NYC Psychotherapist Blog

power by WikipediaMindmap

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Memories of Your First Love Can Have a Profound Effect on Later Relationships - Part 2

In the first article about this topic, How Memories of Your First Love Can Affect Later Relationships, I gave examples of how characters in books and movies are often affected by their experiences with their first love--in some cases to the point of obsession.  In this article, I'll provide a fictional clinical vignette, which is a composite of many psychotherapy cases with all identifying information

Memories of Your First Love

Fictional Clinical Vignette: How Memories of Your First Love Can Affect Later Relationships:
By the time Sam turned 55, he had been struggling for several years because he felt his life had lost meaning and purpose, which is why he began psychotherapy.

Sam told his psychotherapist that he was aware that he had a lot to be grateful for: He had a kind, loving wife, his adult children were doing well, he was healthy, he was successful in a career that compensated him well, and he had good friends.  But, somewhere along the way, he felt he lost his way (see my article: Is That All There Is? When Having It All Leaves You Feeling Empty and Are You Feeling Lost?).

He accomplished the goals that he set up for himself when he was younger, and he felt that his life wasn't fulfilling any more.  He had plenty of hobbies and interests, and he and his wife traveled a lot, but none of that seemed to matter any more, and he wasn't sure why (see my articles: Midlife: Transitions: Reassessing Your Life and Midlife Transitions: Living the Life You Want to Live).

When he was younger, he approached each day as a happy challenge.  He loved his wife, Sandy, and he enjoyed raising his children.  But now, married for 30 years, he and his wife lived in New York City and his adult children lived on the West Coast, so he hardly saw them.  And after he accomplished his career goals, he was no longer excited by his career.

He told his therapist that he could retire if they wanted to, but he felt that, in his current state of malaise, he would feel even worse if he didn't have at least the structure of his work.  He was also increasingly aware that he was aging and he had more years behind him than in front of him.  He didn't want to just continue to "drift."  He felt he needed something new and exciting, but nothing seemed to excite him.

Sam and his psychotherapist continued to explore these issues in therapy.  Then, one day, Sam came in and he seemed happier and more energetic than usual.  When his psychotherapist asked him about the difference in his demeanor, he said that his former girlfriend, Becky, from college contacted him through a social media network for former college classmates, and this brought back memories of a time when he felt happy and excited about life (see my article: Romantic Reconnections).

It also brought back memories of being head-over-heels in love in his first relationship.  Just remembering that time lifted his spirits and made him feel young again.  Then, Sam remained quiet for a few moments and when he looked up, he had a sheepish look, "I have plans to meet Becky in a few days."

From the look on Sam's face, his therapist could tell that he expected her to disapprove and tell him not to do it.  But psychotherapists usually don't tell clients what to do, so she suggested that they explore this further.

"There's nothing to explore," Sam said adamantly as he looked away, "She contacted me.  She's going to be in New York City for a few days and we decided to see each other.  We haven't seen each other in over 30 years."

His psychotherapist clarified that she wasn't telling him what to do--only he could decide what he wanted to do.  She wanted to explore with him what this former relationship meant to him, what he hoped to get out of having dinner with Becky, and how he thought it would affect his relationship with his wife.

Sam thought about these questions, and then responded, "Becky was the love of my life.  Don't get me wrong--I love my wife, Sandy, but Becky was my first love.  We lived together off campus, and we were planning to get married a few months after we graduated from college.  We got an apartment together after graduation and we were in the planning stages of our wedding when I got cold feet.  I realized that I wasn't ready and that broke Becky's heart.  Soon after that, she broke up with me and moved back home with her parents.  A couple of years later, I heard from mutual friends that she married someone else, and I was devastated.  But then, my life moved on.  I met Sandy and we eventually got married.  Over time, I lost touch with my college friends, and I never heard anything more about Becky--until now...But I never stopped thinking about her.  In a way, Becky was like a ghost that hovered around even after I got married.  I would often think about her, how things could have been between us if we had gotten married, and how different my life might have been."

