“Who was your first love?”
I’m at a coffee shop with a new friend. I get nervous. Shifting from sips of coffee to hefty gulps, I lick tiny beads of sweat from my upper lip from the tip of my tongue.
Laughing, I shrug, the coffee mug balancing in between my hands.
“I can’t remember. Is that weird?”
“I mean, who was your first relationship with?”
Now that’s a more difficult question to evade. I pluck a fictional person from the back of my mind; someone I’ve conjured a few times before. He’s probably a man: thin, tall, likes to skate but isn’t very good at it. His name is Sam, or Joe. I’m indifferent about him.
“We were 16, it didn’t last long.”
“Did you love him?”
Another tricky question. Of course I didn’t love a person that didn’t exist; one that, in order to avoid truthfully answering questions like this, I have constructed six years after the fact. My new friend can tell I didn’t love Sam, or Joe. I wish I had the strength to just say it. My first love was a bad love, can’t I just tell you about the ten-year-old blind dog I fell in love with on the internet? My application to adopt him was rejected because I didn’t have a garden. He’s the one that got away.
“You really can’t remember the first time you were in love?”
Perhaps this new friend won’t last long. I look at the bottom of my mug, swirling dregs of coffee-stained milk and rogue dots of ground beans into one another. Of course, I remember.
When you live through trauma, your brain reconstructs events in fragments. All the pieces exist and most are in the puzzle box. One is under the sofa, another was sucked into the hoover, a few are entirely unaccounted for. As for putting them together? Well, you get the picture.
Years later, I’m handed pieces sporadically and against my will. I’ve learned very quickly to grab those memories by the balls, shove them into a back corner in my brain, mixed in with all the other stuff I don’t want to face at 8.45am on a Tuesday. Eventually I don’t even know what’s back there, but it throbs quietly on my way to work, in between footsteps.
In a sharp and painful contrast to my experience, Western popular culture is saturated with one type of tale of first love. Teen fictions, films and television shows are stamped with bad boy, girl-next-door narratives. In fact, ‘films about first love’ has more or less become a genre in its own right. Consequently, standards and norms have arisen, affecting how people – particularly young people – view themselves and the relationships they form with others. First love is innocent. First love is deep. First love is youthful. For many of us, however, first love was none of these things.
Over a third of women experience abuse in an intimate relationship. In the UK alone, an estimated 1.6 million women were victim of domestic abuse in 2019 alone. With women having an average of four opposite-sex partners over the course of their lifetime, it follows that a significant chunk of these experiences will occur in the context of a first relationship. With no real-life reference points, and an array of inaccurate and deeply problematic pop culture touchstones, young people enter relationships with naivety and an underdeveloped sense of self. In safe hands, this can blossom into something beautiful. But unsafe doesn’t always present itself as such.
Realising we are in a problematic relationship is half the battle. In 2018, Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year was ‘toxic’ beating out ‘gaslighting’ and ‘techlash’. It’s alarming that two-thirds of that shortlist are about bad relationships and psychological abuse. Sadly, only got worse since then, with a worldwide rise in domestic abuse since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and with perhaps as many as 80% of adults now experiencing emotional abuse in some area of their life. Toxic relationships can be subtly unhealthy from the start or they can develop from something seemingly positive into something harmful. White lies can snowball into habitual deceit. Negativity can become debilitating. Ultimately, it takes toxicity a while to rear its ugly head.
There is something most of us can agree on though: first love hurts. From throwing chocolates at the TV screen ‘Elle Woods’ style to years of therapy and emotional rebuilding, relationship endings bear similar stings. We’ve come a long way since 2018’s toxic word of the year. Arianna Huffington and Forbes have declared ‘resilience’ as the word for 2021, and so have I.
In the coffee shop, I scoff, knowing I’m about to say something blood-curdlingly corny.
“I’ve had so many first loves”
But it’s true,
- The first time I had rum and raisin ice cream
- The first time I stayed up past my bedtime
- My first really good iced coffee
- My first flat
- My first indoor plant
- Cate Blanchett
- Dev Patel
Over time, I’ve trained myself to recall these comforts. They inhabit the same comforting space in my body, ready to be fondled and replayed.
And so, the bad love is shrinking now. It’s eclipsed by the memories of firsts: kissing someone on a rooftop, meeting my best friend on a mild September morning, being a toddler on a sunny beach, chubby feet splashing in rock pools, lapping up ice cream before it melts into the sand.