*While this article is focused on Facebook use, because it’s such a popular medium for online connection, this really applies to any connection, technology-assisted or otherwise.
About a decade ago, when Facebook was still new and Apple was just rolling out its first iPhone, I was among the group of people who thought it was fun to be able to reconnect with old friends. I saw no harm in reaching out online to catch up with people I had not seen in a few decades, including a few I had dated. I viewed it as a high school reunion of sorts, and we have high school reunions all the time, right? I was in a happy marriage and had no intentions of crossing any boundaries. I was excited about sharing Christmas cards with my high school and college friends over the internet. To be honest, it was fun…
…and then I started practicing marriage therapy again after a hiatus of several years. I had a front row seat to the utter destruction these types of connections have had and are having on marriages and families. Now, research statistics corroborate that social media use can have a negative impact on marital happiness and stability. I don’t think any voice of warning is too strong in this instance, and people seem oblivious to the potential corrosive influence of online connections. Reconnecting in any way with a former love interest is risky, especially if that individual is considered a “first love,” which I will explain later.
I don’t want to seem all cray cray, and I do think some people can manage Facebook relationships with former flings—my husband has a few in his friends list right now. Lest any of those people happen to be reading this and think I’m calling them out, I don’t find that threatening in my case. He has little interest in Facebook, but a great deal of interest in his family. My son’s recent verbal observation was, “Mom, you have to admit you got so lucky with dad because you have him totally whipped,” and while I don’t know about the “whipped,” part, because he’s not necessarily a pushover, he is very loyal. However, spouses need to understand the general risk these contacts impose, because too many people are surprised when they are entangled in an emotional mess.
It’s not uncommon for people who have ended up in affairs with Facebook friends to ask, “How did this happen? I had no idea I would feel these strong emotions. It doesn’t make sense.” I’ll explain why it does make sense. Most people are ignorant to how quickly dormant emotions can be awakened.
The Unique Risk of First Love
As mentioned, connecting with a “first love,” is by far the riskiest move, and most people don’t realize the intensity of emotions that can arise from these circumstances. The relationships are sticky. While people sometimes minimize “adolescent love,” or even “young adult love,” the truth is that these are very impassioned experiences for people and are imprinted in memory. Nancy Kalish, a qualitative researcher of rekindled love relationships who headed up a study with 2000 participants, explained that men and women told her that their first loves became “the standard for all the rest,” and they don’t forget.
Here is a list of reasons why these relationships can make sparks:
- It is familiar. There is shared history and experiences. Bottom line: It feels comfortable instantly. Kalish put it this way, “The emotionally loaded memories of attachment were still there, but the person was not. When they reunited, the sight, smell, touch, and sound of the long-lost love activated these stored emotional memories. Like the key to a lock, the first love matched the memories, and everything felt right.” She added that early relationships can be only a few months long and still have the same explosive effect. This is important because people often assume that because they have had a longer-term relationship with someone else, they can’t be easily influenced by a comparatively short-term connection.
- It is formative. Love relationships in one’s late teens or early 20’s are associated with high levels of bonding hormones and sexual fervor, “forged in the fire of the teenage brain,” in Kalish’s words. This unique attachment pairing sets the stage for a lifetime association.
- Our brains are excellent at recalling memories with sensory triggers. My son recently has taken an interest in the song, “I Melt with You,” by Modern English. Every time he plays that song, I’m immediately transported to a scene in my high school boyfriend’s Porsche when he was teaching me to drive a stick shift, and I was laughing hysterically at what a disaster I was at first. I can hear him saying, “I can’t wait to play you this new song I found that made me think of you.” I don’t even remember him with fondness. Our relationship was burned to a crisp after the 5 year period of on-again, off-again drama. Regardless of the fact that my memories of him are emotionally neutral, my brain recalls that scene every single time I hear it. Contact with a former love will elicit sensory triggers. Online conversation patterns with an ex can create sensory recall, and you can and will be transported in time.
- We usually remember positive emotional experiences with first loves more than negative experiences. Contrast that with a spouse who may have annoyed you five minutes ago. First loves are associated with the nostalgia for better days—with emotional higher hopes and more energy.
- People don’t usually alter requirements in a partner, so if they were appealing once, they will be appealing again. Romantic love researcher Helen Fisher explained that our partner preferences don’t really change all that much. She said, “Romantic love is like a sleeping cat and can be awakened at any minute. If it can be awakened once, it can probably be awakened a second time.”
