what is first love, and why are we all obsessed with it?
The obsession goes all the way from Ovid to 'Call By Your Name.'
To be real, ever since I heard the Justin Bieber lyric “My first love broke my heart for the first time…” echo through a glowing, disgusting bowling alley, I’ve been down to have my own first love. Despite only being 12, I knew I completely wanted to experience that “starstruck” feeling (as Ludacris raps about in his verse). Growing up in a fractured family, I saw love stories everywhere but in real life — and that made me only want to have my own more. I got lost in dumb crushes throughout high school, like everyone else growing up, but they all ended up being just crushes, just kisses in smoky bedrooms.
I watched Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet around a billion times during that period, in love with all its oversaturated self-destruction. Every feeling in that film — from the expressions on Leo’s face to the sunsets — felt so impossibly desirable, so impossibly huge. As I edged closer to adulthood, I tried to guess when I was going to have a first love like that. A crush that crushed me.
Everyones knows that love’s a drug. “We know that primitive areas of the brain are involved in romantic love, and that these areas light up on brain scans when talking about a loved one,” Harvard Medical School Professor Jacqueline Olds explains. I imagine that when we first fall in love, chemicals spike through our brains like neon lightning bolts — dopamine rushing in a way that’s literally similar to the effects of cocaine. The stress hormone cortisol heightens and the neurotransmitter serotonin plummets, resulting in blissed-out infatuation. Countless stories focusing on this phenomenon have been featured as of late, but there’s always been a steady undercurrent of first love stories in Western culture, since the OG Romeo and Juliet back in 1597 to Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name in 2017. Most fictional romances, in fact, focus on a first love, rather than a fourth or a fifth.
Which makes me wonder: Why are we all in love with first love?
This phenomena goes all the way back to those kids named Adam and Eve. New York Times columnist Bruce Feiler wrote a book about the couple, called The First Love Story . “Adam and Eve introduced the idea of love into the West,” Feiler argues. “They were the first to grapple — sometimes unsuccessfully, other times not — with the central mystery of being alive: being un-alone.”
After the Book of Genesis started the trend, storytellers like Ovid continued it. The Roman poet’s Metamorphosis revolved around the forbidden love of Babylonian lovers Thisbe and Pyramus. Due to their rival families, the only way Thisbe and Pyramus could speak was by whispering through a crack in the wall that connected their houses. The story soon spirals into a double suicide, due to both lovers mistakenly thinking the other had died — and this all goes down at the tomb where they’d planned to rendezvous.
If you think that plot is similar to Romeo + Juliet’s — it is. Shakespeare drew direct inspiration from Ovid’s star-crossed lovers when crafting his own. Yet both couples aren’t actually so much examples of first love, but rather explorations of the very 21st century concept of limerence.
Limerence, for those who don’t know, is what we commonly describe as “lovesickness” - an involuntary obsession for another person. Coined by psychologist Dorothy Tennov, PhD, in her 1979 text Love and Limerence, the condition is further defined as involving “an acute longing for emotional reciprocation, obsessive-compulsive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and emotional dependence on another person.” It’s that sick-sweet sensation we’ve all had - and one that pop prodigy Lorde perfectly described in her song "The Louvre," off last summer’s Melodrama.
When she opens with the lines, “Well, summer slipped us underneath her tongue / our days are nights are perfumed with obsession,” she could as easily be describing her summertime limerence as that infatuation shared by Romeo and Juliet, or the central lovers of Guadagnino's Call Me By Your Name. Starring It-Boy Timothée Chalamet opposite Armie Hammer, the film captured a summer romance in all its white-hot complexities. Set in 1983 Northern Italy, precocious Elio (played by Chalamet) hooks up with a local girl, but that relationship is eclipsed by every moment he spends with visiting academic Oliver (Hammer).
“I am your sweetheart, psychopathic crush,” Lorde continues on "The Louvre." “Drink up your movements, still I can’t get enough.” In Call Me By Your Name, Elio can’t get enough of Oliver either. It’s impossible to watch a scene between them - or even a gif - without recognizing their electricity.
In the Pitchfork review of Lorde’s Grammy-nominated album, critic Stacey Anderson speculates: “Whatever the next Gossip Girl is - whatever soapy serial next attempts to harness the teen zeitgeist with plush fabrics and sharp cheekbones — "The Louvre" will probably soundtrack its climactic moment.”
The Louvre sonically matches teenage dream TV so well because ultimately, Gossip Girl and similar coming-of-age stories portray intense, melodramatic limerence — not really love. Sure, Twilight might not be a great love story — but you have to admit that it’s a good limerence story, skillfully excavating the universal experience of high-voltage infatuation.
After years of crushes, this winter I had my first real relationship, and my first real heartbreak. As I write this, I’m twisting around all the moments we had together, staring at them, all the miscommunication and fantasy and disappointment. Had that really been first love? What if my first love actually happened in one those smoky suburban bedrooms, with someone who I thought had been just a crush?
My confusion stems from the societal expectation that first love is supposed to be like Romeo and Juliet, Gossip Girl, Twilight. Yet all of those stories aren’t truly “first love” stories, but rather limerence stories.
We’re so infatuated with these stories — from Adam and Eve in 6th Century BC, to Alyssa and James from Netflix’s 2018 tar-black comedy The End of the F**king World — because heartbreak does make us forever different. Pre-heartbreak - pre-limerence - is the only time we’re clean, before we become dirty and bruised, dusted in memories of someone who’d come before.
We love “first love” stories because we’ve all ultimately had our own experiences with limerence. We have our own history of crushes, our own floods of dopamine when we look at a certain person’s green eyes, or notice a new DM. Kat Van Kirk, PhD, explains that in new relationships “it can be difficult to distinguish between the normal excitement associated with attraction and the obsessive phenomenon.” I feel we always hope that limerence will crystallize into love — yet actual love isn’t the impulsive, obsessive and deeply unhealthy thing all these stories have taught us it is.
First love really happens when you let limerence linger. It’s when Romeo and Juliet chill out for a second and ask what they really like about each other. It’s when you allow fantasy to fade to reality.
So as I start to fall for someone new, I’m choosing to ignore how media has shaped the way I view what first love has to be. Instead I’m choosing to let each of our sun-soaked moments unravel the way they do. I’m choosing to let the feelings linger.