For the past four decades I have specialized in helping people form, fix, and rebuild intimate relationships. Sadly, despite every possible effort expended, some don't survive. Even once-loving couples have a hard time surviving indiscretions, worn-out repetitions of bored interactions, or life's unexpected stressors. Sometimes they have just outgrown what once was a worthwhile relationship, and need to try again.
Most single people are now using the emerging social media to find their next partners. Robbed of the extended clans that once took care of their strays, they reach into the impersonal abyss of online dating sites that will hopefully produce the magical possibility of a legitimate love.
There is also a different class of people in long-term partnerships who wonder what other relationships might be like, but are loath to risk their current bond to experience them in the present. As an alternative, they quietly search the Web to look for partners whom they have loved in the past, especially when they were young. Those fantasies are often enough to return them more comforted to their current relationship. It is enough to have wondered what might have happened had they taken a different path.
Then they receive an invitation to a class reunion. Those escape fantasies now offer the possibility of becoming a real experience if they actually reconnect with an old love. In an atmosphere of sentimentality, nostalgia, and curiosity, they could be safe to experiment with those old feelings. Surrounded by people who helped form their early years, they can temporarily suspend the lives they have chosen and explore the one they left behind. If the memories of an unresolved or aborted relationship are still there, they may resurface in that magical environment, and, surprisingly, many do.
In just the past four years, I have counseled seven couples who have rekindled those first loves after re-meeting each other at a class reunion. I've also taken care of the saddened and confused people they have had to leave behind. It is so difficult for them to understand how a childhood romance could have possibly taken precedence over their established relationship.
Sadly, neither can many of their friends or family members. To make the decision to be with each other, these couples must also face the likelihood of exclusion, rejection, and exile from many of those they must now leave behind. Though they are far from superficial in their decisions to create the upheaval they know will result, those they affect rarely believe them.
Now, they are back together, and, as I looked into the faces of these now middle-aged people holding hands, they look as if they have never been apart. The sweetness of what they once knew is still there, now intensified by their gratitude. They do not seem to notice that they both have aged. They see only what they once knew and will forever see as the same. They have come into therapy to help them deal delicately with the people they've had to leave behind to be together again and how to go forward in their emigration. They are truly sorrowful and regret the heartfelt promises they now have broken. But there is no doubt that they could have done otherwise.
How can an adolescent love hold so much power for so many years, dormant in the backs of the minds and hearts of those who once experienced it? Weren't those feelings simply the thwarted passions of immature youth, easily left behind? How could such a connection between two young people reignite, no matter how intensely, and leave such a dramatic impact?
As Dr. Dan Siegel so brilliantly reports in his new book, "Brainstorm," adolescents are deeply driven by passion, novelty, fraternity, and curiosity, and those underlying urges pervade their love relationships as well. If those intense attachments last only a week or sustain forever, the young lovers bound within them can be truly in love in the deepest sense of the word. Having not yet learned the discipline of squelching passion for the sake of "reason," they choose their partners from deep within their souls, and though those feelings may go dormant, they are surprisingly likely to always remain.
I met my husband when we were 14, over six decades ago. We were separated twice during our high school years by concerned parents who feared we would be sexually irresponsible and "ruin" our lives. But we always found our way back to each other again. We were inseparable as young lovers, intertwined in every significant way possible. We often talked of somehow knowing each other in some other lifetime because it seemed too deep and too connected to be accidental. It never occurred to us that there should be any other future than to be together, no matter what, or who, we had to face.
Yes, as life presented its challenges, there were many times when we were unsure and disillusioned. Young people are not finished forming and unexpected experiences threaten those yet-to-be-discovered places that understandably emerge. But the invisible and intractable bond between us never died. But there is one thing I know in the depths of my heart: if we'd lost each other then and reunited years later at a school reunion, we might easily have been one of the reconnecting couples who are now coming to me for help, facing the joy of reconnection, and the sorrow we'd have to create for others.
Love is a fragile thing. Making it last is even more so. Why it persists in the face of so many challenges and dies when it should not is a mystery that no one will ever understand, yet alone solve. What matters is the sincere and authentic pursuit of what seems like the right thing to do in each moment, and the willingness to take responsibility for the outcome. Hurting someone we love to pursue what we cannot give up is not, and should never be, an easy path. Yet, there must also be a place in our hearts where that decision can be understood.