- Love relationships in one’s late teens/early adulthood are often ended with ambiguity and If you started a relationship that was never fully realized, it’s easy to pick up right where you left off. I had never heard this articulated until I read Kalish’s book. Kalish pointed out that the “lost love,” relationships with the most intensity occurred after an ambiguous break-up, e.g. the couple’s relationship dissipated because of distance, interfering parents, or other circumstances unrelated to the couple’s formally ending it. It’s common for people to think if they contact a previous love interest they will get closure for this ambiguity. That logically seems to make sense, and yet it doesn’t work. Kalish said, “closure is a myth (because) the old feelings come back.” Most people are unaware of this and don’t expect it.
- The years of separation can make the heart grow fonder. Helen Fisher used the term, “frustration attraction,” to explain that barriers to a relationship can increase yearning and feelings of ardor. She explained that passionate love stimulates dopamine-producing neurons which make people want to seek out that person. She posited that our brain cells prolong their activities if the lover associated with those chemicals is unavailable, increasing potency of the fond feelings.
But What if My Facebook Friend and I Only Went on a Few Dates? We Weren’t Even Romantically Involved.
It’s probably easy to see why an intense early love relationship could be quickly reignited, but many individuals are surprised at the affairs that develop from “someone I just dated a few times,” or “someone I thought was cute but never went out with—we were just friends.” There are several reasons why it’s still easy to become romantically attached to an old friend.
- Most affairs start with a platonic relationship. People think if they aren’t already romantically involved, it’s safe. There is a natural progression from initial familiarity to deeper emotional sharing to bonding, which people underestimate as fertile ground for affairs.
- Our brains respond to novelty, and it’s a new rediscovery. Whether the person is a former love interest or not, it’s new, which begs attention.
- We disclose emotions more quickly and deeply online than in person. That emotional sharing is a bonding experience.
- If you start hiding your communication from your spouse, the hiding alone fuels feel-good hormones. For example, adrenaline.
- Connecting with anyone from the past reminds us of when we were young and had more energy and our whole lives ahead of us. That individual becomes associated with those emotions—there is a cohort effect.
- Carrying on an online relationship is fragmented and lacks the mundane aspects of daily life. Getting immediate responses from a partner far away while your spouse may be ignoring you may beget an illusion that the online partner is more responsive.
- Communicating online with anyone in a private conversation provides a natural close, shared intimate experience. It may be more surprising when affairs DON’T develop from these relationships than when they do.
- Fantasy. It’s amazing how many of these relationships are experienced in the minds of the individuals instead of in actual physical contact. That can generate persistent emotions.
The Dark Side
According to Kalish, people rekindle first romances all the time, and if they are both unmarried, they often create stable relationships. However, she warned that many people she interviewed were in happy marriages and were shocked when they felt feelings for former lovers. In some instances, they destroyed their marriages and hurt their spouses and children. In other cases, some reported an increase in unhappiness and emotional pain and yearning for their past partners. Individuals often tell me that they are having more dreams about the lost love, which creates guilt.
Energy that is going into the online relationship is energy being sucked out of the marital relationship. Sharing that’s happening online is sharing that’s not happening with a spouse. Sometimes, the spouse becomes the enemy, preventing the extramarital connection.
There is no Time Limit
Some people think, “That was decades ago when I was a teenager…I’m a completely different person now and too old to have an affair.” I was surprised at how many couples in Kalish’s study had not seen each other in more than 50 years and still reported the same chemistry that they experienced in their late teens. In one case, a couple who were both in their 90’s and hadn’t seen each other in over 70 years rekindled a former romance. This is important to know because sometimes people think they are old enough that they won’t have extreme emotions. False.
I am certain that there are tens of thousands if not millions of people engaging in clandestine Facebook affairs with old lovers and friends as I type. I’m not saying that you can’t ever friend an ex on Facebook, but it’s a good idea to be aware of the potential dangers before you do….along with shared passwords with your spouse.
Here are some references and further reading:
Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love by Helen Fisher. 2005, Holt Paperbacks.
The Lost Love Chronicles: Reunions & Memories of First Love by Nancy Kalish. 2013, Dr. Nancy Kalish published.