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First, But Not Last: On Finding, Navigating, and Losing First Loves

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This article is not a set of instructions. Consider it as more of a virtual comforting cup of tea, if you will. Because I can't show up at your doorstep and sing a tearful duet of "The First Cut is the Deepest" with you, I wrote this article instead.

One some level, this article is advice. It is more so, however, food for thought; it's a bunch of things to think about wherever you're at with your first love.


So, you're in love.

You think to yourself, this is it. This is what all those books, movies, and songs are about. The stars have finally aligned properly, and you've found your person. No more lonely nights; no more struggling through the dating scene with people you never even liked that much to begin with, no more worrying there isn't someone else out there in the world for you. Now, you know for sure that there is. You're no longer the single friend, and you never will be again. Never again will you feel pathetic on Valentine's Day. When your nosy relatives ask if you're seeing anyone, you can happily tell them that you are. 

You feel a sharp rush of blood to your brain when you see their car pull into the driveway, and your heart starts pounding hard against your chest when they knock on the door. You miss them even when they're in the bathroom, and you welcome them back with open arms and kisses on the forehead when they return. Perhaps you see a future with your new love; you envision a cute little apartment in some cool city with a cat and upcycled furniture. They occupy all your daydreams; you can hardly think about anything or anyone else. You don't even notice other attractive people when you're out and about anymore. No one else can compare.

Nothing that happened in the past in the realm of love matters compared to this relationship. Your entire body shakes down to its very core; it's an entirely unprecedented feeling, and you are beyond thrilled. You don't know what to do with yourself. It's like your skin is on fire, and even the most mundane things around you are pumped full to the brim with energy and light. Every song you hear, the weather, the places you go together -- it all gets associated with this person and the way they make you feel. So much of your happiness hinges upon this person and what they think, say, and do.

When the glow first fades

While you might just be so deliriously happy that you can't climb down from cloud nine for even a second, anxieties, doubts and fears might also start trickling in. Once those initial "oh-my-god-I-just-fell-in-love" feelings wear off and everything starts to feel a little more normal, you may be left with deep, meaningful feelings for a person without the glittery haze of new love. Of course, this feels great in its own way; the person's presence is comforting. When you're with them, you simply feel content. You like having them around; it feels organic and peaceful. At the same time, it can be scary once the newness has worn off. You may start to worry that your partner doesn't feel the same way anymore. You might wonder where all those initial, bright sparks are going.

Your partner might not dole out compliments in a non-stop stream now that you've been together for a while. The love notes that went on about their infinite love and adoration for you might slow down or even stop. Sometimes, they're in a bad mood around you. They might snap at you on occasion; the two of you might bicker or even have full-fledged fights. The idealistic image you had of them in the beginning is more or less gone, but the love is still there. You see your partner as a full person now: you see your love as something more complicated than a new, shiny thing.

Despite of or even because of the love you have, you may start feeling downright wracked with fear and insecurity, feelings almost as intense as that seemingly endless rush you felt when you first fell in love. In the beginning, you thought there was absolutely no way this would end: it felt like forever. Now, the relationship's end doesn't feel like a distant, impossible nightmare; it feels like an actual thing that could conceivably happen. When you look at your partner, you see a person with real flaws; a person who is capable of hurting you, a person you are capable of hurting. 

Love is real, but fairytales are not

When we fall in love with someone, especially for the first time, everything often seems -- and feels -- perfect, at least at first. Our feelings are so intense that we honestly feel like we're living in a fairytale or movie; even if we were cynical and skeptical before, we now believe that true love exists because we've experienced it. We've felt it. We know it to be true. We're one of those people we may have once found annoying and delusional. The first person you date isn't necessarily the first person you feel this way about. It might take some time; in fact, it probably will. This makes the feelings you have for your first love all the more intense -- once it feels like you've searched and waited for a person, their appearance in your life has all the more meaning. 

See, though, "true love" as we know it from fairytales and romantic comedies doesn't really exist. There's just nothing about these stories that is at all realistic or attainable. Have you ever noticed that many times in these stories, the whole thing ends with a wedding and the implication of happily ever after? In real relationships, the wedding is not the end -- in fact, most (if not all) married people would argue that it's only the beginning. And nothing -- as in no relationship, ever -- is automatically happy forever. An effortlessly perfect lifelong relationship has never once happened in human history; I can promise you that. Of course, that is not to say people can't maintain a healthy relationship for a very long time. They absolutely can. However, healthy relationships take work. They take maturity. No one is automatically granted a relationship that stays perfect forever; trials and tribulations will inevitably arise. 

