Rekindling Old Flames

Published on by CMe




Rekindling Old Flames 

Lost loves. First loves. We all have them but, given the opportunity, what to do when the possibility of reunion comes up? A psychiatrist offers her story, as well as what to look for.

It is my belief that most men and women carry around, throughout their lives, the image of someone they loved in the past but with whom they did not ultimately join their lives. Someone they continue to wonder about through the years, sometimes almost obsessively -- particularly when things are not going well in their lives -- and sometimes not at all. Still, that figure haunts them and makes them wonder how different their lives may have developed with that other companion. At times they pine and long physically for the presence of this first and sometimes only real love.

As a practicing psychiatrist, I know that many of us dutifully accept the idea that most marital problems stem from unresolved conflicts in family relationships that developed long before our current partner had any influence on our well-being. But we also continue to hold an emotional, perhaps primitive, and certainly powerful belief in the fusion of two souls in love.

I became interested in the universality of the "road-not-traveled" relationship when, after a silence of 30 years, I remit and married my first love and one-time fiancé, Warren Bennis, the well-known organizational management expert who founded the Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California. I began to wonder why some people reactivate an old love affair when life gives them an opportunity, while most do not. I started collecting other people's stories while I continued to live out and understand my own. Most of what I have learned about the reuniting of sweethearts -- whether after a separation of one year or 30 -- seems to be equally crucial for sustaining intimacy in long-term marriages as well. Above all, I have found, reconnecting with an old love is not just another date. No matter what age the principals, it is a psychological recapitulation that can trigger grief, anger, resentment, fear, guilt, shame -- and joy.

Such a reunion inevitably involves a review of life from the time of the original love relationship to the present. It may lead to powerful insights into your own emotional history -- a re-exposure to something that has been both deeply appealing but also possibly disturbing. Both the pleasure of union with an idealized love and the remembered pain of its ending are released into consciousness once more.

Anticipation of the reunion is enormously exciting. It encourages an amazing leap across time, back to a feeling of being intensely alive. It is an attempt to recapture the self at a period when everything in life lay ahead and activates a whole chain of "what-might-have-been" thought.

The success of romantic reunions depends on the resolution of past problems. But it also hinges on the current availability of the pair. Yet even if they are committed to others, some form of reunion can still be of value. What follows is a discourse on my own experience with love regained, interspersed with what I call "The Rules of Reunion" -- practical advice garnered from both personal and professional conversations about this remarkably universal phenomenon.

There was a pile of mail on my desk, and in the 10-minute break between patients I riffled through it. I stopped breathing when I read the name on a wafer-thin blue envelope. "Any chance you can have dinner with me on Oct. 13? Yours, Warren." I stared at the familiar handwriting of a man unforgettably extraordinary, the one who had made me feel that love for him was what he valued beyond anything, who had inscribed in the wedding ring he'd bought for me "Memento Amori" (remember to love). In retrospect, an admonition? Memory shot back 30 years. I stood in my surgical greens in the emergency room at Boston City Hospital reading his telegram ending our relationship three days before the wedding. I tore up the hundred words he proffered as explanation. He had become hard and stony with me lately. I had had a premonition that something eerily bad would happen but tried not to personalize. I attributed it to generalized prenuptial angst.

Twelve months later he got married, closing off the possibility of any reconciliation and making it clear that it wasn't marriage itself but marriage to me that had been the problem. With that rejection I knew that what felt like devotion could be temporary and contingent. What you relied upon could be gone in a flash. I was wounded in some permanent way.

After that, I kept a lot more of my thoughts to myself. I kept my guard up, you couldn't let down for a moment, couldn't speak openly, had to continually censor yourself, gauge the impact of your words before you said them. And you certainly shouldn't move in with the man you hoped to marry.

We'd met four years earlier, at the home of an academic in Boston's Back Bay. I was a third-year medical student. Eight years my senior, Warren was already a professor of management at MIT Before long, I saw very little of my apartment. When I finished at the hospital, I usually drove straight to Warren's. If I met him someplace, I'd follow him home in my little green MG. At the stoplights, I'd ease up and give his bumper a love tap. We spent four years together.

We had believed we would be saved from disappointing lives. Unlike our parents, we would be adored by our children because we would be their champions. We thought sex was very important and spent limitless time encouraging each other. We loved Japanese movies of the time. After a film Warren would race up and grab me with a samurai leap and a hiss. I would fold up with laughter. We danced around his apartment. We rushed out to buy the latest albums. And we decided to live together at a time when it wasn't done.

