Tagged Dating and Relationships

Modern Love: Lockdown Was Our Breaking Point

Modern Love

Lockdown Was Our Breaking Point

We needed to marry for our relationship to survive. But “le confinement” was too much.

Credit…Brian Rea

  • Jan. 15, 2021, 12:00 a.m. ET

Our two-year-old marriage was already struggling before the pandemic sent France into lockdown. Now here we were, stuck in our Paris apartment with my two teenage sons. “Le confinement,” as the French lyrically call it.

My husband, two decades younger than me, sought refuge from all the forced togetherness by barricading himself in the guest room, shoving the heavy sofa bed — normally used by my ex-husband when he comes to visit his sons — against the door.

I hated sleeping apart but rationalized our growing distance by telling myself that his snoring and my tossing made it difficult for us to get a good night’s rest. (Never mind that those things hadn’t been issues before.)

Besides, what couple doesn’t need space from time to time? Especially when the French government permitted only one hour of outside exercise per day, within one kilometer of home. To leave the house, we had to fill out a form and carry ID. Police were checking paperwork and issuing fines.

This was the flip side of having fallen madly in love with a man born the year I finished college. In the early days of our courtship, in Cairo, I was so caught up in the post-divorce, risk-laden thrill of stealing illicit kisses on poorly lit street corners — public displays of affection can land you in jail in Egypt — that I scarcely noticed the age difference.

Love may be blind, but lust is both blind and idiotic.

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As a mother, I had often felt the need to choose between the demands of parenthood and my sexual desires. That duality became even more stark when I met my second husband, who helped me rediscover the sensuality lying dormant during the 20 years I was married to the father of my children.

When I started letting him spend the night in the Cairo villa I shared with my sons, I was choosing the erotic version of myself over the maternal version. The boys must have thought I had been body snatched.

They would have been right. Sexual empowerment reanimated me. When my new lover and I met, he was exactly the same age I had been when I first got married. Choosing him felt like both a do-over and an escape from the invisibility of midlife. Not only did he see me as desirable, but our being together suddenly made me a source of envy. Women his age who admired his good looks would try to figure out our relationship. It was exactly the kind of validation I craved after a marriage in which the erotic flame had been doused long before we ended it.

I liked that our May-September romance was unconventional. Bucking the norms I had hewed to out of a sense of duty felt as validating as it did challenging.

My husband had to confront the alienation of his Tunisian family, who refused to acknowledge my existence, even after our wedding. Yes, we had fallen deeply in love, but choosing to marry was also an act of rebellion for each of us, a rejection of what society and friends and family expected. It felt like setting out into uncharted territory. It was exhilarating.

But marriage was also a necessity for our relationship’s survival. When I moved to Paris with my sons, my lover’s Tunisian passport made it nearly impossible for him to spend time with me here. We fixed our problem by flying to California and tying the knot.

Alas, thrill-seeking and passion can only take a marriage so far and, now that we were living as a family, reality had set in. Gone was the Middle Eastern backdrop, the inexpensive four-bedroom house with the verdant garden. The City of Lights is as romantic as ever, but Paris, for me, represented a return to the responsibilities of adult life with its endless loads of laundry and the drudgery of putting dinner on the table every night.

Since my husband’s arrival, I had been bumping up against the uncomfortable understanding that the way I wanted to live as a woman in my 50s was starkly different from how he thought life in his late 20s should look. My middle-aged friends bored him. My insistence on living in a clean and orderly house was, to him, senseless. And the hours he lost to Facebook, to watching European football, seemed pointless to me.

We sought out couples’ therapy, twice, but were no more able to communicate past our language and cultural barriers than we had been before. We still didn’t have the tools to address the imbalance of power that resulted from his being dependent on me for financial and visa support. He resented being reliant on me and, truthfully, I resented it too. I wanted an equal partner, someone I could depend on, someone who would share the load.

As wonderful a diversion as our love had been, I simply could not turn back the clock and be a suitable spouse to someone as young as my husband. I couldn’t pretend I hadn’t matured over the previous 22 years. I couldn’t unlearn what experience had taught me, nor did I want to. I love being 54. Falling in love with a younger man had rejuvenated me. I looked and felt better than ever. But surface is no substitute for depth.

As the days wore on, my husband’s self-isolation grew to feel less benign. Before long, we were not engaging in even monosyllabic exchanges. His main form of communication became the missives he left on strategically placed Post-it notes. I might wake up in the morning to find “I scrubbed this” on a pot that wasn’t getting clean or return from my run and discover “please refill after use” on the Brita pitcher.

I could hear the thump, thump of the weights he lifted for hours, but I hardly ever saw him. I never knew when he might burst out of the guest room to cook himself a meal or zip out to the grocery store.

Mostly, I wanted to protect my boys from seeing my pain. I felt guilty enough for letting them watch me fall to pieces when my marriage to their father collapsed, and here I was, forcing them into front-row seats to witness the failure of yet another relationship.

One day, when sifting through the cupboard and trying to find something he could eat that hadn’t been claimed by a Post-it with my husband’s initials, my 19-year-old turned to me in exasperation. “I can’t take it anymore,” he said.

I broke through the couch barricade to the guest room and told my husband we needed to talk. We were over, I said. We couldn’t go on like this. We were all suffering too much. And then, with nothing to lose, we allowed ourselves to say all the things we hadn’t been able to.

He told me how overwhelming the previous few years had been. Between estrangement from his family, fruitless job hunting, living in the land of his country’s former colonizer, the pressures of sharing a house with me and my teenagers, and never speaking his native Tunisian, he hadn’t been able to let his guard down for a minute. He loved me, but he had never wanted to be a stepfather.

For him, “le confinement” had allowed him to catch his breath. He hadn’t been stewing in anger in the spare room, as I had thought. Solitude had been a respite.

I heard his anguish. I felt his suffering. I managed to move past my anger and disappointment at my feelings of failure and having been failed. For a beautiful moment, we each saw the other. The love that we shared in that room briefly eclipsed the pain we had inflicted on one another. We vowed to do better.

I think, even then, we knew the futility of our promises. Confinement had both locked us down and birthed an unavoidable truth: We loved each other, but love wasn’t enough.

By choosing a man nearly half my age, I had not chosen the sexually empowered iteration of myself, but rather the mother. As I watched him unburden himself, I saw a beautiful man who was too young, too inexperienced to be my partner. If I wanted to fully embody the woman I had become, I had to release both him and the 25-year-old self I was trying to reinhabit.

When confinement finally lifted, and we were once again allowed to move freely through the city, my husband signed the lease on a sun-filled studio astride the Canal Saint Martin, where young hipsters hang out drinking craft beers.

Grabbing a black suitcase crammed full of clothes, he walked out of his self-imposed exile and into his new life. As I watched him leave, I cried. Of course I cried. But with confinement over, I could already feel the first flutters of my own rebirth.

Monique El-Faizy, who lives in Paris, is the co-author of “All the President’s Women.”

Modern Love can be reached at modernlove@nytimes.com.

To find previous Modern Love essays, Tiny Love Stories and podcast episodes, visit our archive.

Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series; sign up for the newsletter; or listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Google Play. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less.”

Modern Love: We Needed More Significant Others

Modern Love

We Needed More Significant Others

A cancer diagnosis in the midst of the pandemic led to our improvising a wedding and joining a commune, where our family of two became 14.

Credit…Brian Rea

  • Jan. 8, 2021, 12:00 a.m. ET

Last June, instead of a rehearsal dinner the night before our wedding, Scott and I hosted a rooftop comedy roast for his soon-to-be-amputated right foot. One by one, our friends took turns walking up to the mic, wiping it down and removing their masks before making jokes about my fiancé’s doomed appendage.

“At least for the rest of your life,” said our friend Tank, “everything you do will be considered ‘brave.’”

A few months earlier, as coronavirus cases started to rise and people began hoarding toilet paper, Scott had ankle pain that wouldn’t go away. When physical therapy didn’t help, he got an M.R.I. Inconclusive results led to a PET scan.

After his first visit with the orthopedic oncologist, Scott stood in our newly outfitted home office in our small San Francisco apartment and said, “She told me if it’s a bone tumor, I’ll need surgery.”

