How Your First Love Shapes Future Relationships

Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Erban, LMFT, IMH-E
Updated February 21, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

It is sometimes said that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. The first love effect is thought to be one of the more exhilarating experiences that a human can go through and can be incredibly special. It can also shape your future relationships, including how you go about rekindling the spark with future partners. 

If you find a first love is shaping your present relationships — or thoughts of future ones — a bit too much, you may begin to feel stuck. Understanding the impact of a first love and finding productive ways to move forward can help you develop healthy, fulfilling relationships.

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Are you feeling stuck in the past?

Young love

When it comes to the first time you fall in love, feelings and memories tend to be very personal. For instance, some people might have first fallen in love when they were in their teenage years, while others have their first experience with romantic love in later decades. Some people might even insist that they fell in love for the first time when they were as young as five or six years old.

Some may recall the initial stages of “puppy love” — a youthful, intense feeling of romantic love — sometimes full of movie-worthy love letters, poetry, roses, or heart-shaped boxes of chocolate that can change your whole world. Some may even experience “love at first sight,” described by researcher Helen Fischer as the attraction we may feel within the first three minutes of meeting someone (though she notes that this initial attraction fizzles quickly without a strong emotional connection to follow it). Most people who experienced their first love like this when they were young grow to understand that while the experience was real, it may not have been a defining love. Even so, they may wish they could rekindle those positive emotions, re-live the experience of a first kiss, or revisit a special place.

The first love effect

What if your first love occurs when you’re more mature when you’re old enough to appreciate more complex sensations of love? What if there is a strong sexual attraction along with love? For some people, if their first love is also their first sexual partner, they may develop strong feelings of intimacy due to high levels of oxytocin (also known as, ‘the love hormone’).

“You never forget your first love”

“You never forget your first love” is a famous cliché that can have some truth to it. Falling in love affects the hormonal interactions in your brain and can impact neurological developments. According to cognitive scientists, feel-good brain chemicals called neurotransmitters are released when we’re in love, including dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin. Physical touch can make pleasurable feelings even more intense. The brain may remember these pleasurable feelings and intense sensations from your first love and make you want to re-experience the neurochemical “high” you felt when you were on the same page.

When a first love occurs during adolescence, people may be more likely to vividly remember the emotions of being in love. Sometimes, this first love creates an imprint on the brain while individuals are developing neurologically and forming their identities. Thus, the hormonal imprints can be intense. People may remember the pleasure or spark of their first love. They may continue to chase that type of feeling or dwell on the memory of it long after the experience. Looking for that strong connection that you lost again makes sense in some ways, but it might not always be realistic. A person’s first love can be idealized over time and develop into something almost mythical that isn’t attainable. Instead, more mature love can be both possible and fulfilling. 

The one who got away

First love, particularly if it takes place when people are young, often doesn’t last, but its effects can. After a relationship ends, “the one who got away” may seem, in hindsight, to have been a true love. Perhaps you and your first love parted ways because you were young and had different goals, life circumstances, or geographic locations. Maybe one or both of you felt you wanted to experience other relationships or didn’t feel it was the right time for a commitment. Or, you may have experienced conflict and were no longer happy together. For whatever reason, the two of you may have gone your separate ways. Such a breakup can come with feelings of heartache and lingering feelings. Moving forward, you may look back and wonder how your life could have been different if you had stayed together. Without closing doors, your 'the one that got away' can turn into a rekindled love if both of you decide to do so.

If you idealize your first love experience — the relationship, the partner, or both — you may find it can affect your future relationships. You may view your first love as ideal because that’s how they appear in your memories. This is called a memory bump or reminiscence bump and it is common for people to experience with their first love. You might compare new loves to this first romantic love. You may also find yourself longing for the past, which can hinder you in the long term by keeping you from living fully in the present and working towards a fulfilling future.
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The long-term romantic relationship

Another scenario is that partners stay with their first love. There are real-life young adults who were high school sweethearts or childhood friends who have built a meaningful life and lasting connection together. However, their relationship may be fulfilling for reasons beyond their first dose of love. Their relationship may have matured and grown to have research-backed traits of successful relationships. Studies conducted by cognitive scientists show that the success of relationships depends on qualities such as the individuals’ communication styles, empathy for each other, goals, priorities, appreciation for each other, sexual satisfaction, and healthy conflict management.

