Monday, April 11, 2011

Tracking Down a Lost Love: a Good Idea or Not?

"We're in love again. To think we've found each other after all these years."
Phyllis Mitton, 86, who has recently been reunited with Mike Stadnyk, her long-lost boyfriend from 1945.

Thanks to Internet search engines and social networking sites, there are a lot of stories these days similar to that of Phyllis Mitton and Mike Stadnyk, who lost touch with each other after the Canadian Army transferred him to some distant base after World War II. They eventually married other people, and many years later were both widowed and wondering, "Whatever happened to...?"

It's a nice story, but there are also plenty of stories that don't turn out nearly as well: stories of people who are married to one person but have an irrestible urge to track down someone else. Ostensibly, the reason is mere curiosity ("I wonder if he ever finished that Ph.D. program he enrolled in"), but once the two former lovers get together the conversation quickly morphs from Ph.D. programs to how wonderful it was back then when they were together, and how unsatisfying their lives are now. It's not hard to predict what happens next.

So, should we or shouldn't we do a google search on someone we were once in love with? The answer, according to my friend, Dr. Nancy Kalish, is "It depends."

Dr. Kalish is a sociologist and university professor who is probably the world's leading expert on people who reunite with lost lovers (her website is She knows all the happy-ending stories, and she also knows the ones that have ended badly. She says there are three main lost-lover categories. Depending on which category you're in, you should either plunge in enthusiastically, or you should proceed with caution, or or you should totally forget about it.

The Mitton-Stadnyk story is a classic example of a situation where there is no good reason not to try to resume the relationship. Because their separation back in 1945 was due to something beyond their control, they didn't really "break up" in the usual sense. They may have been sad at the time that things didn't work out, but they didn't feel animosity toward each other. Beyond that, they were both widowed prior to the recent contact, so there was no chance that a long-term marriage could be jeopardized. There was nothing to lose and everything to gain by trying to get back in touch.

A "proceed with caution" situation usually involve former lovers who are currently unmarried, but who broke up in an unhappy or even nasty way. According to Dr. Kalish, unless the wounds have completely healed on both sides, it could be a mistake to try to start over again. A person in this situation should ask himself or herself: "How hurt would I be if we were to break up again?" If the answer is "very hurt," then don't risk it.

The common denominator of "forget about it" situations is marriage, particularly a marriage that's on shaky grounds. When one person or the other is married, or both of them are, there's a high liklihood, according to Dr. Kalish, that one or both marriages will be jeopardized if the ex-lovers try to reunite. Even if the impulse to contact the other person is an innocent one, the old feelings will almost always come back, especially if there's an in-person meeting. In theory, the meeting could result in a purely Platonic friendship, but in the big majority of cases it would lead to an affair, or at least an increase in the level of marital frustration and dissatisfaction that already exists.

For better or worse, the Internet has allowed all of us to play private detective. Anyone with basic computer skills can gather more information on someone in five minutes than any of the famous private detectives of the 1940's movies could in five weeks. The question is: what do we do with that information? Usually, the best answer is to think long and hard about the person---and about yourself---before doing anything. To paraphrase the old saying about getting married without thinking it through:  e-mail in haste, repent at leisure.