I am a married, middle-aged man. Half a lifetime ago – 35 years to be exact – I met and fell in love with my first love. We spent a year together. Toward the end of that year, I went away to university. Shortly afterwards, out of the blue and with no forewarning, she finished it. It is not an exaggeration to say that my world fell apart. My heart shattered into a thousand pieces and it has never mended. That cataclysm reverberates to this day. All my adult life I have mistrusted women, kept them at arms length emotionally and been unable to commit to the intimacy that I once shared with my lover. Through social media I have located her and I am considering trying to make contact. My wife is long since resigned to my reserve and inability to commit emotionally.
Pardon? Surely in the process of writing to me you experienced some kind of Damasian revelation that the time had come to get a grip of your emotional expectations? Normally the process of putting ones thoughts on the page offers renewed clarity, so I’m surprised that you haven’t already seen the folly of your ways writ large.
Certainly reading your letter the clearest problem you appear to have is not unfinished business with your first love but an impressive ability to use it to dodge the honouring of present commitments. Have you any idea how easy it is to live in the past and how perfect, from a distance, any affair of the heart can start to look if separated from the rigours of daily life, placed on a vertiginous plinth and reminisced about ad nauseum? First loves are by definition an entirely new, unique and all consuming emotional experience. Few of us emerge unscathed from the intensity of that debut encounter with the heightened pulse rate and adrenal surge that defines young love and it’s perfectly natural for it to influence the pattern of future relationships. To let the residue of that affair overshadow every subsequent emotional attachment, including your marriage, is however elevating it beyond logic and reason, to enjoy an entirely misplaced monopoly of your emotional memories. It’s rare for either party to escape unscathed from that practice run with mating and generally one of you will be devastated when it comes to a conclusion, as it nearly always does.
Today, also about the same distance in years from my own first love as you are, I can still vividly recall running home to my mother and sobbing in her arms after my sixteen year old beau told me in all seriousness, that things between us were getting “too serious”! Cynics may mock and it’s easy to take a patronising position on such follies of youth but like you, I was utterly devastated and I can still fast track back to the unprecedented pain of that early rejection, simply by closing my eyes. Luckily for me, I’m not deluded as to what might have followed. Star crossed lovers are the fodder of fiction and films; in real life there are opportunities and encounters, good timing and bad and all couplings are at the mercy of the wear and tear of familiarity, the passage of time and the fickle hand of fate. It’s perfectly possible that were you to find this woman in an equally unsatisfying phase of her own life she might look fondly on the prospect of rekindling the affair. That she’s suffered similar romantic paralysis is highly unlikely. Indeed it’s far more likely that she’ll be spooked by the intensity of the obsession with the past that’s driven you to hunting her down or pity you.
In maturity most of us become reconciled to the reality that there is no such thing as “the one”; every romantic entanglement is as much about timing and stage of life, maturity and availability as it is about that brief passionate impulse that carries you through the first year or two. It’s a classic middle-aged cliché to start looking at the past with a lovelorn revisionists eye. I’m more concerned about the obvious disregard you display for a woman who in your own words has resigned herself to “your reserve and inability to commit”. Blaming a lover in the distant past for your shortcomings as a husband today is fair on neither party and using a long dead love affair as an excuse to maintain your distance is both manipulative and dysfunctional. I’m not sure with hindsight I’d swop the complacency and companionship of an adult relationship with the agonies and tortures of that first brush with romantic love. On the rare occasions when I do feel a wave of nostalgia for the passing of such intensity of emotion I know I’m surfing a wave of a middle aged melancholy.
Pursue this will o the wisp if you must but be assured you’re more likely enthral to the slow burn of a mid life crisis than a white hot passion that can’t be extinguished. Ironically the sort of ‘real love’ you’re pursuing is usually the sort that struggles on despite your attempts to diminish it. Haven’t you got that already?