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by Anna Breslaw
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?
When artist Rora Blue asked a single Q—”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 Jennifer Talarico, Ph.D., a cognitive psychologist at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. “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 Web 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 sex partners also play a key role in developing our identities, says Michelle Skeen, Psy.D., 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 molded 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 college sophomore 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 to the States, they kept it up long-distance 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 Helen Fisher, Ph.D., anthropologist and research fellow at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University in Bloomington. Fisher analyzed the brains of people who’ve been dumped, using an fMRI 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 dreamed 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 down John 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 Nancy Kalish, Ph.D., 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 long-term—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.”
*All names and identifying details have been changed.
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