“We can handle that,” I said. “Plenty of people have ankle surgery, right?”

“Surgery,” he said, “means amputation.”

After multiple biopsies over many weeks (Scott said he felt as if he were an Ikea desk being drilled into), his doctor called to deliver the diagnosis. We pulled off the highway and put her on speakerphone. It was osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer that afflicts some 800 Americans a year. It appeared to have spread. The five-year survival rate for multifocal osteosarcoma is 30 percent.

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After we hung up, Scott — vegan, athlete, artificial intelligence engineer, the kind of person who adds turmeric to all his food — took my hand. Together for five years, we were only 32.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ve never been below the top 30 percent for anything. But if something happens to me, I want to make sure you’re taken care of. Let’s get married now.”

We scheduled Scott’s below-the-knee amputation for 10 days later, a Monday. Our friends announced they were throwing us a wedding in Golden Gate Park the day before the surgery.

I wanted a wedding celebration, even if it was last-minute, so we could mark the occasion with more than just the administrative staff of the county clerk. Scott, however, wanted something more in line with his arid sense of humor: a foot roast. That’s how we ended up gathered on a roof telling amputation jokes and making bad puns about Scott getting “cold feet” before the wedding.

The next day we stood, masked and socially distanced, in Golden Gate Park with our closest friends, gathered at a week’s notice. I looked at Scott, handsome in his navy suit, noting that this was the last day he would fill it out with two legs and two feet.

Twenty-four hours later, I met him in the postoperative recovery room. He grinned a goofy, Fentanyl-fueled smile, but it faded as the drugs wore off and what he called the “Civil War pain” of his surgery kicked in. Soon the hospital’s Covid-19 visitor restrictions forced me to leave, and I stole one last glance at the space in the bed where the bottom of his leg had been.

When I unpacked Scott’s suitcase at home, I discovered his right shoe rolled up in a trash bag. Upset about that and all of the right shoes he would no longer need, I collected every one and shoved them into the back of the closet.

After our honeymoon (spent on the seventh floor of the hospital, followed by my mother-in-law moving into the apartment next door for two weeks), we received more bad news: The other suspicious spots meant he would have to undergo six cycles of intensive chemotherapy, during which he would need to live in the hospital. Two major surgeries would also be required to remove the lesions.

We faced the hardest year of our lives. Covid precautions would make it hard for friends or family to help or even visit, and the hospital would only allow Scott a single visitor per day. I looked into the future and saw night after night of coming home to an empty apartment, numbing myself with pizza and Netflix, and thought: We can’t do this by ourselves.

We tried to soldier on but struggled. One afternoon, our good friends Kristen and Phil visited us in our backyard; for the first time, they understood the gravity of what we were dealing with.

Not long after, they invited us to their place in Oakland for an outdoor dinner, but “their place” requires some explanation. A couple of years earlier, they founded a co-owned community called Radish, where a dozen or so people in their 20s and 30s live together. Most have their own one-bedroom apartment, but they share food expenses, cooking responsibilities and an outdoor space with a hot tub, fire pit and hammock. These days, they were working from home and following extremely strict Covid protocols.

As a researcher who studies romantic relationships, I have always been intrigued by this kind of arrangement. Modern couples expect to get all of their needs met by one romantic partner, but that can put a lot of pressure on the relationship. In 2015, a team of psychologists, led by Elaine Cheung, found that relying on different people for discrete needs leads to happier relationships. Eli Finkel, another psychologist, coined a name for them: OSOs (Other Significant Others).

An OSO can be a friend or family member who fulfills a need that your significant other cannot: a triathlete who exercises with you because your partner doesn’t, or a sibling you call to vent about work because your significant other hates corporate politics. This web of support is not new, but for many of us it has been lost.

For couples to survive and thrive, they need OSOs. That’s especially true during nightmarish years like the one Scott and I faced, which was exacerbated by the pandemic separating us from our normal network of support.

That evening, as we sat at a picnic table at Radish, one of the residents brought out roasted asparagus, a salad topped with seeds and berries, and a platter of sweet potatoes — a stark contrast to all that cold pizza and hospital food. As I ate and laughed, I felt happy and relaxed for the first time in months.

When we got into the car to drive home, I said to Scott, “We should move here.”

Scott and I are career-driven professionals. Living in a commune had not exactly been our life plan. Then again, none of this had been. So we adjusted. And after months of losses, we finally got a win: Radish had a one-bedroom, first-floor apartment opening up. Three weeks later we moved in.

Life at Radish has felt like turning on the lights after months of living in the dark. My new, bigger family and I have cooked elaborate dinners, commiserated about challenging co-workers and spent hours wilting in the hot tub.

Scott was still mostly confined to the hospital, but for me, instead of returning home from visits to a pizza-stained rug, I was welcomed with hugs and tea. And Scott got regular visits from many more significant others than me.

One rare Sunday morning when Scott was back home, I jumped into the shower before he woke up. There, against the stark white of the porcelain, were clumps of short red hair. I cleaned them up and crawled back into bed, where he turned to me, half-asleep, and said, “My hair is falling out.”

“I know.”

“I don’t want the nurses to shave it off with a dull razor,” he said. In the morning, he would be returning to the hospital for another week of chemo.

I’d had the strength to push through the foot roast and last-minute wedding, but something about his hair falling out really broke me, perhaps because I love his red hair so much. So I texted the group, and within minutes we decided to create a hair-shaving ceremony.

That evening, Misha D.J.ed songs from the musical “Hair” while Lauren ran a slide show of sexy bald men behind him. We all took turns shaving Scott’s head, moving through a series of faux hawks and mohawks before it all disappeared.

Hearing Scott laugh, I knew we would make it. I had known, in theory, about the importance of having OSOs in your life, but now I was surviving thanks to them.

One morning not long ago, when I was poaching eggs in the communal kitchen, Scott texted: “Where are my right shoes?”

I hadn’t imagined he would ever need them again, but of course he would, for his prosthetic. His first fitting was in the morning. Our housemate, Alex — who, unlike me, is a sports hardware engineer — had signed up to take him.

Logan Ury is the director of relationship science at Hinge. Her first book, “How to Not Die Alone,” will be published in February.

Modern Love can be reached at modernlove@nytimes.com.

To find previous Modern Love essays, Tiny Love Stories and podcast episodes, visit our archive.

Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series; sign up for the newsletter; or listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Google Play. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less.”

Tiny Love Stories: ‘Like Looking Into a Mirror’

Modern Love

Tiny Love Stories: ‘Like Looking Into a Mirror’

Modern Love in miniature, featuring reader-submitted stories of no more than 100 words.

Credit…Brian Rea
Dec. 29, 2020, 3:00 p.m. ET

Back in the Rhythm of Conversation

My 14-year-old, Vedant, dwells in a dungeon (i.e. basement) under my bedroom. Through the muffled cadence of his voice, I deduce if he’s in virtual school or playing an online game. Thrice a day, he comes up for air, asking, “What’s there to eat?” We used to talk a lot on our car rides, about life and feelings. Now we have nowhere to go. For the holidays, I make him my sous chef. Slicing a butternut squash, my knife slips. He takes my bleeding finger in his hand and blows a kiss. Food an excuse, we talk about feelings again. — Yogyata Singh Davé

Vedant showing off his creation: Wild rice, butternut squash and sprouts.
Vedant showing off his creation: Wild rice, butternut squash and sprouts.

Together But Miles Away

Because of the pandemic, John and I are thousands of miles apart and separated by borders that are indefinitely closed. On my weekend, he takes me on a trip to South Korea through Google Maps. We “stay” at the beautiful Hotel Shilla, where the daily rate costs more than my weekly food budget. We go on Street View to see the school John grew up attending and visit his favorite childhood haunts. We travel to different cities, my cursor dragging through streets and alleyways. John says, “I hope I can take you there for real one day.” — Erika Lee

Me and John during a recent video chat.

Seeing Myself Looking Back

Max and I first locked eyes across a classroom our sophomore year of high school, each sensing someone uncannily familiar staring back. We became fast friends, and suburban mischief ensued. We taught ourselves (and each other) a new, queer brand of masculinity, reveling in the freedom that comes from an instinctive mutual understanding. Then high school ended. She left for the military. I, for university. Differences that once felt small and sparse grew vast and plentiful. Yet, as we’ve come into our own, our paths realigned. Sometimes, it still feels like that first meeting, like looking into a mirror. — Kelsey Smoot

Max (on the right) and me recently, matching by sincere coincidence.

