Sex + Love

Mad Love

Rethinking the appeal of tortured romance.

Illustration by Leeay

The first time I thought I was in love coincided with the first time I had sex. The year before, I had written in my diary: Ellen* let Mitchell touch her boobs, and now she thinks they’re in love. Um, that’s not love, that’s called he likes touching your boobs. But when it happened to me it was called love—real love that spun me on my feet. I was 15 years old and I swore I wasn’t the type of girl who confused sex with intimacy. My need to be around him was as real and urgent as my need to eat or sleep or shit, and yet I was hardly doing any of those things. I was just needing, needing, wanting, needing, needing, wanting, pining, needing, wanting, pining, crying, needing. We weren’t officially boyfriend and girlfriend, but for three years, we were somewhere excruciatingly in between. It was so physically painful that sometimes I could not get my body from the floor to my bed.

This did not seem strange at all, though. Love was supposed to be painful. Because if it wasn’t, if it didn’t make you breathless and fearful, if it didn’t swallow you into the depths of its belly, spit you out, and leave you shivering and ecstatic, then it was something else. It was the kind of boring love that depressed me and was everywhere. It was the love of married people and their boring, married lives. People like my parents weren’t in love, I told myself. In high school, I was convinced that I saw my mother naked more times than my father ever had. When we went on vacations, my mother and I shared a bed and my father slept on a cot, and I often wondered if she preferred sleeping next to me. Their marriage looked more like a business partnership, whereas love was thinking there was someone in the world who completed you, and without that person we were all just half a being.

These ideas didn’t come from me. I had read Plato’s Symposium the summer before junior year, and he said that human beings used to be completely round, but because we were too wicked, the gods cut us in half, and so we spend the entirety of our lives looking for our other half. The most important figure of Western philosophy told me that love made you whole.

While I was in the early throes of my does-he-or-doesn’t-he-love-me drama, I started to notice couples at school who made too much sense, like each person was super good-looking so of course they had to date. I felt sorry for them, because they would never know what it was like to love someone so much that it wrecked them. That was the kind of love that my favorite musicians sang about. That was the kind of love that was talked about in movies and TV shows, where people said things like, “You’re so beautiful, it hurts to look at you.” Or: “I can’t live without you.” Or: “I could die right now… I’m just happy.”

So die. So don’t live. So stop loving that person if it hurts, I was tempted to say. But I didn’t really believe that. Instead, I thought: I want someone to say that to me.

The first time I fell in love with someone who loved me back I couldn’t stop smiling. I was 19. “I love him,” I thought every single second of my life. Instead of doing the reading for my classes, or even going to class at all, I was telling someone how much I loved him. “Is it bad that I don’t care about anything?” I asked him. “I just care about this moment with you and the next moment with you and the next one and the next one.”

When he went to study abroad in Japan, we talked on the phone every day for hours. The only thing that cheered me up was knowing that he was as miserable as I was. Except sometimes he wasn’t. Sometimes he was happy, or at least engaged with the world and content to live his life in the present instead of looking back at the past, to a time when we spent an entire semester holed up in his dorm room. Those moments killed me. I didn’t understand how he could feel anything but depressed without me.

“He should miss me so much that he literally wants to kill himself,” I said to my friend. “Just kidding.”

“You don’t sound like you’re kidding,” my friend said.

Maybe I wasn’t. I could only think of two of the most tortured lovers in literature. I remembered reading Romeo & Juliet in high school and thinking, To be separated from your love is nothing short of death. There’s the part when Romeo sees Juliet for the first time, and she’s so stunning that he falls in love with her right away. He says, “Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight! For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.” Yes! I thought. That’s how it’s supposed to be!

I once asked a boyfriend in college about this girl he was obsessed with during his freshman year. She broke his heart, and he talked about her until she possessed mythical importance in our relationship. He told me he had never loved anyone like he loved her.

“Never?” I asked.

“Oh,” he said. “I mean, I’m sure I’ll love you as much as I loved her one day.”

“Thank you,” I said. “I look forward to it.” I will strangle you in your sleep, asshole, I thought.

It became a game after that—if a guy didn’t declare that he was in love with me within a few weeks, or even better, a few days, then I wasn’t interested. If you really loved me, I thought each and every time I started dating someone new, then you would have known it the minute you laid eyes on me.

But you know what? When I thought about it, Romeo and Juliet’s relationship—if you can even call it that—was pretty disturbing. Within less than a week, they profess their undying love to each other and get hitched. Juliet delivers her famous “parting is such sweet sorrow” line, and the next time Romeo sees her, she’s unconscious from a potion that was designed to work for 42 hours, just enough time to trick her family into thinking she’s dead so that she won’t have to go through with the arranged marriage to Paris. Romeo, with whom she has had about three conversations, was supposed to find her alive and whisk her away to a life totally cut off from her friends and family for all of eternity. GOOD PLAN.


