The Power Of First Loves

Have you ever wondered why you remember your first kiss so vividly, but maybe not the fourth or fifth or twentieth? Or why, perhaps even years after breaking up, you still compare potential mates to your first love and find yourself falling for people who remind you of him or her? Maybe you even repeat the behaviors you engaged in in that relationship. Have you ever considered why your first sexual experience remains among the most prominent in your mind though you’ve had much better trysts since? Or why, years and big-life experiences later, your college experience sticks out as one of your major life-defining times? An interesting article in Psychology Today explores the notion of first experiences. “Part of why firsts affect us so powerfully,” the article explains, “is that they’re seared into our psyches with a vividness and clarity that doesn’t fade as other memories do.” This is known as the “primary effect,” and is something people experience the most in their late teens and early 20s, when they’re beginning to identify themselves through the stories of their lives.One’s late teens and early 20s have such a large impact on self-identity, in fact, that “when psychologists ask older people to recall the events of their lives, the ones they most often name are those that occurred” in that time of their lives. And the reason for that is because that’s when people experience the most “firsts.” And firsts, it turns out, are so packed with deep emotional and physiological sensations, they’re deeply etched in our memories, creating what psychologists call “flash-bulb” memories. In addition, these “firsts” drive up dopamine and norepinephrine, chemicals in the brain that basically make us feel good, tuned in, and rewarded.

What happens, then, is when we experience something, like, say meeting someone who reminds us of a first love — whether it’s physical appearance or a similar personality — those chemicals are released again and the memory we have of that relationship is triggered. We may even assign this new person the characteristics of our exes. This is called “transference.” And it’s not just the characteristics of your ex that gets transferred; “your old feelings, motivations, and expectations are also reactivated.” According to Susan Andersen, a psychologist at NYU who studies mental representations of significant others, “if someone new reminds you of an ex you still love, […] you’ll like that new person more, want to be close to them, and even start repeating the behaviors you engaged in with your ex.” In other words, many people really don’t truly get over their first loves.

What do you think about this? Have you found yourself ever subconsciously assigning the qualities of an ex — someone with who maybe you shared a lot of firsts with — to someone who reminds you of him? What big firsts stick out in your mind? It’s been years since my first real relationship; I’ve dated lots of guys since then and am happily married to someone who is a million times better for me than that first love. But I still remember our first date like it was last month. I can still see the label on the bottle of wine on the table top and picture the books lined so neatly on his bookshelf. It’s a powerful thing, isn’t it — those “flash-bulb” memories? [via Psychology Today]