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Guess who's back? Reuniting with past loves

This is a SheKnows feature article from Psychology Today magazine. Reprinted with permission. Check out Psychology Today's free online therapist search!

Rekindling old flames

Old flames still smolder, especially when they're early love affairs -- which leave a particularly vivid mark in our minds. Reawakening such a romance can be an incendiary experience... intensely passionate and dangerous to trifle with.

Lost-and-found love

Smiling woman on a cellphoneIf Todd and Janelle had left their hearts in San Francisco -- only to find them again in the same exact spot -- they aren't alone. Romantic reunions with past partners are more common than ever due to the ease of finding people online. Before the Internet, locating a lost love required a library of phone books, a private detective or plenty of luck. The hunt was an act explicitly rife with feeling, a kind of public declaration.

Today, old lovers can type a name into Google. The act seems to be casual, whether it actually is or not. It's so easy to reconnect that many people look up old flames without appreciating what's at stake. Most of these romantic reunions, says California State University at Sacramento psychologist Nancy Kalish, are between first or early loves -- those relationships that took place between one's teens and early 20s.

According to Kalish, the country's foremost expert in rekindled romance, lost-and-found romances are surprisingly successful, as long as both partners are not otherwise attached at the time they reconnect. In Kalish's initial sample of 1,000 lost-and-found lovers, ages 18 to 95, nearly three-quarters remained together after a decade of study. When these past lovers married each other, their divorce rate after four years tallied in at no more than 1.5 percent. Usually, second marriages are relatively fragile: In the public at large, nearly one-quarter of all couples who remarry get divorced again within five years.

How to explain the endurance of rekindled first love? "Many of the couples grew up together or shared friends and values," says Kalish. Whether they were from the same hometown or met in college, "they spent formative years together and became each other's standard for all romances since."

Yet for all the power and resilience of rekindled romance, Kalish has discovered a dark side. More of the encounters are now unpremeditated, and many of these people are swept away by feelings they didn't know they still had, placing marriages -- even good marriages -- at risk. In her latest sample, more than 60 percent of lost-love reunions involve affairs.

The lost-love project

Nancy Kalish was teaching adolescent psychology at the University of California in San Francisco in 1993 when she began wondering about her college boyfriend. She got his phone number by writing to their alumni association, and that first contact reawakened their romance. She took a sabbatical and moved to New York to be with him; they got engaged. Yet problems emerged. Kalish found herself shocked and hurt the day he drove away, never to be heard from again.

At the time, Kalish assumed -- mistakenly as it turns out -- that most rekindled loves, like her own, were saddled with past problems and doomed to fail. Curious about the phenomenon, she decided to conduct a scholarly post mortem of her own relationship. She designed a questionnaire and began seeking a population to fill in the blanks.

Lost-and-found love affairs were common, she learned, and uncommonly successful. Most of the people Kalish met during her earliest research had been separated by circumstance: long distances and family moves, stints in the military, disapproving parents, the uncertainty of youth. The lost lovers felt their separation had been unjust, and now they finally had the chance to set things right.

"Those forced apart by parents harbored great anger," she says. "Some had put off marriage and even lost their chance to have children as a result." The reunions were often supremely vindicating. "He kept kissing my face at the airport, and after 20 years he was saying, 'You're beautiful, you look fabulous,' " one woman in Kalish's study recounted.

Such love may sound fantastical, sure to vaporize in the light of day, but Kalish says that nothing could be further from the truth. "These are love relationships that never ended, not fantasies."

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