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Embodied: Season 2, Meet Dating While Gray Transcript

Anita Rao
Hey it’s Anita. Wow – this second season has been flying by! I am honored to be able to share so many great conversations and perspectives that help us better
understand the fascinating ways our bodies and brains work. And there’s lots more Embodied to come! We are rounding out this season with shows about transracial
adoption, what it’s like to have sex in a disabled body, being deeply in love while incarcerated...and something I could use more of: sleep.

Today, though, we’re catching our breath and spending some time in appreciation of another podcast produced here at North Carolina Public Radio. It’s called Dating While Gray – and if that sounds familiar, maybe it’s because its host Laura Stassi has been a guest on Embodied before. Laura was one of our guides in season one as we explored
intimacy and aging. Dating While Gray is designed to help folks over 50 navigate sex and relationships – and I love Laura’s curiosity and candor as a woman who found herself seeking companionship after her 30-year marriage ended. The episode I’m sharing today is called Boomerang Love – named for the phenomenon of people paying a visit to their past to see if there’s still a spark to speak of with a former partner or crush. But, as you’ll hear, typing in the name of someone from your high school yearbook into Facebook can go a lot of different ways.

Laura Stassi
I get so excited reading true stories about former loves who reconnect, like the high school sweethearts who broke up and then 33 years later, they run into each other virtually on a web site for alumni. He travels across the country to visit her, and boom they get back together. But not all reconnections have happy endings. In fact, boomerang love can be tricky. There's actually a whole body of research on this topic. It was conducted by a psychology professor in California named Nancy Kalish. In the early 1990s, Nancy reconnected with her college sweetheart. Sadly, it didn't work out. But the experience prompted her to launch what she called the "Lost Love Project." Nancy spent the next quarter century serving people all over the world, writing books and research papers, and establishing a website where people could join forums to talk about their experience making love connections. Here's Nancy on NPR's Weekend Edition in 2003.

Nancy Kalish
These people were couples in their formative years. They went to school together. They grew up together. They knew each other's families. And together they actually define what love is. And it's a very comforting and familiar sensation to see these people again. The other thing, which I don't do research on, but I know about is the physiology of this that these first loves may actually be hardwired in the brain as a memory of sensations: touch, smell, hearing — these memories all come back when you see that person again.

Laura Stassi
Nancy died unexpectedly a few years ago when she was 72. But the forums continue. These days, a woman named Jeannie Thompson is leading most of the online discussions. Jeannie's background is in mental health nursing and clinical psychology. She first found the website after experiencing her own love reconnection. Jeannie explains why, for older people, reaching back to the past is so tempting.

Jeannie Thompson
You know, if we're married at the time, we've been married for a period of time, and you know, maybe it has lost some of the zing that was there. We aren't investing as much in the relationship as we could be. And so it's lost some of the excitement, some of the connection, and we're kind of missing that. And we start to look back: I remember that time. I was so crazy in love with that person, you know, back in high school. I wonder whatever happened to them. And then we start getting those reunion letters and emails and invitations, and it's like: Oh my gosh, you know? And so then that kind of triggers everything for us to take another look back. And who's that one that got away?

Laura Stassi
The people who you've worked with through Dr. Kalish in her work? Can you say whether the people who were older — were most of them married when they reached out to other people? Were they divorced? Were they separated? I mean, is there any kind of like, I guess, statistical analysis that you can give or some sound bites?

Jeannie Thompson
Before the internet became a real thing for most of us, it was more difficult to make that reconnection. And then once the internet became available to everybody in their home, you know, your curiosity would get the best of you. And at 10:30 at night, you're Googling and trying to see what you can see. And, and, you know, it kind of triggers everybody to maybe go a direction they wouldn't have gone before. And so before the internet people were generally widowed or single when they were making reconnections, but with the birth of the internet, a lot of the people that we're seeing on the web forums are married or one of them is single and the other one is married.

