Ghost of Boyfriends Past
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.