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The one that got away

Even many happily married couples still carry a torch for an earlier – and perhaps unsuitable – love. Is it ever a good idea to rekindle the romance?

It was only after some half-dozen people had recommended The Notebook that I finally got around to watching it, earlier this year. To say its reputation went before it is an understatement: when the film's star, the enduringly swoonsome Ryan Gosling, was filmed breaking up a fight between two New Yorkers recently, the soundtrack was a series of excited shrieks: "It's the guy from The Notebook!" That Gosling has starred in several Oscar-nominated films and is currently enjoying a spot as the thinking woman's crush of choice is beside the point. To film viewers across the globe, his principal claim to fame is The Notebook.

Why? Well, it's not the film's complexity, that's for sure. It's corny, clichéd, and predictable. But it is also a classic tale of love won, lost, and regained many years later. It is about The One Who Got Away. And we all know how much we love that.

Witness the success of One Day. This year, David Nicholls's page-turning romance was turned into a film starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess. The film sees two graduates meet up each year on St Swithin's Day, incompatible but irresistibly drawn together. And look at Wuthering Heights – still going strong, more than a century later, with a brand new adaptation soon to hit cinemas. Even Katy Perry is in thrall: her latest single, "The One That Got Away", sees her recount the tale of a teenage romance cut short.

There's something hauntingly romantic about it – a love that never quite ran its course. After all, we can never really know how past romances would have panned out. Denied the chance to crash and burn, to impart mutual loathing and resentment, they retain their ability to compel. How much better, it's easy to ask, would life have been had you wound up with so-and-so, instead of so-and-so? Plenty of us have someone that we wonder about – be it the friend we used to joke about marrying, or the flirtation that was cut short due to circumstance. But what happens when that wondering turns into a real possibility – if The One Who Got Away suddenly becomes The One?

Well, for most people, it won't. Professor of psychology at California State University, and author of Lost & Found Lovers: Facts and Fantasies of Rekindled Romances, Dr Nancy Kalish has been researching the phenomenon since 1997. And while we might be surprised by the success of those who do reconcile (of which more later), very few of us actually get to that stage. "The myth isn't that reunions can work; the myth is that everyone wants to do this," Dr Kalish says. "When I interviewed people who had never tried a reunion, very few said they would be interested. They described terrible first-love experiences."

In an age of Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, such reunions are that much easier to achieve. You don't have to be a private detective to type your ex-boyfriend's name into Google. Most of the time they end not in the tearful, heartfelt declarations of a Hollywood happy ending, but with a faint sense of disappointment. It is both reassuring – you walk away confident that you've not, after all, missed out – but also somewhat disappointing. It feels like a limiting of options; that distantly nurtured daydream of reunion shown to be nothing more.

But it doesn't have to be that way. One friend tells the story of his parents' union: "They got together at 13, went out for a bit in their twenties but split. Then my dad proposed, but my mum had already accepted someone else. He never married and when my mum divorced, aged 40, they got hitched." Almost as romantic is the tale of a colleague's aunt Kathleen who, several years ago, held a party to mark her 60th wedding anniversary with her husband, David. "What the invitation did not point out," reflects Kathleen's nephew, "was that for 30 of those years they were each married to someone else, before they got back together later in life. David is now dead but my aunt is very much alive – she marks her 100th birthday next month." And then there is the story of Clare Dickson and Pascal Bernard, the couple who hit the headlines after they rekindled their transcontinental teenage fling and married last month.

There is, it seems, a good reason why romantic reunions feature so heavily in popular culture – be it in the form of The Notebook's star-crossed lovers, As Time Goes By's Lionel and Jean Hardcastle, or Fermina and Florentino, the long-separated lovers of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera. Because for all those who shudder at the thought of rekindling a flame, there are plenty who try it – and succeed.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, retracing your romantic footsteps can be surprisingly successful. Of the reunited couples Dr Kalish studied, almost three-quarters remained together for more than a decade. "If there was essentially nothing wrong with their love the first time, then they are thrilled to get a second chance."

The chance of success only gets stronger the more water has passed under the bridge. Of all relationships, it is the high-school sweetheart who is most likely to tug on the heartstrings, according to research. It's the stuff of which Hollywood films are made – unless there is collateral damage. Says Dr Kalish: "Unfortunately, half of the participants in lost-love reunions while married said they had been in very happy marriages. They thought there could be no harm in a casual contact." The lesson from all this? The One Who Got Away might just be the partner of your dreams. But before you seek them out, be careful what you wish for.