First Love: Will It Ever Be The Same?
Why we spend our lives searching for lost paradises and adapting to losses.
Posted Sep 16, 2019
Olly’s distraught. “It’s over,” he says. “She’s ended it!” The tears well up in his eyes. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know if I can carry on. I feel like I’m falling to bits!”
They’d been together for six months and during that time his world was transformed. He’d never been happier: proud of his girlfriend, loving their time together, telling her things he’d never told anyone else, becoming more confident with other people, more at ease with himself…. And now everything’s in pieces, his world shattered.
He’s not exaggerating when he says that he doesn’t know if he can carry on. It really will feel like a matter of life and death to him, as if everything that mattered, everything that gave life meaning—everything—is now lost. As if he’s lost.
The loss of our first love is a developmental milestone of huge significance. (Romeo and Juliet kill themselves because they can’t imagine life without the other person.) Young people like Olly, having committed themselves to that first amazing relationship, suddenly become extremely vulnerable.
There are losses like his that happen suddenly, without warning, but childhood and adolescence are characterized by persistent experiences of loss, seeping into everything, affecting everything. “Why can’t my life be the way it used to be? Why can’t things be simple?” Growing older may be exciting in some ways, but also feels like losing so much: losing basic simplicities (“I thought my parents would know the answer!”), losing play-time (“Everything’s reallyboringnowadays!”), losing physical affection (“We’re not close anymore!”), losing junior school (“I still miss it in some ways”), losing trust in the world and in oneself as someone with straightforward wants and needs (“Actually, I’m quite complicated!”).
Growing older is about finding accommodation with this pervasive experience of loss expressed in a thousand different ways: “Why do I have to get up in the mornings? Why do I have to go to school? Why do I have to organize myself? Why are my parents so useless? Why does everything have to be so difficult?” Having been ejected from some half-remembered paradise, it’s as if young people are bereaved, their grief expressed in the same ways that Kubler-Ross (1969) outlines in writing about bereavement: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and then—finally—acceptance.
Life begins with loss, or with what Lacan (1966) calls a "primordial discord". As babies we emerge into a chaotic world of frustration, mixed feelings, disappointment, after which things are never the same again. Young people may try to compensate by replacing lost objects with transitional ones (Winnicott 1975); they may replace parents with friends; they may replace an original response with a learned adaptation, but the underlying sense of loss is always there and is always being mourned during adolescence, as if young people—over and over again—are unconsciously replaying their original loss of the womb. Adolescence might be described as the search for that lost paradise and as the gradual realization—after much misery and disillusionment—that the lost paradise will never be found. As Holloway (2008) writes, “All our paradises are lost paradises” (p136). Bedrooms sometimes fill up with the clutter of childhood because to throw anything away is to acknowledge that childhood is over, that it's time to let go of the dream and take responsibility for creating our own lives.
So, in a sense, the loss of his girlfriend will be the latest in a series of losses in Olly’s life, reminding him painfully of what he always knew but hoped would somehow be different: that nothing lasts forever. He’ll have hoped that Alice would be the person who’d make his world a better, more reliable place where nothing would need to change again, and now, like the ancient mariner, he’s left a sadder and a wiser man. Now anything might happen. Now the future’s become scary again. Adult platitudes are of no use. There’s an emptiness that Olly must gradually try to fill, but in the meantime the agony and the disillusionment are awful.
Holloway, R. (2008) Between the Monster and the Saint. Edinburgh: Canongate.
Kubler-Ross, E. (1969) On Death and Dying. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Lacan, J. (1966) Ecrits. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Co.
Winnicott, D.W. (1975) Through Paediatrics to Psycho-analysis. London: Tavistock Publications.