Why Not To Look Up That Old Flame On Facebook; or, How To Wreck A Perfectly Good Marriage (REVISED)

Wise Readers,

Relationship research is always moving forward, and this post—the first and most popular at Love Science—is updated per new data from paramount Lost Lovers researcher Dr. Nancy Kalish Fascinating new details are here, but they only strengthen the core message:  Unless you’re single, divorced or widowed—don’t look up that old flame on Facebook.   



About 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 ended 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 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 update of this article. 

If this article surprised, alarmed or otherwise intrigued, others might enjoy it too.  Please click “Share Article” below to link it with your favorite social media website.

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All material copyrighted by Duana C. Welch, Ph.D., 2009

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Reader Comments (20)

Alas... 1 simple stroke of the key can bring down a marriage. I still keep in touch with my 1st.. Next to my wife I still consider her one of my closest friends.

September 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRob

Is the danger the same if you look up someone with whom you feel you didn't have much of a romantic connection, but you were, instead, more like good friends?

September 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMonica

I really don't know how married couples do it. How they accept outside influences of any type.

Explains why I'm not married.

September 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBarbara

@Monica, Yes, you're right--it definitely matters what the connection was like the first time around. Just about everyone has people from the past whom they cared about or even loved, but most of those folks would not pose a threat to a marriage. Kalish's research primarily deals with people who fit a very particular can see it here at another Love Science column called "When First Love Is True Love":

Basically, about 1/4 of adults in Kalish's study--and perhaps across America and other Westernized nations, given her data set's extensiveness-- have a Lost Lover who fits the profile for both of these Love Science articles: Someone we loved when very young (usually under age 17; under 22 the vast marjority of the time), from whom we were separated for reasons *other than* incompatibility. Very common reasons for separation are parental interference (#1 reason), or a military or other move. Basically, these are Interrupted Loves that were between two young, compatible people. They weren't puppy loves--just real love, really young.

But because it happened so long ago, when the lovers were so young, many people later buy into the puppy-love excuse themselves. "This can't hurt to look up so-and-so," they reason, "we were just kids; it wasn't real. And anyway, I'm happily married now."

But neither their marital status nor the length of time since they saw their first love nor their current age stops them from engaging in full-blown torrid (and usually illicit) affairs.

September 9, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

@Rob, fortunately, about 38% of people who re-engage with emailing their first loves don't go on to have affairs. I'm glad you're among them!

@Barbara, you're in good company in wondering how married people keep tabs on one another. There is an entire field of research into jealousy. Interestingly, what we've been taught to think of as a Green-Eyed Monster has an up-side: It can prevent a beloved partner from straying, and it can express the depth of love to the other partner when we show some small amount of jealousy. Jealousy can also alert us to the possibility that our partner is cheating or is thinking of it--especially if we "aren't the jealous type", yet are feeling unaccountably jealous all of a sudden. Increasingly, it seems that there is some biological wisdom behind that uncomfortable emotion.

September 9, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

@all: One thing that may explain the specialness of early love (and how it retains its hold over us even decades later, even to our detriment) has to do with the chemistry of love. Helen Fisher and other biologists, anthropologists, etc. have found that we all release particular hormones as we fall in love. Oxytocin is one; vasopressin is another. Vasopressin is such a strong bond in some animals, that even a little exposure will cause monogamy for life.

Nancy Kalish's interpretation of this research is that "These chemicals form emotional memories in the brain, stored in the amygdala. When the
lost lovers meet again, those memories are released by the familiar sight, smell, touch, sound of the long lost lover. These feelings are comforting and familiar, reported my participants, and also very sexually arousing!"

September 9, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Unfortunately...I think that married folks go into it thinking...that would never happen to me. And Bam! It happens. I think in reality we want what could have been or what could have happened.

September 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRob

As much as we wish and hoped and prayed back in the day for things to work out, they didn't for a reason, either ourselves or fate got in the way and prevented it from working or happening. Be happy and thankful for the opportunity to have known those people and had them in your life for that brief moment, wish them well and move forward.

September 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterThomas Smith

@Rob--Yes. Kalish points out that 100% of her cheating participants in Phase 2, when the internet was popular, found one another via the internet. None of them had planned or even expected to feel so blown away.