‘It’ll Heal’

On Jan. 3, in the emergency room with a broken femur, I realized my year had ended before it began. I had fallen 20 feet in a climbing accident in a gym in Atlanta. My hospital room was filled with my family, my partner, and fruit freshly cut by my mother. “It’ll heal,” said my surgeon. Twelve months, multiple quarantines and one healed femur later, I look 20 feet around me and still see my family, my partner and freshly cut fruit. I feel hopeful that next year will lead to further healing. — Melissa Zhu

Me and my fiancé with snacks and fruit delivered by my parents.

See more Tiny Love Stories at nytimes.com/modernlove. Submit yours at nytimes.com/tinylovestories.

Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series; sign up for the newsletter; or listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Google Play. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less.”

Turn Your Sex Life Around

Take Back Your Sex Life

With all its stress and uncertainty, this year hasn’t exactly been a banner year for intimacy. But that can change.

Credit…Rose Wong
Meaghan O’Connell

  • Dec. 26, 2020, 10:57 p.m. ET

Melissa Petro is a 40-year-old writer who lives in New York with her husband of four years and two children. She and her husband switch off between working and kid duty. According to Ms. Petro, the always-on nature of parenting a 12-month-old and a 3-year old in a pandemic has been “relentless, exhausting and not sexy.” Recently her husband has been sleeping on the family room couch.

“It’s not that I don’t want to,” she said, “It’s just that there’s so many things to do besides have sex with my partner, who I do hypothetically find attractive and theoretically want to have sex with. It feels pretty — at times — hopeless, our sex life.”

Ms. Petro is not alone. A Kinsey Institute study on the impact of Covid-19 on marital quality found that 24 percent of married people reported having less frequent sex than they did before the pandemic, and 17 percent of women reported a decrease in both sexual and emotional satisfaction since the pandemic began. Another study from the spring suggested that a third of couples were experiencing pandemic-related conflict and that many of their sex lives were suffering.

“We are missing out on many parts of our former lives,” Maya Luetke, a researcher at the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University who led the study, wrote in an email. “Just as this is the lost year in other ways, it may also be the lost year in terms of sex.”

Likewise, Emily Nagoski was not surprised by the data. A sex educator, researcher and author of “Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life,” Dr. Nagoski describes sexual desire and inhibition like the accelerator and brake in a car. And while right now there are more factors in couples’ lives hitting their brakes than their accelerators, all hope is not lost. There is still a lot you can do to take your foot off the brake and hit the sexuality accelerator.

Shift your perspective.

Self-criticism and judgment of your partner are classic ways to dampen sexual desire. More than half of women report that stress, depression and anxiety decrease their interest in sex, as well as their sexual arousal and ability to orgasm. Dr. Nagoski said it’s normal to feel less desire during a crisis, like a pandemic. “You feel like the entire world, literally the air you breathe, is a potential threat to yourself and your family. That’s going to hit the brake.”

The first step to improving your sex life might be a shift in attitude rather than behavior. “If you have sex because you have to or you feel like you’re supposed to, you won’t have much sex and you probably won’t enjoy it,” Dr. Nagoski wrote in her book. “Don’t just decide to have sex, try on the identity of a person who loves sex.”

Make a plan.

Ms. Petro said she and her husband still make time for sex, even if it’s just, say, every third Sunday. “I shove thoughts of chores undone out of my mind and just try to relax into my body and be present for my partner,” she said. Afterward, they take each other less seriously. “We’re lighter.”

“People get very wrapped up in the idea of spontaneously desiring sex,” Dr. Nagoski said, but, especially in women, it’s fairly rare. Based on a wide body of research on gender and sexual desire, Dr. Nagoski estimates that roughly 15 percent of women experience spontaneous desire, whereas most experience responsive desire — wanting sex when something erotic is happening.

“When we study people who have great sex over the long-term in a relationship, they do not describe spontaneous desire as a characteristic,” she said.

So what do they describe? When the clinical psychologists Peggy Kleinplatz and A. Dana Menard conducted a study for their book “Magnificent Sex: Lessons from Extraordinary Lovers,” they found that the components of great sex were consistent across gender, sexuality and a host of other descriptors and tastes. They included things like communication, empathy, vulnerability, connection and being present in the moment. They stressed ignoring notions of romantic spontaneity and, instead, embracing deliberateness and making a plan.

Great sex, they found, doesn’t just happen. It requires intentionality. Don’t be afraid to put it in your calendar if you have to. Because while you can’t plan on great sex, you can, as Dr. Kleinplatz and Dr. Menard put it in their book, “intentionally create the conditions in which the magic might occur.”

Pursue novelty.

While experiencing low sexual desire during a pandemic might be normal and understandable, there are things you can do to increase desire in a relationship. One thing that science says increases arousal is a novel experience. Not just the sexual kind, but anything to get your heart rate up.

This might be a good time for people to “open a dialogue with their partner(s) about their relationship overall as well as their personal desires, fantasies, needs, etc.,” Dr. Luetke, who studies the link between conflict and sexual intimacy at Indiana University, wrote in an email. If these conversations are awkward for you, she recommended engaging a therapist specializing in sex.

Or find another way to raise your heart rate. You might not be able to ride a roller coaster or dance at a crowded concert, but you could still do a YouTube workout, go for a hike with your partner or watch a scary movie together after the kids are in bed. Some research suggests that being excited around your partner makes that person seem more novel and thus more sexually attractive, by association.

Complete the stress cycle.

When your brain senses a threat (a lion, say, chasing you), your body activates the sympathetic nervous system, which sends chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol to help you run faster or fight harder. Once the threat is gone (you ran away; you killed the lion), the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, taking you out of fight-or-flight mode and returning your body to a calm state.

That calm state activated by the parasympathetic nervous system is also responsible for sexual arousal. In other words, your brain knows that when the lion is chasing you, you won’t want sex.

Modern-day stressors, however, are more ambiguous than a lion. It’s less clear to your brain when the threat has passed — when your paycheck has been deposited or your child’s remote school day is over. So Dr. Nagoski recommended “completing the stress cycle,” or doing things that will signal to the body that the danger has passed. When you go for a run after a long day of work, you’re moving through fight-or-flight mode by jogging away from the figurative lion, and telling your body that the stress is over, at least until tomorrow.

And even if you still don’t feel safe enough to experience desire, you can still touch your partner and intimately connect. Lying in the dark watching a movie with your partner, going for a walk, exercising, practicing self-acceptance — these things all have their own benefits, even when they don’t lead to sex.


Meaghan O’Connell is a freelance writer and the author of “And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready.”

Tiny Love Stories: ‘My Lesbian Hallmark Christmas Film Fantasy’

Modern Love

Tiny Love Stories: ‘My Lesbian Hallmark Christmas Film Fantasy’

Modern Love in miniature, featuring reader-submitted stories of no more than 100 words.

Credit…Brian Rea
Dec. 22, 2020, 3:00 p.m. ET

She Smelled of Pine

The first winter I saw snow was the first winter I fell in love. I’ve always adored the holidays, but growing up in Florida meant I never experienced the “White Christmas” dream. After moving to Dallas, I started dating a woman who worked on a Christmas tree lot across the street from my apartment. Marleana would come over, smelling of pine, her arms toned from all the lifting. She was my lesbian Hallmark Christmas film fantasy. She even owned a shiny red truck that we drove in to find snow. Her Christmas gift this year? An engagement ring. — Hannah Melin

Marleana, right, and me in Austin, Texas.
Marleana, right, and me in Austin, Texas.

I Finally Said It

In Kolkata, “I love you” is not said often, and certainly not to parents. It is considered over the top; translated into Bengali, it can sound mawkish. I improvise when I call my parents in India from my apartment in New York. “I wish I had your tenacity,” I tell my mother. I praise my father’s compassion. “Wish you were here” is the furthest I venture. Yesterday, when my mother said that she longed to see me and her voice faltered, I blurted out those three words. The heart grows fonder when parents are old and away, but a pandemic makes it bolder. — Satarupa Ghosh Roy

With my parents in New York City two years ago.

