Some people – a very few, I think – have the uncommon fortune to fall in love one time and carry on loving that person, and being loved back, for ever and ever. When I meet people like that, which is very occasional, I’m always amazed, and maybe a little thrilled, to be exposed to people who have known such good fortune! Because, for me, first love was far from an enduring affair in terms of the relationship itself. But it did have an enduring effect on how I felt about love for a long time after it ended.
Let me be frank with you: my first love real love affair was with someone who didn’t deserve it. In that, I’m not sure that I’m very unusual. When we have no experience of love, we are in great danger of handing our hearts over to idiots – after all, we may be idiots ourselves. I certainly was. People who knew me at the beginning of my twenties called me an ambitious young woman. But those people didn’t know the truth of the fondest desire that I had for my life post-university: I was longing for my boyfriend to suggest that, after we graduated, we move together back to the city where he’d grown up. Which is to say, I wanted him to include me in his plans. He’d told me about his ambition to live in his parents’ basement for an indeterminate amount of time after he secured his degree.
I would not have considered doing the same thing with my own parents (who I loved, but did not wish to cohabit with again). I also didn’t consider the fact that my boyfriend’s parents didn’t seem to like me very much. I’m not sure they would have welcomed my tenancy beneath their house. And yet I held fast to the hope that my boyfriend would realise that he loved me as much as I loved him. Which was, in the way of so many first loves, entirely too much. Looking back, many years after I fell in love with that boy, I now wish I could have shaken my young self by the shoulders and said: “Love doesn’t mean feeling like the world is about to collapse half the time!” But isn’t that just an unknowable thing, until you’ve had your heart broken?
I have always been sensitive, quite often to my own detriment, and there are few feelings that are rawer and stronger and more painful than those that accompany first love
That boyfriend, you see (you know, you know this already, I don’t need to tell you), just wasn’t that into me. I met him on the second day of Freshers’ Week. He was dancing to some bongo drums and he wore a lot of gel in his hair (it was 1999). He stole cottage cheese from the canteen and he broke up with me at the end of nearly every term, yearning to be free. But I did not let this stop my dreams of our shared life in a cellar.
Such is the immense power that first love can have – the way that it can blind you to everything but the burning desire to make it continue and thrive. I have always been sensitive, felt things intensely, quite often to my own detriment, and there are few feelings that are rawer and stronger and more painful than those that accompany first love. And because these feelings are unfamiliar, unprecedented, it’s hard to believe that you could or will ever feel anything so important again. When my friends told me to get rid of that boyfriend, citing clear examples of his unkind behavior (“He’s a dick!”), I demurred – this was what love felt like and I couldn’t waste it. So what if it made me feel like I wanted to vomit half the time?
Why was I so vulnerable to my feelings at this stage of life? Because I was 20 years old, I suppose. I was not raised to find a husband – far from it. My parents, married late for their generation, at 30 and 32, encouraged me to focus on studying, playing the cello, spending my free time with other girls. My father’s parting words as they left me at my university halls of residence were: “Be careful of boys.” Good advice! But not good enough to overcome the belief that life as a young woman in the 80s and 90s had imparted deep in my soul at the end of every book and film: I wanted true love and lifelong commitment, and saw them as a necessary part of the adult life that university was supposed to prepare me for. And I believed that I should leave university with that part of my life figured out, zipped up. One love, I thought, was enough for a lifetime. My boyfriend agreed, in fact. “I can only tell one person that I love her,” he said, “the person who I will marry.” I wanted to be that person!
More than once, I’ve thought: ‘This man is great, but it can’t be the real thing, because he’s not making me half-crazed with longing and fear!’
But I wasn’t. Maybe because he didn’t love me. Maybe because he just didn’t want to love me at that point in time. For though some of us find the experience of first love to be all-consuming and completely preoccupying – RIP my first-year exam marks – for others, it’s something to be pushed away and ducked. And fair enough. There’s not much point in telling anyone, when it comes to love, what is the right way to feel. There’s the least point of all when they’re feeling those feelings for the first-ever time.
We don’t fear the consequences of handing our heart to someone when we’ve never done it before. By contrast, when we’re older, we have form when it comes to heartbreak. We know how bad it can be. We’re more cautious. We sometimes assume that we have to feel things as hard and clear as we did the first time to make love worthwhile at all. More than once, I’ve thought: “This man is great, but it can’t be the real thing, because he’s not making me half-crazed with longing and fear!” No doubt my first real love affair is part of what inspired me, on too many occasions, to ignore men who liked me in favour of pursuing men who treated me with ambivalence, because that was how that first boyfriend showed his affection (or lack thereof). If I’d known that my first love affair would mark the rest of my love life, would I have listened to my friends who warned me against it? Probably not! I was only 20 years old, after all. I believed in following my heart.
I did fall in love again, for real, at the age of 35, which is to say quite recently. Only 15 years later. Of course, it isn’t the only time since my basement-bound boyfriend that I’ve been in love. But it is one of the first times that I’ve identified love as a thing that is not tied to indifference. It’s wonderful and exciting to be in a committed relationship for the first time in years but, to my surprise, it isn’t that frightening. Maybe it’s just because I’m older. Maybe it’s because, with time, my priorities have shifted – when I met my current boyfriend, I was no longer a hopeless romantic. I was no longer looking for someone to shape my unformed life. Instead, I was looking to find someone to complement the life that I’d built for myself – someone who had built his own life that I could also complement.
If this is the greatest love story of my life – and, so far, it feels that way – it’s not the most romantic one, at least not if you measure romance by drama. I knew I loved him on the day that he bought himself a bicycle helmet. When my friends ask me about him, I have almost nothing to say, because our relationship is just so pleasant, and a pleasant relationship is so uninteresting to talk about. Unlike first love, this thing – let’s call it love between two people who are rather more seasoned – feels informed by both our previous experiences, of which some were decidedly bad. Sometimes, I think it would be rather nice if we had met 20 years ago, before either of us had gone through our respective years of romantic chaos. But, if we had, I think that we would have also lost each other along the way. To fall in love when you’re no longer in the first bloom of youth can feel a little embarrassing – shouldn’t this have been sorted out by now? – but it also feels easier. First love can be a very special thing. But third, or sixth, or fifteenth love deserves more credit than it gets. Even if it starts on Tinder (it did).
Love Stories: This week on The Pool, our writers are discussing love and relationships