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After the break-up, your "first love" never really leaves you, according to student research at UC Berkeley
07 Feb 2001

By Kathleen Scalise, Media Relations

Berkeley - Whether your heart belongs to anyone this Valentine's Day may depend on what happened the first time you fell in love.

This new finding, by University of California, Berkeley, graduate student Jennifer Beer, challenges the notion commonly held since Freud that the stability of the parent-child relationship sets the stage for attachment later in life.

With romance, said Beer, "Some of the problems you have in the romantic domain may have more to do with your first love than with your parents." She based her work on the first-love stories of 303 UC Berkeley undergraduates, mostly juniors, collected in 1997.

By "first love," Beer doesn't mean a childhood crush on a teacher or movie star, but the first real relationship of a romantic nature between two individuals, often experienced in adolescence or early adult years. Those who remember the experience positively are more likely to consider themselves securely attached to their current romantic partners, she said, and to perceive their romantic partners as securely attached to them.

She now is looking at how such recent and distant "vivid" representations of self and partner are stored in different memory systems in the brain and what this might reveal about self-perception.

"Vivid memories are very detailed, self-defining, something you recall a lot, stories and anecdotes you dwell on or tell all the time," Beer said.

In the case of first love, such memories often range from bittersweet but fond - perhaps recollections of a poignant puppy love tinged with regard or regret for a long-ago sweetheart - to deeply painful, soul-crushing experiences.

Whatever happened, "it can set you up as thinking, 'This is what I am like as a relationship partner,' " Beer said.

People who recollect their first romantic experience as involving good feelings, for instance, citing memories of happiness, excitement, strength, inspiration, pride and enthusiasm, were more likely to be in stable relationships years later than those recalling hostility, upset, stress, guilt, fright or shame, Beer found.

"First love relationships often break up. So people say, 'What do you mean, good feelings? It was a breakup,' " she said. "But even though the relationship ended, which seems like it might be negative, the vivid memories surrounding the experience can be good or bad."

As an example of a good experience, Beer cited one respondent who suffered greatly because her former boyfriend dated other women immediately after their relationship ended. But, prior to that, the experience had been a positive taste of what love could be, and the woman learned what made her happy in a relationship.

Alternatively, Beer described a stormier experience that left the respondent years later with the unshakeable suspicion that all men were untrustworthy.

"This is wrong, but I cannot help myself," the respondent commented. "One negative experience has been enough to change my entire outlook on men."

Beer identified four patterns of perception surrounding relationships:

* Secure - A secure, positive sense of both self and partner in a relationship.

* Dismissive -A positive sense of self, but not of partner.

* Preoccupied - A positive sense of partner, but not of self.

* Fearful - Negative recollections of both.

Those with memories of positive emotion and outcomes from their first relationship "were more likely to have positive views of self and others in romantic relationships," Beer said. "Those with more negative emotions and outcome were more likely to show one of the other three patterns."