Twenty years ago . . . She was my first relationship . . . My first boyfriend . . . I was 17 . . . She was 19 . . . We were crazy about each other . . . We broke up because . . . So much time has passed . . . I find myself thinking of her . . . He keeps appearing in my dreams . . . I’m happily married . . . I’m happily married, BUT . . . I can’t help but wonder . . . We recently reconnected . . . I know I need to move on . . . Please, help . . . What should I do?
If you spend enough time reading advice columns, you notice a pattern. In the stream of sorrows and quandaries and relationship angst, one word bubbles up again and again. First. My first love. My first time. My first ever. And unlike all the relationships that came after, with this one, the past can’t seem to stay in the past.
Because long after it ends, our first love maintains some power over us. A haunting, bittersweet hold on our psyches, pulling us back to what was and what can never be again. Unless . . . ?
But why? Why should this one lodge in our brains any differently than the others, even when the others were longer, better, more right? They just weren’t quite as intense as the first.
The scientific research on this topic is thin, but the collective wisdom among psychologists says it’s a lot like skydiving. Meaning, you’ll remember the first time you jumped out of an airplane much more clearly than the 10th time you took the leap.
“Your first experience of something is going to be well remembered, more than later experiences,” explains Art Aron, a psychology professor at State University of New York at Stony Brook who specializes in close relationships. “Presumably there’d be more arousal and excitement, especially if it’s somewhat scary. And falling in love is somewhat scary — you’re afraid you’ll be rejected, you’re afraid you won’t live up to their expectations, afraid they won’t live up to yours. Anxiety is a big part of falling in love, especially the first time.”
So the relationship embeds itself in us in a way that all those who follow never can. Not that the subsequent loves aren’t as good. For most people, hopefully, the ones that come later, that last, are ultimately more nourishing, steadier and more solid. But this doesn’t stop anyone from clicking on their first love’s new profile picture when it pops up on Facebook. You know, just to see.
It’s possible, Aron says, that the experience is magnified because, for many, it happens during adolescence, when hormones are raging, and every life experience — a bad grade, a big win, a family fight — feels magnified. Even in a fully developed adult brain, “the neurological response to being in love with someone is very strong,” he says. “It’s the same as being on cocaine. It’s this huge desire.”
Jefferson Singer, a Connecticut College psychologist whose research focuses on autobiographical memory, says that most people have something he calls a “memory bump” between age 15 and 26. “They recall more memories, and they tend to be more positive memories,” he says. That’s because we experience so many “firsts” during this period, but also because, after the fact, “we have more opportunity to rehearse it and replay it, rethink it, reimagine it, re-experience it.”
And for first loves, he adds, “I also think it becomes, to some degree, a template. It becomes what we measure everything else against.” Which can become a dangerous game, of course, if your first relationship was exciting, but volatile and unhealthy. Seeking those same highs and lows may lead to frustration at best, wreckage at worst.
Nancy Kalish has spent more than two decades studying couples who reunite after many years apart. The psychology professor at California State University at Sacramento says that the key to understanding the power of first love is knowing how it shaped us. In your first instance of requited romance, everything feels new, “and together you decide what love is.”
Kalish says there’s “nothing magical about first love,” beyond the fact that it happened to be the first. But there is something magical about couples whose love was interrupted and then rekindled later in life. With Facebook, this has become an ever more frequent occurrence.
The pairs who reunite successfully often fit a certain profile, says Kalish. They were younger than 24 when they dated, they grew up in the same place and broke up for some external reason — their parents didn’t approve, or someone moved away or shipped off to war.
During my years as The Washington Post’s wedding reporter, I wrote about several such couples, including Denise Pavone and Jeff Storck, who dated as teens on Long Island in the 1970s but broke up because of a miscommunication when Jeff left for college.
When they found each other in a Washington suburb 35 years later, they quickly fell in love all over again. “It’s like 35 years never happened,” Storck said before their 2010 wedding. Today, after more than five years of marriage, he sees two versions of Denise. “I see her as she is,” he says. “But I still look at her and see the 16-year-old that I remember.”
Kalish says her research has found that when both parties to a first love are truly available when they reunite — either single, widowed or divorced — the relationships have a 70 percent success rate. But many of the people she hears from these days are heartsick, rather than happy. A survey she conducted two years ago found that two-thirds of the people who found their lost love were married at the time of the reunion.
Singer, the psychologist who studies memory, has one more theory about why the thought of a first love can remain so fresh and alluring, even after decades go by. Perhaps especially after decades go by.
“I think it’s not just about the other person. It’s about who we were at that time,” he says. “We’re relishing the image of ourselves. They give us license to be the person we were once again – young and vibrant and beautiful.”