bad girls for female companionship until he was in his 20’s, but a 15-year-old girl would have been quite eligible. In any case, any young man who took an interest in a girl who was not a prostitute would have had to seek her parents’ approval and make her an honest offer. No one would have given any young man the idea that it was all right to entice a girl to fall in love with him, make a commitment to her, and then abandon her at whim. It was simply understood that one did not go beyond a certain level of flirting if one did not intend to marry. Certainly some rogues did so anyway, but nowadays this is commonplace and there is no restraint. Until the past century, social customs were in most cases successful in discouraging people from harming each other in this way. Nowadays it is considered normal and inevitable that one will have many relationships and many heartbreaks before marrying, and that most people will probably be married more than once.
In addition, it was once possible for rogues to have a code of honor in their amorous adventures. Many, for instance, confined their seductions to women who already had experience, rather than preying on the young and innocent. Men with Don Juan reputations did not pretend to offer anything else. Women who wanted the adventure of a brief affair with a man who would soon move on could have one knowing precisely what was being offered. Nowadays, there is no standard of honorable conduct in love. Two people come together, and perhaps things will work out and perhaps they won’t, and perhaps they are dealing honestly and perhaps they aren’t. Honor has been taken out of the equation. People cannot even be honest with themselves if they are mere adventurers and not searching in the bleak modern landscape for someone who just might be The One, or who might be gone tomorrow.
Laws have also ceased protecting people’s hearts. At one time, they did so – imperfectly, but laws are never universally obeyed. Nowadays one can no longer sue for breach of promise, or for alienation of affections, and of course divorce has made it easy to shed a spouse at whim.
Just a few decades ago, society protected its members from heartbreak as it did from assault, not always succeeding in either case, but offering some shield nonetheless. This is yet another protection of which we have today been deprived.