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"A few years ago, I looked up my high school boyfriend through our school's alumni list," says Heidi, 36, a New York editor. "We got in touch. I blurted out that I still had feelings for him, and he responded with the news that he was getting married. We met up anyway, and though I didn't do anything naughty, I did come away from the meeting with the strong sense that he was marrying for all the wrong reasons.
"By the time my plane touched down in my home city, I had realized I was in love with the guy and not only should he dump the fiance, he should up and marry me," she recalls. I sent him a letter saying so, and heard nothing back. That is, until a few months ago, when he e-mailed me to announce his divorce. To which I replied, 'That's nice. I'm married, pregnant, and very happy, thank you very much.'"
Heidi's story -- or something like it -- is becoming more and more common lately. With the Internet right there at our fingertips, and the little rectangular box in the middle of the Google screen just begging for you to type in the name of anyone you're curious about, romantic nostalgia searches are not only easy, they're almost impossible to avoid. And it seems to be a harmless guilty pleasure: It can feel positively devilish to let your flying fingers find that old boyfriend, unrequited crush, or summer fling from years ago -- through Classmates.com, MySpace.com, college and high school bulletin boards, or just plain Googling their names.
But whether it happens online or off, the question remains the same: Is a harmless "hi" with an old boyfriend really possible?
Most people think so, and experts say that for single folk, a trip down memory lane can yield some great romantic prospects. But for those who are committed to a spouse and family, the heady mix of cyber-reality and nostalgia can put you -- and your marriage -- at risk. "I think it's a recipe for disaster," says Cristina Ferrare, author of Realistically Ever After: Finding Happiness When He's Not Prince Charming, You're Not Snow White, and Life's Not a Fairy Tale (Rodale, 2004). "If you find yourself looking someone up, it signals a problem in the relationship. You're not getting something, and that's what you need to fix."
Of course, we all know people -- okay, let's admit it, maybe we are those people -- who've looked up that scoundrelly trumpet player just for the sheer joy of seeing that he's now tubby, bald, and married to a woman one-tenth as pretty as you. But when your cursor drifts over to the e-mail link to take you from just-lookin' to "what's-cookin'," watch out: that simple click could land you in a world of trouble.
"When you go looking for an old love, it indicates that the reality of your relationship or marriage is in some way disillusioning or disappointing you," says John Jacobs, MD, author of All You Need Is Love and Other Lies About Marriage (HarperCollins, 2004) and a psychiatrist who specializes in couples therapy. "You've created a fantasy that if you'd only stayed with that person, you'd be happier than you are -- and your real-life relationship can never compete with that dream."
Part of the lure, he says, is that these earlier loves remind you of yourself as a more innocent, less jaded self, and to reconnect with the other person is to go back in time to the earlier version of you. But those looking to explain/exorcise an ancient heartbreak are particularly vulnerable to a rush of unexpected emotion. "For someone whose great passion was taken away [e.g. dumped], especially if it hurt her self-esteem, it often seems that the only way to get back that sense of self is to have the person return and say 'I'm sorry, I love you.'" The risk of an affair blossoming out of a seemingly innocuous situation, he says, is great.
Even Nancy Kalish, PhD, who became the reigning queen of reunited loves when she published Lost and Found Lovers: Facts and Fantasies of Rekindled Romances (Morrow, 1997) and whose Web site, www.lostlovers.com, cautions Web reuniters to be aware of the pitfalls. "I tell people, 'if you're in a marriage, don't contact an old love.'" Of course, sometimes you can resist the urge, but still hear from someone out of the blue. "Often a single person will do the contacting, to apologize or find out why the person left -- innocent stuff," adds Kalish. "They don't expect the feelings to come back, but time after time, they do." For single people, she says, the chances of finding a love match are great. But "if you're married, guard your relationship." The temptation is stronger than you think.
Some happy wives report that they've had safe surfing. "I got married eight months ago," says Juliet, 33, a social worker in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "As a final act of closure, I looked up all of my old boyfriends. It was a symbolic strengthening of my marriage, a final look to say goodbye to everything I didn't have or want, and a reminder that the guy I have in my life right now is the best!" But sometimes situations arise -- either through real-life or online contact -- that spiral out of control, with life-altering results.
The difference, experts say, may be in the age of the reuniting couple. Younger people, -- freshly married, kidless, and starry-eyed -- haven't had time to get bored with their mates, so aren't as susceptible to a looming sense that there's a more exciting alternative out there. But as time passes, a fresh relationship can seem more and more desirable -- especially when it's the rare combination of what feels like a fresh relationship with a proven track record of deep feelings.
