First Love: Was Your Best Love the One That Didn't Last?

First love sets the stage for later love.

Posted Nov 09, 2020 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan

Krystine I. Batcho
Source: Krystine I. Batcho

There are times in life when something we love that has served us well no longer suits us. It can be obvious that we have outgrown it or that it will no longer work for us, but it can be very difficult to walk away. We can be reluctant to leave what has given us so much happiness and so many good times. 

Leaving our first romantic relationship is more profound. It can feel like we are being disloyal by abandoning the one who loved us first. And we can wonder whether we’ll ever again enjoy such deep security in knowing we are loved in such an ideal relationship. 

As Kenny Rogers sang in "But You Know I Love You": “If only I could find my way back to the time when the problems of this life of mine didn’t cross our minds, all the answers could be found in children’s nursery rhymes, I’d come running back to you.” As time distances us from our first love, it disappears into the recesses of our forgotten-for-now memories.

In "First Love," Seals and Crofts sang: “Everybody has a first love they have left in yesterday. Feelings they have left behind. It’s just a place in time but not so far away.” For Seals and Crofts, looking back wasn’t a response to feelings of regret when a new relationship wasn’t working out. They wrote their song for that special first love not when they were unhappy with their lives, but when life was good: “I’ve got everything, everything in life that I wanted.” So, dusting off a long-ago memory of our first love doesn’t have to reflect disappointment in our present.

In Seals and Crofts’ song, “First love never dies.” What is it about first love that ensures in memory even after it has faded in reality? Is there empirical evidence that first love is special and uniquely enduring? Empirical research on first love faces conceptual and methodological difficulties. Defining first love is even more problematic than defining love in general and romantic love in particular. 

Despite changes across historical periods and cultures, a contemporary understanding of romantic love has emerged from empirical investigations. Romantic love has been characterized by an investment in the well-being of the beloved, intimacy, sexual desire, exclusivity, acceptance, respect, understanding, authenticity, trust, and enjoyment. Definitions of first love have focused on relationships that were deeper than fleeting or superficial “crushes” or passing experiences of fandom.

First love has been explored empirically despite the complexities arising from definitional and cultural entanglements. Not surprisingly, studies have shown first love to be a phenomenon associated with youth. Across a number of cultures, the reported median age of the experience of first love has ranged from 13 to 17 years. Youth imbues experiences with deep emotion and the special quality of being the first. 

First love has been distinguished from romantic love in general by a number of important qualities. First love is more likely to be experienced as unique and perfect, with an emphasis on togetherness, sharing, and communication. First love is characterized by idealism, innocence, emotional connection, reciprocal involvement, orientation to the future, and desire for a pervasive presence of the loved one. 

Is first love really like no other? In Seals and Crofts’ "First Love," memories of that early failed relationship are not associated with bitterness or hostile feelings, such as anger or desires for revenge. First love leaves footprints of unadulterated, innocent love. As expressed by Seals and Crofts, remembering engenders loving thoughts: “First love in my life. Where are you tonight? I wonder about you... Did things turn out alright? I worry about you... It would kill me now and make me sad to know you are lonely... I wish you love; I wish you happiness. And may the years be kind to you.”

Why would a former relationship foster such nurturing feelings?

Seals and Crofts tell their first love, “You’ll always be a part of me, share this thought with me. I’ll carry you always.” Recent research has suggested that being in love may generate more than passing feel-good benefits. Patterns of activity in the regions of the brain related to romantic love in people currently in love have been compared with those in people who have fallen out of love. The comparisons suggested that being in love may affect the functional architecture of brain areas important to romantic love. While such research is in its infancy, early findings raise the possibility that the experience of first love begins building the foundation for later romantic relationships, influencing how the brain processes the array of feelings and behaviors essential to love.

Unlike more mature relationships, first love often ends when the couple simply outgrows it. As Adele sang in her tribute to first love, “Forgive me first love, but I’m too tired. I’m bored, to say the least, and I, I lack desire.” Adele’s lyrics make no accusations. She explains with simple honesty, “I need to taste a kiss from someone new.” 

Research has suggested that people are most likely to fall out of love when one no longer perceives their partner as they had originally, but has come to view them as different in important respects. In mature romances, such a shift can result from violations of the qualities essential in loving relationships. Secretiveness, loss of respect, and sexual or emotional infidelity are indications that the beloved is no longer the person the partner had fallen in love with. Such betrayal can result in hostile or bitter feelings after the relationship ends. 

Early first love, on the other hand, is often simply outgrown, as each partner develops new interests, abilities, and aspirations. Personal growth is to be expected in adolescents and constitutes no reason for resentment in the aftermath. As symbolized in the song "Puff the Magic Dragon," "painted wings and giant springs make way for other toys," and little boys like Jackie Paper no longer go to play with magic dragons. 

Like childhood, the romance we choose to dub first love is swathed in a protective wrap of innocence and idealism. We save it for the times we might need to remember what genuine pure love felt like. We know that that youthful match would no longer satisfy our new needs as we have grown into the person we are now. But there are times when that first love calls out to us, and momentarily at least, we wish it still fit.


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