First Comes Love

Then comes a tsunami of what-ifs. Your first re­la­tion­ship is like no other, which is why its shadow lingers and shapes ev­ery ro­mance that fol­lows. How do you make peace with those mem­o­ries – and is there such a thing as a sec­ond chance? We dig into the no

Women's Health (South Africa) - - NEWS - BY ANNA BRESLAW

Still se­cretly hung up on your first love? It’s not them, it’s science

“I of­ten won­der what would have hap­pened if we met at the right time”; “The hard­est part about the whole thing is that I lost you as a friend too”; “I’ll never be able to love him like I loved you, and I feel bad about it, but it’ll al­ways only be you.” When US artist Rora Blue asked a sin­gle ques­tion – “What would you say to the first person you fell for?” – those were three of the 34 000 re­sponses she re­ceived. The mes­sages be­came a Web in­stal­la­tion called The Unsent Pro­ject, which con­tin­ues to grow. Why the last­ing in­ten­sity? “It’s called pri­macy,” says Dr Jen­nifer Talarico, a cog­ni­tive psy­chol­o­gist. “Mem­o­ries of a first ex­pe­ri­ence are more vivid than sim­i­lar events that come later.” Like baby ducks think­ing a dust mop is “mom,” a part of you can’t shake that im­print of “part­ner” – en­tic­ing some to toy with (or even act on) re­join­ing that part­ner years later. Read on for in­tel on how to live with the en­dur­ing pres­ence of the one who taught you about love – good and bad.

Last­ing im­pres­sion

ALI­SON*, 24 She still uses her high-school boyfriend’s nick­name and birth­day for her pass­words – seven years af­ter they broke up. “I lost my vir­gin­ity to him,” Ali­son says. “It was New Year’s Eve, with lit­eral fire­works go­ing off in the back­ground. Cheesy, but awe­some.” Be­yond the fact that sex re­leases a surge of oxy­tocin and dopamine, first-time sex part­ners also play a key role in de­vel­op­ing our iden­ti­ties, says Dr Michelle Skeen, a ther­a­pist and au­thor of Love Me, Don’t Leave Me. “She be­came a sex­ual be­ing with him and he was the first person to re­flect that new self back to her.” Now Ali­son is “hap­pily set­tled in a re­la­tion­ship with the person I know is The One” – and yet, para­dox­i­cally, she still thinks about her first and se­cretly hopes she might run into him some­day and get cof­fee to­gether. “He just left such an im­pres­sion on my heart. Even though I haven’t spo­ken to him in ages and prob­a­bly never will, I feel like I’ve been per­ma­nently moulded by him.” Skeen’s re­sponse? First, change those pass­words, which keep mem­o­ries of the ex alive. “When we’re con­tin­u­ally look­ing back at the past, it im­pacts the present.” Re­search bears out the dan­gers: a new Kansas State Univer­sity study of 7 000 cou­ples shows that the more ac­cept­ing peo­ple were of their part­ners be­ing in touch with for­mer flames on so­cial media, the more harm­ful it was to their re­la­tion­ship – partly be­cause it can cre­ate a “slip­pery slope” of temp­ta­tion dur­ing dif­fi­cult times. The other prob­lem with mus­ing about him is that it’s too easy to em­bel­lish the past, es­pe­cially when you’re feel­ing ticked off at your SO. “Re­mem­ber­ing some­thing isn’t like re­play­ing a video,” says Talarico. In­stead, she ex­plains, it’s a process of re­con­struc­tion. The ba­sic el­e­ments stay the same, but you put them to­gether a bit dif­fer­ently each time. So for in­stance, a trip you shared that had real mo­ments of con­flict can seem, in gauzy ret­ro­spect, like one long ro­man­tic high.

