When I arrived at the wine bar, there was only one open table — dimly lit and intimate. The booze, music and candlelight felt like a callback to our first kiss 15 years before, almost to the day.
There was no sign of him, so I ordered a chardonnay and two small plates, and tried to focus on the novel I brought with me, ironically titled What She Knew. Instead, I found myself flashing back to the last time I saw him.
We had just returned from a trip to Napa to scout wedding venues. After a heated kiss, I drove to my apartment 95 miles away.
Days later, I learned he’d been cheating on me, and I ended our six-year relationship — the best of my life up to that point — with a two-line email. He fired back with a litany of messages, which began with profanity and culminated in pleas.
“PLEASE DON’T LEAVE ME. YOU ARE MY EVERYTHING,” he screamed through the screen.
He sent texts, letters, roses, and initiated countless hang-up calls.
I never responded. I never told him a mutual friend confirmed my suspicions. I never considered reconciling.
Over the years, we corresponded intermittently, but not about anything deep — and never to revisit our history. But when work took me to his hometown of Santa Barbara, I reached out and asked if he’d like to meet.
I’m happily married with kids. He’s engaged. What’s the harm?
Apparently, my urge to reconnect with an ex-makes sense. “The brain develops pathways based on learned patterns,” says love expert Helen Fisher, a senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute, Indiana University. “So, if you laid down a powerful pattern that this person was your life partner, your brain can retain traces of that circuitry, even after you’ve bonded with someone new.”
Nevertheless, I struggled to understand why, even though it’s certainly not the case for everyone — especially those who have had toxic relationships — I felt so comfortable sitting across the table from someone who pulled the rug out from under me. So down the rabbit hole, I went to find out what happens in our brains when we reunite with an old love.
Laying Down a Template
I met Ben (not his real name) when we were both 26. We had a sweet, albeit star-crossed romance. He was an irrepressible free spirit, a dreamer, a romantic. I was an ambitious type A who played it safe. Like peanut butter and jelly, we complemented each other.
He was the first to make me dinner, teach me to surf in ice-cold waters and unlock the seemingly impenetrable fortress of my body. Together, we formed our identities and defined what love meant. In the process, he ingrained himself into my psyche.