Is it ever a good idea to rekindle your first love?
A popular and timeless romantic trope, our first love can either be a beautiful memory or something we use to compare all future relationships. But is revisiting your first love ever a good idea? CEO of Relationships Australia NSW Elisabeth Shaw explains.
When we think of our first love, our minds are cast back to a time of pure innocence and optimism, free from the responsibilities of adult life and accompanied by overwhelming feelings never felt before as if a light was switched on—the physical chemistry of desire and euphoria, kisses that made us swoon, the belief that love will last forever and dreams of a perfect future.
For some, first love is a hazy memory from long ago, while others remember theirs from time to time and wonder “what might have been”. Then there are those that view their first love as the “one who got away” and against whom later partners can never measure up.
It warms our hearts when we hear of couples who rekindle a relationship with their “first love” or high school sweetheart later in life. However, Dr. Nancy Kalish, in her research on rekindled romances, found that these couples often fit a certain profile—they were younger than 24 when they dated, grew up in the same place and their relationship was interrupted by some external factor—parental disapproval or someone was shipped off to war, for example.
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This profile is in stark contrast to those first love relationships that reached a natural end for good reasons. Kalish found that relationships have a 70 percent success rate when both parties are truly available—single, widowed, or divorced—when they reunite.
She cautions against the inherent trauma for all involved attempts to rekindle a romance when one or both parties are not truly available.
Do high school sweethearts have the best chance of survival?
Contrary to romantic ideas, high school sweethearts who marry in their early 20s face a greater risk for future divorce. The Institute of Family Relationships (US) reports that a couple who marries at age 20 is over 50 percent more likely to get divorced than a couple who marries at age 25, and the Australian Institute of Family Studies reports the highest divorce rate for those aged 25–29 years.
With 77 percent of Australian couples now living together before getting married, the notion of marrying a high school sweetheart is perhaps more connected with an older generation.
Obvious realities are at play in the demise of high school sweetheart relationships: lack of life experience and emotional maturity; limits imposed on education and personal development; financial pressures; and the long-term consequences of choices that are not understood fully until later.
Here are some tips to help put romantic memories or yearnings into perspective:
When we find ourselves unhappy with our lives, unresolved about the past, or the future appears uncertain and lonely, we can find ourselves thinking of the past rather than dealing with the present. Memories of our first love can creep into our thoughts.
First loves were often part of a less complicated time in life when we had fewer responsibilities and more hope for the future. We might hope we can somehow experience this time again by reconnecting with people who shared important events and experiences with us.
More connected than ever
Social media has made reconnecting with high school sweethearts more common. Often people simply reconnect out of curiosity and to touch base. It is natural to seek out a warm and understanding connection to manage our current stress. After all, they are just an “old friend”!
Before we contact an old flame, we need to be honest about what we hope to achieve. If both are “truly available” and something special can develop again that can be a wonderful thing. However, if one or both are not “truly available”, are you prepared for the minefield of what might happen if you reach out and you are both searching for meaning or excitement?
The past and present
Reconnecting with a past love can impact current partners. It has the (disastrous) potential to develop into an affair, but even if it doesn’t, the special nostalgia you feel can be felt by your partner. They may feel they were your second choice and wonder “how can I compete with a ghost?”
Sometimes we try to cope with current unhappiness through a nostalgic re-storying of a past love and forget the break-up occurred for a good reason. These nostalgic narratives can hold us back in important efforts to resolve our current unhappiness.
When we think back to a first love it doesn’t take much imagination to know that it was not just all about them but also about our experience of who we were at that time—we long to be that young, fresh, healthy, alive, carefree and beautiful person once again. While we can never go back to our youth, how can we make our lives less pressured, simpler and happier again?
Always look forward
We cannot move forward in our lives if we are held back by the past. If you struggle to let go of the past, allow regrets to dominate your life, and carry a missed opportunity from a past love into current relationships it is time to get some help.
Taking time to reflect on the past as part of a useful stock take, for learning and to think clearly about connections, re-connections and disconnections, can best be done with a neutral person like a counsellor.
Reflecting with friends who were present at the time might mean that you are caught in group nostalgia and perhaps collectively re-storying of the past. It is also a chance to consider the current longing against the backdrop of your current circumstances.
Elisabeth Shaw is the CEO of Relationships Australia NSW.