You know that scene in “Say Anything,” when Lloyd Dobbler holds up his boombox and plays Peter Gabriel’s, “In Your Eyes?” outside of Diane Court’s bedroom window?
Or, that scene in “Pretty Woman” when Richard Gere’s character pretends to be a knight on horseback, rescuing Julia Roberts’ from her miserable life as a prostitute with the promise of a “happily ever after?”
Even the movie, “Doc Hollywood,” when Michael J. Fox realizes that what’s more important than practicing plastic surgery in Beverly Hills is his feelings for Julie Warner’s character and being a small-town family doctor? Well, I do. Growing up, these movies, and plenty of other romantic comedies in the 1980s and early ‘90s were the basis of my love life. They are how I learned what love was.
Unfortunately, they gave me all the wrong lessons.
Since I can remember, I’ve loved girls. I never went through the period that boys seem to go through when they hate girls. I remember my fourth-grade crush, and how I offered her gummy bears during lunch, as I nervously sat next to her in our elementary school cafeteria.
I remember vividly, as I made my way to middle then high school, of having crushes on so many girls. I went through a pattern where I would find a girl to like then creepily admire her from afar, until I somehow got the courage to approach her. Just like in the movies, I’d profess my love to her in some grand gesture, get rejected, and move on to my next victim.
One of these girls was named Jessica Morrow. She was new to our school in the eighth grade. instantly, I fell for her and I told her so through a note, which was my preferred method back then because I was too shy to talk to her. Without knowing her at all, I told Jessica how much I loved her in a passionately-written letter of young, suffering romanticism inspired by the greatest love movies of my generation.
And, of course, she rejected me.
As much as she broke my sensitive heart, she did it with a thoughtfulness that I had never experienced before. She did it in a three-page letter, psychoanalyzing my behavior. And it was the best thing that could have happened to me at the time.
In it, she let me down gently. And she took the time to explain to me that what I was feeling wasn’t love, but more infatuation. She apologized for not feeling the same then assured me of how nice of a guy I was, which was not what I wanted to hear at the time. Next, Jessica listed all of the things she liked about me. It was the most caring rejection letter I’ve ever received from a crush. And somewhere in my attic, I’ve still got it, buried in drawings, artwork and other trinkets from my childhood.
I reached out to Jessica by phone, recently, because I wanted to let her know how much it meant to me, and still means to me, so many years later.
“It was an impulse,” says Jessica, who goes by Jess Ewart now. She’s happily married with one daughter, Zoe. She’s a yoga teacher and brand strategist for a yoga studio in Colorado. “I think this is funny because these letters come back to haunt me,” she says.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one she had written one of these letters to. She wrote another one to a woman her good friend was dating while Jess was in her 20s. As a result, her friend and the woman ended things on a good note. And Jess’ friend thanked her for doing it, similar to what I’m doing.
Over the phone, I explained to Jess about my dysfunctional family background, some of which she knew about: like my mom’s alcoholism and me living with my aunt, along with my sister and three cousins. And some of which she didn’t: like my father not being around and my uncle in-and-out of jail.
But she also told me about hers’. And because of her parents’ dysfunction, she craved stability, just like me. “As soon as I found someone that had nice parents and was like a nice decent person, I dated him until I went to college,” she tells me. “That’s kind of unusual in high school to to be with one person for three and a half years. And the reason I did it is because his family was so stable and so normal. They went on vacation and they were nice and they didn’t argue and my parents were just so consumed with themselves, they didn’t have any affection for us. I didn’t realize that too acutely until I was in my thirties and had my daughter.”
I’m not going to lie, but it was refreshing to hear what Jessica had to say, how she, someone in which I had put on a pedestal when I was a teenager, had her own problems when it came to relationships. As she puts it, “You’re pretty good at hiding that stuff when you’re in high school. You had this survival thing but it dictates your all your relationships.”
And she’s right. I don’t look back at my middle and high school years with disdain. In fact, I find a lot of joy in those times. And I learned a lot about myself through the dating process in my 20s and 30s. But that’s not to say I’m not embarrassed by my behavior. I was so shy, so lacking in confidence, so afraid of rejection. And I missed out on a lot of opportunities because of this.
Though I’ve been to therapy quite a bit over the years and am now in a happy and stable marriage now, I wanted to find out from an expert, her opinion on what I was going through as a boy trying to steer his way through love. I also wanted insight on how the experiences I had growing up in a dysfunctional family affected the way I looked at relationships. And, I wanted to know if this is something that was specific a particular gender,
I emailed Tina B. Tessina, PhD, also known as Dr. Romance, for answers. She’s a licensed psychotherapist in southern California with 40 years of experience in counseling. She is also the author of 15 books, including Dr. Romance’s Guide to Finding Love Today.
Dr. Tessina attributes my love-professing-problem to attachment issues: meaning that because I had problems bonding with my mother as a kid, it affected the way I connected with girls and other people growing up. “You were searching for your absent mother, the nurturing you never got,” she says in a email reply. “It’s very confusing when the mother figure is physically present, but absent emotionally due to addiction. Your aunt was an improvement on your mother, but spread too thin to really give a hurting boy everything he needed to heal.”
She also goes on to explain that like many other kids going through dysfunctional childhoods, I was just following the patterns that were set early on in my family. And because I did a lot of caretaking with my mom, that’s where my co-dependency started. Since I didn’t have the proper role models when it came to healthy relationships, I found them in movies, as I mentioned in my Mark Pagán interview,
“No one consciously teaches us about love and relationships, we absorb it, starting in the pre-verbal stages, from the family environment,” Dr. Tessina tells me. “When the family environment is dysfunctional, as so many are, we get confused, distorted or downright bad information, which we accept as normal when we’re young, and it’s the only thing we know. It’s not until we realize it’s not working, and may not really be normal, that we become open to learning new information and changing how we relate to ourselves and others.”
It took me a long time to learn what a healthy relationship is. And like everyone, I have to work at it. And because of this, I no longer look for love advice from movies. In fact, my rom-com obsession has long been over, because God knows, I don’t need more bad advice.
As I end my conversation with Jessica, I reminisce with her about what a creep I was back in middle and high school.
“If it makes you feel better, I never thought of you as creepy in high school. That’s not a word I would have used for you,” she tells me.
I didn’t ask her what that word would be, though. I don’t want to know.
I’ve been married for almost 14 years now. My relationship with my wife Vanessa isn’t the stuff of Hollywood movies. Actually, it’s way better. But I’m wise enough to know that I can always improve. In fact, it’s been a while since I’ve performed any grand gestures to let know her know how much I love her. Now, I just need to find a boombox.
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