Look Him Up or Leave it Alone?

Look Him Up or Leave it Alone?

Is finding your long-lost ex via the Internet a recipe for disaster?

Several years ago my father's friend Jack (names have been changed) divorced his wife of nearly 30 years and married his first love, a woman he first met when they were both counselors at a sleep-away camp in upstate New York. Jack and Lorna had drifted apart, but never forgot one another. They built lives on opposite coasts, and had no contact for decades until Jack took a chance and sent a card.

"When I saw the return address I thought 'If I open this letter, my life will change,'" says Lorna. "And it did." By all accounts their wedding was a nostalgic affair full of references to their long-lost love found, an idea applauded by the guests. My father gave the toast that day, and said: "True love stories have no end."

At the time my father gave this toast, my mother was at his side. Cut to a decade later, my mother has left my father and is preparing to marry her high-school sweetheart, the man she says was always "the one." Oh.

But as this situation unfolded, I was in the midst of a flurry of email exchanges with a former flame of my own. And I was not the only one among my friends pursuing contact with a man from my past. It all made me wonder: what makes us think our future happiness lies in the past?

Compelled to Dwell on the Past
That's easy, suggests Colette Dowling, author of the 1980s bestseller The Cinderella Complex and expert on women's wellbeing with a private practice in New York City. "It's the power of young love. We never forget it."

According to Dowling, young love, and particularly first love, is unique and powerful. After we lose the sense of unconditional love we felt from our parents during very young childhood, and particularly if we go through a period where we feel we lack social acceptance from peers as teens, young romantic love can fill deep psychological needs. Experiencing that love for the first time, says Dowling, is to experience "a sense of complete and overwhelming acceptance by another. It's a true, tremendous bond for a reason."

Later, after we have drifted apart from our young loves, and after changes to our lives and personal growth, we might mull over past circumstances and the roles we played, the choices we made. "It's part of the natural process of reintegrating our younger selves into who we are now," says Dowling. We may need to work through feelings of remorse, or let go of regret over choices we made. Or, if a significant break-up has left us facing loneliness and unfamiliarity, we might yearn for a time when we felt part of a deep and comforting relationship. Trying to understand who we were then "is part of the evolving sense of the self," she explains.

If strong interest in our young selves and circumstances long past can lead to strong interest in the people who were closest to us during that time, what happens when we can't accept what came to pass back then and move on? Some people who are looking for closure become convinced it can be reached only by revisiting that past. Face to face.

Technological Trouble
When "googling" a former flame out of curiosity gives way to a concerted effort to reignite a relationship, it becomes what experts call "rekindling." According to Dr. Nancy Kalish, professor of psychology at California State University, Sacramento, and author of Lost and Found Lovers, it was always a widespread phenomenon, but "the Internet has made it easier, and more people are doing it."

Indeed, there is no shortage of ways we can track down a former flame. While sites such as reunion.com and peoplesearch.com charge a fee for services, Google or another search engine can do the trick for free. (Unless your former flame is determined to remain off the grid.)

If he or she participates in a social networking site, such as Myspace of Facebook, or better yet, if he or she blogs, you've hit the jackpot! The juicy details are laid bare. Did he indeed become a journalist? Did he fulfill his dream to climb Mt. Everest? And if there are photos, is he still cute? Is that gorgeous mane of hair still intact?

If even one of these answers is yes, by now what you might really want to know is if he's still single.

If you are in a committed relationship and you think you are just curious, beware. Kalish says people have always been able to find former flames, but back when it took more effort to do so, people more carefully considered the risks and potential consequences of doing so before taking the leap. "The Internet has made it too casual," says Kalish, "and people are ruining good, thriving relationships."

With technology, cheating in thought is easy. You can anonymously check out your former flame and wonder "what if"? Some might consider emails—"So what's up with you?"—innocent enough, but Kalish says it's a slippery slope to cheating in deed.

