I was 17 when I fell in love for the first time. It felt like all of the movies, TV shows, and love songs finally made sense. Jim confessing his love to Pam in The Office? Yup! When the Beach Boys sang, “God only knows what I’d be without you”? You bet! While I knew the success rate of high school relationships was low, both hormones and love’s disorienting effects made me think this could be it.
When my partner and I broke up a year and a half later, it hit me that the very first person you love is (usually) just that: the first. I felt stuck in cynicism and sadness for about a year. The notion that love is not eternal is not shocking nor original, so why do I still struggle to grasp it? It makes sense intellectually, but how do you accept it emotionally?
I’ve spent the past year thinking about how to let go of a first love, and why it would warrant a different guide from getting over a first breakup. Both involve crying and anger and complicated emotions, but you may not feel like you’ve had your first love till your third or fourth or fifth relationship. A first love could also look like something that never became an official “relationship” at all—something unrequited, or something that was always meant to be temporary. Something that ended because of external factors (like graduating and moving away) or just a bad match (you’re both growing and changing so much!), rather than either person being particularly cruel. Where you’re left with less “holy shit that was very unhealthy” and more “life’s tide is taking us in different directions; wahhh.” But there are lots of Rookie articles about other kinds of heartbreak, too. And hey, many of them have overlap. So, if you are also feeling achy for a first love, here are some things to remember—chosen with care—to help you soothe, heal, and, ultimately, move forward.
Welcome this new feeling—heartbreak—and know that the newness is part of why it hurts.
A month after that breakup, I went to a party, slept in a bed with a near-stranger, woke up the next morning, and melodramatically cried that “losing my first love would be a lifelong pain.” A year later, this turned out not to be true! Every relationship you’re in will be vibrant in its own, special way. But first loves are extra-easy to romanticize (you’d never been in love before!), and extra-hard to move on from (you’ve never been heartbroken before!). Being able to attribute your grief to the newness of it all can be kind of bummer—we all want our feelings and experiences to be special—but let it bring comfort that no person or event is powerful enough to make you feel this bad all on their own. Which brings us to another reason why you feel extra crummy: nostalgia.
Separate longing for a person from longing for a period of time, or: Resist Nostalgia.
A couple weeks ago, I was talking to a friend who had recently returned home from a long trip. She said that the thought of her in those places now made her upset. When I asked her why, she paused, then said, “Because that was me there.”
I think this idea of it being you, there is the achiest part of things ending. It’s not so much the person you were with or the place where you were, but the fact that it was you who wore those outfits, you who listened to those songs, you who looked at that person with love—and how wild it is that you don’t do those things anymore. The etymology of “nostalgia”—“pain” plus “return home”—tells us that the feeling is less about the specifics of that home than the fact that you can’t go back. Breakups make us more aware than usual of the passing of time, and of our mortal inabilities to stop it. So before you get caught up in the memory-collage of smells, songs, books, and phrases that remind you of the person you were with (and so, the person you were), remember: Nostalgia is powerful! It can convince us that things were better/easier/more beautiful back then, when, in reality, it was just as hard to be a person then as it is now. This memory-collage is not equal to how the whole of your relationship really felt.
Simply reminding yourself of all that may not be enough to really internalize it. So, you’re gonna need to actively counter the experience of nostalgia. Make a new collage of songs, movies, books, etc. that make you want to move on. For every playlist that reminds you of that person, there’s another that will make you excited for the future. (Ahem, Rookie has so many of them. Like so many.) When things have been hard, I’ve found comfort in the words of poet David Whyte:
“One of the difficulties of leaving a relationship is not…leaving the person themselves…what’s difficult is leaving the dreams that you shared together. And you know that somehow—no matter who you meet in your life in the future, and no matter what species of happiness you would share with them—you will never, ever share those particular dreams again, with that particular tonality and coloration.”