Why did he want to see me now? I detached from the present and became a consultant to myself to cut free of my own feelings. He was in his mid-60s and always a self-observer. He could be doing a life review and revisiting the women important to him, pulling themes of relationships together, looking at the whole canvas. He could be wanting to make amends. And, oh yes, he could be wanting to start an affair. But it seemed too risky to find out. I couldn't risk rejection again.

I knew from mutual friends who'd sketched in the rough outlines of his life that, after being divorced from his first wife for a long time, he'd suddenly married a woman they didn't like.

Though so many years had passed, Warren still meant so much to me. Those critical years when we were together were passionate and stimulating. They had become my template for life. Dinner with him? Back then I'd planned to make dinner for him every night for the rest of our lives. Now I was afraid that one dinner would just start me up all over again.

Three days later, I left a message that I'd meet him for dinner at his hotel during his impending visit to Washington. When he opened the door to his suite, we stared at each other, mutually surprised at what we saw: two white-haired people! My robust, youthful, pipe-smoking lover was replaced by another man -- manicured, slender, significantly older. He guided me smoothly into the sitting room and conducted our meeting like a TV interviewer.

As I began searching anxiously for my old familiar friend, he talked about his life, the 20 books he'd written (he placed two right in my hands), the conferences he chaired. He was here in D.C. to preside over a forum for Business Week. My life suddenly felt skinny.I found myself responding unenthusiastically and reluctantly to his polite questions about my 

life and children. I heard myself reporting mechanically -- and endlessly -- about a recent barge trip I'd taken in France. This wasn't the way I wanted it to go. Where was the mystery, the unfolding? I feared we'd never speak in any way that would draw us close.

I heard him say that he had many happy years after our time together but that he'd never recovered such passion again. The words were stiff, awkward, spoken without emotion. They were not an invitation. We ordered BLTs and, after a few bites, I looked at my watch and saw that it was time to go. Quietly he walked me down to get a taxi. In the silence he simply smiled and, through the otherwise packaged persona, let out a sigh. That was the first glimpse of my old lover.

OVER THE NEXT SEVERAL DAYS, BETWEEN patients, I thought about him, and dropped him a note: "Id like to stay in touch and not lose this friendship of our youth now that we have made this effort. In the old Forest Street language, I might have proposed 'the wine has been opened and must be drunk.' In the context of our present lives, the metaphor must be modified. I simply doubt that we will get another running start. I remain, your Amazed Grace."He did not respond. That didn't fit. He'd been a university president. They answered their mail. Months later in a conversation with mutual friends, I learned that Warren had some surgery and was laid up for a while. It gave me the courage to try writing again. At worst he would be flattered. Just a few lines: "Was our getting together meant to be a one time thing?"

Five days later a letter arrived by Federal Express. "Strange, so strange. I thought/felt that you were pushing me away when we met in October, that you couldn't wait to leave. I was mesmerized -- again -- and wanted you but thought, well, the slow flat barge you described was emblematic of the life you were resigned to lead. Or that I seemed to have settled for." He had not received my earlier letter. And barely two weeks before, "for too many reasons to recount now, my wife and I separated. In truth, I didn't want to continue life on a flat barge. I don't want to make too much of a cute metaphor but I want to see you and hold you." From that point on the Federal Express man was Cupid to me.


  1. A reverse "Lost Horizons" effect occurs. There's a recapturing of the past that is felt as a reexperience of youth. Some people describe a sexual reexplosion in which the partner is a sort of a physical composite of their youthful and present selves, thereby enhancing the experience.

    Old songs come to mind, old jokes, playfulness, a carefree regression into childlike behaviors. Couples may recapture the high-energy part of a shared life. Each party may take a new look at old talents left unexplored. The rebirth that takes place in the reunion can stimulate new learning -- even a new career.
  2. Each partner may have reached the fruition or completed form of the wonderful outlines suggested but barely developed many years ago. Once potential qualities such as generosity, responsibility, competency, honesty, confidence, and the ability to be nurturing may now be clearly established. Perhaps your old lover looks even better to you now than before.