If you come from a conservative town like mine, marriage is seen as the end-game. Even people who don't generally buy into the norms of your hometown often have this idea engrained in their hearts and minds. It has probably always felt as though there's no other real option -- when you find "The One," you marry them. You wear a white dress or a nice suit, you get your hair done all fancy; you go to church and profess your unconditional love for each other in front of your nearest, dearest family and friends. It's just how it's done. Alternatives are rarely, if ever, presented. Due to the impact of this mentality, we may feel driven to hold onto the person we believe is "The One" by any means necessary. We may feel as though we must fight for this relationship, and if we don't, that person will become the one that got away. We fear that we'll lament the loss of this relationship for the rest of our days, settling on a different partner eventually, but always wondering, "what if?"

It might feel like your current parter or recently-instated ex-partner was "The One." But really, they weren't. At least not in some whole-lifetime way, anyway. If you decide to have a life partnership with someone or get married, that person won't really be "The One" either. That whole concept of there existing only one true love for us on earth is just not based in reality. I mean, if you really think about it, it doesn't even make any sense. There are billions of people in the world; why would there only be one soulmate out there for you?

I do believe in soulmates, but I don't think we have just one. (I also don't think soulmates, people we connect with on a deep, fundamental level, are exclusively romantic. Platonic friends can be soulmates, too. Mentors can be soulmates. If and when we have kids in our lives, they can be our soulmates, too.) There's a pool of people we'll meet over the course of our lives with whom we can potentially connect deeply. So while your first love is exhilirating and amazing, this person is by no means the last person you'll ever connect deeply with and love profoundly.

There are people who really get under our skin, though. There are connections and relationships that access a part of ourselves we may almost never see otherwise; that pull up emotions we didn't even know we had. But the person who makes us feel the most at a given time isn't necessarily the person we're "supposed" to be with. Overwhelmingly strong feelings for a person do not always mean one kind of relationship with them -- or any relationship at all -- is a good fit for us or them. The feelings we have are only one piece of the relationship puzzle, not all the pieces. Our strong feelings aren't always about the good parts of the person/relationship, either. Sometimes, someone will make us feel very deeply because they hurt us in some way, or we're using them as a vehicle to hurt ourselves.

Deciding to be with someone is just that: a decision. No one inherently "needs" anybody, separate from the way we are interdependent as humans for all of our vital needs, like food, water, shelter, or basic touch and social interaction. In reality, there's not likely any destiny involved in the business of love any more -- if you believe in that -- than there is in anything else, be that in who our mother is, or that we just stubbed our toe on the darn desk again.

It's all about choice. You might feel like you need this person in order to survive; I understand that completely. That's actually kind of how human attachment works. One way or another, however, I can pretty much guarantee that you don't. 

"When you know, you just know." That's what my grandma said about her decision to get married. I disagree. Intuition is powerful, but I wouldn't advise you to use that as your sole means of choosing a partner to commit yourself and your life to. 

When you're trying to convince yourself this will never end:

You know other people's stories of their first loves eventually falling apart, but you feel like your situation is, that it must be, different. And, of course, it is different; no two loves are exactly the same. That is a spectacular and beautiful thing; your relationship with every person you're ever involved with is entirely unique. It's different from any love that has ever existed on earth before. However, while no one has ever experienced precisely what you're experiencing, most people, at some point in their lives, have experienced first love and understand the feelings that accompany it.

While it's not particularly romantic or optimistic, people (especially older people with more life experience) understand how first loves tend to go. That person may always hold a special place in your heart; many times, they'll be a person to whom you compare all other partners for some time. But these relationships still usually end, shift, or change, as all other kinds of relationships do.

It's very rare that a person's first love ends up being their one and only love forever, for the rest of all time. It might feel like there's no other option or outcome, but there is. It might feel like you'll never, ever love again. But you will. It's true that you'll never fall in love for the first time again, but there will be another person (actually, probably multiple people over the course of your life) who you love and care for profoundly. Maybe -- probably -- even more deeply, with more complexity and layers, than the person you consider your first love.

If we saw the end from the beginning, would anyone ever take a chance on falling in love?

Things just ended and you feel like you're falling apart

In case you don't think I know at least somewhat how you feel, when my first love broke up with me, I fainted. 

He did it via email at four o'clock in the morning. I had been up late, and I was just checking Facebook before I went to sleep when the notification popped up.