Un­fin­ished busi­ness

SAN­DRA*, 30 When she was 18, a sec­ond-year var­sity stu­dent study­ing abroad at Cam­bridge, San­dra met her first boyfriend; he was Bri­tish and 22. “Ever since then I’ve thought that this is how love should feel – like a force of na­ture greater than your­self,” she re­calls. When she re­turned home, they kept it up longdis­tance for a year. “We planned our fu­ture to­gether, from the apart­ment we’d share to the daugh­ter we were sure we’d have named Chloe.” San­dra was blind­sided when he broke up with her right be­fore her grad­u­a­tion, say­ing he needed to fo­cus on his ca­reer. “For weeks, I lay in bed hardly eat­ing or sleep­ing,” she says. “I fell into a deep well of self-loathing – I felt like the only log­i­cal con­clu­sion was that I was so hor­ri­ble, a man wouldn’t want to be with me.” The in­ten­sity of San­dra’s an­guish ac­tu­ally has a neu­ro­log­i­cal ba­sis, says an­thro­pol­o­gist Dr He­len Fisher. Fisher an­a­lysed the brains of peo­ple who’ve been dumped, us­ing an MRI scan­ner, and found that when they thought about their for­mer love, they ex­pe­ri­enced a “brain ex­plo­sion” that tar­geted ar­eas linked to crav­ings, ad­dic­tion and phys­i­cal pain. That chem­i­cal storm can lead to a sense of un­fin­ished busi­ness – even, as in San­dra’s case, a decade later. “I’ve had plenty of pas­sion­ate ro­mances since then, but have never felt con­sumed like that,” she says. And she may never again, says Skeen: “When we’re younger, we’re much more emo­tional and we haven’t been burned yet.” So we en­ter into the re­la­tion­ship at full speed and with very lit­tle self-pro­tec­tion. San­dra still oc­ca­sion­ally dreams about him and she won­ders if meet­ing up with him once would break the spell. But what haunts her, says Skeen, “is not so much the loss of him, but the vis­ceral mem­ory of her hurt younger self.” Skeen ad­vises a dose of self-com­pas­sion. “Her 30-year-old self is judg­ing the 18-year-old she once was. I would have her write a let­ter to that younger self, say­ing, ‘Look, you were only 18. You didn’t have all the an­swers, so don’t beat up on your­self.’”

An­other Shot

LORI AND JOHN*, 51 AND 53 They dated in­no­cently in high school, at ages 15 and 17: no sex, just lots of time to­gether. Then her fam­ily moved and, de­spite love letters and phone calls, they even­tu­ally lost touch – but nei­ther ever for­got the other, even though both mar­ried other peo­ple. “I dreamt of John so many times,” says Lori. “And I wished my hus­band was like John, who be­came the epit­ome of who I thought a man and hus­band should be.” These long-last­ing mem­o­ries are due to a “rem­i­nis­cence bump,” says Talarico; you tend to re­call best the life events that oc­curred from ages 15 to 30, per­haps be­cause those years con­tain the bulk of our first ex­pe­ri­ences. When Lori’s un­happy mar­riage broke up, she tracked John down online and found out he was also di­vorced. They talked on the phone that night and soon af­ter they were Skyp­ing daily. Eigh­teen months later, they got en­gaged. Says Lori, “I felt com­pelled to find the kind of love I knew be­fore.” Will it last the sec­ond time around? Two cir­cum­stances can im­prove your odds of suc­cess, says Dr Nancy Kal­ish, au­thor of Lost & Found Lovers, and Lori and John fit both: hav­ing met at age 22 or younger and break­ing up be­cause of “sit­u­a­tional fac­tors,” like a move, rather than core dis­agree­ments. Kal­ish’s 20 years of re­search show that three-quar­ters of re­unit­ing cou­ples will stay to­gether longterm – if both par­ties are sin­gle when they re­con­nect. “Many peo­ple who re­unite say their ‘lost love’ be­came the ‘stan­dard for all the rest,’” she says. “It’s not just nos­tal­gia, or sex, or an un­re­solved is­sue. It’s real love.”

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