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  • Moxx December 31st, 2012 3:27 PM

    In love with this article. It rings so true…

  • ladyofithilien December 31st, 2012 3:27 PM

    so glad you wrote this… I used to feel that I needed to have a thrilling, intense longing for someone or else life wasn’t exciting enough for me. And if a certain love interest evaporated, then I quickly needed to find another one, or else I risked plodding through a mundane life like everyone else. So thank you so, so much for writing this, as it is extremely applicable to my life. This is now one of my favorite articles on Rookie.

  • babyybat December 31st, 2012 3:32 PM

    this is a really beautiful article. props to you Jenny!

  • litchick December 31st, 2012 3:54 PM

    Jenny, this article is beautiful and thought-provoking!

  • mayaautumn December 31st, 2012 4:01 PM

    this is so so beautiful… really well written, Jennyʕ•̫͡•ʔ❤ʕ•̫͡•ʔ xx

    • mayaautumn December 31st, 2012 4:02 PM

      why is the writing in italics?!

      • Phoebe December 31st, 2012 4:13 PM

        Unclosed ital, thanks!

  • SweetThangVintage December 31st, 2012 4:32 PM

    THIS is beautiful.

  • shjaron December 31st, 2012 4:58 PM

    Jenny, your work is always such a pleasure to read. You’re a fantastic writer.

  • mohgan December 31st, 2012 5:05 PM

    This article made me think differently about love but in a good way.

  • Lorelei December 31st, 2012 5:15 PM

    I’ve never been in love with anyone. However I did crush harder than I ever have in my life on this guy in one of my classes. He’s so amazing that I can’t hardly even speak to him. But I still find this to be very beautifully written.

  • Milala December 31st, 2012 5:28 PM

    That was beautiful, Jenny, you’re such a great writer :) I used to feel the same about my parents, then a couple of weeks ago I found some letters my dad had written to my mom when they were dating in Med school. To my surprise, my dad was incredibly sweet and his only goal in life was to make my mom happy. Now, over 20 years later, maybe he doesn’t write her love letters, but he makes her happy and I know they love each other in a healthy way.

    I also love Romeo and Juliet.

    • Jenny January 2nd, 2013 4:03 PM

      Oh gosh, that discovery sounds so sweet. Your parents sound amazing <3

  • frailandbedazzled December 31st, 2012 5:55 PM

    “just because you fall for someone and just because that initial fall is stupendously, indescribably wonderful, it doesn’t mean that this person is right for you in the long run.” exactly what i needed to hear right now. thank you so much.

  • Zelda December 31st, 2012 5:57 PM

    This was a stunning article, The quotations choosen from ‘Romeo and Juliet’ fit in perfectly. Also it seems as though the articles on Rookie always correlate to an emotion I am feeling. In this case wanting love and wanting someone to like me, whole-heartedly. Jenny this was a marvelous read.

  • msdariablues December 31st, 2012 6:39 PM

    This made me want to fall in love with someone

  • Frosted cupcake December 31st, 2012 6:42 PM

    And there I was, thinking I was the only girl who found the story of Romeo and Juliet a little bit pathetic. I mean, sure I had my first real, earth shattering crush a month before I turned 13, and it lasted for pretty much a year. Even now I crush really hard when I do. No complaints about it though;) but seriously, what kind of irresponsible adult would wed 2 kids?? And our parents are telling us that we’re irresponsible as teenagers, sheesh

  • jenaimarley December 31st, 2012 7:31 PM

    Oh my gods, Jenny! Everything you write is just so so brilliant and relevant to me.
    Thank you so much.

    Also this is a really cool rendition from Hedwig And The Angry Inch that I love love love of Plato’s symposium (the origin of love)

    • Jenny January 2nd, 2013 4:04 PM

      Hell yeah, I love that scene from Hedwig so much!

  • Zabby December 31st, 2012 7:35 PM

    Loved the article, Jenny! But I think Plato may agree with your view of love more than this article suggests. The “You complete me” view of love you mentioned from Symposium is given by Aristophanes, another character in the dialogue. Socrates (Plato’s teacher and friend) refutes Aristophanes and presents another concept of love. It’s known as Diotima’s Ladder and it’s basically a ladder where each step represents a higher and higher version of love. (What’s more is he learned this idea of love from a WOMAN WHO WAS SMARTER THAN HIM. TAKE THAT, 5TH CENTURY!) The steps start with loving another person, and end up at the very top by learning to love Beauty itself.