Laura Stassi
A mismatched relationship status — that might be a pitfall, or no? Is it is it kind of nice just to reconnect with someone and it not lead to a, you know, an emotional or physical affair but just sort of affirmation that at some point in my life, I was very important to another person.

Jeannie Thompson
Well, I think that it's a huge pitfall if either party is married, so if you've Googled your lost love, and you're trying to find about, you know, what's gone on in their lives. If you get any inkling that they might be married or coupled, definitely don't make contact. That was something Dr. Kalish was very, very clear about. And I have to reiterate that. And so when the reconnection takes place, you know, many years later, you go back to that same developmental phase you were in at 17 or 19 when you first fell in love, and so there's all that impulsiveness and that huge passion. And, you know, and it feels wonderful. You feel the alive, you know. And so there's a huge draw to that. And so you start over again with a new beginning, a new middle. And if both people or one or the other is married, oftentimes there's another interruption.

Laura Stassi
Do they typically not get a divorce? So it's painful for you the second time around? Or is it they get a divorce and you get together and it's like, you know what, this was not a great idea.

Jeannie Thompson
Well, Dr. Kalish's research told us that 5% of reconnections actually end up in the lost lovers reconnecting and being together, when all is said and done. If you have an affair, odds are you're going to get caught. We have that very often, you know, on the web with the web forum members, one or the other is getting caught. And then of course, there's devastation all around. And so, but you know, it really isn't recommended at all to make contact. We know that if both parties are willing to get divorced, and then move on together, they do very well. Oftentimes, one will get divorced and go through that process, and one that is still married, and not through their process yet, sees all of the trauma drama that goes along with divorce. And decides: Gosh, I can't do that. And so then one is divorced. One is staying married. And then there's, you know, a lot of betrayal felt between the lost loves, and then there can be a, you know, a pretty painful ending there.

Laura Stassi
Just to clarify, the 5% is only if one of the two people is partnered when they reconnect?

Jeannie Thompson
Correct.

Laura Stassi
So there's Okay, so that's a pretty bad...

Jeannie Thompson
It really is.

Laura Stassi
So but you're saying that if both people are available, when they reconnect, there's a much higher likelihood?

Jeannie Thompson
Definitely, definitely. And it doesn't matter if they're on opposite coasts, or different countries or, you know, because we've got web forum members from all over the world. And you know, it doesn't matter. There's nothing that will stop them from finding a way to be together if they're both available. I had a first high school love, we met at 17. We were first boyfriend and girlfriend for each other. So we were reaching all those first milestones together, first kiss, first everything. And he went off to college. You know, we kind of went different ways. And many years went by. I kept all the letters and mementos from the time that we were together. All those years, I kept everything and always wondered, you know: Where is he? What's he doing? Those kind of things.

And one day, I found out about Google, and there you have it, and looked him up. And I contacted him via an email that I found online. You know, I felt like I was that 17-year-old girl. And we knew that we were going to meet. We set a day and a time. And it was in a park, you know, just early evening, and I had my girlfriend on the phone and I'm like: Oh my gosh, I'm so nervous. It seems, you know, he's gonna be here any minute. I'm so scared, but I can hardly wait. You know, and I saw his car pull up. And I could see him walking from his car to where I was in the park. And he's walking on the sidewalk towards me, and my heart is pounding out of my chest. And I was hoping I wasn't going to faint or do something really human like that as he approached me, and all I wanted to do was grab him. I just wanted to grab him. And so immediately when he came up, we hugged. [It] brings tears to my eyes. It was awesome. And I said: I forgot how tall you are. He said: I forgot how short you are. And, you know, and it was just amazing. But we were both married, and as we're walking around this lake in this park and the sun is setting and, you know, the smells of fall and the leaves are crackling under our feet. So then we went and had dinner on a veranda at sunset, and it was beautiful. And he sat across the table from me, and he's looking at me, and I'm looking at him and he said: I have to move on too far away from you. And he moved to the seat next to me.

