“First love is dangerous only when it is also the last.” —Brainslav Nusic
“I've never regretted not ordering the fish when my steak arrives cooked and seasoned to my liking.” —A woman who married her first lover
A considerable number of us are still with our first lover. Is marrying your first (and only) lover such a terrible idea? Do you regret not having more diverse romantic experiences? Does the quality of one’s relationship remain high all the time? If we dig deep enough, these questions all concern the conflict between love and regret.
Love and regret
Long-term profound love is established and maintained by sharing experiences and activities. The shared connection between the partners is the bedrock of love, and joint activities are the foundational features of the connection. The connection amplifies the flourishing of the lovers as well as the flourishing of their relationship (Krebs, 2015; Ben-Ze’ev & Krebs, 2018).
In the short term, regret concerns past actions that have generated negative consequences. In the long term, regret tends to involve inaction—the road not taken—which is seen as responsible for our current limited horizons. We regret most not extending our horizons—thereby losing alluring opportunities. Accordingly, Americans often express great regret concerning their choices in education, career, romance, and parenting. Education tops that list, since it functions as a gateway to highly valued options, from higher income to more challenging careers to a diversity of social and romantic contacts. We are inclined to regret when the prospect of change, growth, and renewal is not fulfilled (Gilovich & Medvec, 1995; Roese & Summerville, 2005).
The conflict between love and regret underlies most of our romantic lives, but it is particularly acute when marrying your first and only lover. Figuring out which emotion comes out on top in this case depends strongly on personality and context.
The difficulties of marrying your first lover
It would be natural to assume that those who marry their first love are likely to regret missing better, or at least different, romantic options. Along these lines, research indicates that when negotiators’ first offers are immediately accepted, they are more likely to think that they could have done better, and therefore they are less likely to be satisfied with the agreement than are negotiators whose initial offers are not accepted immediately (Galinsky et al. 2002). This accords with the powerful impact of the romantic road not taken.
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In her article, “Why Marrying Your First Love Is A Terrible Idea,” Kelsey Dykstra describes additional difficulties in marrying your first lover: You never grow; you’re settling for something easy; you haven’t had the chance to experience someone new; you’ve never gone through heartbreak and come out the other side; you’ll never know what else is out there, and a piece of you will always wonder; a divorce would be brutal; there’s no passion—you don’t know ups and downs; you have nothing to compare your relationship to.
These problems can be real, but they are not inevitable. Some people in such marriages testify they grew in the relationship—which was not always easy and did involve some heartbreak. Some had extensive social lives and met, with their partner, new friends. Some divorced—in non-brutal ways—and some felt great passion in their romantic relations.
Despite the apparently formidable obstacles for marrying your first love, the few empirical findings that exist indicate that first-love marriages are stronger than other marriages.
A YouGov study reports that 64 percent of people in first-love marriage state that they are definitely in love, compared to 57 percent of the married population; only 19 percent of the former have considered leaving their partner; this compares to a third (34 percent) of married people who have loved before. People who married their first love are also more likely (97 percent) to think they will be with their partner until their dying day than people who did not (88 percent).
Another study, carried out by Illicit Encounters, reveals that a quarter of us are still with our first love, and that 41 percent of people enjoy the best sex of their lives with their first love. If correct, these numbers are quite high.
Despite such encouraging news for marrying one’s first love, another Illicit Encounters survey found that most men and women agreed that sleeping with as many as 12 partners is indicative of someone who is sexually adventurous, liberal, and transient. An overwhelming majority of men and women believe that having had fewer than 10 sexual partners signals sexual inexperience and, perhaps more importantly, someone who is a bit too conservative in the bedroom. Both sexes also agreed that having had more than 19 sexual partners is a red flag, indicating that perhaps someone is too eager to jump from partner to partner, or simply selfish and hard to please.
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Do you regret marrying your first lover?
In order to illustrate the above conflicting considerations, I bring (from the site Reddit AskWomen) some answers provided by women (who are or were in such marriages) to the questions, “Do you regret not having more experience with more than one relationship?” and “Was it a good choice for you and your partner?” Here are a few examples:
“I have no regrets—only slight curiosity every once and a while.”
“I knew I couldn't be casual with a romantic relationship, so it was nice to be with someone on the same page from the start.”
“I sometimes wonder about how things would've been different if I had more experience (both dating and sexually), but there's no regret, just curiosity.”
“We're getting divorced. (I'm so excited!)”
“I adore him. Honestly, I'm really thankful not to have a lot of negative sexual or relationship baggage to contend with. My only sex and relationship experience is with someone who has always been a generous lover, and who I've always just clicked with. What is there to regret about that?”
“We're divorced now. I do regret settling in with someone so early on. It's easy to imagine this love you've found is perfect while ignoring red flags.”
“I have no regrets at all. Just glad I was lucky enough to find a good one first try.”
