When Romeo meets his Juliet, he tells her that this is the moment he first begins to live. And indeed, Romeo is right. There is something magical and life-changing about first love, especially if you were a teenager or in your early 20s when it happened. Most people never forget it, and many adults wonder from time to time what happened to the person who once transformed their life.
Dr. Aaron Ben Zeev, an expert on Internet relationships, said that people want to find their first loves because they idealize the past and are longing for circumstances that no longer exist. They are also just curious. They are hopeful that if they find that person, the outcome will be better than the first time around. Instead of breaking up, true love will last a lifetime.
Part of the reason we so idealize our first loves is that research shows people remember any event that occurred when they were between 10 and 30 years old more intensely and more vividly than at other times in their lives. Things that happen in our formative years become part of our personal mythology. The first time we fall in love, according to author Thomas Lewis, has a once-in-a-lifetime intensity, and the longing for that person can last for years.
Dr. Nancy Kalish is probably the foremost expert in the world on looking up old lovers. After looking up her own first love as a young adult, she became fascinated by the whole process, wrote her PhD thesis on it, and has studied the phenomenon for over 20 years now. She says that in the 1990s, it was rare for a person to be able to locate a lost love, although many tried. Only 30% of these “rekindlers” were married. Today the widespread use of the Internet has changed everything. Websites like Classmates.com with its 60 million members or Reunion.com with its 34 million make it easy to find anyone from your past, and there are even websites designed specifically to do the job like lostlover.com. According to Dr. Kalish, many times people are casually surfing the net and find a lost love on a whim, and then meet that person that same day. The problem is today that 82% of “rekindlers” are married.
The usual sequence of events is that rekindlers e-mail one another, meet for coffee, and land up in a hotel room, according to Dr. Kalish. One of her studies of 1600 people who looked up lost loves found that 62% ended up having sex. Dr. Ben Zeev believes it is easier for rekindlers to do just that because if a couple had sex in the past, they perceive the new sex as “less sinful” than a new extramarital affair.
That first reunion is often powerful and intense, because the hope and connection can be profound on the part of both the man and woman involved. Dr. Kalish’s research indicates that rekindled romances can have happy endings. She studied 1000 people ages 18 to 95 years old who found old lovers, and found 75% were still together ten years later. Among those who married, the divorce rate was only 1.5%.
Whether the romance works out usually depends upon why the couple broke up in the first place when they were young. If outside forces made them break up – such as disapproving parents or that they were too young to get married – they are more likely to stay together. However, if they had personality traits that were irritating or had vast differences in values, these problems tend to resurface and break them apart after their reunions.
Believe it or not, it is common for a “rekindler” to have a dream about a past lover, and then to interpret the dream as a message that they need to find that person.
Dr. Kalish has only one word of advice for anyone who decides to look up a past love for whatever reason.
“I wouldn’t touch it if I were married,” she says.
Ben Zeev, Aaron (PhD). “In the Name of Love,” Psychology Today, March 12, 2010.
Kalish, Nancy (PhD.) “Is It Imprinting?” Psychology Today, July 5, 2010.
Lipe, Pamela. “What Is the Right Thing to Do When an Old Lover Connects with You Online?” See The Good Therapy Organization.
Nevius, CW. “Looking up an Old Flame,” the San Francisco Gate, January 10, 2006.
Weintraub, Pamela. “Lost Love: Guess Who Is Back?” Psychology Today, November 19, 2012.