Laura Stassi
It's okay. I mean, okay. Do you regret having experienced that?

Jeannie Thompson
Well, it's the highest high you'll ever feel. But there's also the lowest low, the greatest pain and despair that you will ever experience.

Laura Stassi
You heard Jeannie advise against contacting a married lost love. But despite the pain she experienced doing exactly that, she has no regrets. And she was strong enough to close the door. Jeannie and her lost love have not had contact for 10 years. As far as she knows, he's still married. But Jeannie got divorced. My heart hurts a little. Jeannie also said that one one person is already partnered, the odds are against the happily ever after with a lost love. But what if you could beat those odds? Not with a lost love, but a childhood crush? We'll hear story about that after the break.

Suddenly reaching out to someone from the past can be emotionally dangerous. You have no idea of the ripple effects your attempt might cause. That's what happened to Grace. That's not her real name. It was about 10 years ago when she was 50 and in a long term marriage that had gone stale. Grace told me about her married life and what led to a sort of perfect storm for reconnection.

Grace
I moved overseas with my husband's job, and I started having kids pretty much within the first two years and was enveloped in that for decades. Volunteering, team moming, substitute teaching just so I could be kind of close to them at the school, completely enveloped in my children. And during the time when we lived overseas, I had gone through a few traumas, a couple of wars, a couple of bomb shelter experiences. And I think it was at that time that there was a shift in my perspective that I was the guardian of my children. I was the only one who could be trusted with my children. So I spent the next 20 years protecting my children. I did work. I didn't have a career. My career was just being a ferocious mom.

Laura Stassi
Ferocious mom. So it sounds like your entire identity was wrapped up into being a wife, being a mother.

Grace
Yes, 100%. And when my children left home, I felt I was laid off or let go from the only job I had ever had and ever wanted. So it was like a forced retirement, and I didn't like it. You know, I spent a lot of years doing something very important to me. And the thanks I get is I successfully raised my children to leave home, and they did.

Laura Stassi
So you're going through this. And then...

Grace
I got on Facebook just prior to that. I only learned about things like that — social media and stuff — because I still had some late high school, early college kids around, or I would never, never have done it. But yes, I got a message just before Christmas 2009. "Hey, remember me?" From an old neighbor who I had not seen in 35 years.

Laura Stassi
Wow. And what were your feelings? You know, what were your memories of this person?

Grace
Childhood crush. Oh, he was so cool. He had long hair and played guitar, and it was unrequited. It was an unrequited situation back when we were teenagers. We never dated at all. So I think it was just the fantasy I was looking for.

Laura Stassi
What did you find out about him?

Grace
Gosh, that he was not married but in a relationship. That he had had a different path than I had envisioned for him as well. Maybe a little unhappiness when it came to relationships — hadn't really had much success in that arena and was in a very unhappy relationship at the time but with the mother of his child, so it was committed, but in a very unhappy way.

Laura Stassi
Yeah. So I guess I'm trying to figure out how: How much back and forth was there before you even contemplated? Also, where was he living? You were in one state at the time, and he was in a different state. Is that correct?

Grace
Yes. And we probably messaged back and forth for oh, I don't know, I think I made a trip back east within about a month. So it was not very long that we were talking.

Laura Stassi
So you kept it to yourself, and you were feeling probably traumatized before this. So you must have been really kind of an emotional wreck. I mean, I can't imagine what you were going through. There's excitement. But there's also maybe guilt, shame, dread? I mean...

Grace
All of the above. Yes. All of the above all rolled into a ball in the knot in my stomach. And pounding through my chest. Yes. But there was nothing going on in my life. So that seemed acceptable at the time.

Laura Stassi
Yeah. So you went to visit. And...

Grace
I remember, I can see him getting out of the car. It was a snowy day. He came towards the door, and I jumped into his arms. Like an excited kid.

Laura Stassi
Yeah. So but did it become physically intimate? If you don't mind me asking?

