In my 40 years of counseling couples, one phenomenon never fails to intrigue me. It is how intimate partners, who gave up on their relationship in the past, rekindle their love again later in life. When their prior relationship ended, they truly believed that they would never be together again, yet are now back and more in love than they were the first time around.
The options of finding old loves are much more available today because of the Internet, and people are doing so on a regular basis. Having observed many of these rekindled relationships, I have learned that the past just doesn’t ever determine what options may lay ahead for partners who have left a past relationship behind.
The people who are doing the searching are sometimes currently in established relationships. They may be feeling unfulfilled or concerned that there might not be a possible future for their partnership. For people between relationships, their searching may be driven by nostalgia, haunting feelings that they left a past relationship prematurely, or being reminded of a past love. They begin to wonder and question whether they left that relationship for the wrong reasons. What if fate is somehow intervening, and by some miraculous chance, that old lover might be feeling the same way?
At other times, people are at a place in their lives where they are experiencing a significant life re-awakening. In chosen reflection, they sift significant events from their pasts, and see things differently in retrospect. Maybe they should have tried harder to overcome their disappointments and complaints. Why and how did they fall out of love anyway? What made them leave without searching more deeply for what could have been a more significant connection? Now, with more time to evaluate, they realize how much they valued that relationship and realized they might have prematurely bolted.
Some of the remarkable stories I’ve heard are even more magical. People who haven’t seen each other in many months or years run into one another in places neither would have anticipated or expected. Or they are told of a prior love by mutual friends who tell them that prior lover is still interested. I’ve known couples who found each other when they both joined the same dating site at the same time, not immediately realizing that they have known the person on the other end.
They ask me how people can tell whether a rekindled relationship is just hopeful fantasy or a true realization of how good that past partnership might have become, had they known then what they do now. How do they distinguish that possibility from wishful thinking driven by current disappointing relationships?
In only the past few years, I have worked with 12 relationships that have started over again after months or even years apart. Twelve may seem like a small number, but I believe it is a trend, and that we will see many more. Rekindled relationships are no more likely to be magically successful, but they do have a few things going for them. The first is that they don’t have to start over. The second is that they come back together with more experience, hope, and determination to make it work. The third, and perhaps the most important, is that they’ve now compared what they had to other relationships, and appreciate another chance to do it right.
Here are two examples of magical reconnections that did materialize.
“On the spur of the moment, I just felt I had to go back home where I grew up. I have no idea what drove me. It felt like some kind of paranormal experience. I hadn’t been back in so long, and the family there had long gone. I guess that I just wanted to remember who I was when I still felt excited and hopeful about life and love.
I’d been in the same relationship with Peter for five years but it wasn’t going anywhere. I truly respected and treasured him and didn’t think there was anyone out there any better. Yet, I’d been spending a lot of time daydreaming about nothing so I must have known that I wasn’t really happy.
Don’t ask me why, but in the middle of the summer, I felt I had to go back, so I did. I was sitting outside a restaurant I’d known my whole life, having a cherry Coke. I felt so much nostalgia, so much affection for the beautiful elm trees lining the streets and the steeple of the church where I had my first communion. I don’t even know when I saw him coming. I remembered that same walk and the great smile he willingly gave everyone he passed. I watched, stunned by the feelings that washed over me.
It had been 14 years since we parted. I headed off to college and he signed up for the Navy, following the family history his dad and granddad had established. I suddenly remembered the entire experience and how terribly sad we were to leave each other. We didn’t think we had a choice. It was what our families expected of us, and we went along with their decision.
I held my breath as he came nearer. Then his eyes caught mine. “Christine?” We both just stopped, struck by the intensity of the bond that neither of us had really thought about.
“Hey, beautiful,” he said in that melodic voice I didn’t know how I could have forgotten. "Where’ve you been?” I felt like my heart literally stopped beating.
“Are you single?” came out of my mouth. I started laughing and crying at the same time.
I felt like we’d never been apart, like I was experiencing some kind of amazing time warp that had taken us away from each other and now dropped us back where we always belonged.
It’s been two years since we found each other again. So much has happened to us both, but the love we once shared was only benefited by the sorrows and joys we hadn’t been able to share. I just don’t know how to express the happiness I feel. I’m home.”