It appears that most people move on quite well from early romances...even those who later rekindle with a first love had (they thought) totally moved on with their lives. Which is what makes this such a cautionary tale. Current feelings of being in-control have little to do with what actually happens in this very specific Lost Love situation.

September 9, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

@Thomas, Yes, most of the time these Lost Lovers were separated early in life by forces beyond their control--usually disapproving parents--, rather than irreconcilable differences or character flaws.

Because they were in fact compatible, and perhaps because of the unique biochemistry involved in early first loves (see comments above), these are interrupted relationships where there is unfinished business. People seem able to go on with their lives quite well until they suddenly encounter their Lost Lover again. Pre-internet, that didn't happen too often unless folks were in a position to be together--they usually didn't initiate a reconnection without one or both being single.

Now, though, people make casual efforts at something that--it turns out--can't be taken casually. Once they are reconnected, the urge to finish what was begun years or decades ago grips them. As we see, affairs result more often than not.

The upside of this is that if two people are single and had an interrupted early-life/first-love relationship, that's a fantastic place to look for love again. The marriage rate for (single) first loves who look one another up again is 78%... The divorce rate of this group is 2%. I'll take those odds!

September 9, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Excellent article Duana, as a person who has experienced this Face Book phenomenon first hand, I can tell you it is right on the money with the way things start, even though there is not the slightest intention to start anything inappropriate.

In my case, the former girlfriend was the last one I had in high school before I went off to college. The relationship never officially ended with a spat or anything like that but with me heading off to conquer the world (LOL) while she remained at home, so our relationship just faded away, but it never had a formal ending. However, there was an undeniable physical attraction and genuine caring for one another while we were in the relationship, and at one point in it had told each other that we loved the other.

Of course, we grew up, went in and out of relationships like most people do finding their way, and then met our eventual marriage partners. We each had been comfortably married for 12 and 16 years respectively, and had not had any contact with each other before we eventually met and saw each other again for a lunch meeting. While it was just a lunch, the sparks that erupted upon seeing and talking to each other again were undeniable. It blew both of us away. The raw flood of emotion that engulfed us made no rational sense whatsoever, but there it was.

I can also tell you the emotional battle within once you have reconnected is heaven and hell all rolled into one when your seemingly contented married world is thrown topsy turvy by an incredible gamut of passion/guilt/sadness/happiness/confusion/anxiety/exhilaration and about every other emotion you can imagine happening almost simultaneously as you try and grapple with the feelings that the situation brings out.

Hopefully your article will serve as fair warning for other married people to beware of those reconnections unless they are prepared to handle potentially unexpected emotional consequences!

September 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTornN2

Ugh. Sometimes it seems like there are so many obstacles now-a-days that marriage/fidelity/trust are impossible to reach (at least for a long period of time). I am a college student, so about 95% of people have facebooks/myspaces. Its difficult to not become a 'stalker', let alone trust anyone you are newly dating. You assume every woman is a former or current interest, the guy has been with them all, and that you are just lost in the numbers. I am strongly considering deleting ALL of my social networking sites.
How can I have faith that there may be men out there who aren't on these sites, don't e-mail all the time, or play online enough to cause an eyebrow raise? Its very disheartening.

September 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterChristine

@TornN2-- Thank you for writing movingly of your experience. I'm sorry you didn't have access to this information before that first email...people in your situation often try a separation from their Lost Lover, and it's extremely difficult, to say the least.

If I might make a suggestion: Kalish has found that most therapists do not understand that Lost Love is not just another affair, and therefore the advice and input in therapy in your situation is often more harmful than helpful. I would like to recommend that you purchase Kalish's book (see link above) and join her chat group/Member Forum. Some people find the chat group with others who are in the situation you are in much more helpful than therapy. Here is the link:

Best to you and your family.

September 10, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

@Christine, You've raised important questions. The truth is, infidelity has always been part of the human experience; the biological and cultural evidence is overwhelming. But in the ancient past--when groups rarely exceeded 200 persons and a given person might only meet a few strangers in their lifetime, let alone see super-sexy entities every day online and on TV--it's reasonable to say that the temptation to cheat was not so constantly present.

