But Should You?

The Internet has made it very easy to reconnect with people from your past, such as that old flame from high school or college. Is seeking out former sweethearts a good idea? What happens when these long-ago relationships are renewed or rekindled?

Nancy Kalish, PhD, has been studying reunited couples for more than 20 years, beginning with her landmark survey of 1,001 people around the world who tried rekindling long-ago romances. Over the years, the research project has grown to more than 4,000 couples in 45 countries.

Most people who seek out lost loves after many years dated as adolescents or young adults, ages 14 to 23, and dated for more than a year. Whether they had sex or not doesn’t have much effect on what happens if they reconnect. Typically, there were no real problems between the two people—they broke up for situational reasons.

At some point, these “lost loves” look back over the years…and wonder what might have been.

Dr. Kalish has found that reconnecting with a lost love can be successful and satisfying—but only under certain circumstances. If you both are unattached when you reconnect—and if the original romance broke up because of outside factors such as disapproving parents or moving to different locations—the relationship has a strong chance of succeeding. In fact, approximately 72% of couples with this kind of history who get back together stay together—a better success rate than any dating website.

But be warned: When one or both people are married, reconnecting often is disastrous. If it crosses your mind to reconnect with an old flame—however innocently—here’s what you must know…

The Pull of the Past

Getting back in touch with a long-ago love may seem innocent even if one or both of you are married. People say to themselves, What harm can there be in e-mailing this person just to say hi? But for a married person, the contact easily can be anything but harmless. That’s because once contact is reestablished, the power of the long-ago connection takes most people by surprise—and many find themselves drawn into affairs.

These affairs do not lead to a bright new future. In 95% of cases, the married partner does not leave the marriage—but the marriage is never the same, and families are left emotionally bruised. Typically the married partners don’t leave their spouses because they love their spouses, too. They love two people from two different times in their lives. Plus they don’t want to leave their children or hurt their spouses. They would have to divide property, lose their current extended family of in-laws, lose mutual friends and give up shared businesses and homes—in other words, all the factors that go into the monumental decision of whether to get a divorce.

Most people don’t think that reaching out to a lost love will be a problem for them. More than half report being very happily married. When their contact with an old love starts, they assume that they will be able to manage their feelings. But the rekindled bond is unexpectedly powerful for many ­reasons…

The reunited couple have shared roots. They may have grown up together and known each other’s families and old friends. They may have entered young adulthood together and even may have been each other’s first loves. Their extreme familiarity creates a deep sense of connection and trust that people who came into their lives later may never have matched.

When young people are in love, both partners’ identities still are being formed. Together, they develop their ideas about what love means. This mutual growth strengthens the specialness of the bond even if they later break up and move on to other people.

The desire to reconnect can be compelling. They have wondered what might have been if the situation that broke them apart hadn’t happened. It was an interrupted romance. For many couples in the study, the old breakup occurred because a parent or other ­authoritative family member insisted that one partner end the relationship, but the other partner never learned the reason why and was left wondering, What did I do wrong? Years later, after reconnecting and learning the real reason for the breakup, the spurned partner may hope to mend the wound by reviving the relationship.

Immature thinking takes over. When the young-love connection gets reignited, so do the thinking patterns of young brains. The present-day partners deny reality. If they do fall into an ­affair, they don’t expect to be caught. They expect that their romance will succeed. They re-create the seductive bubble from long ago when they felt as though they were the only two people in the world.

How Not to Ruin Your Marriage

After studying thousands of couples who reconnected, here’s the most ­important advice I can give…

If you are married, don’t reach out to past loves. Satisfying your curiosity is not worth putting your marriage and perhaps your family at risk.

Do not expect a lost love to become a platonic friend. This almost never happens. Instead, the result usually is a brief exchange or an affair that ends disastrously.

Don’t be misled by vivid dreams. The top reason given for reinitiating contact was having had a dream—a literal dream, while sleeping—about the lost love. A dream about an old flame is not a sign that you should get in touch any more than a dream about flying means that you should be in the cockpit of a plane. We all have dreams about our past. They are memories, not signs!

If an old flame contacts you, keep your guard up. It is fine to write one or two lines back to tell the person what you have been doing in the intervening years. Don’t indulge in emotional reminiscing—that might send you down the path to preoccupation and even obsession.

Tell your spouse immediately. If you do contact or are contacted by an old flame, don’t keep it a secret from your spouse at any stage. Every secret contact makes the next secret easier. Secrecy itself also triggers emotional arousal. Many people do not realize they are falling for the lost love until they already are in the grip of renewed romantic feelings that they can no longer control.

Do not meet face to face. Even when old loves meet with their spouses present, the rekindled desire can be strong and hard to resist. If an old love contacts you and suggests meeting, and either one of you is not free to pursue a new relationship openly, simply say that it has been nice to reconnect but that you are in a relationship and don’t want to pursue the connection further.

If You Find Yourself Obsessing

Recognize the addictive nature of thoughts about an old love. The comfort of shared history, combined with the excitement of renewed connection, releases powerful bonding hormones such as oxytocin and arousal hormones such as cortisol. Indulging in obsessive thoughts may feel good in the moment, but like an addictive substance, it can hurt you. When I counsel couples, I counsel as if it is a drug addiction.

It will be difficult to cut off contact and turn your thoughts elsewhere because you continue to crave that hormonal rush—but the effort of saying no is worth it. Remind yourself that you are an adult and that you can do difficult things when they are the right things to do.

Do not seek “closure” of the old relationship. You will not find it. Complicated feelings are part of having a life history. It won’t be easy, but you need to dismiss thoughts of the old love as “old stuff” whenever they come up.

If you are married, remind yourself that the past is past and that you and your spouse have worked together to build a life. The idea that you can re-create or mend the past is an illusion.

Do a thought experiment. Imagine that you and your lost-and-found love divorce your spouses. Picture yourself fighting over custody if you have young children…being a stepparent to children who may never come to like you…losing your current in-laws and many friends…losing half your community property. All this baggage will add stress to the hypothetical new relationship. Is this what you want your life to be like?

If you are unhappy in your marriage and wonder whether you would have been happier with that early love, consider your marriage separately from the memory of your early romance. It’s true that some marriages should not go on and that some people are happier after divorce. But you have many choices beyond staying in your marriage or leaving it for a lost love. First, decide whether you want to be in your marriage at all. You can choose to be alone for a time or even to seek a new partner who might be an even better match.

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