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Real Rekindled Romances vs. Reel Reunions

Are movie stereotypes of lost love reunions accurate?

Men and women often enter therapy when they are suddenly and surprisingly catapulted into an obsessive love relationship with someone from their past. Especially if they are married, they probably cannot discuss this reunion with friends or family members, so they turn to psychotherapists for understanding and relief - and rarely find it there. Even single people are usually rebuffed by their friends and therapists, and told that their feelings are just nostalgia, not real love for someone they haven't seen in many years.

Like their friends and family, their psychologists insisted that rekindled romances were mere "fantasies" and recommended that they "move on." If the client was married, he or she was often advised to "find what is wrong in your marriage, because that is what you imagined having with your lost love." This advice is not helpful to lost love clients, who do not want their reality denied or their feelings belittled. Very few of these men and women challenged their therapists, however; they simply never returned.

The advisability and outcomes of the extramarital affairs aside, my research indicates that love for old flames, even those who were separated for decades, is very real, and reunions can be long-lasting. For the last few years, I have focused on how best to educate psychotherapists about this different kind of romance, and I have sought to understand why ordinary people and so many mental health experts doubt the veracity and strength of lost love bonds.

One reason for this doubt, indicated in results from my "First Love" survey, is that many adults had terrible first love experiences; they have no desire to reunite with these people from the past, and cannot understand why anyone would want to do such a thing.

Another reason for skepticism might be if popular culture images of love reunions stereotype people who try reunions are just chasing rainbows. Could films in particular influence how people evaluate the wisdom of looking up lost loves? What I discovered was intriguing: Hollywood scripts are more pessimistic in outcome than real-life rekindled romances.

My website members ( and I compiled a list of 120 films with lost love reunions in their plots. The oldest was released in 1939 and the newest came out in 2006. I found that a statistically significant number of these reunion movies ended with the lost loves still together: 102 of 120. But what fascinated me was that most of these reunion films involved unusual characters or situations that could not possibly occur in real life: they were fantasies, science fiction, thrillers, or musicals.

Of the 102 films with reunion happy endings, 43 were comedies, light-hearted movies, and "chick flicks." These movies had contrived plots and characters with distinctive personalities, like Bridget Jones's Diary and For the Boys. These were not ordinary rekindled romance couples. The remaining 59 films with lost love reunions ending happily were science fiction movies, such as Solaris and Somewhere in Time; fantasies such as Family Man, Forrest Gump, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The Illusionist; and light-hearted musicals such as Gigi and A Little Night Music. So these 102 films with successful rekindled romances, out of the 120 reunion films I looked at, were improbable lost love fantasies -- just as therapists had stereotyped their clients' reunions.

The 18 movies that concluded with reunion breakups included Splendor in the Grass, Casablanca, The Way We Were, and Miss Saigon. With the exception of Cast Away, the films that end with the couples separating again are primarily serious dramas; their plots are complicated and more plausible than the happy-ending reunion movies, and they include lots of heartbreak. Surely there are movies we missed, but those we remembered and included had a clear bias.

Lost lovers question their own hearts and sanity as everyone around them scoffs at their reunions. They seem like lost love film characters who separate at the conclusion of the movie -- men and women struggling with lost love issues, obsessed, and conflicted. No wonder therapists might think that real-life reunions as a whole are toxic to adults and inevitably end badly.

Real rekindled romances (provided the lost loves are single, widowed or divorced) have happier outcomes for the couples than reel endings. And even for those who separate again, their love was real, not fantasy.

Copyright 2010 by Nancy Kalish, Ph.D.