As you've said, many--maybe even most--people in your age range are now connected through at least one social networking site. However, there is a big difference between being online and being predatory and untrustworthy. The best way to find a trustworthy person continues to be what it was in the past: Once you've established that there is mutual interest, ask their friends and family what they are really like. Believe what they tell you--research shows that their impression is more accurate than yours, and more accurate than what your prospective mate can tell you about himself! I'll do a lengthier article on that in the future.

And once you're actually in relationship and seriously involved, there's always the possibility of mutually deciding that any contact with a first love/serious former love is off-limits. I've heard from many readers privately who wished they had made such a deal, given the emotional fall-out from casually looking up an old flame.

In the meantime--if you're not enjoying networking sites, I would advise following your inclination to delete your accounts. Anything you do that is not a requirement and fails to make you happier--can be thrown out of your life! Go for it!

September 10, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.


Don't worry, you shouldn't have to be concerned about every old lover your boyfriend or husband has had.

Since I've been on Face Book I've been contacted or "friended" by many old "girl" friends, and even some who were actual girlfriends or a person that I dated. The contact consisted of a brief email or two to catch up and then that was it.

However, what was different about those past romantic relationships was that there was a reason they ended and closure to them long ago. The difference with a "lost love" is that the relationship was either terminated by parents, distance caused by one of the persons moving away (going off to college in my case), or some reason not directly related to some incompatibility between the two people.

Also note that even though the relationship may have seemed brief in the overall scheme of life, and many years may have passed in the interim, that is no defense in being bitten by the potential "lost love bug." The chemical reactions that can take place in the brain upon corresponding, talking to, and seeing this old flame can be overpowering and reduce even the most faithful spouse to a conflicted ball of emotion. Reconnecting with these potentially "unfinished" relationships are the ones that can have unintended consequences.

Here's a helpful tip I've learned that I would share with everyone:
No matter how seemingly happy you are in your current relationship, if you look at your former boy/girl friend's Face Book photo and they look better to you than they did decades ago when you were involved with them, think long and hard about contacting them. Otherwise, you may find yourself on an emotional roller coaster ride you find impossible to stop.

September 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTornN2

@TornN2-- Perfectly expressed. One thing I'd add is Kalish's work indicates that Lost Lovers tend to see one another through lenses of love--seeing each other as being as good looking, or better looking, than they had been even decades before. Your litmus of Leaving It Alone if an old flame only looks better today is a great one.

September 10, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

A few months ago, my old boyfriend from law school sent me a "friend" request on Fb, with a personal note, "Hey, hope you are doing well..." I felt like a heel, but I ignored it. I'm very curious about him, but giving him access to my personal data and Fb photos seemed invasive (??) to me ... or something like that. In any event, I sensed danger/discomfort. Based on Duana's article, I'm glad I trusted my gut.

Although re-establishing a connection with my ex (even an electronic one), seemed wrong, the magnetic pull was fierce --I couldn't resist googling him for more info. I ran his name through the State Bar website and found his law firm's site, where he is now a trial attorney in north Texas.

I am very happily married and determined to "love the one I'm with" as the song says. Though I have to say that even the small act of receiving the friend request on Fb stirred feelings and memories in me. I can only imagine, as the other readers have posted, what seeing an ex in person would do.

Fortunately, my other ex is a rice farmer whom I suspect would never go near a computer :) And the other is an FBI agent, whom I confess I have googled over the years out of curiosity, but can never find. And that is good.

September 11, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGillian

@Gillian, good gut you've got there (pardon the alliteration, lol). You might be able to get away with friending the ones who don't fit the profile discussed above--but then again, what you're doing by avoiding all of them is certainly the safest. Mr. FBI can always find you if he decides to, though ;).

September 11, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Someone above said:

“Unfortunately...I think that married folks go into it thinking...that would never happen to me. And Bam! It happens.”

This is such an important point it bears both repeating and further exploring – that is, the difference between "It couldn’t happen to me" and "It won't happen to me” or, if you prefer, between the unlikely and the impossible. If something is impossible, we have no need to guard against its occurrence. Thus unguarded, we set ourselves up for failure if the impossible turns out to be, well, possible.

If you think about it, we recognize the difference between “couldn’t happen” and “won’t happen” in other areas of our lives without hesitation – probably because those situations don’t require us to acknowledge potentially ugly truths about ourselves. For example, statistics tell the pilot that lightning won’t strike his airplane, but he’s prepared all the same because he knows that it could. Conversely, the pilot who refuses to acknowledge at least the possibility – however remote – is a danger to himself and others.

