Why NOT to look up that old flame on Facebook (or, how to wreck a perfectly good marriage)

Wise Readers,

Last weekend, Vic and I attended a dinner where one of the couples had gone to middle school together—and then not seen one another again for 30 years.  The man never forgot his childhood sweetheart and went to great lengths to find her, and both he and she happened to be single.  Now, they’re happily wed.  But what if one or both of them had been married to others when they reconnected?   

About 10-25% of us have one: A Lost Love from our youth who didn’t become our forever mate. And it’s only natural to wonder whatever happened to them. But for the married among us, it may be best to keep those musings to ourselves. Dr. Nancy Kalish, the foremost research authority on lost and found love and its consequences, has long held data showing that even the happily married usually stray when they innocently rekindle a friendship with an old flame…particularly if that flame was their first love.

And one of the easiest, most innocent, and potentially the most harmful ways to begin is with Facebook or another social networking tool. Indeed, the point is well-made in two data collection phases Kalish conducted in the 1990’s and mid-2000’s—first with people who reunited prior to the internet boom, and second with those who got together via the WorldWideWeb.

In her book Lost & Found Lovers: Facts and Fantasies of Rekindled Romance, Kalish reveals that 76% of pre-internet and 78% of first-love re-connections in Phase 1 culminated in happy marriages—sex beyond compare, highs that seem to last forever, baby-talk that ruins other people’s digestion. Their later divorce rate is under 2%! Talk about a path to wedded bliss.

But only 5% of Phase 2 reunions resulted in the Lost Lovers’ marriage.

What Happened?!? Technology collided with marital status and Good Intentions. Over 2/3 of Phase 1, pre-internet folks were SINGLE and thus available when they asked friends and family for so-and-so’s phone number; it’s a bit daunting to intentionally find an old flame if you’re still wed and you’ve got to ask her daddy for her digits. On the other hand, as Kalish wrote to me, by the mid-2000’s, “People were just surfing the internet, and what could be the harm of sending an email? It’s private, and seems safe.”

Except that if you’re married—as 2/3 of the Phase 2 interviewees were when they hit “send”—the road to hell really is paved with Good Intentions. Affairs are the *normal* result of these reconnections; 62% of the married folks wound up having an affair…yet they didn’t begin the contact with any such plan.

Indeed, most of the affairs start—not when the former lovers are miserable—but when their lives are going well. Especially in the Internet Age, where finding one another can and does happen on a whim, people report reconnections that are innocent in their intent—just to see how the other is doing and share some memories. They often feel shielded from impropriety by happy existing marriages, their age (50, on average), and/or their spouse’s endorsement of the reconnection. They may look back on their Lost Love as a unique but long-gone experience—nothing real that would remain entrancing today. So the emails begin. Upon finding that one or both are married, they meet for an innocent lunch. Most of the time, the spouses know of the meeting—sometimes, they even tag along. No matter: At that point, it ceases to be innocent. States Kalish, “The Lost Lovers—happily married to others and up to that point entirely faithful to their spouses—had no idea that when they met for a simple lunch together sparks would rekindle the fire.”

In fact, if a country song were written about the married sample’s experience, it could be titled “Heartache All Around”. These former flames not only cheat—they typically get caught, cascading into costs on every side. Ultimately, cheating women (in this study and others) are very likely to be dumped by enraged husbands; and cheating men usually “get” to stay married to a wife who remains “very angry, resentful and suspicious” over a long haul that probably feels eternal. Many women, now divorced or having left their husband expressly for their Lost Lover, find that the Lost Lover is remaining in his marriage. As Kalish wrote to me, “I’ve spoken to many women who wind up alone.”

And what then? Partly because both parties rarely exit existing marriages, the most common endings are zero contact with the former lover, or a continued sexual affair. Emotional aftermath includes fractured, confused lives…lives that were rolling along just fine until an innocent email or friend request derailed their stability.

Flatly put: It’s dangerous to reconnect with an old flame, even—perhaps particularly—if you are happily married and are merely curious about how things turned out for your first love; and it’s foolhardy to casually encourage your spouse to look up their former sweetie. Social networking sites make it simple to follow an idle curiosity about how so-and-so is doing, and Facebook is invaluable for reconnecting. But it would appear that there are wise limits for friending.



The author wishes to thank Nancy Kalish, Ph.D. for her generous contributions during the 2009 update of this article.

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All material copyrighted by Duana C. Welch, Ph.D., and Love Science Media, 2009; significantly revised, 2013

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Reader Comments (2)

Greetings friend of a friend,

Your article is spot on. While at my best friends bachelor party, the subject of past relationships was discussed at great length. The groom then asked, those of us who were married, our thoughts and beliefs on the topic. I am happy to report I made a convincing argument that the closure we sometimes desire can hurt our marriages more than help us individually.


Nick Holman

My wife and I love your articles. Keep up the good work

October 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNicholas Holman

Dear Nick,
What a pleasure to get up and see your kind note! Thank you. And thank you and your wife for reading LoveScience. Writing can be a lonely occupation--even writing about relationships--and getting a letter like yours makes it less so. Thanks again.

October 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.
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