‘I Need to Get Over Someone’

I walked into the cramped East Village candle store. The man behind the counter asked what I needed. “I heard that you … help people,” I said. He rubbed his hands together like he was about to make his favorite meal. “I need to get over someone,” I said. He nodded and retrieved a black candle from a shelf: “I need your initials and his.” I watched as he carved my heartbreak into the wax. “Burn this for seven days. You’ll feel better.” On day seven, I met someone new. It was a brief, healing romance. I never looked back. — Felice Neals

A candle flame.

When Memory Is Music

“Who is that woman?” my father asks me, pointing to a framed photo on the wall. “She’s so beautiful it makes me cry.” The woman in the photo is my mother, Rosemary. They were married for 56 years before she passed away. They slept in the same bed until the end, holding hands every night as they drifted off to sleep. My father has Alzheimer’s. Some days he doesn’t know who she is; others he speaks as if she’s in the room, calling out over his shoulder, “Rose — ” as if memory is music only he can hear. — Amy Massingale

Rosemary Massingale, circa 1963. 

See more Tiny Love Stories at nytimes.com/modernlove. Submit yours at nytimes.com/tinylovestories.

Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series; sign up for the newsletter; or listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Google Play. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less.”

Tiny Love Stories: ‘Tears Start Before My Feet Stop’

Modern Love

Tiny Love Stories: ‘Tears Start Before My Feet Stop’

Modern Love in miniature, featuring reader-submitted stories of no more than 100 words.

Credit…Brian Rea
Dec. 15, 2020, 3:42 p.m. ET

Out of Despair, Pure Pleasure

In 2017, on the way to our third family funeral in four weeks, our car died outside a Minnesota highway sex shop. I hopped around the parking lot to stay warm as my husband called the tow company. “We’re trying to get to a funeral,” he said. “Our car died outside of — Pure Pleasure.” He’s always resilient, but I worried about his spirits; this was another setback during a harsh year. His mother and stepmother texted, suggesting that his recently deceased father had pranked us. We smiled, joking about going inside the shop to “warm up,” but the tow arrived. — Laura Logsdon

Our dog, Bert, in the Pure Pleasure parking lot.
Our dog, Bert, in the Pure Pleasure parking lot.

Playing With Dolls

It was Los Angeles in the 1950s, and my mother was ahead of her time. After my older sister, Debbie, got a doll, I wanted one just like hers. Of course my mother said yes. My mother’s friend, June, came over. They sat at the kitchen table. I was within earshot, dressing my beloved doll, when June said, “Marian, boys shouldn’t play with dolls.” To which my mother responded, “If Danny wants to play with dolls, he can play with dolls.” My doll was dressed and ready for an outing, and my mother looked at me adoringly. — Daniel Nathanson

As a little boy with my mother.

Unexpected Intimacy

Running to stay strong, to fill time, to be connected to ground and air and the space between one breath in and another out. Sometimes running is meditative solitude, sometimes joyful: for me, and me alone! Sometimes the isolation is crushing. Tears start before my feet stop. An evening run, 10 months into weathering the pandemic on my own. Another runner and I fall in step. There’s no explicit acknowledgment or agreement. But for a quarter mile in Queens, we maintain our pace. Breathing heavy through masks. Moving in tandem until our paths diverge. Distant but close. — Paige Arthur

The quarter-mile stretch we shared in Ridgewood, Queens.

No Need for the Awkward Talk

On our first anniversary, my husband gave me a beautiful piece of raku pottery. I loved that pot with its iridescent glaze so much that he gave me another piece for my birthday. And another for Hanukkah. I thought about telling him that my pottery collection was complete. The next year he surprised me with a glass vase. I considered launching into the uncomfortable “I have enough breakable containers” talk but held my tongue. Six months later, he wrapped up my vase and gave it to his relative. I didn’t know whether to be angry or relieved. I chose relieved. — Ilene Haddad

Holding two breakable containers at our wedding in Santorini, Greece. 

See more Tiny Love Stories at nytimes.com/modernlove. Submit yours at nytimes.com/tinylovestories.

Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series; sign up for the newsletter; or listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Google Play. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less.”

Modern Love: He Seduced Me With Bread

Modern Love

He Seduced Me With Bread

An Italian woman, trapped in lockdown, takes daily calls from strangers until she finds one who really knows how to cook.

Credit…Brian Rea

  • Dec. 11, 2020, 12:00 a.m. ET

Years ago, with a friend, I played one of those psychological games where you begin by listing 15 things you would bring to a desert island and then narrow the list until you’re down to the two most important. By painfully dismissing one cherished item after another, I was left with my final choices: a guitar and “the people I don’t yet know.”

It may sound weird, especially for an Italian who talks to her mother every day, to choose a bunch of strangers over those closest to her. But for some reason, I’ve always been drawn to those I don’t know.

In pre-Covid-19 life, this meant I was the kind of person who makes friends on planes, talks to the next in line while waiting and knows everyone in the office. During the first wave of the pandemic, since the only regular contact I had was with my boyfriend (too close) and my family and friends on Zoom (too distant, as I was then living in Romania), I indulged in a new and seemingly harmless habit — connecting by phone, daily, with strangers.

DialUp is an app born from a simple yet brilliant idea: Every day you receive a phone call from a stranger somewhere on earth. No video. No pictures. Only voice.

I met many people this way, some more interesting than others. We talked about our jobs, the latest Covid-19 news, how hard the lockdown was in our countries and so on. The dose of mystery gave each day a little jolt of surprise.

One afternoon, while I was sunbathing on the rooftop with my Twitter-addict boyfriend, trying to bring some color to my pale, lockdown skin, the phone rang. I don’t like to talk to strangers in front of my boyfriend; it makes him grumpy. So I wandered away before picking up to hear a clear, happy-sounding voice say, “Hello.”

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After the first 10 seconds of these calls, I can usually paint a portrait in my mind of the person I’m talking to. From the timbre of the voice and the fact that he was from Amsterdam, I pictured Senne as blond, with long hair. I thought we were the roughly same age, mid-30s, though maybe I was older. I didn’t ask and neither did he.

He told me that a few days earlier he’d gone for a walk in Amsterdam’s city center and, because of the lack of people and noise, was able to hear, for the first time in his life, the sound of the water in the canals. We talked about how strange it would be to walk around Venice right now, without tourists. Then I introduced my favorite topic: cooking.

I am not obsessed with food, but when I travel, I plan the restaurants before the hotels. During lockdown, I had decided to learn the ancient art of bread making. A friend in Barcelona had sent me a recipe, saying I should try it. I told Senne I was a bread beginner. Apparently, he was a bread master.

From there, the conversation shifted to sourdough tips, oven recommendations, and the pros and cons of different kinds of flour. Senne told me he owns hundreds of cookbooks. He had eaten at what was once regarded as the best restaurant in the world, Central of Lima, in Peru.

Yet he had never been to Sicily, which for me is where food, history and sea coexist in an esoteric equilibrium. Our enthusiasm reached its peak when I told him I only use olive oil from my own trees in Umbria.

That’s when he said, laughing: “I think I am falling in love.”

By then, I had mentioned having a boyfriend, and he had mentioned having a girlfriend, which somehow made me feel more at ease.

At the end of the conversation, we were breathless, enthralled. In that second of silence, I think we were both wondering the same thing: “What now?”

We agreed to keep in touch on Facebook. I was so curious to see the face of that beautiful voice. By then, my phone battery was at four percent, and my boyfriend’s expression was inversely proportional to my gleeful one.

From Senne’s 2009 profile picture, I could see he was not 35 but was, like my boyfriend, a boomer in his late 50s. And he was not the strapping blonde I had imagined but dark-skinned, short and a little chubby. I searched for the youth of his voice in every picture, to no avail. I waited for him to log on and say something.

Half an hour later, he typed: “It was nice talking to you.”

Standard, but reserved. Was he unsure of himself now that we had revealed our faces? He didn’t seem eager to chat. Later that day, he sent me a picture of steamy, homemade bread, still inside a Le Creuset casserole, and the image actually made me feel aroused.

