The Power of Lost Love

Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
February 21, 2017  | Last Updated: February 21, 2017


Are you single and thinking about the “one who got away”? Looking up that high school love, the one you lost when you both went to college, is an excellent idea, reports psychologist Nancy Kalish, the author of “Lost & Found Lovers: Facts and Fantasies of Rekindled Romances.” She began studying these reconnections more than 20 years ago and now has data on more than 4,000 pairs in 45 countries.

The most common scenario goes like this: You dated for more than a year between the ages of 14 and 23, and parted because someone moved away or a parent disapproved — not because of a problem within the couple. If you’re both single when you reconnect and you revive the romance, your chance of staying together is about 72 percent. 


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But if one of you is married, be careful. Social media can make it so easy to connect you don’t realize you’re risking trouble. Married people often think there’s no harm in sending an email or “friending” an old flame on Facebook. Often they’re reacting to a vivid dream about the lost love. According to Kalish, more than half the married people who reconnect with an old flame say that their marriage is happy. They assume that they can turn the old flame into a friend. Instead, most often the exchange is brief — or leads to an unfair with an unhappy outcome. 

People fall into affairs when the intensity of their emotions for their old flame takes them by surprise. It’s easy to wonder whether that intensity means your old flame is better for you than your current spouse. Kalish provides other explanations. 

First love is especially magical — because it’s the first. In your teens and early 20s, you’re developing your idea of love, exploring the many ways people can influence each other. You’re developing your values and identity, making choices. Other research suggests that we fall most in love with people we feel can help us expand our lives and personalities. When you are young, especially, anyone can help you grow. When you reconnect, you’ll revive that old thrill of possibility. 

Sometimes there’s an old wound to heal or mystery to solve. If you were rejected long ago you may find yourself doing everything you can to prove that you are worthier now. If you were the one who drifted away, you might have regrets. Don’t seek “closure,” she says. It’s impossible to mend the past. 

An affair won’t be rational: when you dip into the past, Kalish argues, you revive your old self. Maybe you drank a lot in high school — you’re likely to drink together now. If you have an affair, it’s also likely to be tinged with the fantasy and irresponsibility of teens or twenty-somethings.

Kalish thinks of old loves as like drug addictions. You need to resist. If an old love writes you, she advises, you can write back that you aren’t free for a romance and provide an update on your life. Don’t dip into reminiscing and don’t meet in person. Tell your spouse from the beginning. Keeping a secret contains its own emotional charge. One secret easily leads to another. 

If you’re obsessing about an old love and contemplating an affair, Kalish recommends a thought experiment: Imagine divorcing your spouse, and everything that might involve. Is it worth it? If you’re unhappily married, don’t assume your choices are either to stay with your spouse or go back to your high school love. Can you improve your marriage? If you choose to separate, consider being alone for a while. Maybe you need to date. Don’t jump from the frying pan into the fire! 


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