If first loves get married, the age of the partners can also play a significant role in how successful the relationship will be. For instance, they may be each other’s first young love, but they may not commit to marriage until they’re older and have grown through the transformative years of being a teenager and a young adult. There is some research that shows that people are less likely to divorce if they marry between the ages of 25 and 34. This allows each individual room for personal growth and lets them acknowledge the rights reserved to them in a relationship without forcing dependence on their partner, leading to a healthier relationship foundation and motivation system.

Moving on from a first love

Some people move on from first love and find that their experience shapes their future relationships in positive ways. But moving forward from past relationships can also be challenging at times. After all, significant life experiences — and close people in your life — can influence your behaviors, thoughts, feelings, and memories. People often long for positive experiences from their past. For instance, they may remember the spark, excitement, passion, intensity, fun, or novelty of a first love. In other cases, they may find that a difficult past relationship or an ugly or heartbreaking split negatively affects their outlook and their future relationships.

Growing and moving forward can be important for living a fulfilling life. While feelings from first loves may linger, a sense of being stuck can feel frustrating. On a hopeful note, there are effective strategies to try using if you’d like to find ways to grow from a past relationship and develop healthier lives as individuals.

Tips to let go and move on include:

  1. Feeling your feelings: An important piece of advice includes accepting and even naming the way you’re feeling without judgment can help you address the feelings in a positive way. For instance, you may feel longing for the past, regret about how a relationship ended, or fear that your experience with first love sets you up for failure. You may feel exceedingly sad when you hear a certain song or feel your sensory areas in overdrive when you think about your first love. Learning about how you feel and why you feel it can help you process the feelings and move forward with a greater understanding of yourself and your views about relationships.

  2. Make a commitment to let go of negative or unproductive feelings: Thinking about why and how you seem to be stuck on past experiences and feelings and committing to healthy ways to move on can feel empowering and motivate you to make healthy progress. Letting go of these feelings can make space for more positive or constructive feelings and memories you are missing.

  3. Take responsibility: If you feel responsible for the end of a relationship, accepting that feeling can be a step towards resolution and future growth. You can be kind to yourself about it while still acknowledging the role you played and considering how you might handle relationships differently in the future.

  4. Focus on what’s possible outside of a relationship: Instead of dwelling on a past relationship and wishing you could recreate those feelings in a new one, you might try focusing on your life outside of a romantic relationship. Treating yourself with compassion, taking time for self-care, enjoying non-romantic relationships, and focusing on growing in your job or hobbies can help you feel fulfilled. In time, you may feel ready for another romantic relationship.

  5. Consider what type of relationship you truly want and what type of partner you’d like to be: Self-reflection can help you understand what you’re looking for in a relationship, what a healthy relationship is, and what you can bring to a relationship.

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Are you feeling stuck in the past?

Therapy can help when memories tend to stick

It may be easy to acknowledge that fixating on first love can hold you back from living your life in the present and working towards a fulfilling future. But finding ways to move forward can take some introspection and effort. In therapy, you can work on understanding, developing, and strengthening healthy thoughts, feelings, and behaviors about relationships. You can also get appropriate suggestions to keep an old-school love alive. This is sometimes referred to as a conventional or traditional style of love and relationship.

Sometimes feeling stuck emotionally can manifest as a physical feeling as well. You may experience feelings of fatigue, alienation, or even depression that can make it hard to leave the house to meet with a therapist. In these cases, online therapy can be a viable option. With an internet connection, you can meet with a licensed mental health professional from the comfort of your home and explore your feelings with a professional.

You may be surprised to learn that online therapy has been proven to be quite effective. Research originally published in the Journal of Technology in Human Services suggests that this type of therapy can be just as effective as in-person counseling in many cases. 

You can reach out and talk with a licensed mental health professional at BetterHelp. They can offer you individualized support to help you address your concerns.

Takeaway

In many cases, first love can conjure up some wonderful and treasured memories that you can carry with you throughout your life. In other cases, the memories may be holding you back. In therapy, you can find ways to learn from the past and put your experiences in perspective so that you can move forward and enjoy a healthy present and fulfilling future.
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