• Part of an essay in progress

How can you have intense feelings about someone in the past, while having no feelings about the person in the present?

Posted November 2, 2013 10:42 am  

It feels as though the memories of romantic passion are stored in a separate compartment of the mind, where they retain all their intensity and are unaffected by subsequent knowledge. The mind goes on to make new connections, to acquire wisdom, even to reevaluate the youthful choice of love object, but the feelings aroused by the memory of the person remain in tact.

In fact, neurological studies show “abundant evidence that memories for emotional events have a persistence and vividness that other memories seem to lack.” The prolonged, and heightened emotional state that is romantic love combined with the brain’s tenancy to preserve such memories may help explain the phenomenon.

Revisiting an old flame later in life can have an unpredictable impact, as the people you have become come up against your memories of one another from the past. Obviously, how the romance ended is a key determinant; hurt feelings tend not to have a shelf life.

Sometimes, the old passion is revived, and the couple takes up where they had left off. The BBC TV series, Last Tango in Halifax, presumes such a situation, in which an adolescent relationship, thwarted by a third party, was resumed when the couple was bought together on Facebook, 60 years later. In many cases, however, the gap between the remembered person and the present one impedes the retrieval of the old emotions. The reality of the adult, with all the complexities of his lived life and the modifications of his personality and evolution of his character makes the younger, remembered version of the person seem like someone else altogether.

In my case, my former boyfriend looked very much to me as I remembered him, as handsome in his 60s as he had been in his 20s. He has a full life, a lovely wife, three gorgeous, accomplished daughters, and all the accouterments of success. He was effusively affectionate, seemed thrilled to see me, and insisted that I was as beautiful to him as ever. It happened that his daughter was getting married at home the next day, so his wife went to bed early while he took my husband and me to dinner in a nearby restaurant, where he was an excellent host, talking unreservedly with both of us. If he did not seem like a completely happy person—which, given his sad childhood and troubled parents, was unsurprising—he has achieved greater stability and contentment than I would ever have expected.

And yet, had he not been the lover of my youth, I think I would not have been attracted to him in the present. I thoroughly enjoyed our meeting and would happily have talked with him for days just to understand better all the aspects of his character—and even the facts of his history—that I’d failed to grasp as a 20 year-old. I appreciated as never before what I had found irresistible about him—not just his European sexiness and his complete unacceptability to my Jewish and fiercely anti-German parents—but his joie de vivre, his lovingness, and his appreciation of me. But in other ways, we live in completely incompatible worlds. He is a libertine, partying on the Riviera, drinking to excess, and seeking transient pleasures. My husband and I spent the entirety of next day enthusiastically touring Munich’s three major art museums, something my friend would have hated. The differences in his interests and outlook that once may have made me feel enlarged by my connection to him now make him seem alien.

Most curious to me is that I can feel intimately connected to him—and free to say to him whatever I please—endlessly curious about him, proud for all that he has achieved, and simultaneously alienated from the person he now happens to be. I still feel love for the boy he was while disassociated from the man he is.


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