There are few periods of my life I remember as vividly as my first serious relationship.
I was 17 and to my mind, completely in love. I remember every intricate detail of his bedroom. I remember the season. I remember how he smelt and the movies we watched. I remember sharing things with each other that we had never told anyone before.
He looked like Hayden Christensen (the hot one from Star Wars) and I was the luckiest girl in the whole world.
But, if I’m honest, the thing I remember most is how I felt when it ended.
I was consumed. Suddenly all the lame love songs and romance novels I’d been forced to read at school made sense. I was feeling things that I had absolutely no idea how to explain to anyone else. I felt embarrassed, stupid, worthless and most of all, profoundly rejected. Like any feeling we experience for the first time, I was convinced it would never go away.
If you remember your teenage relationships with unparalleled intensity, you’re not alone.
A few years ago I was interviewing a man in his mid 60s for a research paper. We began talking about his first girlfriend, who he had started seeing when he was about 15. He was absolutely infatuated - until one day, out of the blue, she stopped speaking to him.
As he recounted that time in his life, close to 50 years later, his voice became shaky. He said it was probably the saddest he'd ever felt, and in hindsight, what came after might have been a bout of depression. He took a deep breath and remarked "Ah, still makes me uncomfortable to think about!"
There is a neurological reason my interviewee still felt sick thinking about it.
The limbic area of our nervous system, responsible for the creation of emotion, is in overdrive during adolescence. One study presented a number of pictures of emotionally expressive or neutral faces to men and women of different age groups. They found that the most intense emotional response came from the adolescent group. In the words of Dr. Laura Rocker, a pediatric psychiatrist, "young people feel love very intensely because they feel everything intensely."
Dr. Rocker also refers to a young person's concept of time. She explains "If you are 16 and are in a three-month relationship, that is a big part of your life, much more so than if you are in your 30s or 40s and involved in a three-month relationship."
The other contributing factor is memory. The journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences found that our brains are far more sensitive during adolescence, meaning that we a) better absorb our thoughts and experiences and b) better recall teenage memories. People over the age of 35 remember their teenage years with more clarity than any other period. The research also found that adolescents are "slower to forget frightening or negative memories" which might be why some of us are still haunted by our first heartbreak.