“I would have wasted lots of time not being with my favorite person if I had felt the need to shop around before committing. I believe there is no perfect match (or "soul mate," if you will) for anyone, that a relationship is built and requires growth and effort from both sides. He is a wonderful partner.”
“It's great! I don't feel like I am missing out on other relationships. I'm perfectly happy with who I have. There may be better people out there for me, but I am happy enough that there is no desire to even look.”
“I love him more and more each day. Our life together is great and I wouldn't change a thing.”
“I have never dated or even kissed anyone else! I don’t ever worry that I missed out on anything by not dating more. In fact it’s quite the opposite, I’m grateful I found my partner so early on without having to go through ones who weren’t going to work out.”
“We were together almost 15 years and married for over nine but getting divorced in my mid 30s was the best thing I ever did.”
“Yes, I regret not dating around more.”
“Long since over. While in that relationship, I had no regrets. Divorce was the best thing to happen to me.”
“I was happy, 16 years together, 8 married. No regrets about not being with other guys, There was curiosity but always turned them down. Then I found out 2 years ago that he cheated on me with 3 different girls before we were married, so it seems that he had regrets. We are working on it.”
“Sometimes I wish I had a chance to sleep with more people before we met (as hubby is anything but adventurous in bed), but relationship wise I couldn't ask for more. I know my husband is the top 1 percent on the compatibility scale.”
“No regrets. Never felt like we missed out on anything. He's my other half and we're the luckiest people on Earth.”
“I don't regret not dating the field because the field doesn't look that great. Watching my single friends go out to bars and hook up wasn't really something I envied.”
As expected, these answers show a variety of attitudes. Marrying your first lover is not always (or even mostly) the optimal option. Nevertheless, in some circumstances, this option can provide a profound, exciting, and loving relationship. A major advantage of marrying your first love is the great romantic profundity stemming from a shared history of positive interactions over a significant period. First love does not have to be love at first sight, but it often has the high intensity of such love, which further facilitates getting into marriage without examining other options. In traditional matching, where the starting point intensity may not be overly strong, the expectation is that such intensity will develop over time alongside an increase in romantic profundity.
I now turn to three major concerns with respect to marrying your first lover: (1) the likelihood of regret, (2) the feasibility of development, and (3) the lack of a comparative concern.
Regret. The women cited above rightly distinguish between regret and curiosity. Regret involves sadness concerning our past behavior; curiosity expresses a positive desire to know something. Curiosity can be fulfilled in various ways that do not damage first love. In any case, curiosity is not something that you fulfill once and for all. Rather, it is an ongoing attitude that is often conducive to our well-being. Moreover, the curiosity of those who experienced romantic affairs is unlikely to cease after having such an affair. On the contrary, they probably seek more such affairs. As Francois de La Rochefoucauld once quipped, “You can find women who have never had an affair, but it is hard to find a woman who has had just one.”
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Development. I suggest distinguishing between external change and intrinsic development (growth). The fact that you are married to your first lover does not mean that you cannot grow. Change means becoming different, usually without permanently losing one’s main characteristics or essence. Development is a specific type of change that involves a process of improving by expanding or refining. External changes and intrinsic development operate on different time scales—that of the first is quite short, and that of the second can take years. A significant intrinsic development could reduce the need for external changes. In the case of external change, the individual remains essentially the same, and change is needed to alleviate boredom; in the case of intrinsic, meaningful development, one is continually developing (Ben-Ze’ev, 2019).
The comparative concern. The comparative concern is central in emotions, one reason being the centrality of change in emotions. An event can be perceived as a significant change only when compared against a certain background or within a certain framework. However, constant comparison of your partner to others is contrary to the spirit of profound romantic love. Profound lovers are not in the business of accounting and comparing—they are more occupied with bettering their relationship than in having a better partner than someone else.
None of this suggests that concerns about the perils of marrying your first lover are completely unfounded: They simply show that such perils may or may not materialize, depending on one’s circumstances. And, these considerations aside, the main challenge in marrying your first lover is the built-in lack of diversity—but this is also a problem with other types of monogamous marriages. In all such monogamous relationships, it is maintaining diversity while sustaining stability that becomes the real prize.
When marrying your first lover, you sometimes get lucky on the first try—and sometimes you are just settling for whoever came first. Sometimes, it is an ongoing honeymoon, and sometimes an illusory honey trap. Even when the relationship does feel like a kind of honeymoon, romantic regrets may exist. It’s worth remembering, though, that reducing romantic regret is easier than establishing romantic profundity. Such regrets can often be reduced with short and easy interactions. Establishing romantic profundity requires more complex joint activities over a much longer period. This is why, in the game of love, profound love usually wins over romantic regrets.
Should You Hook Up With Your Ex?
This post is based upon my forthcoming book, The Arc of Love: How Our Romantic Lives Change Over Time (University of Chicago Press, 2019).