Sam said he wasn't sure what he wanted from his upcoming dinner with Becky. He just felt he needed to see her.  Ever since she contacted him and they spoke on the phone while he was at work, he felt happy and invigorated.  Suddenly, life felt exciting and new.  He didn't want to forgo an opportunity to see Becky.  

When his psychotherapist asked him if his wife and Becky's husband were coming along to this dinner, Sam admitted that he hadn't mentioned the call to Sandy, and Becky told him that she was divorced and single again, "I need to do this for myself.  I don't think Sandy would understand.  I told her all about Becky when we first got together, and she knows that Becky was the love of my life.  She wouldn't be comfortable with the idea of my seeing Becky again.  Anyway, I don't plan to get romantically or sexually involved with Becky.  It's just dinner."

In response, his psychotherapist asked him why he was keeping Becky's call and the upcoming dinner a secret from Sandy if he didn't plan to get involved with Becky.  Sam responded, "That's a good question.  I think I just want this for me without anyone telling me not to do it."

Then, Sam dug his heels in, and he resisted any further exploration that his therapist attempted.   

At his next psychotherapy session, Sam told his therapist that he had dinner and drinks with Becky at her hotel and they got sexually involved that night, "I didn't mean for it to happen, but we were both drinking and, before I knew it, one thing led to another...But I'm not sorry.  I realized that, more than ever, I still have strong feelings for her and she feels the same way about me.  It was as if no time had passed.  We had a passionate sex life when we were together in the past, and it felt like we just picked up where we left off.  I've been walking on air since that night.  I feel like a new person--or like the person I used to be when I was in college."

Sam told his psychotherapist that he wasn't sure what he wanted to do, but he knew he didn't want to lose Becky again.  Becky told him that she was moving to New York City for a new job, and they agreed to continue to see each other, "She knows I'm still with my wife, so we agreed--no strings attached."

As Sam heard himself say these words, he hesitated, "I know it sounds like I'm having a cheap affair, but it's not--we really love each other.  Being with Becky brought back so many memories of when I was happy and carefree.  I don't want to hurt Sandy, but I can't give Becky up again.  I just can't..." (see my article: Love: Is It Really Better the Second Time Around?).

For the next few weeks, to the extent that he would allow it, Sam and his psychotherapist continued to explore these issues while he had the affair with Becky.  He acknowledged that if, somehow the affair came to light, he could ruin his marriage, but he didn't want to talk about that.

Instead, Sam talked excitedly about his memories with Becky when he was younger and how happy he was back then, "It was the happiest time of my life, and since I reconnected with Becky, I feel happy and alive again" (see my article: Feeling Alive Again After a Period of Stagnation).

His psychotherapist didn't doubt that Sam was in love with Becky, but she thought that Sam was in denial and trying to recapture a time in his life that was gone. She thought that Sam would normally feel guilty about cheating on his wife, but he was defensively keeping this new part of his life compartmentalized in his mind so he wouldn't feel the guilt.  She also knew that Sam would only become more defensive and possibly leave therapy prematurely if she brought this up to him (see my article: When Clients Leave Psychotherapy Prematurely).

One day, Sam came in brimming over with his new found excitement and told his therapist that he and Becky were talking about living together, so he was thinking about leaving his marriage.  He emphasized that nothing had been decided yet, but even considering this possibility was exciting to him.  

Sam was so caught up in his fantasy about living with Becky that he forgot to turn off his phone while he was in his therapy session.  When he heard the cellphone tone that he had a text message, he saw that the text was from Sandy that made him turn pale.  He showed his therapist the text message, which read, "I know about Becky.  We need to talk when you come home tonight."

Sam was very shaken up by the text from his wife.  It was as if the bubble had burst for him, "I can't believe she found out. I never wanted to hurt her.  It's like I was living in an alternate universe for a while and now my two worlds have collided."