    A West Coast visit was approaching. I was going to spend a few days with relatives. Then with Warren. Now, we could no longer rely on the past to hold us together. We had to find out if the people we had become jibed with what we truly wanted. Had we developed into what our younger selves would have wished for each other to become?
  3. The original problems will always be reactivated. The conflicts that caused the original breakup are absolutely integral to the basic personality and character structure of each partner. In the intervening years there must have been a learning from life, a basic individual growth process in which one has dealt with this core issue, before the reunion can succeed. This is the case whatever the problems that led to the breakup in the first place. Problems that may come between lovers include self-absorption and inability to give appropriate attention to the other person's growth and well-being; excessive ambition; fears about competency; guilt and suspicion about sexual enjoyment; unmanageable competition with the loved one for worldly achievement or other goals; projected inferiority ("anyone who loves me can't be worth much"); personal rejection because of overvaluation of wealth.

    It takes years to do this work on the self. It can't be a last-minute homework assignment. Having learned from other relationships is a major requirement of successful reunions. Unsuccessful marriages in the intervening years can teach a person a lot about the fragility of keeping love alive. Over the years, many formerly emotionally isolated men and women who have had real worldly success may be able now to tolerate more intimacy. Achievers have had enough recognition from the world; performers grow more concerned about coming back to an empty dressing room. They have objectively achieved the success they always wanted and recognized it doesn't solve all problems.

    The passage of time has to bring the courage to look the original problem in the eye. Be assured that the outcome will be essentially the same today as it was years ago unless a different way of behaving has been built from having struggled hard with these issues in the years between. One indisputable sign of the accomplishment of real change is to find your old love being grateful, rather than jealous, of the intervening relationships that have given you wisdom.

    WARREN WAS ALWAYS A VERY AMBITIOUS man. His sights were set on the big time and I can't count the hours we spent discussing the strategies of his getting ahead in the academic community.

    I grew increasingly serious about my own career in medicine. I became the first female surgical resident accepted into Harvard's residency program. In our final year together, I was pursuing a full-fledged career in surgery -- although I later switched to psychiatry. I was something of an outlaw, a strong and passionate woman beyond the usual social prescriptions of the day. Then, as now, I felt free to make up my life as I went along. Warren, as a man, was more bound by rigid social expectations. He wanted a wife devoted to helping him.

    When it came down to converting our romance into a life partnership, Warren turned away from the emotional side that had given him so much pleasure. I was not available to Warren on a daily basis to back him up in the social arena of Cambridge academic competition. A wife with her own career was not seen as an advantage at that time. If a man and woman were to both be successful, the man's success had to come first.

    Though we never discussed it at the time, I was happy to have a life outside the relationship. I felt that the more roles we brought to our relationship, the richer our life together would be. The very things I thought made relationships work were the things Warren enjoyed but felt were not sufficient. He couldn't allow himself to express this directly.
  4. A review of the original breakup must take place. Reviewing the reasons for the breakup of the old relationship may be painful or at least difficult. But it must take place between the sweethearts. If you can't do this, don't start anything with an idea of getting back together.

    In reviewing the relationship history, avoid being accusatory. Using blame or being judgmental may well be what started the trouble years ago. The best approach is to make liberal use of the "I" position: "I felt rejected and unwanted because I did not value myself" (not "you destroyed my life").

    Romantic sweethearts rarely if ever split by mutual rational agreement. Cold words may have been the outward form of ending, depending on the cultural background of the parties, but they are an obvious disguise for tumultuous passions at the time. They must now be openly acknowledged.

    Amends must be made. The original rejecter must articulate sorrow for inflicting pain without accepting total responsibility for the breakup. Usually, blame has been placed, unfairly, on one partner, the designated "rejecter" who stopped the relationship from going forward at that critical time in the past. There is thus a split of the lovers into "good" and "bad" Such a distinction is essentially false and diminishes the true complexity of relationships. As long as such a distinction continues, healing of the relationship is impossible and a real partnership is unattainable.

    The partner who broke off the relationship may, in fact, have been experiencing emotional rejection from the other party at the time. Though being told "I love you," the partner may have felt otherwise in his or her gut, and the only way of showing any hurt at all may have been to stop the relationship entirely. Now, the rejectee must own up to having abdicated responsibility back then by appearing the victim and not admitting the strong negative feelings that were in the relationship. Thus, layers of self-deception may be peeled away in the process of making amends.

