Ever heard the saying, “You never forget your first?" It’s often said that your first love leaves an indelible impact on you, and that getting over that relationship can take years and cause a lot of heartache. Why is getting over your first love so hard? Is it really that different from other breakups? It turns out the grieving process for a first love is unique, and there’s a clear psychological reason for this. With knowledge and understanding of how your mind processes heartbreak, you can start to really work through your feelings and move on.
A first love is significant for so many reasons. When you’ve never experienced deep romantic feelings for someone before, everything feels heightened, overwhelming, and new. “Your first love is mostly a projection of the vast reality of love that is inside you already,” explains breakup expert Kate Galt. She notes that during your first significant relationship, you may put all your energy toward that one person. It’s a reflection of “the innocence you perceive, the commonalities you have with the people and beauty around you,” Galt says. No wonder that first love can feel intoxicating.
There’s also something new happening in your brain when you first fall hard for someone. Biologist and science of love expert Dawn Maslar tells Elite Daily that the dopamine spike that occurs when you develop romantic feelings can be compared to the first time taking a drug. “You get this imprinted high that you want to keep chasing,” she explains. “That’s why you can’t ever forget about them, because you look back on it and you’re like, ‘That felt so great.’” Since you’ve never experienced the “high” of falling in love before, your senses are even more intense. “It’s the first time it really gives you that higher spike [of dopamine],” Maslar says. And that leaves an effect on your brain that sticks around for a long time.
The way the relationship ended may also have an impact on your ability to move past it. Maslar explains that there’s a part of the brain called the amygdala that specifically acts as a warning system when you’re in danger. (Think of those hyper-alert feelings you get when you’re walking down a dark street.) After a bad breakup, the amygdala begins to associate romantic relationships with imminent pain. “Your amygdala is going to sound when you try to get into another relationship, because it doesn’t want to be hurt again,” she says. And that’s especially true with the first love, when you have no other reference point for how relationships can end. “It’s your first one and it’s so painful, it almost creates an imprint,” Maslar notes. You might find yourself putting up walls with future potential partners to avoid getting your heart broken again.
That said, it’s totally possible to work through these mental blocks and heal from the breakup. The hardest part, Galt says, is trusting that the grieving process will end and that the pain of this heartbreak will ultimately fade. “The major difference is the lack of reference,” she explains. “You’ve never been through this, so you don’t have muscles that have been developed. You don’t have as much faith that you’ll get through it because you have yet to build that specific resilience.” She suggests taking the healing process one step at a time, trusting that you’re doing the best you can. You may not be certain that you’ll get through it — but you will! This painful period is building your ability to heal from setbacks in the future, and to know that you’re enough all on your own.
“You can definitely get over your first love, because your brain has the ability to readjust, to actually look at things in a realistic point of view,” Maslar notes. She suggests that when you’re dwelling on the good parts of the relationship, and all the qualities in your ex that you miss, try to think all the way through to why the relationship didn’t work out. “When you think back to that first love, oftentimes it brings back that emotion or the feeling,” Maslar says. But to counter this, remind yourself of the imperfect parts of the relationship, too. This will keep you in a more realistic frame of mind.
No matter how much grace you allow yourself or how long it takes, getting over your first love can be painful. Try not to feel pressure to get back to your former self ASAP. “This is a time you must have blind faith,” Galt advises. “Take it one day at a time. Remind your emotional self that this too shall pass. Write in your journal. Keep busy. But take specific time to talk with friends and family about your feelings.” The people in your life can create a safe space for you to process everything out loud. If those feelings of acute sadness still won't go away, you might consider taking to a therapist or someone trained in grief counseling. This person can help you understand the root of your pain and start to put it behind you.
Most importantly, believe that you’re stronger than you feel in this moment. Even if your heartache seems unmanageable right now, you will come out of this a tougher and more confident person.