“I’d been struggling with Geri for a long time. I pushed her so many times to get professionals involved, but she always found a reason not to go. In so many ways, she was a great partner, but her constant demands for me to prove that I loved her were endless. No matter what I said or did, it didn’t seem to help and, in many ways, just made things worse. Any other people I met became automatic enemies, even totally legitimate connections. Over time, I gave up pretty much everything to make her happy, but she just couldn’t get there. I guess I must have really loved her, because I never thought seriously about being with anyone else.
She told me over and over that it wasn’t my fault, but she was afraid of getting some real help for her continuous unhappiness. Her parents always told her she was crazy. What if some professional thought so, too? We got to the point where the sex was flat, and we were hardly communicating, but I just couldn’t leave her. I somehow felt responsible, like she would never make it if I wasn’t there to catch her each time she fell.
I asked her to go to my reunion with me but she said she couldn’t handle the people staring at her. I pushed her to share what the real problem was and she finally told me that she felt she might be jealous of anyone who showed interest in me and ruin the night. I said I wouldn’t go, that her distress was more important. We went to bed, I thought, resolved.
The next morning she said she’d changed her mind, that she didn’t have a right to stop me from having a good time. She was In her “blame herself/self-destruct” mode and said that she hoped I would find someone better for me. I know she didn’t mean it, but she was always telling me that I’d leave some day, sort of wanting me to talk her out of it. I normally wouldn’t have done anything to hurt her in any way, but I think I felt pushed away just one time too many.
I sat in my car for a long time outside the restaurant that was hosting the reunion. There was a pit in my stomach, like I knew something had changed at home, maybe forever. I finally got the nerve to go in.
I didn’t recognize most of the people there. I guess we only think that other people age, and it had been 20 years. I was sitting at the bar having a drink trying to remember the name of the guy I was talking to, and looking for a way to get out of there without offending anyone. Just as I was starting to get up, I felt someone gently cradle the back of my head. The feeling was instantly familiar, but I couldn’t even tell why. I think I froze, scared to turn around. And then that voice, still gentle and soft.
“I was hoping you’d be here.”
Sure, she’d aged and gained a few pounds, but that incredible face and those beautiful eyes. I touched the bald spot on the back of my head and sucked in my stomach before I stood up and hugged her, and hugged her, and hugged her. Yeah, it was as if the sun just came out after a very long winter.
It was not easy to end my relationship with Geri, but I knew I’d been trapped for a long time and had long ago stopped giving her a fraction of the care I did at the beginning. I didn’t lie. She cried. But I knew how much she’d loved me when she told me that I needed to go where I belonged.
These two examples may sound like excerpts from romantic novels, but they are based on real people and real situations. Of course, not all rekindled loves turn out that way. Many times, the years that were missed have left too large a gap and the fantasies of what could have been don’t match up with what actually happens. But many do.
Successful long-term relationships require a continuous recommitment of time, energy, and devotion. To be successful, the partners within them must continue to learn and grow together, while simultaneously meeting life’s challenges. They must find that important balance between security and challenge, and support each other’s need to keep their love of life within the relationship. Every relationship goes through hard times, unexpected challenges, and damaging ruptures. Those times of stress must be met by two people who have each other’s backs and grow stronger and more dedicated to their relationship as it matures.
Many people start off their relationships filled with hope, purpose, and the intent to stay in love forever. But, somewhere along the way, they often forget to keep the energy and magic alive. They begin to feel that the cost of their relationship starts to outweigh the benefits and what drew them to it in the first place. Discouraged by their present relationship, they begin to wonder whether they can find what they have lost by going back to old loves.
Way too often, disappointments and disillusions can turn people into love cynics. They go from seeing relationships as wonderful adventures of the heart to ever-potential failures. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” becomes “Nothing ventured, nothing lost.” The past begins to determine the future as they become more concerned about being hurt again than they are in the genuine potential of transformation.
Loving "full out" is always filled with the possibility of heartbreak. Yet, loving guardedly and fearfully is never the answer. Many of the people who return to old relationships are not just looking for a lost love. Sometimes they are really looking for the part of them who, at one time in their lives, were willing to risk loss for the joy of true connection.