I should make a point here: Making bread is closer to sex than to cooking. It’s about diving in with your hands, massaging it, making it rise. And there is no fast climax; it takes at least 24 hours to make decent bread. All this time you have to care for it lovingly while you wait. And wait.

I pictured Senne’s expert hands turning a shapeless mass into that beautiful loaf. I imagined him waiting for the dough to rise in his Northern European kitchen.

Was he going to share it with someone? I told myself it didn’t matter. That bread was clearly made for me.

Senne knew how to wait. Often, he was not the first to send a message, and it could take hours before he replied. Other times, he was more prolific and shared recipes and songs. Despite our age difference, his taste in music was close to mine. He sent me a playlist of arias that evoked an image of him listening to opera in wooden rooms with a glass of wine, cutting vegetables.

He answered my questions about fermentation and introduced me to the art of growing my own sourdough starter. We shared daily pictures of the meals we prepared, congratulating each other. The excitement reflected a shared, unspoken thought: I’d love to be there and eat that with you.

One day he asked if I knew Sichuan pepper.

“Enlighten me, please,” I said.

“It’s a Chinese kind of pepper, sharp but flowery,” he said. “It gives you the feeling of soda water.”

How would I get some? Besides being in lockdown, I wasn’t living in my country and didn’t know where to find it.

“I could send you some,” he said.

My first thought was that my boyfriend would surely find out, since he is the one who checks the mail. Was it wrong to receive exotic pepper in the mail from another man?

I explained the situation to my friend Paula. We agreed that it would be better not to say anything, and she suggested that he send the pepper to her.

The idea of that brave envelope flying through Europe during a pandemic, with elegant handwriting and a Dutch stamp, was the thought I had before falling sleep for the next few days.

Finally, Paula called; it had arrived.

I put on my sports pants and acted as if I were going out to run, which was an accepted outdoor activity in Bucharest during lockdown. It wasn’t a lie. I was running to get my pepper.

On the way home, I stopped to open the package and felt a rush of happiness in seeing a little note with the bag of pepper, written in the same style I had imagined for his handwriting, that said: “To Albertina, because dishes sometimes deserve a special sparkle, and life too.”

This was before everything. Before my boyfriend would ask me about all the time I had been spending on my phone, and I would tell him about the stranger in Amsterdam. Before the pandemic would ebb enough for Senne and me to meet in Rome, where we would have a glorious time as tourists in my near-empty city.

It was before, on a wholly separate trip, my boyfriend would agree to come join us, and we would all hang out in surprising harmony. And it was before Senne and I would return to our previous lives in distant lands, unable to sustain our magical summer, leaving my boyfriend and me to find our way back to each other — a little warily, but with fresh eyes.

On the streets of Bucharest that day, in a world immobilized by fear and grief, I opened a packet of pepper, took a deep breath and fell in love with a stranger.

Albertina Coacci is an advertising copywriter in Rome, Italy.

Modern Love can be reached at modernlove@nytimes.com.

To find previous Modern Love essays, Tiny Love Stories and podcast episodes, visit our archive.

Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series; sign up for the newsletter; or listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Google Play. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less.”

Modern Love Podcast: With the Help of Strangers

Modern Love Podcast: With the Help of Strangers

Two women find allies to survive difficult times.

Hosted by Daniel Jones and Miya Lee, produced by Hans Buetow and Kelly Prime, and edited by Sara Sarasohn and Wendy Dorr; music by Dan Powell; read by Julia Whelan and Eliza Rudalevige

Dec. 9, 2020, 4:01 p.m. ET

Listen and subscribe to Modern Love
Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher

[New York Times subscribers are invited to join the hosts Daniel Jones and Miya Lee on Dec. 15 for an evening of performances and special guests, celebrating the new “Tiny Love Stories” book. RSVP here.]

‘‘In trying to persuade me to file charges, my father said, ‘What would you tell your little sisters to do?’”

Credit…Brian Rea

This episode contains descriptions of domestic violence.

In 2013, Courtney Queeney published “The View From the Victim Room,” an essay about surviving domestic violence and the legal proceedings that followed. “I couldn’t sit or lean against anything comfortably because my head was still a battered, crusty mess,” she wrote.

In the essay, she described going to a courthouse every two weeks to renew her emergency protection order against her ex. It was during this period that she found “scattered bright spots” — things to laugh about when everything seemed unfunny. She found comfort in the woman who shared her court schedule; her lawyer, whom she revered; and the judge who made her crack up.

Today, we hear about how Courtney has worked through the experience and aftermath of her abuse — and where is she now.

Today’s stories

The View From the Victim Room,” by Courtney Queeney

Courtney’s essay ended with her walking “out of court into so much sunshine.” But as she explained to Daniel Jones in this podcast episode, the seven years since her essay was published have not been easy. “I just want to get somewhere back to whatever my normal was,” she said.

One of the things that have helped her is her recent decision to become a court advocate. Reflecting on the many people who have supported her, from lawyers to therapists, Courtney said, “I’ll never be able to adequately thank all of them for what they did for me.”

“I’m a stranger to a lot of them,” she continued, “but what I can do is be that person to somebody else who needs a person.”

Held by String,” by Eliza Rudalevige

In her Tiny Love Story, Eliza writes about a woman named Shelly, whom she met in an eating disorder recovery program when she was 11. Eliza was the youngest in the program, while Shelly, in her 60s, was the oldest.

When Eliza was released from the program after 100 days, Shelly gave her a handmade bracelet, which Eliza still has seven years later. “Looking at the beads nestled in the tough leather, I think of the young girl in the veteran’s arms,” Eliza wrote.

Shelly became a protector of sorts for Eliza, encouraging counselors to “tone down their harshness” toward her and making her feel less alone. When Miya, a host of the podcast, asked Eliza what she would say to Shelly if she were to see her again, she said, “I don’t think I ever said thank you to her. So I think I’d say thank you.”

────────

If you or someone you know is being abused, support and help are available around the clock. Visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s website or call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

Hosted by: Daniel Jones and Miya Lee
Produced by: Kelly Prime and Hans Buetow
Edited by: Wendy Dorr
Music by: Dan Powell
Held by String,” written and read by Eliza Rudalevige
The View From the Victim Room,” narration by Julia Whelan, produced by Ryan Wegner and Kelly Rogers at Audm
Executive Producer, NYT Audio: Lisa Tobin
Assistant Managing Editor, NYT: Sam Dolnick

Special thanks: Nora Keller, Mahima Chablani, Julia Simon, Laura Kim, Bonnie Wertheim, Anya Strzemien, Joanna Nikas and Choire Sicha.

Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series and sign up for the newsletter. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less.”

Modern Love: The Pandemic Arrived. His Text Back Did Not.

Modern Love

The Pandemic Arrived. His Text Back Did Not.

Tough times may not bring love, but they do bring clarity.

Credit…Brian Rea

By

  • Dec. 4, 2020, 12:00 a.m. ET

“Want to go on a 6 ft apart walk this afternoon?” I texted.

No response. A week passed as I wiped down every surface of my apartment, but those three hopeful dots never appeared. I began to face the facts. I had been ghosted during quarantine.

There are clear but unspoken milestones of app-mediated dating. The first is moving your virtual courtship offline. Unless you are highly unlikable, a second date is usually guaranteed. Tread slowly. Third and fourth dates are crucial. By then, you can no longer have the same conversation about siblings and work. You actually have to get to know a person.

At this point, you may begin folding them into the other parts of your life. You let them meet a select group of friends whom you can count on to dress well and banter lightheartedly. You’ve brought them to your hidden spots where the bartender knows your order, cooked breakfast with your roommates. You exhale. This could actually work.

The thing about this timeline, though, is it doesn’t account for a pandemic.

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We had been seeing each other for three months, my longest relationship to date and the most comfortable. He was the first guy whose place I didn’t feel the urge to flee in the morning after spending the night; instead, we would hang out and watch episode after episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” He was training for a marathon, and often it was only his pre-scheduled runs that would end our TV binge.

I kept looking at my calendar, counting the weeks since our first date and bracing myself for the inevitable fade-out that had happened with all the other men I’d seen in New York. Each day felt like a small victory — one step closer to an actual, real-world relationship.

