Relationships & Dating

The Special Power of First Love

Dear Adeline,

You are not being unrealistic but it may be best to slow your fantasies down a bit. There’s a good chance that if you two liked each other so much once, that you will hit it off again, but that doesn’t mean that something lasting or permanent is inevitable.

Many people have been reconnecting these days because of social media. Some of those reunited couples have wound up getting married. The actress Carol Channing reconnected with her middle school boyfriend after 60 years and became his wife until he died in 2011. A California psychologist, Linda Waud, married her first love 35 years after breaking up. They have now been married for 12 years:

“First relationships don’t tend to work because people want to move on and try new stuff, and it is only when you look back that you might think, wow, I had that special thing. This does make future relationships harder because subsequent people feel like second best. I always yearned for Ben. But I would advise people to make the best of what they have. They shouldn’t leave happy marriages in search of their first loves.”

Idealistic memories of first love are common. But they may be an impediment to future relationships, because they are not subject to later scrutiny. The first love can remain preserved pristinely in our memory while subsequent ones are tested by the complications that adult, real-life love brings with it.

Jane Austen warned, “Preserve yourself from a first Love and you need not fear a second.”

But the memory of these early relationships can be powerful. Some psychologists think they may be analogous to the phenomenon “imprinting,” in which a baby duck responds to the first bird he sees ever after as his “mother.”

Rutgers anthropologist Helen Fisher, who has written extensively about the neurobiology of love, says this about the “first”:

“First of all, you never forget the person … and if the timing is right and they come back, you can trigger that brain circuitry for romantic love almost instantly and be back in love again.”

You should proceed with caution, and scrutiny however. Clearly your husband was not an ideal spouse, but you don’t know what would have happened with Jeff if you had stayed together. He would have had problems, no doubt; maybe even some of the same issues, but you never got a chance to test him.

That doesn’t mean it is dangerous to do so now. Given that you are unattached, it seems like it is worth the risk to meet up with him. He may have changed a lot, but people are remarkably consistent, too. When I have gone to reunions I have always been struck by this, and particularly in the area of basic character.

Becoming lovers, of course, is a step that many never take with their first love. This may be why some of us stayed hooked: what would have happened with the “one who got away?” But it can be daunting to imagine it when you are preserved in someone’s memory, as you were when you were in your teens.

It might be a good idea to ask yourself what you liked so much about him in the first place.  Was it his sense of humor, his exuberance, and his zest for adventure? Or was he intelligent and thoughtful? If you identify these facets, you may be able to ask yourself whether or not they are still there. You may find he has changed, or that you had misperceived him in the first place.

Darcy, for example, reconnected with a former boyfriend whom she had passionately loved as a teenager. They had a deep connection in many ways and when they starting talking by phone and email, she again found him instantly attractive. But she also remembered that they had been out of sync because he was more conservative than she, and he tended to be judgmental. After exploring the idea of seeing him again, she realized that they were too far apart politically, and she did not want to be judged by someone who had such different standards.

Carrie had loved her first boyfriend because of his idealism and big heart. When she met him again, she found they still had a powerful attraction and that he was very much the same. He took care of his extended family and even members of the community, and seemed to have an open-door policy at his house. But while his natural good-naturedness was intact, life had dealt him some hard knocks and he was not as optimistic as he had been. He had an “edge” that she did not remember from all those years ago. But Carrie concluded that was a natural response to life events and part of basic maturation rather than a “flaw” that would cause her to dismiss him as a lover.

Becoming lovers, of course, is a step that many never take with their first love. This may be why some of us stayed hooked: what would have happened with the “one who got away?” But it can be daunting to imagine it when you are preserved in someone’s memory, as you were when you were in your teens.

This is an issue for anyone who is dating in their 40s and beyond. Men often have the same concerns. While no one wants to be rejected, I think you can safely assume any man who is contacting a woman of a certain age must have realistic expectations about her. Also, you say he has seen recent photos of you so he shouldn’t be all that surprised when you meet.

Your fear that you might tarnish the memory is understandable but one that you should reconsider. Even if your reunion is not successful, it should not necessarily cause you to re-evaluate the past. You say he seems remarkably the same, so why should you expect to be disappointed?

The important thing is to keep your initial expectations in check. You should aim for a pleasant and successful reunion at first, rather than start imaging the rest of your lives together. As in any relationship, there are many steps between getting together and getting married, and each should be taken with care. Still, CBS News cites a Cal State study that found early sweethearts that reconnect have a 70 percent chance of staying together. Take a chance—the odds are in your favor, and it may be well worth the risk.

Dr. Ford



Fisher, Helen. ANATOMY OF LOVE: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray  (W.W. Norton & Company, 2016)



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