    All that to say, Plato thought that love wasn’t about losing yourself, but opening yourself up to more and more. So, pretty much what you said:)

  • Jes December 31st, 2012 7:47 PM

    thank you from everyone who has ever been crazy in love

  • Flavia December 31st, 2012 8:07 PM


  • OH NO December 31st, 2012 8:49 PM

    Jenny’s writing always hits WAY too close to home. I need a miniature version of her in my head to tell me what’s the kind & self-respecting thing to do when I get into scrapes.

  • LilySew December 31st, 2012 9:26 PM

    This is gorgeous; I should put it in my non-existent book of life advice so I can remember this one day. :D

  • Smorgasboard December 31st, 2012 9:34 PM

    I love this article! I feel in love for the first time a year ago. I know live with my boyfriend. But I had a lot of problems questioning whether our love was the right kind of love, because I was always just in love with him, never madly in love, like I had felt in the past with a few others. I always wondered if maybe there wasn’t enough passion. He always told me our kind of love, the sane and fun kind was the right kind of love. But I, never having even mild feelings of love returned before, was unsure. It took me awhile to really appreciate this kind of love because stories of grand romance had jaded me. But I’m so happy that I finally realized how wonderful it could be and stuck around to figure it out. This was a wonderful article and something I think many people struggle with. Thanks for seeing into my soul Jenny. Your words are therapy.

  • RosiePosie January 1st, 2013 12:43 AM

    This is so beautiful…

  • aela January 1st, 2013 4:59 AM

    Love is a temporary madness, it erupts like volcanoes and then subsides. And when it subsides, you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion, it is not the desire to mate every second minute of the day, it is not lying awake at night imagining that he is kissing every cranny of your body. No, don’t blush, I am telling you some truths. That is just being “in love”, which any fool can do. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident.

    ― Louis de Bernières

  • Sorcha M January 1st, 2013 8:12 AM

    I love this article but it made me think. I thought I was madly in love with this guy who was emotionally abusive but I wonder if it was just blackmail. I don’t like to think about it but I have no idea if I was just in lust or blackmailed. Love is confusing. People always say, ‘You know when you’re in love’ but I don’t think that’s true. People are so complicated. I wish it were that simple.

    • Jenny January 2nd, 2013 4:07 PM

      Oh honey, that sounds like a tough situation. I think with time, you’ll gain some perspective and be able to look back with more clarity. <3

  • soretudaaa January 1st, 2013 8:21 AM

    Maybe it’s PMS but the last couple of paragraphs made me cry :O

  • Phoebe345 January 1st, 2013 9:15 AM

    Awesome, relatable article!

  • Killjoy January 1st, 2013 9:39 AM

    Jenny, your articles are always beautiful and illuminating.

  • WitchesRave January 1st, 2013 10:00 AM

    Most beautiful article Ive ever read on rookie.
    Loved how you proved that yes, Shakespeare is always relevant and your parens simple acts of love reminded me of my parents, made me tear up a bit :’)

  • limegreensunset January 1st, 2013 10:16 AM

    “I felt sorry for them, because they would never know what it was like to love someone so much that it wrecked them.”

    this so much.

  • BorderAppreciator January 1st, 2013 12:33 PM

    This is sort of exactly what I needed. It’s beautiful, and thank you.

  • vonnegutcobain January 1st, 2013 1:05 PM

    great article! and thank you for introducing me to plato’s work :)

  • Stephanie January 1st, 2013 2:13 PM

    This basically sums up me from 14 to 25. Thanks so much for writing something so real and true!

  • thelionheartedgirl January 1st, 2013 3:46 PM

    This is such a beautiful and eye-opening article. I don’t really have much else to say.

  • hanna96 January 1st, 2013 6:04 PM

    The whole articles amazing but the last few paragraphs are beautiful!

  • Vesperstar233 January 1st, 2013 8:23 PM

    This is the most truthful thing I’ve read in so long. I wish I could express myself more, but all I can say is: Thank you rookie.

  • Clare January 1st, 2013 9:14 PM

    Ethereal. A seriously wonderful, lovely job. Brava!

  • Fernanda_Abreu January 1st, 2013 10:44 PM

    The Rookiemag team is always expressing everything I want to hear.. or saying what I can’t say, finding the right words.. And I can totally relate! For example, my dad still does the same yours did, he walks close to the parked cars on the road and for the same reasons.. This is love!

  • bethleeroth January 2nd, 2013 9:13 AM

    Thank for writing this! As a 29 year old, one of my most passionate “things I wish I could tell myself as a teenager” is exactly this – love in movies and TV is stupid. It shouldn’t hurt. You can be in love and be happy and secure and productive and thrive. I’ve only figured that out in the last 5 or so years, and I wish it hadn’t taken me that long. Teen Rookies: take note!!

