The image of the man who spends his nights on the internet is that of a prowler — a dude whose sole purpose is to slide into DMs. Dr. Nancy Kalish offers another archetype of the modern male trolling social media — that of the guy looking to track down his high school or college sweetheart. Kalish, a psychology professor and author of two books about couples who have reconnected after decades apart, swears it’s all completely innocent, a friend request in the truest sense with no ulterior motives.
Generally speaking, Kalish’s research on long-lost loves flips the script, painting a portrait of sad-sack lonely guys who can’t shake the idea of “The One”— or at least the woman from his formative years who he will forever consider his dream girl — as opposed to that of cynical players who are trying to get laid by any means necessary. Recently, MEL Radio caught up with Kalish to talk about the gendered waters of puppy love that never got an opportunity to blossom into something more permanent as well as all of the other couples she’s counseled and interviewed over the years — some of whom had a Notebook-like romance, others whose reunions were far from a Hollywood fairy tale.
Maybe it’s just personal history, but it’s tough to buy into the idea of a long-lost love being anything other than a byproduct of a midlife crisis. Don’t people change too much from their high school or college selves to ever really have anything in common again — no matter how strong their feelings for each other used to be?
Let me quickly clarify: A lost love isn’t an ex. We all have ex-boyfriends or ex-girlfriends. This is different. This is a person who could have made a good partner, but outside circumstances separated you from them. I’ll give you an example. A man is in love with his high school sweetheart, but he’s drafted into the Vietnam War. He buys his girlfriend a ring, which he plans to give her when he gets home on leave. In the meantime, he tries to call her whenever he can from Vietnam. Each time, her sister answers and says, “Please don’t call anymore, my sister doesn’t want to speak to you ever again.”
He honors that wish for the next 30 years, which is when he decides to contact her and find out why she never wanted to see him again. There’s silence when he does. Then she says, “My sister told me you never wanted to talk to me again.” Parents do this sort of thing, too. They take love letters from the mail and pretend as though their child’s boyfriend or girlfriend simply stopped all communication.
That said, we’re talking about a subset of people. In my control group of 1,600 people, 72 percent answered no when I asked, “If you had a chance to go back to your lost love, would you?” In the margins, many of them even wrote, “Hell no! Who would want to do that?” That’s the average person. Because in general, our romances run their course, and then we’re done with them.
Are men more dismissive of reconnecting with an ex or lost love than women? Or better put, does the stereotype that women are more romantic hold true?
It’s the absolute opposite. Men are by far the most romantic. With women, if there’s a breakup, they talk to their friends or mom about it. Guys, on the other hand, generally don’t go to their friends — we’re stuck in that kind of culture still. So they report that they sit in their rooms at night and cry, and never get over it. When I asked men, “How long did it take to get over your lost love?” They wrote, “I never got over her.” And they’d typically add something like, “I still think about her, and I still love her.” In many cases then, it’s the men who reach out and contact their lost loves — not vice versa.
And because of legitimate romantic longing, not just as an excuse to hookup?
Absolutely! It’s very, very clear. You know, we have these “roles” we put people in, and they’re not often reality. Men are romantic people, too.
When either a man or woman pursues a lost love, how often does it result in them becoming a couple?
It all depends on the initial romance. If you were a couple when you were younger than 22 and you dated for a couple years and something something situational broke you apart — e.g., your parents disapproved of the relationship or one of you moved — you have a good chance of reuniting for good.
A lot of times, however, I hear from people whose relationship wasn’t that great the first time around. And they’re only contacting a lost love because they’re working through some things that have nothing to do with romance. For example, that person just happened to be the person around when a parent died. Seeking out a person like that is a comfort. You find that kind of thing with old high school friends all the time — that comfort. But that doesn’t mean you’re right for each other romantically.
How often are you dealing with married people compared to single people?
The people who want to talk to me are almost 100 percent married. One or both of them. Because if they’re both single, most of the time they don’t need me.
What do you tell them?
It’s all about the initial romance. If they tell me they weren’t getting along for a while or they have this pattern of on-again, off-again, then that’s what they’re going to have now, too. That’s their pattern and not a romance I see as viable, which is what I tell them. But let’s say in the case of the man whose romance was ruined by the sister when he was in Vietnam. That’s another story; I tell him that could’ve been marriage, that could’ve been the love of his life. Now you’re in a different place, and you’re married, and you have to make a decision. So I’m talking to them about the initial romance and what that means.
How rare is the Vietnam vet story?
It’s not rare, but it’s not the norm either. Most people have a high school romance, and then they’re done with it. That’s the norm.
Has social media made it more of a norm?
Not necessarily. Most people didn’t have trouble finding the lost loves they wanted to find. For people who have this constant wondering of what would’ve happened, this yearning for a lost love, they sort of always keep track of the person. If not the actual person, then old friends, his or her parents, etc. So they knew how to reach the person. They might not have done it, but they knew how.
What social media has done is made it a little more accidental. Before if you wanted to contact a lost love, you had to go through a parent or spouse. But if you’re contacting all of your old high school friends on Facebook anyway, why not contact this person who meant a lot to you, too? People rationalize it this way: It’s just another person. Especially if they’re happily married. So people who wouldn’t have done this before are doing it now, somewhat accidentally. Because before when a person contacted a lost love, they knew they wanted romance. Now, it’s so normative to contact everybody, people don’t think about it. Or they think, “What could be the harm? I’m not really interested in this person.” But they’re either deluding themselves or rationalizing it to themselves.
Maybe it’s just The Notebook talking, but the first image that comes to mind when thinking about a reunited long lost couple are two elderly people — either at each other’s hospital bedside or deathbed or having some sort of wedding ceremony at a nursing home. Is there any truth to that, or is it truly just the influence of The Notebook?
I started with a cutoff of 10 years apart because I wanted a length of time to go by. So the sample ranged from the age of 18 all the way up to 95 years old. But the mean wasn’t 70. It was younger people, around 37. And with social media, it’s people in their early 30s. They’re reuniting younger, which I guess is a wonderful thing — especially if both parties are still single. It’s less wonderful if you’re married in your thirties, and you have kids in the home. That’s obviously different from seniors who reconnect — their kids are grown so they don’t have to worry about custody or how the kids are going to handle a divorced family.
It’s still hard to believe that these relationships can last. It would seem that the memory of the relationship always would be better than trying to recreate it. And that the lost love is better preserved as a fantasy and some romantic ideal than an actual partner who’s just as fucked up as any other normal human being.
That’s typically what the therapist tells people when they seek out therapy about a lost love: “It’s just a fantasy.” It’s also typically what their family and friends tell them. In fact, the number one comment I get from people who read my book is, “Thank you, I thought I was crazy — especially because everybody else told me I was crazy.”
I think therapists have done a lot of harm in this regard. Because that lost love is the same. I believe we don’t change that much. If you had an awful romance with that person back then, you’ll probably have an awful romance with them now. But if you had two good years together, and something happened — like their parents were in the military and they had to move — it could work very differently later on.