Grace
It did. It did on the last day, and four times — three or four times we'd seen each other, been together. And I remember he turned, and he said: I love you, And I remember thinking at that time: Oh, don't do that. You know, don't ... don't make it that.

Laura Stassi
So you were thinking: Okay, this is the answer to my, you know, to my boring life, I'll just have this affair. Is that what you were thinking?

Grace
Maybe even just the one trip, you know?

Laura Stassi
Oh, yeah. Okay, so he loves you. And you're like, oh, shoot, but you go back home, and then what happened?

Grace
And then it started getting very messy, because it's virtually impossible to keep something like that under wraps, you know, so it got discovered. And then I would say, in my poetic way, all hell broke loose. My, one of my children, determined that there was something going on with me and actually put a tracking device on my laptop.

Laura Stassi
Well, of course, not without your knowledge, but had he told his dad?

Grace
No, he wanted to save that job for me.

Laura Stassi
Okay, that's just really ... I mean, talk about boundary issues. I mean, the fact that he didn't ... he didn't ask you about this. He didn't say: Mom, what's going on? Or she didn't say: Mom, what's going on?

Grace
After he knew.

Laura Stassi
Okay, wow. And what did you say?

Grace
Okay. I'll tell your dad.

Laura Stassi
So all right. Wow. So were you thinking I will tell him and then end it? Or what ... What were you thinking?

Grace
I don't know what exactly I was thinking. At that time, I was leaning heavily on a little wine and Xanax. So I'm not exactly sure how clear headed. I was about what the end result would be. I didn't know what door I was opening or closing at the time, but I didn't like the feeling of being policed or hounded. And so I thought the only way to end this is to just lay it out there. And yeah, I did. And it was painful all the way around. And the funniest sort of juxtaposition of the whole thing was, when you say you've reconnected with someone from your past, you get lots and lots of romantic notion kudos from people who find it almost fairy tale like, you know. And then on the other hand, it has caused a lot of pain for those that you are closest to. So, on the one hand, people are telling you how wonderful. It's so romantic. And, you know, and on the other hand, you have about a decades worth of bridges to mend with children and people you love. So.

Laura Stassi
So then ... So you got a divorce. He ended his relationship, and then you two became a couple.

Grace
Against all advice and kind of warnings that, you know, this can't end well. This didn't start well. But we did. And we started trying to mend the damage we had done to probably each other and those around us.

Laura Stassi
Are there any regrets?

Grace
Oh, absolutely. I wish I had checked in with myself decades earlier. Um, you know, I lived a lot of years fiercely protecting my children only to be the one who hurt them. So that regret — that won't subside anytime soon. I don't think.

Laura Stassi
Grace and her childhood crush have been married for six years now. Grace's ex husband has also remarried. And after some roller coaster years, Grace and her kids are on good terms. And Grace is now a grandmother. Up next: can boomerang love work if your former love is more than just a snapshot in time during your young life? Much more? We'll find out after the break.

Picture this, a couple has been married for 20 years. It's a second marriage for both of them. They've stopped having sex for a decade in fact. The wife is frustrated, and the husband won't talk about it. Then one day, he announces he's leaving. I bet you think you know where this story is headed. I thought I did. But then I met this couple: Mary and Dell. I talked with them at the same time, but they were in separate spaces. And they began by describing their relationship in the years leading up to their split.

Mary
He's not talking. He doesn't like to talk about himself. And he's not saying much.

Dell
And that was very frustrating to Mary and a little scary. And it was frustrating to me as well. You asked if we're happy. In many ways we were happy. We were deeply in love with each other. We respected each other. We trusted each other. We had good times, but we also had troubles. And I was having a hard time in our discussions with each other in accessing that and getting a clear picture of it. So I started to feel — this is odd or unusual to say — but I felt I needed to be outside the relationship in order to see things clearly. I couldn't explain that. I couldn't articulate it. It didn't seem logical. This is why Mary was so frustrated. But it was a very strong gut feeling that I had, along with the feeling that it wasn't really about Mary or the relationship. It was something I needed to find out.

