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The Greening of Relationships: Recycling an Old Love by Sam Folks

When I started dating in the mid-70s, there was a popular saying that went like this:

“If you love something let it go free. If it doesn’t come back, you never had it. If it comes back, love it forever.” Doug Horton

Every girl who got her heart broken could count on her friends throwing out this overly sentimental tripe. It always struck me as quite ridiculous, and it was somehow associated in my mind with Jonathan Livingston Seagull, speaking of mawkish crap from the 70s.


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The truth is, I rarely if ever saw couples come back together, not for real. Oh, there was often some back and forth in the early stages of a breakup. Big fight, break up, break up sex, get back together. A couple who had been together a while could usually count on several rounds of this. But it was rare that a couple who broke up at high school graduation would get back together five years later. What would be the point? The relationship had obviously run its course, and both parties moved on for good.

I. The Expiration Date

When speaking of hookup culture, most people focus on the sexual revolution, and the consequent erosion of sexual restrictions, especially on women. I tend to do this myself. However, there’s another reason that kids in college hook up, and it’s not just about coed dorms and drunken canoodling. The truth is, an 18 year-old in college is probably looking at ten years before marriage. Two generations ago, a woman in college might reasonably expect to meet her future husband there. In fact, if he was ahead of her by a year or two, she would often drop out to begin married life once he graduated. It’s understandable that both women and men today aren’t really looking to make a serious commitment when their future looks like this:

College—–>Study abroad—–>Back to college—–>Job in location to be determined—–>Possible move due to job or Grad School—–>Move after Grad School

Of course, stays of varying lengths in one’s hometown over summers, etc. are also part of the migration. No one wants to do long-distance if they can help it, so many kids do their best to remain emotionally unentangled, and hooking up can work pretty well in meeting that goal, especially for guys. A few very strong and focused women also find that they are able to pull this off, but most eventually wind up wanting a boyfriend, even if it’s just so that they can get off the hookup carousel for a while.

Susan McWilliams of Front Porch Republic wrote that hookup culture reflects “the extent to which hooking up is almost bound to emerge as a norm among young adults in a large-scale society where mobility is highly prized and cultivated.”

She goes on to point out that Americans prize mobility – we are, after all, a nation of immigrants. Moving around provides us with variety, and freedom. But it’s also puts a lot of pressure on all of our relationships: family, friends, romantic partners.

II. The Technology of Recycling

Getting back in touch with a past love is very easy with modern technology. Since most people’s contacts on Facebook and instant messaging go back years, it’s really quite a simple matter to keep up with people we no longer see at all. A guy sees on his Facebook feed that a cute girl he knew in high school has just posted new photos from Cancun. Wow! She really filled out! Two days later he’s chatting online and there’s her little green dot. She might not even remember him, but what the hell, he has absolutely nada to lose. And they’re off!

It’s so simple to Google the one that got away — your relationship was solid but you were separated prematurely by cruel circumstance. And let’s not forget the always “easy to disavow tomorrow” drunk text or call.

Overall, this strikes me as a good thing. Of course, things can get pretty complicated. Someone in a relationship might find it more than a little confusing to hear from an old flame with unfinished business.

III. The Comforts of Home

Lately I’ve become aware of quite a few exes who are reconnecting. Their history is complicated, perhaps over a period of years, with long breaks in-between. There’s the couple that dated for three years in high school, split up for all of college, and got back together a year after graduation. There’s the college senior who just told me that within the last couple of months two guys from her high school years have texted to reconnect and plan a date for this summer. Her comment to me was, “Random!” But I wonder how random it really is. Maybe after years of hacking their way through the hooking up jungle, with the scars to show for it, young people are happy to come home to a way of relating that is uncomplicated. To a place where everyone knows your name. We all want to be known, yet so few get to have that in the years after leaving home.

Last Sunday the New York Times profiled the wedding of such a couple:

  • Anne-Marie Hess and David Rabkin met in 2002. They were each waiting for friends to arrive at a restaurant, and they struck up a conversation. (Make the most of random encounters!)
  • He asked her to go to the Museum of Natural History. More dates followed. (Be still, my heart! Dioramas are an aphrodisiac!)
  • AMH was headed to Berlin for a fellowship. DR was a surgical resident in NYC.
  • She returned from Germany and moved to LA.
  • He took a fellowship in Salt Lake City, and then continued his training in New Zealand.
  • In 2008, he interviewed at UCLA. He looked her up, and asked her to rekindle the relationship.
  • In 2009, he proposed and they were married March 13. She is now 32, and he’s 40.

That’s a pretty incredible story, but is perhaps a blueprint for many future marriages. It seems remarkable that they finally found their way back together despite their nomadic wanderings. Obviously, in those six years after they broke up, both remained attracted, even attached in some way. Attached enough that they didn’t fall for anyone else.

Regular readers know that I live by two maxims:

1. Everything changes.

2. You will be surprised.

If you have unfinished business with the one that got away, keep an open mind. You just might find that you can go home again after all.