Big loves and formative experiences

I took a class this semester about the history of the novel and how the practice of novel reading has changed over time. During the course, we studied a novel called ‘The Small House at Allington’ by Anthony Trollope. I’d never heard of Anthony Trollope before despite him being a prolific Victorian novelist.

One of the main events in the novel is Lily’s engagement and subsequent jilting. Jilting in the Victorian era seems to be a common issue (Sense and Sensibility, although Marianne & Willoughby weren’t formally engaged). Jilting is probably the Victorian era of today’s ghosting. Unsettling, yes, but you just dealt with it and moved on. When I read the novel, I could see a lot of parallels between Sense and Sensibility and ‘The Small House’. After Lily got dumped, I just assumed Johnny Eames, her friend who had always loved her, would swoop in and pick up the pieces. He tried to. But Lily’s obstinacy and faithfulness to Crosbie, her ex-fiancee, kept her from moving on. In fact, even after Crosbie has married another woman, Lily continues to say that she’ll be true to Crosbie and won’t move on with her life.

Matthew, our tutor brought up the fact that in ‘The Small House’, there is more than one instance of people not being able to get over their first loves. He then asked us, what the importance of formative experiences are, and why is it that we find it so hard/impossible to get over them?

I’ve heard before (more than once) that you never really get over your first love. This is not an experience I can relate to. I’ve been in love twice. I got over my first love easily and quickly, because he did a number of unforgivable things to me. 10 years later though, he’s still messaging me on Facebook, so the statement about formative experiences might very well be true in his case. The second love took a bit longer. He wasn’t inherently a bad person, overall he was a good person, one of the best people I’ve ever met, but not good at being a boyfriend. When someone repeatedly does things that you don’t like, that’s when you begin to fall out of love. This is what happened to me both times.

Charlotte from Sex and the City said that every woman has two great loves in her life. Carrie understandably took an affront to this, cause Aidan & Big. Charlotte then said no, she meant three big loves. Charlotte defined ‘big love’ as a love that changes you, that shakes you to the core. Well, if Charlotte’s original definition of big love was right, there is no more love for me.

Because of the tumultuous nature of my first love, I’m hesitant to count it as a ‘big love’. My second love more accurately falls into this category. We dated for almost 5 years, and he was an incredibly important person to me. Without him, I doubt very much, that I would be who I am today.

There’s another person who I want to mention too. I’m sure that I wasn’t in love with him, but it was an earth shattering, move-mountains sort of attraction. I’ve never felt that way about anyone, before or after him. It was illogical and irrational. I’d put it down to the fact that I had gotten out of my long term relationship just a few weeks before, and was in a new city by myself. He wasn’t my type and he wasn’t conventionally attractive. But I fell for him anyway. He gave me that ‘Before Sunset’ moment and I’ve been looking for it ever since then. He was the crush to end all crushes. The power of that attraction really shook me to the core, and taught me a valuable lesson: not to give my heart away so easily.

What I keep thinking about though, is the power of these formative experiences. Why is it that the first time we meet someone and really fall for them, it’s so hard for us to feel that way about anyone in future? Why is it that people make conscious decisions not to move on, despite there being no hope of reconnection?

After a particularly gruelling exam today, I was having a chat with my good friend Amelia, about the nature of first loves. Amelia also reiterated the theory about never getting over your first love, an idea we’d both heard repeatedly. The two of us mused over why this seems to be such a universal, widely held belief. When you experience something for the first time, later experiences are forever held up in comparison to it. Being the first time you experience a complex emotion like romantic love, it shapes you and changes you. You’ll compare every one who comes after to the one who came first; wondering at the ways in which you love now differ.

I’ve heard part of a quote that says ‘you think your first love will be your last’. There is a truth in this quote which I related to very much. I think that part of the difficulty with feeling intense emotion, is that after feeling so deeply, many people question their capacity to feel that way about anyone ever again. You begin to believe that you felt so deeply about this person that they took away your ability to care about anyone ever again. The capacity to feel deeply isn’t what’s taken away from you though; it’s the belief.

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