Two weeks before New York shut down, I was the fifth wheel to two sets of coupled-up friends at an Indian restaurant in the West Village. Between bites of chicken tikka masala, my friends assured me that it was time for the feelings talk.

Was this a talk of exclusivity? Defining the relationship? I wasn’t quite sure, but my friends insisted that there comes a point in all real relationships when feelings can no longer be left unsaid.

I didn’t want to be the one to initiate this talk. I wanted to carry on as the mysterious, chill girl who doesn’t discuss feelings — or even have needs. But as my coupled-up friends informed me, my escalating anxiety signaled that I was not, in fact, the chill girl, and that it was time.

Equipped with my friend’s advice (and with several seasons of “The Bachelor” under my belt), I was ready. I texted the guy saying that I needed to check in — direct but vague, as instructed.

“Let’s get lunch after my run,” he wrote.

He’s always running! I applied waterproof mascara, put on my best high-waisted jeans and headed to my execution.

We split French toast and chicken and waffles while talking about a job he didn’t get; he asked no questions about mine. He glanced at his Apple watch several times. We settled the check and headed to the park across the street.

I didn’t know it then, but it was a day of lasts. Last time dining out, last time sitting in a crowded park, last shared meal.

After several moments of silence punctuated by my offhand remarks about dog breeds, I told him about my feelings. We had spent an intense weekend together, after which he hadn’t contacted me for days, so I wanted to know where he was “at.” If I had feelings, I wanted to know if he did too.

What I got in return was confusing. Or maybe just upsetting. He told me he liked me but that he didn’t want to emotionally support someone or have someone emotionally support him. He valued his independence and boundaries and running. He had space for me once a week.

I held it together. We kissed goodbye. Then I met my best friend on the steps outside the Brooklyn Public Library and cried.

The next day he texted, asking about a play I had seen. I told him I needed space, that we should “check in next week.” Unknown to me, this was the week that New York City would ask us all for space by instituting social distancing policy. I would get my solitude whether I had asked for it or not.

The world would look a lot different during the pandemic. And yet my primary preoccupations remained the same. Like many New Yorkers, I experienced dread while reading daily headlines. I approached each morning anxiously, recognizing that the gravity of this crisis would continue to unfold. But the thoughts that kept me up at 2 a.m. remained as self-centered as they were before Covid-19: I’m lonely. I’m unlovable. What if I’m alone forever?

As the crisis accelerated, so did the panic for intimacy. There was no time to search for someone more right. You had to grab the best available thing. I wanted to stockpile romantic partners like toilet paper. The store was out of Charmin, so I frantically grabbed the 99-cent Scott. The runner and I started texting again. And then he ghosted me.

Lockdown was a turning point for many people in the early dating stages. As conventional wisdom was screaming at the time: If you’re a couple, be a couple. Quarantine together, or break up.

We broke up. I watched with jealousy as several friends overcame the hurdle I couldn’t. My roommate, also in a budding three-month relationship, bought walkie-talkies to communicate with her new suitor. It was nauseatingly cute. If others could do it, why couldn’t I?

In isolation, I spiraled into hypotheticals. If I could have kept up the myth of chill girl for a little longer, would we still be together, sharing a bed, shielding each other from the misery outside?

In quarantine you lose the excuse of life’s many distractions. There is no “Maybe he didn’t see that text,” or “Maybe he’s busy at work or out with friends.” You must remind yourself of the truth: that he’s sitting on his couch, looking at his phone, choosing to not respond.

You’re also drastically limited in terms of diversions, making the sting of rejection all the more painful. There is no bartender to flirt with, no movie theater to hide in, no live music to drown out your manic thoughts. It is a harsh but clarifying reality.

Our need for connection and reciprocity loom larger in times of crisis. The world spins off its axis and we turn to those around us to keep from spiraling out along with it. But even as social distancing presents challenges, the opportunities to support those we care for are vast. They just take new forms: 2 a.m. phone calls to your friend across the coast, shared playlists, House Party happy hours.

These moments of mutual connection offer the grounding we need. We feel that we are being held, even when no one is physically there to do the holding. His ghosting confirmed my fears that this relationship, by contrast, could bear no weight.

I was forced to confront my own needs. I was missing something larger than this one person, whom I had yet to really get to know. The aching was not just rejection but the disappointment of thinking someone might provide what I was so desperately seeking in all relationships: reciprocity, emotional matching, assurance.

Love during quarantine is no different from love during any other time. Instagram feeds signal an uptick in friends’ engagements, but quarantine does not make love out of thin air, nor does it break a relationship that was already off its hinges. It simply sheds light.

Jenna Klorfein is a social worker in New York City.

Modern Love can be reached at modernlove@nytimes.com.

To find previous Modern Love essays, Tiny Love Stories and podcast episodes, visit our archive.

Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series; sign up for the newsletter; or listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Google Play. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less” (available for preorder).

Tiny Love Stories: ‘We Could Only See Each Other’s Eyes’

A Mint Lifesaver

After the funeral, I tidied the guest room for my mother, who was moving in temporarily while adjusting to life without my father. I was restless, believing I should have convinced him to see a doctor sooner. When I pulled a cloth along the closet shelf, a shower of mint Lifesavers rained down, left behind from my father’s last visit. An ex-smoker, he always kept his mouth busy. I unwrapped one, placing it, Communion-like, on my tongue. I wasn’t able to save my father’s life; the lung cancer was a wildfire. But as the Lifesaver dissolved, it cleansed me. — Julia Bruce

With my father circa 1977 on the boardwalk in Point Pleasant, N.J.
With my father circa 1977 on the boardwalk in Point Pleasant, N.J.

Within His Radius

Visiting my parents in Seattle, I expected my Tinder match with Jason to go like all the rest: warm hello, flirty banter, gradual trailing off. Back then, I traveled constantly for work, swiping everywhere, jaded but still looking despite myself. I returned home to Boston before Jason and I could meet. We communicated constantly. Discovering that neither of us had plans for Thanksgiving, we decided to meet somewhere between us (Nashville) and celebrate. We ate turkey and potatoes on our first date. One year married, Jason admits that he wasn’t looking for anyone outside of a five-mile radius. — Ian McKinley

At our wedding last year in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Jason is on the right.

She’s Back in Our Bed

In 1998, I decided to get rid of my very 1980s-looking bachelor furniture. After posting on Craigslist, a gentleman came over with a tape measure. Everything would fit, including my king-size platform bed. He just needed run it by his girlfriend. The next day, the doorbell rang. When I opened the door, I saw the man and my ex-girlfriend from 20 years earlier. We shared our surprise, then moved on to the bedroom set. They said it was perfect. I said to my ex, “That was ours — are you sure you want it?” “Absolutely.” And off they went. — Paul Weinberg

 The view from my front door.

Eyes Only

Two travel nurses, we arrived in New Mexico to help with the pandemic. We met in the hospital’s Covid-19 tent, glimmers of desert sun streaming in. Pushing through 12-and-a-half-hour shifts, we interacted as we treated patients and tested the sick. A quiet connection grew. With our faces covered, we could only see each other’s eyes. I didn’t see his hidden smile for weeks. When I did, it felt like seeing weeks of masked smiles in an instant. His face, once unknown, soon became home. His heart, a remedy for uncertainty. — Jacqueline McMahon

Our smiling eyes.

See more Tiny Love Stories at nytimes.com/modernlove. Submit yours at nytimes.com/tinylovestories.

Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series; sign up for the newsletter; or listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Google Play. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less” (available for preorder).

Myths About Teenagers and Risk-Taking

Photo

Credit Stuart Bradford

Teenage risk-taking heats up in the summer. Studies show that during the summer months adolescents are most likely to experiment with first-time use of alcohol, marijuana and cigarettes. For car crashes, the perennial leading cause of death among teenagers, June, July and August hold the grim honor of being the three consecutive months with the most adolescent traffic fatalities.

These are alarming statistics, but a quick spin around the research gives parents reason to feel hopeful, not helpless. The emerging science on adolescent boundary-pushing debunks some old saws and shows us useful directions to point our energy. Here are some common misconceptions and illuminating findings.

