How do you know when you’ve become an adult? Sure, you could say “on my eighteenth birthday, because that is the day I reached the age of legal majority,” but being an adult and feeling like an adult are two very different things. Here’s the moment when I felt like an adult: when I reread Little Women for the umpteenth time and finally understood why Jo chose Professor Bhaer over Laurie.

Like most little girls who want to be writers when they grow up, I loved Jo unfailingly. And even though I knew the story by heart, I still cried anew every time Beth died, as if perhaps on the next reading she’d finally make it. But I also adored Laurie, his wild days in Europe only adding to his mystique, and was convinced that he and Jo were soulmates. I viewed Bhaer – old, boring Bhaer – as Jo’s Plan B. I’m pretty sure that my huge crush on Christian Bale (who played Laurie to Winona Ryder’s Jo in the 1994 film version) also had something to do with this preference.

However, when I reread the book in my early 20s, something seemed to snap. I was just out of yet another relationship with a guy who was exciting but created more drama than he was worth. Bhaer appeared to me in an entirely new set of colors: he wasn’t old, he was distinguished. And unlike Laurie, who still idealized the version of Jo who existed in his head, Bhaer saw Jo as a real, live woman. Laurie is the kind of boy we love when we are young; Bhaer is the kind of man we love when we are grown up. Once I read Little Women‘s two sequels, Little Men and Jo’s Boys, about the boys’ school Jo and Bhaer open and run, I saw even more that Jo and her husband had a partnership. They both contributed to the marriage. Bhaer not only loved Jo as she was, he inspired her to become a fuller person – reading, learning, and growing into adulthood. Considering that Little Women was published in 1868 (that would be 142 years ago today, actually), it’s even more revolutionary that Louisa May Alcott was able to show a true marriage of equal partners.

While it may seem romantic to be put up on a pedestal, it ultimately gets really hard to climb down from there once in a while. It’s wonderful to have a Laurie for awhile, but it can’t last forever. Recently, a friend of mine broke up with a guy she’d been dating who “treated her like a character in a Jane Austen novel.” While it was flattering to be treated like a delicate glass doll for awhile, it made it hard to be in a practical relationship. People in a relationship can – and should – call each other beautiful. But sooner or later they also have to talk about where they’re going to live, whether they’re going to have kids, and whose turn it is to take out the trash. Having those kinds of conversations with the person you love doesn’t make your star-crossed courtship less romantic, but it does mean that you two see each other as full, complicated people, instead of one-dimensional characters.

Also, you know who else is hot? Gabriel Byrne.