Laura Stassi
But Dell you were having sexual intimacy with other women?

Dell
No, there were no affairs. There were a couple of examples like party situations where I, I did kiss other women and this was where Mary could see me. And I don't think those couple of incidents are all that important. They didn't lead to anything. They were just single incidents. I think that, you know, part of the trouble we'd been having was around sex, and this is a little harder to talk about, but I may have just been kind of acting out. Saying to Mary: You don't really get it. But I think maybe the person who didn't get it was not her. It was ... it was maybe me.

Laura Stassi
When you say: She didn't get it. Do you mean she didn't get how you're feeling about your body or how its functioning?

Dell
I mean how I'm feeling sexually.

Mary
And I didn't think that he was having an affair. But I would say that I did think that it's a pretty aggressive act to kiss another woman in front of your wife. So I did have to think about that. I did say things such as should I think about taking a frying pan and hitting him over the head? I mean, can you explain this to me. Why this is happening?

Dell
Well, that that might have helped. But thankfully, you didn't. You're saying that he wants sex, I don't want sex. I'm over it. And I was saying to you: No, I'm not. But you know, we have something we need to work out.

Laura Stassi
So are you saying, Dell that you felt like you couldn't express to Mary what was going on? Or you couldn't put into words yourself what was going on, which was leading you to not want to have sex with Mary?

Dell
I couldn't put it into words, as I was trying to describe earlier, because I didn't really understand what was going on. And so that's why I had felt I needed to be outside the relationship. I needed to live alone. I didn't say I didn't want to be married. I need to live alone, which is what we did.

Mary
Well, I think also, Laura, you've talked about this on your show, there's a fair amount of shame that goes with the feeling of a marriage breaking up. And one of the things I thought was: I've messed up. I have messed up big time. And I just was paralyzed. And although Dell wanted to stay married, he insisted that we sell our home. He said: I want to stay married, but we have to sell the house. And I'm thinking: Well, okay. I think I need an attorney.

Laura Stassi
And so I'm curious about — you said you needed space, which I have had marriage counselors tell me that when couples separate — if they separate, because a lot of couples feel like, okay, we need to separate. But then somebody goes and moves into a different bedroom for a while, or maybe to the basement or something. But that when a couple separates to two separate residences, it becomes very difficult to get back together, because it was just like, now you're out. And it's kind of a sigh of relief. But it sounds like you truly just felt like you needed space. However, why did you want to sell the house?

Dell
I don't know that I can answer that. I guess I felt that we really needed to be separate. Probably at that time, we couldn't afford to keep up this big house that we lived in and the separate apartments. But I felt we needed to live separately. So I don't know. I don't know that that's a big important factor in this. The fact that we ended up living separately is what's important, rather than the circumstances.

Laura Stassi
Right. Well, I don't know. So just again to play devil's advocate, it feels like Mary felt kind of blindsided all along, like, Okay, if you need some space, go rent an apartment for six months, a furnished apartment or something. And again, I'm not trying to take sides. Talking to you both, I feel like now I can understand. It just seems like there was a disconnect. He says he wants to sell the house. And so you leave town.

Mary
And I get in a cab. And I go to Missouri with very little of anything and some money in my pocket. I'm hit like crazy. And when I come back from Missouri, where I happen to be internet dating, by the way, I go into therapy, okay. And I have a therapist who says to me at one point — she has two chairs in front of her chair, and she says: And the other chair is your husband, and we need to get him out of here. Did you know Laura that many people, or most people who go into couples therapy end up divorced. They don't end up together. They end up divorced. She says that to me. So I say: I need an exit strategy. And I call him. And I say to Dell: I need an exit strategy. And I want us to go to couples therapy to talk about how we can cleanly and humanely separate from one another. And he says no.