In the context of fidelity, however, it’s harder to acknowledge that possibility. After all, it requires a certain level of honest, objective self-appraisal to admit that, as flawed human beings, we are all at least capable of straying. However, it is in acknowledging the danger that we can commit to guard against it and ensure that it never comes to pass (for example, by not looking up old flames on Facebook).

I’ve been known to quip (somewhat glibly) from time to time that “Fidelity is often a function of opportunity. Those with no opportunity to cheat, don’t.” It’s a true statement, as far as it goes, but its invocation offers little protection except in hindsight. Consider this: even assuming we have the discipline not to flirt with opportunity (excuse the pun), none of us can know for certain whether opportunity might one day come looking for us (perhaps your old flame hasn’t read Duana’s blog!). Those who naively (or blindly) assume “it couldn’t happen to me” put themselves at greater risk because in failing to acknowledge that it COULD happen they fail to prepare themselves in case it DOES happen. Can a lunch be innocent? Sure. But it can only take a split second for innocent to turn into… um… not innocent. Those who are not prepared for this reality can breeze right past that critical moment and find themselves in a very bad place very quickly – assuming they didn’t have the foresight to avoid the situation in the first place.

Parenthetically, this was actually the subject of a subplot in a later episode of "Mad About You." After one of their married friends had an affair, Jamie became increasingly distressed by Paul’s continuing assurances that it could never happen to them. Like the example above, Paul refused to acknowledge the fact that one of them could ever have an affair. “That’ll never happen to us,” he said.

At the end, Paul finally got it, and told his wife, “It could happen. But it won’t.”

I think Paul got it right.

September 11, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMichael

@Michael, I think you've hit a deep psychological issue (or two) dead-on. You're absolutely correct--even if we don't seek out our Lost Lover, he/she might seek us out. And our beliefs can then protect us--or lead us into an affair. Here's what I mean, and you'll see that psychology backs up your assertions.

Many people believe affairs occur because people plan them. But the science is more in line with your idea: Many affairs (with Lost Lovers or with others) occur because we tell ourselves an affair is an impossibility for us. And then, step by step, we are in the middle of that impossible scenario. That's what people who have affairs describe--a few are intentionally seeking infidelities, but not most--and it's what the data support.

In psychological terms, the just world phenomenon and the foot-in-the-door phenomenon and cognitive dissonance theory all do a good job of explaining how affairs can seem (to the affair partners, if not to outsiders) to “just happen”.

The just world phenomenon is a viewpoint that the world is fair, and thus good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. It's a very common view--especially among the privileged--, and most of us think we are good people. Believing that we're good then protects us from feeling vulnerable to the bad things in life, because only good things happen to good people in this view. When people who believe they are Good People, and that Good People Only Do Good Things, it can quickly become a case of ignorance to the situational pressures to cheat...particularly when most people are still unaware of what a strong situational pressure a Lost Lover will exert.

The foot-in-the-door effect is basically a slippery slope where saying yes to one small thing makes it many times more likely that we will say yes to a much larger request later on. That's why I think it should be called the hand-in-the-bra effect, LOL. People who would never have said yes to a request such as "Why don't you cheat on your husband and leave him and your kids behind?" may eventually acquiesce to that very thing as they move through a series of much smaller steps. Email, followed by phone calls, followed by lunch, followed by...

Cognitive dissonance theory says that if we do something we don't believe in, but we can't look around and find a compelling reason for why we did it (ie, nobody held the proverbial gun to our heads), we will come to see that act as somehow less wrong for us. This explains how people can feel that affairs are wrong for other people--but ours is an exception! So, even though most people start out believing Affairs Are Wrong, that belief will crumble and change as the now-involved Lovers seek to justify their special circumstance, given that not only do they lack a compelling reason for their affair--but half of the Lost Lovers actually were happily wed and had zero "justification" to have an affair!

I am grateful to scientists who do this research, which serves as a cautionary tale that if we really want to be Good People--we will need to choose Good Situations instead of relying solely on the power of our personality to get us through. Personality turns out to be a fairly flimsy thing when faced with strong pressure-- simply acknowledging that can be protective.

September 12, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.
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