May 16, 2022

The Science Behind the Nuclear Assault that is our First Heartbreak.


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“How on earth are you ever going to explain in terms of chemistry and physics so important a biological phenomenon as first love?” ~ Albert Einstein

Once upon a time, I lived in Tempe, Arizona.

I really had no business being all the way over there. I did not know anyone out West, but it was thousands of miles from Shante (not her real name) and that was all that mattered.

She was my first true love and, as luck would have it, we broke up during finals week of my senior year in college. The thought of seeing her with someone other than me was so painful and traumatizing that the alternative of abandoning all of my lifelong plans just to go work in a coffeehouse on the other side of the country seemed like the less crappy situation.

Up until that fateful week in May, my plans were to get a job as a freshman composition instructor, begin my graduate studies, and continue down the long road to becoming a professor of English at a university by the time I was 30. Now, as I walked to my dead-end retail job, stoned, in the 105-degree heat, I wasn’t sure about anything in my life anymore. I met many girls my own age while I was out there, but I was in the darkest place I had ever been. In fact, every time I slept with someone new, which at that age happened pretty often, the darkness rushed in with more intensity.

After almost an entire year, I made up my mind that I would never be happy again until I was starting each day back in Shante’s arms. That is when I finally formulated my “plan.” I would go back to New Paltz, New York, with a dozen of the best songs I could write and start the greatest band in town. Shante would, of course, walk into the bar I’d be playing at, hear me singing of my excruciating lovesickness, and have no choice but to realize she, too, was still in love with me—and thy would be done.

This was my personality. Some guys just feel sorry for themselves, some guys grovel and, sadly enough, some even become stalkers. I, on the other hand, have never wanted to be with anyone unless I felt an enthusiastic desire coming from them. My sights were set on nothing less than winning back Shante’s affection. So, I took my rent money and bought a plane ticket back.

The first week I was back in town, I met this virtuoso lead guitar player from Uruguay and convinced him to start a band. Not long after, I wormed and manipulated my way to stealing the rhythm section from another band that just came off tour opening for The Ramones. By the time school was getting ready to start again in late August, I was booked everywhere in town. I was young and almost ruthless in the pursuit of my dreams.

I could, quite possibly, write a hundred pages on how this story turned out but suffice it to say, my first real heartbreak and the attendant aftershocks informed the outcome of my entire life. It would not be an exaggeration to say that you could follow a line from what happened during my last week of being an undergrad to me sitting at this laptop on this very morning almost 30 years later.

There isn’t a voluminous amount of scientific study into how our first real heartbreak changes us, but there is enough to say, with a fair degree of certainty, that the transformation that happens goes beyond strictly emotional. This nuclear assault on our hearts changes us both hormonally and biologically for life.

Up until recently, being “in love” was considered by the psychological community to be a set of emotions. Anthropologist Helen Fisher conducted a fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) study in 2005 that proved once and for all that being in love is really a “motivation system” quite similar to addiction. If you take a glance at Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, you will see the bottom four (deficiency needs) primarily have to do with esteem, safety, and belonging. If those needs are not met, it would be impossible to meet the top four (growth needs). These are the more advanced ones like self-actualization and transcendence.

Romantic love, especially in early adulthood, meets those deficiency needs the way heroin works for heroin users. The loss of that love is similar, in many respects, to severe chemical withdrawal. This is one of the reasons why that first real heartbreak is essentially tattooed on our brain.

But even more so is the psychological apparition known as the “reminiscence bump.” Brain scientists have discovered that certain eras of our life imprint themselves in our memories far more prominently than others. The strongest of these take place right around the time most people first fall in love in a serious way. It is not uncommon to have detailed and clear memories of a non-descript day as a 22-year-old and vague recollections of vacations you took in your late 30s.

Studies also suggest that the foundation of all our serious relationships are modeled after everything we learned from our first. Who we trust, how much we trust, and the degree to which we allow ourselves to be vulnerable are strongly influenced by the positive and negative reinforcement from that monumental time period. We develop “hormonal imprints” from the experience at a time when we are strongly programming our conscious and subconscious memories. That’s something you can’t just shake off in three months, which is the average time it takes to “get over” subsequent heartbreaks, according to a 2017 study from the “Journal of Positive Psychology.”

In my own story, I need only go back 10 years to when I was having a difficult time convincing a woman to give me a chance to see the full-circle nature of my first love and heartbreak. I wrote and recorded a song called “Cold, October Night” in which I essentially told her that I didn’t know what would become of the two of us, but I did know that we’d kiss at least one night in the coming autumn.

We now share two daughters, aged seven and nine.


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