Puppy love forever

By Khaled Diab

The adult world shouldn't dismiss childhood romances as cute follies – first loves can leave a lasting impression.

January 2009

As legendary duos, from Romeo and Juliet to Qays and Leilia, will readily attest, youth's first blossoms of love can be lethal.

But what if these tragic young lovers had survived their first passions, could these ‘star-cross'd lovers' have settled down in a meaningful long-term relationship?

Very likely not, according to a new book, Changing relationships, a collection of essays by leading British sociologists.

“If you had a very passionate first relationship and allow that feeling to become your benchmark for a relationship dynamic, then it becomes inevitable that future, more adult partnerships will seem boring and a disappointment,” said Dr Malcolm Brynin, the book's editor.

Personally, I had girlfriends from when I was a teenager but did not really fall in love until I was well into my 20s. Nine years on, we're still very much in love, although the flame burns differently from those early days when we first confessed our feelings in a remote Egyptian oasis. But we are lucky: our relationship is one that taps both the mind and heart, depends on both emotion and personal compatibility.

However, anecdotal evidence from die-hard romantics would seem to confirm that that elusive quest to replicate the first spark can be consuming. The Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk – whose first teenage love affair was with his Black Rose who had chestnut hair and “brown eyes but one shade darker” – reflected in his autobiographical biography of Istanbul: “I had not yet discovered what I would have to learn again and again when I fell in love: I was possessed.”

CiF's own Arian Sherine writes of her first love: “I truly thought those heady, illusory butterfly feelings would never fade… I didn't want a stale, empty and useless relationship, I insisted: I wanted love, the kind of impossible, senseless love that could never be cajoled or coerced.”

Does that mean people should ‘grow up' and forget those ‘silly ideas' of love when they settle down? Absolutely not. Professor Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, observed, using MRI scans, similar brain activity among those who had been happily married for more than two decades with those who had been in relationships for less than six months, which suggests that bliss depends on keeping the passion alight.

This is good news for that generation of young lovers who have seized the age-old torch and are keeping it burning, like Mika and Anna-Bell who decided to elope to Africa and get married. Not very exciting or novel, you say? Well, it is if you consider that the young amours were aged only six and five!

On the cusp of the new year, in the dead of night, the sweethearts slipped out of one of their parents' house in Hanover, decked out in sunglasses, swimming armbands, and dragging suitcases packed with summer clothes, cuddly toys and a few provisions. They even had the resourcefulness to take along Mika's older sister as a witness.

The two lovers' romantic dreams were arrested by the police just as they were about to board the express train to the airport. Exhibiting childhood's reckless disregard for and ignorance of practicality – they had no money, no passports, no adult guardian and were not legally allowed to marry – Anna-Bell told German television: “We wanted to get married and so we just thought: ‘Let's go there.'”

“Sweet”, “cute”, “adorable” is the automatic adult response to this dramatic display of ‘puppy love'. I was grinning broadly in dismay when my wife first told me the story. But I soon got to wondering whether children can truly feel romantic love, and whether Anna-Lena and Mika could perhaps be tragic victims in an unsympathetic and uncomprehending adult world?

It's easy to dismiss their antics as a manifestation of children playing adults, but could the young lovebirds have been serious?

According to Elaine Hatfield, a social psychologist at the University of Hawaii who has adapted her Passionate Love Scale for children, “Little kids fall in love, too.” And first loves can leave a lasting impression – sometimes causing grief for their families in later life. For instance, a Belgian TV programme a friend told me about reintroduced two childhood sweethearts, ending in tears when the two ex-lovers left their current partners to reunite.

But can puppy love endure? Is there any chance that a couple like Mika and Anna-Bell might still be together as adults? Childhood and adolescent romances tend to be rehearsals for later life from which we either learn and mature or which chain us down in certain patterns for life.

But there is the odd example which does endure to a ripe old age. Take John and Mary Cairns, who at 80 and 82, celebrated 75 years together in 2008, which means they got together at about the same age as the German kids.

“I'm just a wee working lassie and he's my wee working laddie,” said Mary, who describes John as her “toy boy”.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 24 January 2009. Read the related discussion.

This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest


  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil . Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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