Learning why you can’t let go of your first love (research calls it “emotional memories”) will help you know what to do and how to heal from the past. The first time you fall in love is more precious and enchanting than all your other loves put together! You never forget your first love because it has a special resonance in your very DNA. First love is intense and vulnerable, heady and scary – and that’s why it’s so difficult to let go of a past relationship. Your first love is part of who you are, who you were, and who you thought you would become.
Below is the story of Roy and Nora. Roy is a man who is engaged to marry his first love, Nora, 72 years after he proposed to her. During their 72 years apart they married other people, they lost their spouses, and yet they never let go of their first love for each other. Instead of trying to figure out why they couldn’t let go of their first loves, Roy and Nora simply moved forward with life. Their first love was always in their hearts and souls…and that love returned to them.
In this post, you’ll learn:
- Why Roy and Nora “waited” 72 years to get married
- Why you can’t let go of your first love (emotional memories)
- What to do about emotional memories that haunt you
I urge you to write your “first love story” in your personal journal or even the comments section below. Writing is a healthy way to process your emotions and experiences, and can give you personal and practical insight into why you can’t let go of the past.
What to Do When You Can’t Let Go of Your First Love
Take hope. You may never be able to reconnect with or even marry your first love the way Roy and Nora did, but you can find a place in your heart and life for your first love. That’s the healthiest solution, it’s the best tip on what to do when you can’t let go of your first love: allow it to live in your heart without trying to quell or kill it.
If that doesn’t work for you, the practical research below will help you learn how to cope with emotional memories that are unbearable.
Why Roy and Nora “waited” 72 years to get married
In D-Day hero set to marry first love, 72 years after he first proposed to her, reporter Allison Lynch describes how Roy and Nora fell in love and got engaged in 1944. They were both 18 years old; it was a week before Roy went to fight in the D-Day Landings in Normandy.
Roy was shot and wounded during the Allied Invasion of Germany in 1945. He was hit with a bad case of shell shock (today, we call it post traumatic stress disorder); after he got back to England, his emotional struggles led to a breakup with Nora.
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Both Roy and Nora moved on with their lives – even though they never forgot their first love. They married other people. They had children and grandchildren. They both eventually became widowed in later years. Nora thought about Roy occasionally, but she thought she’d never see him again. “I did think about him over the years,” she said. “In fact I dreamed about him a few times.”
After 70 years passed, Roy tracked his first love down. He found Nora – and he didn’t even know if she was married or not! This is the part that surprises me; he simply wanted to give her a bunch of flowers and apologize for the way their relationship ended.
But Nora wouldn’t let him leave. “I knew him straight away,” she says. “It was a shock to see him because it had been such a long time, but it was lovely. It was just like old times.”
Roy proposed to Nora a second time – 72 years after his first proposal. This time, he proposed during his 90th birthday celebrations. The best part? She has the ORIGINAL ENGAGEMENT RING back on her finger – it’s the same ring Roy bought for £100 from 72 years earlier!
“I didn’t go down on one knee because I wouldn’t get up again,” Roy said. “But we had the first dance.”
Ain’t first love grand? Maybe you shouldn’t be searching for what to do when you can’t let go of your first love. Maybe you should let your life unfold naturally…because a surprise may be in store. In 4 Reasons to Wait Until You’re 35 to Get Married, I share why my husband and I waited for 17 years before we got engaged. It wasn’t a romantic first love situation like Roy and Nora, but it’s definitely true love. We are meant to be together, and I am grateful it took us 17 years to get married.
Why you can’t let go of your first love
Research provides clear evidence that your brain’s emotional center interacts with emotional memories differently than other types of memories. Emotional memories engage different brain structures than do “normal” memories, according to researchers at Duke University.
eThis research will help you understand the basic neural mechanisms underlying emotional memory formation.
This might help you know what to do when memories of your first love rise to haunt you.
In a study of emotional memories, Duke University researchers first exposed volunteer subjects to pictures that evoked both positive and negative emotions, and those that were neutral. Emotional pictures depicted such negative events as aggressive acts or injured people, as well as positive events such as as romantic scenes or sporting triumphs. Neutral pictures included such subjects as buildings or scenes of routine shopping.
While viewing the emotional and neutral pictures, the research participants’ brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). After the scan, the volunteers’ brains were tested.
The results showed that the memories of emotional images were more strongly encoded in the participants’ brains than the neutral ones. Further, those emotional memories created activity in the amygdala as well as the medial temporal lobe memory structures of the brain.
This means that the emotional memories of your first love are stronger than, say, your memories of assemblies at school or going to class every day. The emotional and memory regions of your brain are intereacting systematically and consistently to form emotional memories; this doesn’t happen when you form neutral or normal memories. To learn more about this study from Duke, read How Brain Gives Special Resonance to Emotional Memories.
Emotions enhance memories. This is why you can’t let go of your first love: your brain has glommed on to the experience, and those neural grooves run deep.
What to do about emotional memories that haunt you
Painful, emotional memories – including the experiences and people that you most want to forget – are actually the toughest to leave behind. Cognitive research from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill shows that when those memories are created through visual cues (eg, your first love giving you a teddy bear or peck on the cheek at the movie theater), they are even more difficult to forget.
Ok, so now you know why it’s so hard to let go of the first person you ever fell in love with. What now?
2 options when you can’t let go of your first love:
- Allow yourself to live with your first love in your heart
- Actively work towards grieving, healing, and forgetting
Which option you choose depends on your situation, personality, lifestyle, first love experience, current relationships, other emotional health issues, and spirituality.
1. Allow your first love to take residence in your heart
Can you reserve a small space in your heart for the person you loved and lost? You may not be able to force yourself to forget an emotional memory, but you can learn how to live in peace with the past. You CAN be happy and you CAN love someone new even if your first love is living in a small part of your heart. Maybe your first love can help you love better in your new relationship.
The truth is that we never truly, fully recover from the loss of a loved one. We grieve and heal, we move forward, and we learn how to be happy and laugh again…but the heartbreak of losing someone we love never goes away.
We can choose how our lost loved ones live in our hearts. Do we live in pain, or acceptance? Misery, or surrender to life as it is?
Faith is key. I love God with all my heart, and I trust that He is allowing my life to unfold this way for a purpose. He is the source of my joy, peace, forgiveness, and freedom. He is my light, my hope, and my confidence. He doesn’t protect me from loss, pain, sickness, or grieve…but He does carry me through.
2. Actively work towards grieving, healing, and forgetting
Read my ebook – I share 3 secrets and 75 tips for letting go – it’s called How to Let Go of Someone You Love. I wrote it when I lost my sister. It was so hard to let her go, but I did. And I feel light and free – but it does take time. And effort.
Those two options on letting go of your first love can work together. If you still need to grieve and heal, then you need to actively process your loss. The ebook will help, and so will a counselor if you need support. After the worst of the grief is over, you might be in a better frame of mind. And then, you might be able to live happily with your first love in a small space of oyur heart.
A reminder for you: write your “first love story” in your personal journal or even the comments section below. Writing is such a healthy way to process your emotions and experiences, and can give you personal and practical insight into why you can’t let go of your first love.
I can’t offer advice on what to do or why you can’t let go of your first love, but I read every comment. I encourage you to respond to other readers’ comments if you feel led, and to share your experience of losing the first person you ever loved.
For more tips on letting go, read How to Fill the Emptiness When You Miss Your Ex.