  • llamalina January 2nd, 2013 2:32 PM

    “When I was younger, I focused so much on falling in love that I completely failed to consider what it would mean to stay in love.”

    this article this this this x everything. basically sums up every great love of my life who turned out to be nothing more than a dream.

  • Jenny January 2nd, 2013 4:08 PM

    Thank you EVERYONE so much for the wonderfully kind comments. There is so much sweet, healthy love in these comments and I just want to reflect that love back onto ya’ll endlessly. <3 <3 <3

  • stellar January 3rd, 2013 12:28 AM

    people can be attracted to u for the wrong reasons!!

  • Nikilodeon January 3rd, 2013 9:36 AM

    Wow, this article really came to me at the right time. I’ve been pining over this guy for the past two years. He’s sweet and funny and says the most poetic things at the most mundane times – once, I stood at the top of a jungle gym in the school playground and he told me, “the world is smiling on.” And I couldn’t believe that I had met a guy like him! There have been so many moments where I’ve thought, he’s the perfect guy for me. But we have this really weird relationship – we like each other, but it’s complicated. I haven’t seen him since school ended for holiday break. But I’ve thought about him every day. And for the past week, I’ve realized how unhealthy it is for me to be so head over heels for him. I mean, I haven’t seen him in so long, yet I write all these diary entries and songs about him . . . it’s bordering on obsessive. I guess you could say I’m “madly in love.” Something isn’t right. I didn’t really know what to do. I’ve been thinking about how to deal with this.

    After reading your article, I felt really enlightened. I have to admit though, I still don’t know what to do. But you’ve made me understand that to be so consumed with love is just going to eat you up. I know this has to stop. I just don’t know where to go from here. Thank you though, Jenny. :)

  • ilex11 January 3rd, 2013 11:23 AM

    This makes me tear up/ My first bf and I had a madly intense relatioinship where we couldn’t live without eachother. However, that quickly descended into a toxic and abusive relationship. Now I’m with someone who I love completely and I’m not tortured by it!

  • laurenlynette January 4th, 2013 11:09 PM

    I just wanted to say thank you. I’ve creeped through this website for a while. Enjoying all of the posts and getting a spark of inspiration from a few. But this is the first one that has blown me away. I recently fell into a life consuming love. A one sided love. An abusive love. And I needed this so badly. I’m just floored at the moment. I completely understand every word. So thank you for helping a 18 year old girl through this.

  • Lydia Jane January 6th, 2013 3:01 PM

    Just bookmarked this, and I intend on rereading it on a regular basis as a sort of reminder to myself. Beautiful article :)

  • kolumbia January 9th, 2013 8:52 AM

    Jenny, this is a wonderul article, totally relatable, and EXACTLY what I needed to hear right now.

    And, when I came home from school yesterday, my mom left your book in my room as a surprise gift!

    • Jenny January 9th, 2013 3:59 PM

      Oh wow! That is so sweet of your mom & so sweet of you to tell me! Thumping, happy hearts all around <3

  • pinchemarissa January 9th, 2013 3:28 PM

    i know i’m late to reading this article but i just have to comment on it, everything you described is me, from wanting a tragic romance to the 3 years involved with someone smothering me. reading this article made me cry and open my eyes to what love really is. i just appreciate it so much xx

    • Jenny January 9th, 2013 3:59 PM

      Oh <3 <3 Thank you for sharing & hope it was good, cathartic crying <3

  • minnow March 14th, 2013 1:22 PM

    Thankyou so much for this, I have been in a destructive on/ off relationship for a while now and it has just emerged again after I thought I had got over him for good. I feel like he’s in my blood sometimes, I can’t survive without him, exactly what you said about being physically unable to get off the floor, or do any work or concentrate apart from daydreaming and pining after him. This has reinforced for me clearly that I don’t need anyone to complete me; I am a whole person and I can’t be so dependent on such an insubstantial and temporal love.

  • Julia March 30th, 2013 2:20 PM

    Jenny, I just want to say that if you ever publish a memoir or book of essays, I will buy it! Every one of your articles that I’ve read on rookie is so strong in its own right – I identify SO RIDICULOUSLY with some of them (I was just rereading your piece about being an outcast and finding a place to belong) and the others really really make it possible for me to empathize and feel a little bit like i understand. You are such a talented writer, and reading all of your pieces together has shown me more than anything else that we (you!) contain multitudes xx

  • Cutesycreator aka Monica May 26th, 2013 2:07 PM

    This is stunning and insightful and beautiful <3