Myth: We were better

Adults have long fretted about “kids today,” but on the whole our teenagers are much better behaved than we were. A report published last month from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that, compared to adolescents in 1991, today’s teenagers are less likely to carry weapons, smoke cigarettes, try alcohol, binge drink or have sex. And they are more likely to wear seatbelts and use condoms.

The report found an increase in marijuana use since 1991, but not a statistically significant one. Other studies confirm a rise in adolescent pot-smoking, and teenagers face new threats such as e-cigarettes and high rates of prescription drug abuse. But we are now raising the tamest cohort of teenagers in decades.

We might want to go so far as to give teenagers credit for this, because how we regard and talk about adolescents matters. One study found that parents who took a dim view of teenagers were likely to raise adolescents who ultimately lived down to their parents’ expectations. The study’s results held up even when the researchers washed out the conduct of older siblings (who might have soured the parents on teenagers) and the behavior of the children in question before they entered adolescence. In other words, low expectations can do harm, while high expectations have long been linked to positive outcomes for teenagers.

Myth: Teens think they’re invincible

Studies show that adolescents feel as vulnerable as adults do. In fact, when we ask teenagers to predict the likelihood that they will be jailed or dead before the age of 20, they grossly overestimate the actual probability of such events. Why do adolescents take so many risks if they feel so unsafe? Research provides an answer that shouldn’t surprise any ex-teenager: For adolescents, the wish to impress their peers often trumps their better judgment.

In a study demonstrating this phenomenon, the psychologists Margo Gardner and Laurence Steinberg compared adolescents and adults as they played a video game that allowed for risky choices. When individuals from each group played by themselves, teenagers were nearly as cautious as adults. When playing in front of people their age, however, the teenagers became reckless, while the adults drove much as they did when alone.

A finding like this helps explain how graduated drivers’ licenses have helped to reduce the rate of adolescent car crashes. Laws that limit the number of passengers allowed in cars driven by teenagers accord with solid evidence that adolescents make better decisions when they’re alone or with an adult than when they’re with friends.

What are the takeaways for parents? To start, striking terror into teenagers with dire warnings about their safety may be unnecessary and even counterproductive. Indeed some researchers suggest that teenagers may act rashly, in part, “because of an exaggerated feeling that they are not going to live.”

As an alternative, we might address the hazards posed by peer pressure. In addition to asking our teenagers who they will be with and what they’ll be doing, we could consider saying, “We love your friends, but if things are getting out of hand, please call. We’re always available to get you out of any situation that feels like it’s heading south.”

Myth: Teens are immune to adult influence

Parents offering guidance shouldn’t be put off by the occasional teenage eye-roll. Research consistently finds that adults can capitalize on their relationships with teenagers to reduce adolescent risk-taking.

In broad terms, adolescents who have open lines of communication with their folks and describe their parents as available and understanding are less likely to engage in dangerous behavior. More specifically, teenagers whose parents talk with them about sex and contraception have been found to take fewer sexual risks, conform less to their peers’ behavior and believe that their parents provide the most accurate information about sex. Teenagers drive more safely when their parents reinforce driving curfews and other motor vehicle laws. And adults who establish and uphold rules tend to raise adolescents who are less likely to use illegal drugs and alcohol. While peers certainly influence teenage behavior, parents do, too.

Adults must live with the nerve-racking reality that we cannot absolutely guarantee the safety of any teenager. But we can make choices that promote adolescent safety. With so much at stake, let’s ditch the myths about teenagers and ground our parenting in the objective, and in many ways encouraging, realities.

Lisa Damour is a psychologist in private practice in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a clinical instructor at Case Western Reserve University and the director of Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls. She is the author of “Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood.” Follow her on Twitter: @LDamour.

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With Coercive Control, the Abuse Is Psychological

Photo

Credit Maggie Chiang

Lisa Fontes’s ex-boyfriend never punched her, or pulled her hair. But he hacked into her computer, and installed a spy cam in her bedroom, and subtly distanced her from her friends and family.

Still, she didn’t think she was a victim of domestic abuse. “I had no way to understand this relationship except it was a bad relationship,” said Dr. Fontes, 54, who teaches adult education at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

It was only after doing research on emotional abuse that she discovered a name for what she experienced: Coercive control, a pattern of behavior that some people — usually but not always men — employ to dominate their partners. Coercive control describes an ongoing and multipronged strategy, with tactics that include manipulation, humiliation, isolation, financial abuse, stalking, gaslighting and sometimes physical or sexual abuse.

“The number of abusive behaviors don’t matter so much as the degree,” said Dr. Fontes, the author of “Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship.” “One woman told me her husband didn’t want her to sleep on her back. She had to pack the shopping cart a certain way, wear her clothes a certain way, wash herself in the shower in a certain order.”

While the term “coercive control” isn’t widely known in the United States, the concept of nonphysical forms of mistreatment as a kind of domestic abuse is gaining recognition. In May, the hashtag #MaybeHeDoesntHitYou took off on Twitter, with users sharing their own stories.

Last December, England and Wales expanded the definition of domestic abuse to include “coercive and controlling behavior in an intimate or family relationship,” making it a criminal offense carrying a maximum sentence of five years. To date, at least four men have been sentenced under the new law.

“In this approach, many acts that had been treated as low-level misdemeanors or not treated as offenses at all are considered as part of a single course of serious criminal conduct,” said Evan Stark, a forensic social worker and professor emeritus at Rutgers University, whose work helped shaped the new law in England and Wales.

Dr. Stark, the author of “Coercive Control,” noted that the English law pertains to a course of conduct over time. American law still does not address coercive control; it deals only with episodes of assault, and mainly protects women who have been subjected to physical attacks. But in about 20 percent of domestic violence cases there is no bodily harm, he said.

Coercive control often escalates to spousal physical violence, as a 2010 study in The Journal of Interpersonal Violence found. “Control is really the issue,” said Connie Beck, a co-author of the study and an associate professor of psychology at the University of Arizona. “If you can control a person’s basic liberties verbally — where they go, who they see, what they do — you do not necessarily have to hit them regularly, but if a person is not complying, then often physical abuse escalates.”

To a victim of coercive control, a threat might be misinterpreted as love, especially in the early stages of a relationship, or when one is feeling especially vulnerable.

Dr. Fontes, for example, was in her 40s and newly divorced when she met her ex-boyfriend. He was charming and adoring, and though he was a little obsessive, she overlooked it. Never mind that she has a Ph.D. in counseling psychology, and specializes in child abuse and violence against women.

“For a person looking for love and romance, it can feel wonderful that someone wants to monopolize your time,” she admitted.

For Rachel G., 46, a mother of three who lives outside Boston (she didn’t want her full name used to protect her privacy), the manipulation was all-consuming. Her ex-husband made them share a toothbrush, and wouldn’t let her shut the bathroom door — ever. He set up cameras around the house, and fastened a GPS in her car to track her movements. Sometimes he would show up at her work unannounced, “always framed as him needing to know where I was in case the kids needed me, or because he missed me and wanted to see me, but it was just his way of regulating my behavior.”

She was miserable, but stuck it out for 18 years. It never occurred to her to leave: She had three children, and “he had convinced me that I would be unhappy anywhere,” said Ms. G., who does fund-raising for a nonprofit. “I wasn’t only a bad wife — in every respect — but I was a negligent mother, or an overbearing mother, I was unsupportive of him, I was a bad cook, I prioritized work over family, my family liked him better than me, our friends liked him better than me. The worse I felt about myself and doubted myself and internalized his view of me and the way the world should work, the more submissive and accommodating I became.”

In the end, it was he, not she, who filed for divorce, after catching her in an extramarital affair. She is not proud of her actions, but she is grateful it got her out of the relationship. “I would never have left if he hadn’t filed,” she said. “I was afraid.” Since then, she has been trying to re-establish connections with family members and friends.

Dr. Fontes ultimately left her partner after four years. The decision came after she spent two weeks away from him, and realized how diminished she had become. “There were repeated telephone calls and emails every day, but it was such a relief to wake up and go to sleep without having to check in with this other person,” she said. “I recovered a sense of who I was as a separated person, my own opinions, my own perspective.”

