Who hasn’t at least wondered about their prom date, that guy sporting the mullet haircut?
Or your secret college crush, with the great sense of humor and big plans to launch a business?
Hunting down an old crush or flame used to be mainly the stuff of fantasy and movie scripts (or, in real life, an appearance at your high school reunion).
These days, of course, it’s possible to track down the whereabouts of just about anyone with a few clicks of a computer mouse. And given the popularity of Facebook and other social media among older generations, you rarely need someone’s phone number or even their email to reconnect.
That’s opened the doors for many romances among people in their 50s and 60s who may be divorced, widowed—or have stayed single all along.
“Social media makes it easy to take the next step and reach out,” says Dr. Nancy Kalish, professor emeritus of psychology at California State University, Sacramento. Kalish has been conducting research on reunited couples since 1993 and is an expert on rekindled romances and lost loves.
Don’t worry, everyone else is doing it too
While there are no statistics on the number of online reconnections, there are plenty that indicate people are certainly trying.
One people-search portal, TruthFinder, conducted a study and found that at least 25% of people google their old flames.
In another study about online behaviors, 57% of Americans said they looked at their ex’s online profile regularly, with those who are married or in a relationship being the most likely to do so.
Meanwhile, Classmates, a website that compiles high school and college classes by year, boasts 70 million members—many of whom probably aren’t just looking to reminisce.
Lynn (last name withheld), a divorced 61 year-old, of San Luis Obispo, Calif., reconnected with a high school friend on Facebook last year. That progressed to some friendly group meet-ups during daylight hours, and then one-on-one dates.
Though her old friend was living in another city when they reconnected, he’s moving back to their hometown, where Lynn lives, next year. “We’re not dating exactly, but now that we’re both divorced, we’re seeing where things go,” she says.
For some, it’s not just about reaching out to an ex: It’s about another shot at the person you unsuccessfully flirted with in 11th grade.
That’s what happened for Rick (not his real name), now a 50-something in the Philadelphia area, who found love with a former high school classmate. They became reacquainted online in their 40s, became friends for a while, and then eventually partners.
“I knew Deb in high school, or at least knew of her, but she literally didn’t know I was alive back then,” recalls Rick. “She was so out of my league that I didn’t even bother having a crush on her because it was hopeless.
“It was truly great getting to know the real Deb of today, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I do smile to myself sometimes and think yeah, I’m with Deb, the hottest girl in the whole school!”
Why it often works
Even though they didn’t date in high school, Rick and Deb are prime examples of successful “rekindlers.”
In Kalish’s research with over 4,000 couples, she found some common characteristics of those who reconnected, and then stayed with, old flames: Many had dated them for longer than a year when they were 22 or younger (which is still considered “adolescents” to psychologists), and had grown up in the same home town.
“You started to define what love and intimacy mean at that age,” Kalish says.
In many cases, the couples’ initial romance had broken up due to situational factors, or forces beyond their control—say, parental disapproval or attending colleges in different states.
“You grew up in same town, your upbringing was probably similar,” Kalish says. “It’s about shared roots and the fact that you formed your identity together.”
Lynn agrees. “The really joyful thing is I just don’t have to explain myself on a lot of things,” she says of her rekindled romance. “It’s very comforting that I knew him since he was a kid, I know his parents, his brothers. And he knew me when I had a bad perm!
“You might look at him and see a bald older dude with an impressive career. I look at him and see that shy, super-intelligent 14-year-old I grew up with and feel so close to him.”
Says Rick’s partner Deb: “Back then I was popular and outspoken, with big ’80s hair. He was shy and introverted with big ’80s hair. But our shared references and outlook are remarkably in sync, as different as we are.
“We even have a story we now tell friends about how we met, which includes how I ‘blew him off’ back then and how we could have been very happy a lot sooner had I not been so ‘stuck up,’ etc. It’s pretty funny.
“And he’s still introverted—but now he’s bald.”
When you should leave well enough alone
While there’s no doubt that the ease of re-kindling romance online has brought lots of joy, all that reconnecting may also be a little too easy.
Kalish has studied this topic since 1990. After 2006, she found a startling uptick in the percentage of already-married people reconnecting. She says that’s because, before social media, people had to work hard to find their lost loves, often by contacting old friends or their ex’s relatives. Now it’s easy to connect directly and in secret.
And people in committed relationships can be playing with fire when they reach out to former loves, notes Kalish. They often feel there’s no harm— and even share with their current mates what they are doing.
But the pull of an old attraction can be very powerful. “It’s like a time machine and can leave them with one foot into the past, one in the present, and pain all around,” observes Kalish.
So if you’re single and curious about someone from way back when, by all means head to your keyboard and say hello.
But if you, or the object of your interest, are in a relationship…consider whether you wouldn’t be better off playing an online game of Solitaire instead.