Laura Stassi
And so Dell were you not dating during this time?

Dell
I was not dating. You know ... As I told Mary, I didn't want an exit strategy. I needed to live alone. I felt from my gut very strongly about that. But I didn't see it as looking for a way out of the relationship. I saw it as looking for a way into the relationship. And I knew that was very risky. I was reading Mary's blogs, so I knew what she was doing live.

Mary
I did not I did not know this by the way.

Dell
But I always I always felt through all of this that we would get back together, and I would tell her this — much to her exasperation, but I really believed it. I knew I might, I might lose her through this process. But I thought I have to do this in order to, to somehow fix this and bring it back together better than it was. But in fact, Laura, something that you said, I think it was your first podcast, really resonated with me.

Laura Stassi
Okay.

Dell
You said: maybe I wasn't whole when I was married. But now years later, I'm whole now. And that ... My process was very complex and very deep. And it's hard to describe in 25 words or less, but if one can describe it in a sentence that describes it.

Laura Stassi
And Mary, it sounds to me like you just didn't believe him. That you thought, I gotta find another partner, because I like being in a relationship and Del is just not going to come through for me.

Mary
Well, that's right, in the sense that I just didn't understand, and he wasn't explaining. And when you're surrounded by this kind of silence, at the same time that I'm being told, it's really not your fault. And I figure, well, isn't that what everybody says when they break up? It's not your fault. I just, you know, I just need to move on. But don't think it's your fault. Well, I'm thinking that it must be my fault. And I don't know what I did. I'm going to try to keep my heart open to you. I would say this that I never shut the door on him.

Dell
Yeah, yeah. And a very important sense, in a lot of ways. I came out of this a different person, of course, at the core I was the same person. But a lot about me had changed. You know, outwardly, I was more at ease, calmer, more assured about life. But this these changes went very deep. So it sort of gradually became apparent to me that I was getting to where I needed to be and that had to do with this, this process with myself much more than had anything to do with Mary or our relationship per se. But at just the right moment, in all this I had a sign. I was on a plane. I was returning home from somewhere. And I was I was reading Ian McEwan's novel "On Chesil Beach," which is a short novel about a couple who are very much in love and, but sadly, they part. And he tells her in a note, after they parted, that when she hits it big and performs before an audience with her violin, he will be there. Sorry, it gets to me. He will be there to cheer her on sitting in seat 9C. And at just the moment I read that passage, I reached for my bookmark, which was my ticket stub. And as I looked at it, I was just stunned. I was sitting in seat 9C.

Laura Stassi
And so then you thought: I gotta go get Mary?

Dell
That's what I thought.

Mary
I never really thought that this would happen. Even though there are a lot of steps that were involved. I'm not saying that it just magically happened.

Laura Stassi
Right.

Mary
But it does feel magical and miraculous to me. And I think that's the way love ought to be.

Laura Stassi
Dell and Mary were separated for four years before reuniting. They've been together again now for more than a decade.

Okay, I feel like I should go on the record to say I have been in contact with my high school boyfriend. He emailed and then called a few years ago to talk about a creative project. And he mentioned that his wife knew he was getting in touch and was fine with it. And then he sent me a text a couple of months ago, after hearing that my mom had died. And that's it, as it should be. Great guy, but he is married. You know, I do like thinking about a pool of potential partners among anyone I knew when I was younger. And here's where I tell you that since getting divorced, I have gone out with four guys from my high school. Four. One was just a coincidence. We found out we went to the same high school on our date. No lasting connections. But hey, it's a big school, and I haven't even yet tapped into that potential pool from my college years.

Anita Rao
Hope you enjoy Dating While Gray. Thanks to Laura Stassi for sharing that episode of Dating While Gray with us today. Check out both seasons of the podcast at dating-while-gray-dot-com or right here on the app you’re listening to this show on. More Embodied episodes are coming soon. Thanks for listening and for subscribing so you never miss a show. Talk to you again soon!

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