Taking the Long-Lost Lover's Leap
Lost-and-found lovers who have reunited will tell you it feels as if it was meant to be, but this doesn't mean the road was easy or that they took it lightly. It is not easy to abandon current relationships and careers, and some live with guilt over their choices, no matter how cosmically driven and "right" the reunion seemed.

"It was born during a very difficult time, and there was guilt at first. The early holidays were tough," says Jack. But they're glad they hoed that row. "We were both in bad situations and even seriously sick—and we say our illness were manifestations of our unhappiness," explains Lorna. She left her husband and got together with Jack a year after reconnecting and corresponding. "We say we saved each others lives."

A woman we'll call June carefully considered rekindling with a long lost love in 2001. Thirty-four years before, she said goodbye to Gary on an exit ramp off California's Highway 5, where he dropped her off after a night spent together rekindling the romance they had left behind when he had left for the Air Force and later, Vietnam. He had returned but was still in the Air Force, and she was a "flower-child" about to establish legal residency in Canada—they did not pursue a relationship at that time.

In the ensuing years June got married and had a child, and moved to England. But she never completely forgot Gary. In 2001, her marriage ended and she went through a period of great upheaval as she planned to move back to the U.S. While chatting with a co-worker about her childhood memories of the States, she described Gary, the boy she once loved. Later that day, her curiosity aroused by the conversation, she poked around on classmates.com. She had to enter personal information, including her email address, but stopped short of completing the process when she was prompted for payment. "It scared me. I thought 'What am I doing?' and I shut the computer down."

Mere hours later—and thousands of miles away—Gary commenced his last-ditch effort to try to find June. Plagued by dreams of her and the idea they could have conceived a child together during their night together in California decades ago, he had been looking for her for years. He told himself this was his last try and then it would be time to forget her and move on. He went to classmates.com, plugged in her high school, graduation date, and name. Voilà—there was her email address.

"For the next six months, we wrote emails to each other almost daily," says Jane. "Slowly, slowly we opened up. We hoped there might be a chance to rekindle in person what was happening extremely well in cyberspace, but both realized that it could all become starkly apparent when we physically met, that this was just a fanciful dream."

The meeting would prove otherwise. The dream became reality, and they've been married six years. "He knows the real me," Jane explains, "the person I was before life piled on layers of living." Recently Jane found a pocket photo of her sister in high school, with her sister's scrawl on the back: "Don't forget to marry Gary." She hadn't. And if you ask her, it was meant to be.

All Well That End's Well?
Of course, seeking reconnection with someone from the past isn't always welcome by the other part, and doesn't always end so well. But you needn't crash and burn to find the closure you seek. April from Boston says, "I found my first girlfriend on the Internet, started emailing her then calling her, and realized she's still an asshole!" At least now she won't have to wonder.

Neither will Carrie, though her closure came only after a friendly meeting in the park. Her childhood crush had pinged her with an email. "Is it you?" he wrote. "When I saw that message, all the others seemed to fade away," says Carrie. "I quickly became obsessed with his emails, as we coyly traded missives back and forth." Jeremy visited a few months later, his fiancée in tow. "I realized I no longer knew him, and I think he felt the same about me. I got the sense he was on a mission: laying to rest his could-have-beens before settling down for life with his wife-to-be." Carrie kept pictures taken that day and can't help but notice how much she and the fiancée look alike. "The difference is I knew the Jeremy then, and she knew the Jeremy now."

Kalish would say "bravo." They say you can't go home again, but apparently this it not always true. Couples who have successfully rekindled love from their youth say finding each other was like "going home." But to work, relationships can't be rooted only in memory—and they can't be resurrected in full form from the past into present-day reality. Though in some sense it might feel as if it were meant to be, it takes work. "So much of our situation was readiness on both sides," explains Lorna.

"These things are so dangerous," admits Jack. "Fantasy can be much better than reality. But in our case, reality turned out to be better."