    THE CLOSENESS AND intimacy I cherished in our relationship, it turned out, Warren feared as a sign of dependency -- his. Privately, he was facing a growing crisis, one his analyst helped frame as a choice between saving himself or saving me. Having to reveal this in person, he felt, might actually keep him from breaking off the relationship -- a sign of the passions beneath.

    So he sent a telegram instead. That stunningly impersonal document crushed me so hard it set off a full-blown panic attack. For Warren it officially launched a three-decade-long flight from intimacy. He achieved everything he ever dreamed. Still, he felt isolated.

    The enormous amount of success he has achieved over the years has changed him. it has allowed him to be more creative. It has made him more sure of his instincts. He shows his feelings of love. He is no longer afraid that intimacy means dependency. Nor does he fear dependency.
  5. There must be consensus about the reasons for the original breakup. A shared idea of why the relationship failed back then must gradually emerge. This is essential for a reconciliation that can endure. One person can't just convince the other of his or her point of view. In answering the inevitable "If you're so smart why didn't you marry him/her back then?" both sweethearts must agree that it couldn't have been forced at the time.

    Old lovers must not only develop a shared view of why the relationship failed, they must also come to agreement as to why they couldn't make it work at the time. A joint recognition must occur that each was stumped by specific personal problems and behaviors. Each partner must reach a deep understanding of what was truly irreconcilable about past behavior. Only a fool expects different results from the same repetitive behavior.

    Because this is a deep process of self-understanding, it takes months, not days, for each partner to accept the validity of the reasons it failed in the past. Out of this shared view comes a perception that neither was the exclusive victim. As both persons air and relinquish their long-held private versions, a new joint construction of their emotional realities comes into being. This shared vision is a strong foundation for the future. It takes time, but forgiveness also occurs.

    IN THE COURSE OF VISITS TO THE WEST Coast, Warren and I often went out to dinner with his friends. "This is the woman I should have married 30 years ago," he would introduce me. And we would launch into our story. Through these public tellings and retellings in a setting of social approval, we developed the objectivity to assume the responsibility for our failed love. Just as important, it helped us construct a shared view of the reasons for failure.

    In telling my story, I ultimately recognized a scenario of neglect. I grew to understand that I had frozen Warren out. While he included me in the social side of his academic life, I kept him totally separate from my medical life. Focused on my own needs, I was sure that being a stimulating partner, rather than a nurturing one, would keep us going. I couldn't even imagine that someone so richly endowed as Warren needed anything. But he was not being taken care of emotionally. Our marathon talks were gratifying, but they were periodic. Then I'd spin off into my world again.

    There were, in retrospect, things we could have done to protect our long investment in the relationship. We who believed so strongly in therapy could have taken ourselves to a therapist -- together. Then, too, Warren could have taken the adult-style responsibility for telling me that he needed care.

    Having learned the art of existing in the present, and having the confidence that comes with achievement, I was able to let go of the past. I could accept what happened years ago and move forward. Many people in my place may have had such hurt feelings that they would have needed to punish their ex-lover -- even though doing so would spoil their new shot at happiness.
  6. There are specific characteristics of people who rekindle an old love. I have come to understand that not everyone is suited for rekindling an old flame. Love is an expansive and optimistic feeling. People who choose to reactivate old love appear to be optimistic and action-oriented throughout their lives. They are, by definition, risk-takers. Romantic and poetic qualities seem to be long-established traits among those who pursue reunions. At the very least, they must no longer be afraid of the adventurous path of love.
  7. Commonly, important issues arise among family. Intense reactions are often not limited to the two principals involved. Children also experience significant reactions, and you can count on these regardless of how old they are or whether or not prenuptial agreements guarantee their inheritances. It may come as a surprise but the "child" of 40 can be as deeply upset as a teenager.

    As in any recoupling, there are the routine fears of loss of love and loss of financial inheritance. But the reactivation of a love that predates the other parent brings up a specific set of additional problems.

    It ignites an anxiety that can roughly be summarized as, "If you had married him/her back then, then I wouldn't have existed." It is experienced as a deep threat to the self, and it must be addressed. This can best be done once you yourself have arrived at an acceptance that the sweetheart relationship was "not meant to be" in the past. The discussion should include the positives of the marriage and family you did make. Children never hear this too often.

