Twenty five years ago, in my late teens, I had my first boyfriend. We had a completely magical year together. He was, and is, very confident and successful. On reflection, there was a class difference. He was at public school and from a wealthy family. My parents were immigrants and just wanted me to get a good education.
Finding my feet in life was quite difficult. I worked hard at school for everything, including going to university, but found the careers thing overwhelming, especially finding my own direction.
After he ended the relationship, we never kept in touch, and I always felt that he didn’t want to know me. It crushed my confidence, I felt absolute despair that I wouldn’t find love again afterwards. To make up for it, I tried to make my life as interesting as possible, and became unhealthily driven in my career – I have a fantastic job now.
So I can see that I made the end of the relationship positive. I had two significant relationships afterwards, and now I’m married with two children and have a job that I love, and good friends. I am amazingly lucky and also grateful. But I have never felt so much in a relationship since then, and I have never been able to keep my first love out of my mind.
I contacted him a few years ago. He got back to me after several months, saying he was thrilled to hear from me and suggesting we meet up. We had a great lunch but he didn’t keep in touch, despite a couple of cheery emails from me. He is married with two children.
I don’t wish that things had turned out differently. But I feel like something important isn’t in my life. I don’t want to rekindle a relationship with my ex. I would just love to have him in my life, and see him like I do other friends. If things were normal, I’d just send another message but I still feel too squashed, too rejected, and just not brave enough.
I cut out a lot of detail from your email that might have identified you. I don’t despair for you. I don’t think you’re deluded. You sound fairly centered.
Sometimes people do find their first love and rekindle the relationship. That is not going to happen here – as I think you recognise – but I also think, if you’re honest, a small, deep part of you wishes you could at least have that option. And if this comment makes you angry, it’s because it’s true. In a magical world, you could see how your life would have panned out if you had stayed together, so you could validate what has happened since. But because you can’t do that, this man still seems a bit magical to you, doesn’t he? It’s almost as if you lack the confidence, even now, to trust in the choices you made.
Reading between the lines, there is something of the “you weren’t good enough” feeling, from him. That’s not a judgment of you, but what I pick up from your letter. And that must irk. I think it has left you wanting to prove him wrong and wanting to prove to yourself that he was wrong; and you’re not quite there yet. But, as you say, it’s driven you on to great things. That is to be recognised and applauded. You might never be there and that’s OK. This isn’t a massive wake-up call to tell you that your life is all wrong. We all have things that scratch away at us at times, and they can be a great motivator. My one worry for you, however, is what happens in 10 years’ time when your children leave home? What will be left to sustain you?
At first I thought, why now? But then I realised that, given your age and those of your children, you have probably been striding forward, head down, for quite some time and are now able to sit back and look up – and at – your life. I wonder what the “important” thing is that you feel your life lacks? Can you define it? Are you bored? Do you need to do something that scares you, excites you?
You wrote so little about your current partner that I can’t comment on him, but I wonder how you would feel if he wasn’t there? It’s so easy to take people who really care about us for granted. Yet there is all this focus on a man who probably thinks about you once a year. That says something to me about your self-esteem.
We tend to look back on our first big loves in one of two ways: romantically (“ahhh”) or in despair (“how could I?”). But either way, first loves are important because they represent the first time you really loved someone outside your family.
You need to recognise the mark this relationship left, rather than the person who left it. You will never forget him but don’t let him define you.
First published in The Guardian Family on 17 January 2014.