When I read the first line, my limbs felt completely numb and everything went black. I came to after what was probably just a couple seconds and started wailing and sobbing like some actor in an ancient Greek tragedy. It sounds like a theatrical affair, but it was entirely genuine; this wasn't drama. It legitimately felt like a death of some sort. Of course, he was still alive and well, but things would never be the same between us. Our relationship died, and with it, so did the parts of me that I'd invested.

I knew it. I had just moved away to college and up till he sent that email, he had been living on the other side of the country for three months with no phone and limited internet access. In my heart of hearts, I knew things were not great in our relationship at that point. I was still blindsided. My last email to him before that had been an offer to pay for his plane ticket home if he didn't have enough money to come back for the holidays. 

In the following weeks, I muddled through my life in a haze, perpetually numb and shaky and slightly nauseated. I partied a lot. I hooked up with other people. I tried to act like I was okay, like I was getting over it, but I wasn't. Before, I had thought that this would be our grandiose love story -- that I could be brave enough to do this, to wait however long I needed to. I honestly thought it was the right thing to do, and in some ways, I think it was. I learned the hard way that no matter how hard you try, no matter how bad you want them or how much you love them, you can't make people stay. You can't will it to work when it won't. 

In that relationship, I had been the most vulnerable I'd ever been with anyone up to that point. When it ended, it felt like all the love, time, and care I'd poured into it had been thrown back in my face. I felt rejected and inherently broken, like if this person couldn't love me, then no one could.

Needless to say, even imagining the way you're probably feeling right now makes me want to cry. I know because I have been there and, hell, I am still there on certain days. The pain is deep, dark, and profound; it feels insurmountable. I know. It is unspeakably awful.  

Breakups always suck, but your first breakup with your first love is a particular, unique kind of hell. It's hard to describe, but it feels like you might actually die. No joke. To say it hurts would be a tremendous, egregious understatement.  

The memory of a person, and your history with them, may feel like small consolation when your actual, active relationship with them ends. In fact, if you're deeply in love with a person, the thought of your relationship with them being reduced to a mere memory might be unbearably painful. You might think, "Yeah, but what about me? I know letting go is best for them, but what about me? I am so tired of being abandoned, of feeling like a perpetual second choice. They told me they'd always want me and love me. How can they want to leave me now? How can leaving really be best for them when I love them so much?" 

No person can in good conscience give promises of eternal, unconditional, everlasting love. Now that you're no longer together, you may think that all the beautiful things they said to you when you were first in love have been rendered meaningless, or were lies. I understand why you feel this way; I have felt that way too, many times.

This is easier to simply say than it is to believe, but they really probably did mean it at the time, just like you did. Really, they did. At the time, they probably really did think your relationship could last forever, just like you did. They believed it at the time, but things change. Especially when we're young, everything is up the in the air. In our teens and early twenties, most of us are not in a place to make any kind of huge commitment or promise. 

Letting go
Ultimately, love is not about possession; it's just not something we can own, in part because some of it is a feeling, and feelings are beyond our control. Love is freedom; love is liberation, as Maya Angelou once said.

Our egos and our fears of loss may motivate us to hold tight to something even once its time has passed. It's a cliché at this point, but when we love someone, we must let them go if need be. That is one definition of love; loving someone enough to know when to let go. It will probably be among the most difficult things you do in your life.

Honestly, I believe it's one of the hardest parts of being alive. Letting go often hurts like hell, and you may wonder whether or not you're doing the right thing.

You probably won't get it "right" the first time, or the first few times. You might intellectually think, "Okay. This is for the best. This is what's best for my partner, and ultimately what's best for me, too." But then the nights start feeling far too long and too lonely without them; you read over old letters, text messages, and emails. You listen to certain songs that remind you of them; memories of this person fly through the front of your mind on ultraspeed. 

This is often when long messages are sent, or choked-up voicemails are left. In the moment, this might feel like the obvious option. In a sense, you want to prove how hurt you are to this person and appeal to their compassion. You want to coax old feelings out of them, to help them remember. When it's two in the morning and you've had a bad day and can't sleep and you're torturing yourself with old photos and love notes, you might want to look them in the face with tears in your eyes and say, "Please. Please, please, please. It's me. You have to remember. It's me. How can you possibly do this?" 