    There will be devaluation of a parent for having made a "big mistake" in life. The loss of faith in a parent's judgment can destabilize the parent-child relationship and lead to a kind of role reversal -- if the parent agrees with it. Better that it should lead to a healthy discussion of recurring human fallibility and of growth throughout the life cycle.
  8. Friends pose another set of issues. Among dear friends who know your life story, you can expect to feel embarrassed in telling them that you and your old flame are back together again. "Are you doing that cockeyed thing again?"

    On the other hand, wise friends can also function as monitors this time. They can help prevent the repetition of sudden endings and encourage the sweethearts to defend what they are doing and be more reality-oriented. Talking candidly to friends as you go along helps you to think more clearly and can keep you from slipping into a dream world.
  9. Don't repeat The Great Gatsby. It did not have a happy ending. Gatsby, remember, did not get the girl. He forced Daisy, the love of his life, to tell Tom, her husband and the father of her only child, that he meant nothing to her and that she had loved only Gatsby, never anyone else.

    Resist the lure of invalidating the sweetheart's other important relationships that have occurred during the intervening years. It is not wise (or necessary) to undercut the significance of ex-spouses!

    The emotional intensity of separated lovers finally getting what they have long wanted may ignite a childlike wish to undo the loved one's past. Like Gatsby, a long-lost lover might force statements and actions to gain emotional primacy over all others. Such demands are not only childish, they can be disastrous! You can never make up for years of being apart. There were valid reasons for the failure to unite years ago. Mature people understand that they do not have a monopoly on a partner's attachments.
  10. Sweetheart reunions need a warning label. They are poison for "women who love too much" and their male counterparts! A sweetheart reunion can restart a once-uncontrollable obsession successfully put aside by dint of tremendous effort, perhaps even years of therapy. Reunions are not for people who can't get unstuck once they love someone. (Check your track record to see whether this is true of you.) They can reactivate a pattern of making another person, rather than yourself, the focus of your life.
  11. Good things can happen to old flames even if they don't reignite. Even when reunion with an old love is a disappointment, there can still be positive developmental results. While many people carry around the image of a past failed love, for some it fuels a perpetual flame of fantasy that becomes more alluring than the real-life relationship they are in. They make comparisons that disadvantage their everyday relationship and indefinitely postpone making the best of it.

    Sometimes the best way to let go of a past unsuccessful love is to go back and have an actual reunion. This process can be a way of dosing the circle or writing the last chapter, and thus freeing oneself from a lifelong fantasy. The result can be greatly enhanced enjoyment of present life. Even an unsuccessful reunion can promote wisdom and a sense of completion in one's own life.

    By setting up a meeting with an old love you may find out how much you have grown and changed over the years. First of all you can get a look at what your past romantic love is like in the light of today's reality. You may get some real shocks. Physical changes may turn you off. Or when you sit down and talk you may find that what once looked like creativity and imagination can now be recognized as childishness, emotional instability, or actual craziness. Some traits look different with time, others are the worse for wear.

    As you get to know one another in the present, big differences in judgment can become clear. What was fondly remembered as insightfulness or analytic skiff may now appear to be negativism and bitterness. What flourished as moderate competitiveness may be transmuted by time and outlook into an all-out war between the sexes. Your old sweetheart may feel that contract and negotiation are the only bases of connection between the sexes.

    In such cases reunions make it obvious that a life together could not have worked. And in the process, you have learned something about yourself.

THIRTY YEARS AGO, THERE WAS NO closure with Warren. The resolution for me was having the opportunity to have it happen again. Our capacity to enjoy our new relationship is what gives it a happy ending. Today Warren and I are married and living in California.

Illustration from Clyde Mendes column at  MetroSexual LA


Comment on this post

Irene 07/23/2010 16:52

By the way, this topic can be a great book - you should consider - there are many of us out there ! Do you have a book?

Irene 07/23/2010 16:46

WOW! Thank you for writing this.
I have just initiated a relationship with an old flame. I, also, was in shock that he found me - At first I was surprised at my welcomed reception of this person, who had hurt me so much... yet, I
am not the same girl as then and I am a loving and peaceful person and that is all I gave during the initial contact. And, what came back was more love and peace and forgiveness and detachment from
the past. It has blossomed to something beautiful and I'm excited about this encounter.
The section about embarrassment is what I foresee happening next when I announce this to my family and friends... though, that will not be for a while because it is too new.
For the moment, I am loving and being loved... And, we're at the stage where we say that our love deserves the love it deserves and we are doing just that.
~love & peace to all.