Last week it was reported that Katie Holmes contacted her former co-star, Joshua Jackson, who she referred to as “my first love” in a 1998 Rolling Stones cover story. While there is much to learn from Katie’s Intelligent Divorce from Tom Cruise, there may also be a story here about first love.
A Marriage Almost Undone: Take for example a 41-year-old Ohio woman who thought she was happily married but then reconnected with her first boyfriend and started an affair. "Your heart is kind of open to this person already," she said of the meeting three years ago. "It's like with an old friend, the way you pick up where you left off, but it's not as innocent as an old friend. And then you start thinking about it and going crazy."
Then her husband found out. Thankfully, the affair ended when she chose to leave her lover and her husband took her back.
Enter Facebook: In 2012 your past is completely accessible—for better and for worse. A decade ago, you simply lost touch with people, but with Facebook, your past can be had with the click of a “Timeline” milestone—or revisited with a search of a name.
Cheating behavior starts innocently, with a simple poke, wall post, chat message, “like”—or even a friend request.
Social Media & Divorce: In a study conducted by a law firm, 1,087 divorce cases out of 5,436 cited that any extramarital affairs started from a social networking website. And over 80 percent of U.S. divorce attorneys say they’ve seen a rise in the number of cases using social networking, according to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.
Obviously, sites like Facebook or MySpace are not responsible for ruinous relationships; people make these decisions. I highly doubt Mark Zuckerberg has a sinister plot to destroy relationships worldwide.
But, access is a real game-changer here; which brings us to the power of first love.
Myth & First Love: Many times reconnecting with a former flame, perhaps a first love, taps into feelings and desires we had long since put aside. We may daydream of those moments when we felt that rush of excitement and adoration for the first time. Or suddenly be reminded of the little inside jokes we once shared.
What is it about first love that makes us keep coming back?
Early love has the power to draw us in like a moth to a candle, rooting itself deep in our psyche. It has much in common with trauma, just that first love is an overwhelmingly positive experience. In trauma, the brain is imprinted with a terrible, but novel stimulus, like war, and it’s always on the lookout, in order to avoid being traumatized, yet again.
Early love gets embedded in the same way. It emotionally, physiologically, and philosophically moves us as we consciously or unconsciously compare future loves to our first, mythological one.
First love is a wonderful mix of yearning, touch, being seen, youth and projection. Because it’s novel, and wonderful, we remember it like a prized possession—regardless of how it turned out.
As an adult, you’re probably better off escaping first love’s orbit, and accept it as part of your personal history and move on.
More likely than not, first love is a witch’s brew of memory and wishful thinking—a grand fantasy of your past.
The reasons that love failed are blurred by the almost legendary status we attribute to the relationship. A friend of mine’s college-aged daughter described it best when she discussed her first serious boyfriend: “We break up, time does its thing, and we slowly learn to overlook the bad stuff. We shelve that pain away and instead keep the relationship on a pedestal. But we also intuitively know that we can never attain those same feelings after we have already let go.”
No wonder Facebook triggers so much unrest:
• The stories and adventures with first love can never be revisited because no beloved can be “first” again. And yet, that memory of magic is so inviting; we want that ideal that only a first love can give us. We cherish these memories; that first kiss, that first intimate moment, looking lovingly into each other’s eyes.
• In many ways, reconnecting with a first love later in life is like finding the best parts of ourselves. We were once adored and appreciated despite years of distance; and who doesn’t want to unearth that feeling again?
• The novelty of being in love for the first time is an important layer that makes up this experience. We are romantic blank slates as we approach our first love, inexperienced and untouched by disappointment or regrets. That first memory is significant—it's the first instance to affect our sense of intimacy and the initial step in joining the adult world.
• First love also represents youth. People who are unhappy in their marriages or not happy with adult life and all its pressures might come to idealize the freedom of youth. Your struggle is to understand that it’s just that: an idealization. Many look back longingly on those earlier years and start to think “if only I could be free like I was and go back to those times.”
So what lessons can a “mythological ex” offer you?
• The memory of a first love can give you the opportunity to pinpoint what made you fall for this person in the first place. She may have been warm or understanding. He may have been unbearable handsome. Maybe he was simply kind.
• Be careful, because often we’re attracted to people who can hurt us as well; and first love is not exempt from this problem. You may recall that she was a narcissist or that he partied too much. Perhaps you have an unconscious attraction to people who are not good for you. Or, maybe you have a destructive need to save. These are important lessons.
• You can come to appreciate the journey that could have only started with your first love. First love, like childhood, is a step in a path of learning and improvement that ultimately led to more mature choices. First love is to be valued, but not deified.
First love is amazing. There are no ifs or buts. It’s novel. It’s exciting. It’s sexy and it’s charmed.
Good Memories Have Their Place: The memory of your first love is fixed within your psyche. The key is to learn from that relationship; honor its place in your personal history and keep it there. First love quickly becomes mythological love, and with the advent of Facebook, you may discover that enjoying the myth may be healthier than rekindling something that may not work in your life right now.
Yes, There Are Success Stories: People hook up. Marriages are undone, and new relationships are made from the cloth of old ones. Who knows, maybe Katie had been comparing her relationship with Joshua while considering whether to stay with Tom.
On occasion, these comparisons can wake you up to what’s not right in with your current partner. More often than not, such thinking can backfire (a good therapist can be very helpful in these circumstances). The grass is, after all, always greener on the other side of the fence.
And a Big Note of Caution: Just because your brain “remembers” something as special doesn’t mean that those wonderful memories will translate to your day to day life. A preoccupation with what you once lost may take good energy away from working on what you have right now. Relationships don’t stay fresh for free.
As I wrote in The Field of Intimacy, when you’re close to a partner, there’s often disappointment and resentment as well. And, if there are kids involved, it’s always worth giving your failing relationship another look.
Today, so much can be done to help an arid relationship. And, this is your life now!
Yet, who doesn’t love a fantasy?
Will it—or should it—become a reality?
Maybe yes—probably no.
I want to thank my student intern, Nili Yaari, for making a substantial contribution to this piece. Nili is currently studying psychology at Bar Ilan University in Israel.