After the breakup, your 'first love' never really leaves you

By Kathleen Scalise, Public Affairs

07 February 2001 | Whether your heart belongs to anyone this Valentine's Day may depend on what happened the first time you fell in love.

This new finding, by graduate student Jennifer Beer, challenges the notion commonly held since Freud that the stability of the parent-child relationship sets the stage for attachments later in life.

With romance, said Beer, "Some of the problems you have in the romantic domain may have more to do with your first love than with your parents." She based her work on the first-love stories of 303 Berkeley undergraduates, mostly juniors, collected in 1997.

By "first love," Beer doesn't mean a childhood crush on a teacher or movie star, but the first real relationship of a romantic nature between two individuals, often experienced in adolescence or early adult years. Those who remember the experience positively are more likely to consider themselves securely attached to their current romantic partners, she said, and to perceive their romantic partners as securely attached to them.

She now is looking at how such recent and distant "vivid" representations of self and partner are stored in different memory systems in the brain and what this might reveal about self-perception.

"Vivid memories are very detailed, self-defining, something you recall a lot, stories and anecdotes you dwell on or tell all the time," Beer said.

In the case of first love, such memories often range from bittersweet but fond - perhaps recollections of a poignant puppy love tinged with regard or regret for a long-ago sweetheart - to deeply painful, soul-crushing experiences.

Whatever happened, "it can set you up as thinking, 'This is what I am like as a relationship partner,'" Beer said.

People who recollect their first romantic experience as involving good feelings, for instance, citing memories of happiness, excitement, strength, inspiration, pride and enthusiasm, were more likely to be in stable relationships years later than those recalling hostility, upset, stress, guilt, fright or shame, Beer found.

"First love relationships often break up. So people say, 'What do you mean, good feelings? It was a breakup,' " she said. "But even though the relationship ended, which seems like it might be negative, the vivid memories surrounding the experience can be good or bad."

Beer identified four patterns of perception surrounding relationships:

  • secure - a secure, positive sense of both self and partner in a relationship.
  • dismissive - a positive sense of self, but not of partner.
  • preoccupied - a positive sense of partner, but not of self.
  • fearful - negative recollections of both.


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