Advice on Boys and Sex, From the Author of ‘Girls and Sex’

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Peggy Orenstein

Peggy OrensteinCredit Michael Todd

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Credit Harper, via Associated Press

“Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape” is a book for both young women and their parents — but primarily their parents — about what’s changed for girls with respect to sex. The author, Peggy Orenstein, looks at every aspect of that evolving world in the hope of helping girls learn to develop satisfying intimate relationships, and helping their families offer guidance.

Last week in the Well Family weekly newsletter, I invited readers to submit questions to Ms. Orenstein. Amid all the questions about our daughters — how do we talk to them, how do we teach them, how do we protect them — were a flurry of questions about our sons. Ms. Orenstein understood. “Obviously you’re only having half the conversation if you only talk about girls,” she said. “Boys absolutely need to learn the same things.” Here are your questions and Ms. Orenstein’s answers, edited and condensed.

Q.

Will this book help me talk to my son about sex?

A.

So much of it is the same — boys need to know about consent and alcohol and how it affects your judgment, and both boys and girls need to learn what the sex educator Charis Denison talks about toward the end of the book, about making decisions that end in joy rather than regret.

All of this is trying to inculcate ideas about respect, ethics, reciprocity. I ended the book in a co-ed classroom because I wanted to see boys and girls working these things out together. At one point, they’re talking about the baseball metaphor for sex — first base, home run, all that — and one of the boys says, “I never thought about it before, but in baseball one of the teams is supposed to be the winner and one is supposed to be the loser. Who’s supposed to be the loser in sex?” And I just thought, bingo. He will walk into his sexual encounters seeing his partner as a partner, not as an adversary, and that’ s really meaningful.

Q.

How can I talk to my son about consent, and what do you think we’re missing in that conversation?

A.

Boys need to learn about the differences between consent and coercion and assault and particularly, I think, about these issues with respect to oral sex. So much of what kids are doing is not intercourse, it’s oral sex, and when we ignore that, we set up a situation in which they think that’s not sex and since it’s not sex it’s not subject to the same rules about consent and reciprocity and respect. Boys need to know that it’s not O.K. to push in oral sex either.

Q.

Do you have any suggestions for resources for boys?

A.

I’m on the lookout. I love that TED talk by Tony Porter, “A Call to Men,” on how falling for our culture’s idea of “manly” can lead boys toward disrespect and violence. And I really like Al Vernacchio’s TED talk, too, “Sex Needs a New Metaphor.” That’s the one about talking about sex as a pizza instead of a game of baseball, which has only one set of goals and one winner. Sex is supposed to be an experience you share, and maybe there’s a negotiation process about what you both want.

Q.

How can I talk to my children — boys and girls — about porn?

A.

It’s such a tough one, because they will see it. First of all, I think we have to put it out there that porn is not real sex. It’s about as real as pro wrestling. Boys, especially, need to know how much it affects their perspective even if they don’t think it does. A lot of the entitlement and the idea that sex is something that girls do for boys is a porn thing. We don’t want to demonize a child for curiosity, but we do want them to know that it is not how people behave — and that TV sex isn’t real, either. People don’t rip off their clothes and be done in 10 minutes. Kids need to know that that’s like, TV and movie shorthand for sex. It’s not what it’s like.

Q.

I have this illusion that my middle-school aged daughter isn’t hearing much about sex at school yet. What might I be missing?

A.

It’s a time to start talking about images of women in the culture and about the idea of what’s “hot” and how that’s sold to girls. If they’re on social media they’re going to start being pressured to present themselves in a certain way. Every girl knows you get more likes with a picture in a bikini than in a parka.

It’s also really important to start talking about sexting. Girls are twice as likely to be coerced into sexting as boys, and interestingly, being coerced into sexting seems to cause more anxiety than being coerced into real sex. Boys will just badger and badger and badger by text, where it’s easier to say things like this, until girls give in and send the picture. Which makes this a good time to talk about assertiveness versus aggressiveness versus passiveness. I heard over and over again that girls just “don’t want to hurt a boy’s feelings.” They just can’t be rude. They need to know when it’s O.K. to just say, “knock it off.”

Kids at that age also need to hear that what they’re going through — puberty — so much of it is the same for everyone, boys and girls. Everybody gets hair in new places. Everybody’s genitals get bigger. Everyone starts to stink.

Q.

If I find it hard to talk to my children about sex, any ideas?

A.

All of us need help with that. Try to think about talking to your kids about sex as an opportunity, rather than looking at it as something scary. It’s a chance to create a closer relationship. And if they ask something and you’re not ready, it’s O.K. to say so. You can say, that’s a good question, let’s talk about it after we’re done with dinner, or let’s look it up together, or let me think about it and get back to you.

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Running for the Wrong Reasons

Excerpted from Jen A. Miller’s new book, “Running: a Love Story: 10 Years, 5 Marathons, and 1 Life-Changing Sport.”

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Credit

When I was 13 years old, Avalon, the shore town I’ve gone to every summer of my life, started a dredging project to widen the beaches. They took sand from the ocean floor and transferred it onto land. It worked, but it also kicked up seaweed. A lot of seaweed. I was determined to swim anyway, but it clung everywhere, catching in the crooks of my elbows, my knees, my hair. I tried to float over it on a boogie board, but it hooked onto the strap that connected the board to my wrist and weighed me down.

That’s what dating Steve was like. In David Carr’s memoir “The Night of the Gun,” he called this kind of relationship a “minuet of misery.” As Stephen dropped deeper into alcoholism, creating and breaking his own rules (it’s not a problem if I only drink on weekends, it’s not a problem if it doesn’t affect my work, it’s not a problem if I’m a little hungover at work), and as his calls became later, more frantic, and more frequent, he pulled me down too.

That first 5K in Medford came eight months into this mess. I had managed to eat enough to maintain that training, skating on the edge of eating too little to be too small, but I plunged over the edge soon after. I kept running after that 5K, but it was for him. I wanted to be as small as possible, and I saw running as a path toward that goal. I had a strength training routine down. I was in the weight room four days a week, lifting 20, 25, 30, 40, 50 pounds at low reps just like Steve said, but I still didn’t look like Jessica Alba from Sin City, who he had on a poster in his basement. “You can look like that,” he said one night as we played pool, Jessica staring down at me as I tried to sink the eight ball. (I didn’t. I scratched.)

If I do that, if I can look like that, I told myself, it’ll finally flip that switch in him, turn a relationship held together by spider webs into something solid and real. Running burned more calories an hour than any other cardio I could do in the gym. Running needed to be part of my life then so I could show Steve what I was willing to do for him. I didn’t enjoy the miles like I used to. Those days of bounding around Knight Park being serenaded by birds and kids and Little League games were gone. Now I was trapped in the run, like I was trapped with him, trying to use one as the means to an end with the other.

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Credit Marc Steiner

The more I drank, the more I smoked, the less I ate. I vowed to do better with my no-carb, no-fat diet: No more slip-ups. No more carbs at all. And if I did make a mistake — a plate of cheese-covered nachos when out with friends, Saturday sandwiches with Mom — I puked it back up. It wasn’t that different from throwing up after a long night of drinking, right? So what was wrong with getting rid of too much food?

On one cool morning six months before the end, when we hadn’t called or texted or emailed in nearly a week — a new record! — I went for a run. It was a gorgeous, clear day, the first one after the summer heat had finally broken. The world felt wiped clean. Maybe, I thought, that day could be a new start for me too.

I ran straight for Knight Park on my usual 3-mile route. I started feeling that strength again that I had found in training for the 5K, in moving my body forward, one step at a time. But one minute I was looking at the war memorial on the corner of the park and the next I was staring up at the concerned face of a mom and her 2-year-old.

“You O.K.?” she asked as her toddler yelled “Boo-boo! Booboo!” over and over again. “You just went down.” I was 115 pounds, a weight I hadn’t been since middle school.

“Oh, I’m O.K. I didn’t drink any water today,” I lied, and let her help me stand up. My vision started to fade again, so I held on to her shoulder.

“Let me drive you home,” she said.

“No, I’m O.K.,” I said, first to her, then to her son, whose eyes were now wide with terror. I played peek a boo with him until he smiled and offered me his binkie. My vision had stopped graying by then, and I shuffled home.

Excerpted from “Running: A Love Story” by Jen Miller. Available from Seal Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2016.