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First Love, Lost Love: Is It Imprinting?

Does teen biology determine the bonds between romantic partners?

There are many newspaper, magazine, and Internet articles about my rekindled romance research. In some of these, the idea of biological "imprinting" during adolescence is put forth by the journalist. I would like to clarify that this theory is not mine. My rekindled romance research is about all lost love reunions, first love or otherwise. And, my research doesn't support imprinting theory.

Imprinting is a term used to describe bonds that form biologically, for all members of that species. An example would be young ducks following the mother duck: whatever the ducks see moving within a few hours after they hatch, they follow; they will not imprint and follow anything they see before the critical period window or after the critical period.

For people, there is no such teen process; if there were, every adult who had a teen boyfriend or girlfriend would have a "lost love," a yearning just for the teen sweetheart, because they all had the same teen hormones. Obviously, this is not the case. There are plenty of teen sweethearts who marry — and divorce.

About two-thirds of my participants chose to reunite with their first loves, but the success rate of first loves compared to people who reunite with their college loves (or even crushes from childhood!) is not significantly different. So being a first love couple is not sufficient or necessary for having a successful reunion, even though all those raging teenage hormones were experienced.

Some of my lost love participants had more than one lost love who they reunited with. What do we do with that? Two imprinted bonds? Baby ducks don't follow two mothers.

I am a developmental psychologist, teaching and researching how people change or stay the same over the lifespan. My research focuses on the shared environments and the identity formation of youth. Successful reunions most often occur when a couple grew up in the same way: They dated for one or more years, in the same town, went to school together, knew each other's families, perhaps shared religious experiences. Together they formed their identities during these formative years and defined together what love meant to them. The most common reasons these couples separated years ago were: too young, moved away, or their parents disapproved.

The importance of shared upbringing during youth is what makes old friends from grade school and high school so special. This has nothing to do with hormones. And some of my participants chose "reunions" with old friends, not former sweethearts, and the reunions were successful.

Beyond looking at people who tried lost love reunions, I had a control group: 1600 participants who agreed to fill out surveys and were assigned, by, to mine. They had never tried to reunite with a lost love. I asked them about their first love experiences, using the same questions I gave to the rekindlers. The results indicated that most of these people did not have a lost love bond, even though they had ex-boyfriends or girlfriends from high school and experienced raging teen hormones.

Their first love romances were often troubled (unlike the rekindlers' positive love experiences); but they reported that their first loves were memorable, nonetheless — as models for the kind of person they never wanted to date again. No imprinting whatsoever: they were done with their first loves and could not understand, they wrote, why anyone would want to reunite!

Rekindlers were people who wondered what might have been if the situations that ended their romances had not interrupted their love. The non-rekindlers had no such unresolved feelings. Both groups had the same hormonal experiences. It wasn't the biology that distinguished them.

Adolescence is a period of many kinds of intense emotions. All these memories can be encoded in the sensory areas of the brain; when an old friend, ex-sweetheart, or lost love shows up again in our lives, these memories are aroused with the sight or voice of that person (and sometimes by smell or touch). But strong emotional memories are not imprints. They do not prevent later bonds from occurring that are just as strong or stronger. They do not determine our behavior. The choice is ours, as humans, to follow the found person or to let him or her go.

Copyright 2010 by Nancy Kalish, Ph.D.

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