For the first time since Sam began the affair with Becky, he could no longer compartmentalize his behavior and he expressed remorse in his therapy session for cheating on his wife.  Suddenly, he realized that he had made a terrible mistake and he didn't really want to lose his wife, "I've been so selfish.  I don't want to throw away a 30 year marriage."

When Sam came in for his next therapy session, he told his therapist that his wife found a hotel key that he forgot in his pants pocket.  This led to Sandy looking through his email and she put everything together.  They had a long talk, and Sandy told him that she wouldn't stay if he continued to see Becky.  She was deeply hurt and told him that she would only consider staying in the marriage if he agreed to go to couples therapy, which he readily agreed to do.  He also called Becky in front of Sandy and told her that they couldn't see each other any more.

During the next few months, Sam did a lot of soul searching in his individual therapy and attended couples therapy to repair the damage to his marriage and rebuild trust.  Until he was faced with the loss of Sandy, he didn't realize how much she continued to mean to him, "She's right when she says that I take her for granted.  I still love her and I don't know what I would do without her" (see my article: Rebuilding Trust After an Affair).

This led to Sam exploring more deeply in his individual therapy what was meaningful to him, and he realized that nothing was more meaningful to him than his marriage and his children, "I don't know how I lost sight of that."

He said that Becky tried to reach him a few times, but he didn't take her calls.  Eventually, he blocked her number.  He felt remorse for hurting both Sandy and Becky.  He explained that when he was thinking of leaving his wife for Becky, he really fantasized that he might do it--until he was faced with the actual demise of his marriage.

Several months later, Sam decided to retire and spend more time with his wife, who had already retired.  They talked about rekindling their relationship, and they planned to travel for several weeks. They were still attending couples therapy and trying to rebuild trust.

In his individual therapy, Sam talked about how, in the past, he felt that "something was missing in my life" and "Now I know I'm what was missing in my life."  He realized that he wasn't going to revive his life by going back to old memories or a former relationship.  He also realized that, without even knowing it, he had become emotionally disengaged from his life in the last several years, and he needed to reengage, especially in his marriage, "Maybe I needed to go through this crisis to realize that."

It's not unusual for memories of a first love to have a profound affect on subsequent relationships.  As I mentioned in my prior article, these memories, which can even affect an otherwise good current relationship, can act as a shadow on the current relationship.  It's as if the ghost of that former relationship hangs over the current relationship.

Given the powerful nature of these memories and access to social media, more people are reconnecting with former lovers, with old and new fantasies of what was and what could still be between them.

Sometimes, the reconnection can lead to a meaningful relationship after many years of separation.  This is more likely to occur if the two people don't expect to recreate exactly what they had in the past.

For other people, as in the fictional vignette above, this often leads to an extramarital affair as a way to try to recapture a sense of self from the past.  If one or both people defensively compartmentalize the affair as a separate part of each of their lives, the affair can go on for a long time without remorse.  The compartmentalization wards off guilt.

But if the affair comes to light, it can have disastrous effects for current relationships.  This often takes people out of their compartmentalized fantasies to deal with the crisis.  Where it goes from there depends on the people involved.  Sometimes, this will mean the end of one or both relationships.  Other times, the crisis can bring positive change (see my article: How a Crisis Can Open You to Positive Change).  Either way, there will be a lot to work through for everyone involved.

Getting Help in Therapy
Powerful memories of a first love can come back with an unexpected force which upends your life and your current relationship.

If you're open to it, psychotherapy can help you to explore the effect of these memories and your decision-making process before you take steps based on memories (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

Although a psychotherapist can't tell you what to do, a skilled therapist can help you to understand what is going on in your inner world if you're willing to explore these issues (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

If you feel stuck and confused about a problem in your life, you owe it to yourself to get help in psychotherapy.  Being able to work through an unresolved problem can free you up so you can lead a more meaningful and fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples, and I have helped many clients to work through unresolved problems.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.