Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Playing with Embers

For the past decade if a person in a first world country cannot be found within an hour through internet search engines and social media it’s pretty certain he or she doesn’t want to be found. A handful of my friends and acquaintances endeavor to “stay under the radar” (almost always the phrase they use) by eschewing Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, and their cousins on principle. I’m not entirely sure what the principle is, but they do. Yet every one of those few still can be found entirely online in a single sitting by any determined person checking phone records, property tax records, credit scores, and so on. It is still possible to hide in today’s digitally connected and surveilled world, but it takes more effort than most folks are willing to put into it. There has to be a very good reason, such as dodging the FBI, creditors, or stalkers.

An extraordinarily common Google search – widely acknowledged yet not much discussed – is for old flames. Especially one of them. You know the one. We all have that one: the proverbial “one who got away.” Well, almost all of us do: a very tiny percentage actually lifetime partnered with that special someone for well or ill (there’s no safe bet about which). But for most of us that early inamorata is (if still alive) out there somewhere. “Early” is the key, for our youthful romances are always the most intense. We are not yet jaded when they happen. If anything jades us, these youthful romances do. It’s not that we can’t be “fools for love” later. We often are, sometimes in spectacular fashion. But it’s still not the same. This is the primary reason young people are most often those depicted in romance fiction in literature and on screen. It is not just that youths are pretty – and let us acknowledge the obvious that youth is pretty – but that they are intense and so make for better drama.

Now that reconnecting with an old flame is easier than ever, so is encountering later-term drama. An expert in the field of rekindled romances – yes, there is such a thing – is Dr. Nancy Kalish. (See her website Kalish argues that these early connections really are special, and not just something to which we impart specialness later through nostalgia: “We used to marry when we were 17, 18, but nowadays there’s education, there’s other things we do first, and so we’re marrying later and we wind up with these lost loves—somebody who 100 years ago you would’ve married at 17.”

Back between 1993 and 1996 before the internet got a firm footing, Kalish surveyed 1001 people who had rekindled a romance with an old flame at least 5 years after it was broken off the first time. Many of those interviewed rekindled 20 years afterwards and one did so 75 years later. 71% called their reunions the most intense romantic experiences of their lives. Nearly all were happy about having done it. Today, the odds of rekindled romances being a success (i.e. both parties are happy about it) have dropped to scarcely more than 50%. Yet a solid majority of rekindlers still call the experience intense, even those who ultimately regarded it as a bad idea. “Rekindlers” in this context means those who reconnect romantically in person – not those who merely say “Hi” on Facebook. Many of the modern-day rekindlers undertook their searches casually, which likely accounts for the decline in successful outcomes since 1993. They didn’t initially search in earnest but found that one thing could lead to another. Many of the contemporary searchers, in fact, are married, with the obvious complications inherent in that circumstance.
Four decades later I'll
post no clearer pic

The large majority of people have no desire to be rekindlers. Most online searches for old flames do not involve any intent to rekindle anything – they are motivated simply by idle curiosity. Rekindlers are a large enough minority to be noteworthy, but they are still a minority. Most of us would rather keep “the one that got away” firmly in our past as no more than a special (and not always good) memory. As part of her ongoing research, Kalish in 2015 asked a broad group of non-rekindlers if they would want to reunite with their first loves if given a chance. Two-thirds checked the “no” box. More than a few wrote “Hell no!” in the margin. But, 30% said they would like to reunite if they could, including 30% of married responders. You probably know into which category you fall.

I’m solidly in “No” category as it happens. I know it would have been a disaster had we not broken up when we did. (Maybe not a worse disaster than what followed in life anyway, but we’re talking about the difference between metaphorical car crashes here.) But that it was best to end it permanently doesn’t make what went before the end less intense. Sometimes tis better to have loved and lost than to have loved and found.

Devil Doll – The One Who Got Away


  1. I might be in the 30% that would rekindle, if she weren't married. That being the case I've not contacted her. I figure if she's stayed with her husband this long, something is either working or they both are moderately happy. I always felt she would have been that way--willing to work on the relationship.

    I can't imagine being married at 17, I was way too immature. My brother said he felt the same way when talking about our youth. Perhaps that is because we both had strong personality parents, I don't know. That's one of those do-overs where if you could go back in time, you'd try to change it or at least work on it. Perhaps that's a fantasy best left to fiction.

    1. I’m single at heart, which I learned the hard way. Very hard.

      Nonetheless, I understand rekindlers, I think. I have friends whom I rarely see but with whom I have a long history. Years, and in some cases a decade or more, go by between meetings. Yet we pick up with ease where we left off. I can see how doing the same with an old romantic partner could be appealing – not for me but for some.

      I think pretty much all of us are embarrassed by our 17-year-old selves. But one has to be a 17.y.o. fool to learn not to be one – by which time 17 is far in the rearview mirror. There’s no way around that, I’m afraid, though do-overs are a common fantasy, e.g. Francis Ford Coppola’s “Peggy Sue Got Married.”

      Those early match-ups probably used to work better when people didn’t haven’t the inflated expectations so prevalent today: expectations that are far too easy to blame a partner (generally falsely) for thwarting.