After two divorces, Hellen, an attractive 60-year-old, had become comfortably single. But one day, about 10 years ago, the retired military consultant answered her phone, and a voice from her past made her heart race in a way it hadn’t in decades.
“I instantly recognized him,” she says. It was Frank, an Air Force officer she had dated for a few months in the early ’70s when they were working at the same military installation. Their careers led them to different places,
geographically and emotionally. They kept in touch for a few years but eventually drifted apart. “We both had moved on, but I was instantly, and happily, transported back in time,” Hellen says.
Single again after his third marriage ended, Frank was living in San Diego when he found Hellen through the people search website Zaba. The site indicated that she lived in Newport News, Va., and he was planning a trip to nearby Virginia Beach. It took all the courage he had to call her. “She had actually moved to Leesburg, Fla., where I was headed on a business trip two weeks later,” Frank says, noting the double coincidence.
Hellen agreed to meet him, and then literally counted the days. “I was a little scared,” she admits. “In the parking lot, I looked in the mirror and thought, This is not the face he once knew.” But Frank couldn’t have been happier to see her.
“We talked for hours,” he says. “It was like no time had passed. I was satisfied with my life, but I always hoped that I would be with Hellen again.”
And while she had similar feelings, they decided not to rush things, talking “constantly” on the phone and meeting whenever he came to town. Hellen visited him in San Diego, where they decided to take the relationship further — but slowly.
A few years later they got married and are still happily together. “We both believe it was divine intervention that reunited us,” Hellen says. “But we took the time to find out who were today. Lucky for us, it was very close to the same dynamic we had 20 years before.”
(MORE: 6 Steps to Create a More Photogenic Online "Stamp")
The Joy of Ex
Frank and Hellen are part of a growing trend: midlifers who are reaching into their past to find happiness in the present. The Lost Love Project, a California State University study that surveyed more than 1,000 people who reached out to an ex, offers some fascinating insights into the phenomenon. Some 72 percent of reunited couples, for instance, entered into long-term relationships, and almost two-thirds got engaged or married.
“Middle age is a time when people have more of their lives behind them than in front of them,” says online singles coach Amy Owens. “It’s natural to review their lives and to want to reconnect with old times through people, places and things from what they perceive as their glory days.”
“Midlifers have many motivations for looking for someone from their past to fill the holes they may have in their current lives,” adds JoAnn Magdoff, Ph.D., a New York–based couples’ therapist who notes that a spike in divorce rates after age 50, along with the Internet, has contributed to this trend. “Some people want to chase down ‘the one who got away’; others look to recapture the positive affirmation they had as popular high school students; and still others want to rewrite personal histories they have regrets about.”
And of course, there's simply the comfort and ease that comes from reconnecting with someone with a shared background and with whom you once had a rapport or love bond.
Meanwhile, online dating destinations have made it all the easier for folks who’ve been in dry dock for years to dive back into the dating pool. A recent article in Time magazine reported that boomer membership on online dating sites has climbed nearly 90 percent in the past seven years.
The Appeal of Digital Romance
“It’s scary to reenter the dating world later in life,” says Magdoff. That’s why many people choose to reach out in places like Facebook, Twitter and Linked-In rather take the formal plunge. “Social networking sites offer a ‘security blanket,’" she adds. “You can start from a place with much less judgment than when you’re the oldest person in a singles bar. In addition to making it easier to find someone, you’re connecting with people who provide feelings of familiarity.”
At the same time, virtual connections allow people to hide their actual situation and level of availability. This can create an unlevel playing field, observes Owens. “Connections via social media, especially Facebook, blur boundaries,” she says. To some people, "what happens in cyberspace stays in cyberspace and therefore doesn’t count," while others are using it to reach out and find the "real thing."
Reading Between the Lies
Mary was a victim of this kind of emotional obfuscation. She was single and playing the dating game when a casual high school acquaintance contacted her on a social site. At first he aggressively pursued her, gushing that he'd always had a crush on her. Then he took her on romantic and expensive dates that led her to want to pursue a long-term relationship. She was heartbroken when she found out that he was married and only looking for a cheap thrill.
“People need to be honest with each other when they begin a courtship — especially if it’s online,” says Magdoff. “Don’t assume anything. Ask pointed questions. Know whom you’re dealing with before you become emotionally attached to them. Make sure you know their marital or relationship status. They may not be the person you remember from your past. Even worse, they may not be someone you’d want in your life at any age.”
It’s important to realize that, despite the Lost Love Project findings, not everyone is looking for a lasting partnership. Some just want to show their old crush how much they’ve improved. Magdoff recalls a client like this. “Joe was not attractive as a young man, but at 50 he was — and he was successful. He was dying to prove his worth to the girl he’d being thinking about since high school. He ended up in bed with her, and for him that was an affirmation, that someone from the past could care for him in a positive way. She was just looking for a dalliance. The relationship didn’t last, but they each got what they wanted out of it. ”
(MORE: Online Dating Scams Can Wreck a Romance and a Life)
Let the Good Times Roll Again
For others, reconnecting with someone from the past represents a stage of your life when you felt beautiful, sexy and powerful. “There is a natural tendency for people to want to revisit a time when they feel they were truly appreciated,” says Magdoff. “They may romanticize their youth as a place where those kinds of problems didn’t exist. Connecting with an ex can help restore the comforts of that time.”
One of Magdoff’s patients, a former prom queen, had gone through a difficult divorce. She attended her 20th high school reunion and ran into her old flame — you guessed it — the former captain of the football team. “She was no longer the popular girl and he was no longer the star jock,” says Magdoff. “But they both still felt the same spark.”
While their courtship was ignited by nostalgia, it burned white-hot in the present. “They reconnected in a way that was even better than before,” Magdoff says. The two fell in love with more than a memory: They drew on their past to create a new life together that endures today. “They remembered why they liked each other, and appreciated the solid person the other had become. It’s important to remember that the past is only a foundation to build on.”
The Rules of Reengagement
Couples’ therapist JoAnn Magdoff offers four tips for retrosexual success:
- Be honest about your motivation. What’s going on in your present life that’s compelling you to reach into relationships from years gone by? Do you really miss this person, or are you just dissatisfied with things right now? Focus on fixing the present before you dredge up the past.
- Have realistic expectations. Somebody who looked like Angelina Jolie 20 years ago probably doesn’t today. So don’t be overly invested in who a person was decades ago. Be open to who they are now — physically and emotionally.
- Fact-check your memories. Make sure people are who you remember them to be. Memories may be powerful but not always accurate. Before you meet up, engage in a lot of dialogue, both online and on the phone, to assess how much someone may have changed.
- Be honest about your situation. If you’re married and you’re looking to reconnect with an old friend, fine — just make that clear. That means saying up front why you’re reaching out and letting your spouse know you’re doing it. If you’re single and looking for love, ask if the other person is available and wants the same. If you don’t broach the topic, you’re leaving a ton of stuff unsaid. And when it finally is said, you might not want to hear it.
Mike Hammer writes about relationships, entertainment and technology for magazines and websites including Men’s Journal, Maxim and Style + Tech for Men. He is happily divorced.