Although it's tempting and you will probably give into these feelings a time or two, it probably won't yield the results you want. Even if you rekindle things for a while, it won't be the same. You and your former partner will both have changed. Your circumstances will have, too. Patching things back together exactly -- or even close to -- the way they were before is not feasible. If you were to get back together, it would be as two changed people in a different time and place. I would suggest that you think through whether that's really what is best. Sometimes, people grow back together. More often, though, they grow apart. I know how terrible and tragic that sounds.

When certain relationships dissolve, though, new ones that are fundamentally better for us in our current station can develop. They will not take the place of your first love; that person will likely always hold a specific, very special place in your heart and memory. They will, though, bring you new experiences and be good for you in new ways.

When you fall in love again (and again, and again)
Even though it doesn't feel possible right now, I promise you will fall in love again, probably more than once. The prospect might sound so preposterous at this point that you can't even read this right now. That's okay. Feel free to revisit this section at a later date.

Learning often comes out of love. Our partners can teach us a lot about ourselves; about what we need, what we want, and what we're capable of. They can also show us what we definitely do not want. Good partners can show us what we want and deserve. Partners who were perhaps not so good for us can teach us what we don't want. We learn which flaws we can deal with, and which flaws we can't.

Any person you fall in love with will come with their own set of baggage and flaws, just as you do. Some of these flaws will bother you more than others; you can reasonably, healthfully cope with certain problems with one partner, but other flaws in a different partners might be too much for you to handle. Similarly, some of your own flaws might make a certain partnership fundamentally incompatible. That doesn't mean that you or mismatched partners are broken or unloveable; it just means that a committed, romantic relationship with them probably isn't a good idea. Our first loves give us a primer on some of this stuff; we can look back on our experiences with them, see the good and bad, and make decisions about future partners with these things in mind.

For a while, it will feel like you're comparing all your partners or potential partners to your first love. This can get frustrating, but it is to be expected; it makes sense that the first person you loved would color your romantic experiences for some time. When one person is all you've known of romantic love, of course your time with them will influence your next relationship, or even your next few relationships. You might think of them fairly often, and you might wonder if you should be dating anyone new at all.

Eventually, however, you will fall in love again, and probably will fall deeply in love again, even. This new love might not have the same body-shaking intensity as the first time, but that can actually be a good thing. You can see things a little more clearly, and you might feel a little more stable. You know that the world will not end when you go your separate ways, because you've fought that battle before. 

You may feel some disenchantment about love because of your first experience with it. You might think, "Yeah, I've been here before. I've experienced a lot of this stuff for the first time already; I don't know what there it to be gained from doing it all again." The thing is, though, that there are always new firsts in different relationships. Because no two loves are the same, you will experience some new firsts that are wonderful, amazing, and wholly worthwhile with every person you're involved with. Additionally, your new loves will have some firsts with you, and that can be an incredible experience as well. 

The fact that it's not the very first time or that it doesn't feel the same as the very first time does not mean there's nothing new to experience. Really, it doesn't mean that at all. There are all kinds of new experiences to have with anyone you become involved with. If you open yourself up to these experiences, you might find that the idea of "first love" as a concept gets a lot less distinct with time.

Finding value in all of this

At the end of the day, there is multifaceted richness to be found in love or in in-love even when you're devastated because of it. Falling in love, finding comfort in long-term love with a person, having your heart broken, grieving the loss of a relationship...there is value to be found in every level of love and all our experiences with it. Some of the feelings we experience are breathtakingly wonderful and some of them are horrendously awful, but at the end of the day, it's all good for us. The good parts are some of the best parts of being alive. The not-so-good, painful parts help us learn, grow, and change. 

Right now, you might want to your current love to last forever, or you might want the pain from the loss of a relationship to end. You might just want to erase your memory of a person to end the pain their loss caused you, á la Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I get that. With time, though, the good things you learned will come to light and the pain's intensity will slowly, slowly dim. 

Love is not about being protected from emotional pain or loss forever. You're never guaranteed a love that will never cause you distress. bell hooks said it best in this selection from her book, All About Love: New Visions --

The practice of love offers no place of safety. We risk loss, hurt, pain. We risk being acted upon by forces outside our control.

Of course, the person you're in love with should not be directly causing you pain or hurting you. However, in relationships, there are always risks of loss. There is no love without risk of loss -- period.

We must take the chance, though, if you ask me. A life without any sort of love is not one worth living, in my opinion. Romantic love is one type that can cause us the most pain, but can help us tremendously as well. There is so much to be gained, for yourself and for your partners. It's a beautiful thing; fear of losing it shouldn't keep you from it. You deserve it if you want it.  

written 02 Jun 2014 . updated 02 Jun 2014

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