The following three couples took a shot at hooking up once again -- via the Web, a high school reunion, and just by picking up the phone. The results are astonishing and offer a cautionary tale:Bill and Sharon
"Bill and I were college sweethearts, and we were inseparable," says Sharon, 49, a public relations professional now based in France. "We spent every hour together cracking each other up. But after graduation, it was time to get serious, and we had to face up to the fact that our parents opposed the match on religious grounds." Unable to stay together against family wishes, they split, and didn't speak for 15 years.
Fate came a-knockin' in the form of mass e-mail sent by a mutual friend. "I saw his name on the e-mail list and I just thought I'd drop him a line," Sharon says. Bill responded to her note, which developed into a deep, emotional correspondence that lasted two years. During this period Sharon divorced her husband (for unrelated reasons). Finally, on Valentine's Day weekend of this year, Sharon and Bill met and enjoyed a weekend holiday together.
"It was like we'd never been apart. Like going to Fantasy Island," says Sharon, who also says her fears of looking old were unwarranted. "I was thinking 'oh gosh, I breastfed, I have a belly, my hair's got gray in it,' but all he saw was the me he remembered. And it all came rushing back."
Both Sharon and Bill returned to their normal lives, but they felt horribly torn. Bill has a family and feels it would be selfish to leave them. "In a way, I'd like to do a 'same-time-next-year' kind of thing, but then I think, how can I survive a whole year without seeing him again?" says Sharon. Neither knows exactly how to handle this situation.The Expert Says
"They're hesitating," says Kalish. "But I don't think they'll hesitate for long. I'm not happy that their reunion turned into an affair, but I understand why it happened: this was a powerful connection, and they had unfinished business together." Now that the relationship has gotten intense, Kalish predicts that they'll find a way to be together, or if they do decide to stay apart, will feel pangs for one another for years to come.Evelyn and Ted
"I never forgot Ted when I went away to college," says Evelyn, 43. "But by the time I got back, he was married and had a kid, so I got married too, and I thought I had moved on." They lived in nearby towns, never running into each other, for 15 years. Then they both ended up going to their high school reunion. "Our eyes locked," says Evelyn. "The years fell away. Name the cliche, and it happened."
They began an affair -- and that was enough. It's been 10 years now, and neither has plans to leave their spouse or family. "I want this to stay as it is -- in this bubble," says Evelyn. "Real life would just mess it up like it did the first time. This way, we stay perfect for each other, and return to our families energized." For them, a lost love, found at an in-person reunion, became a present digression.The Expert Says
"They haven't really reunited," says Jacobs. Evelyn and Ted's relationship doesn't exist in the real world, and it's not clear whether it could. "For whatever reason, this suits their purpose." However, he points out that "adolescent love has an intensity that more mature relationships just don't have." These two could just be grabbing at that intense feeling, since their later loves proved disappointing.Nancy and Steven
"I met Steven on the first day of classes at college," says Nancy, 50, a marketing executive in Florida. "We were inseparable for the rest of our four years, but when we graduated, I was a free spirit and had to go to New York to seek my fame and fortune. He waited for me, but when I married someone else and had a child, he gave up and got married himself. To someone who looked just like me."
When Nancy divorced, she returned home to visit her parents and called Steve. He drove over to show her his brand-new baby. "We looked at each other over the car seat and he said, 'This should have been our baby.' And I said, 'I know!'" They both admitted that they considered themselves soul mates, and began planning an exit. But while Nancy slipped out of her marriage easily, Steve got some sobering news: his wife had gotten pregnant. "He wanted to leave her, and I said no, he had to stay for at least five years," says Nancy. "And he did."
Those years passed as Nancy and Steve met in motels, waiting for the right time for him to extricate himself. Contrary to what usually happens in TV movies, he actually did it, and he and Nancy married eight years ago. "It wasn't always easy, but knowing we could have missed this opportunity altogether made us work harder to get through the hard times," says Nancy. "We're each other's true loves."The Expert Says
"Timing is everything," says Jacobs. "Maybe you are perfectly suited for someone, but you just aren't ready to commit. If you meet that person years later, when you are ready and you can take on the responsibilities of long-term love, everything can be different." In this case, of course, the risk was high, and the difficulties were huge. "This situation is certainly not ideal," he says. "You sure wouldn't want to structure your life this way if you had the choice."
"When you reunite, it's a powerful connection, and it's become trendy because of the Internet," says Kalish. "But the basic principle is the same: if you go looking for a love that was interrupted, the feelings that arise may not be in your control. If you want to protect your marriage, don't go there."
In the end, even a quick trip through Kalish's site proves that the human heart does not always listen to the brain it's connected to. As happy and secure as you think your relationship is, it's not impervious to a bolt of lightning. So if you find your fingers wandering curiously across the keyboard, and you find yourself yearning for a sweet sweet taste of yesterday-pie, put down the mouse and go for a jog. And give your husband an extra kiss. He doesn't need to know why.