Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson did it… and failed. Lana Turner and Stephen Crane did it too… and failed. Liz Taylor and Richard Burton also had a go… and failed. But England’s future king and his wife Camilla have obviously got it sussed.
According to a 2013 study by Kansas State University of more than 1,000 couples, a third of those living together and a fifth of those who were married, had “experienced a break-up and renewal in their current relationship”.
Getting back together with an ex – or boomeranging, cycling and rekindling, as it’s variously called – can prove compelling for reasons that go far deeper than love.
“Yearning for an ex-lover is a nostalgia for circumstances that no longer exist,” says Dr Aaron Ben-Zeév, author of In the Name of Love: Romantic Idealogy and its Victims, in an article for Psychology Today.
“The wish to be back with a lover is not activated merely because our current situation is desperate, but also by the memory of a passionate love. Sometimes loneliness makes the loudest noise; at other times profound love provides louder music. It’s natural to yearn for a past lover.”
So it seems. While no figures exist for how many couples reconcile, those in the know – divorce lawyers and marriage counsellors – say it happens often enough. If my friends are anything to go by, it actually happens more often than that.
One friend is now four children and 15 years past the blip she and her partner went through. “It’s hard thinking back because what we have since created completely wipes out that time of separation,” she says.
“I suppose we did break up – because I did fall in love with someone else – but at the same time, my long-term boyfriend refused to let me go. I was a mess, completely off my head. I wasn’t thinking about anything, but I do remember finding his certainty that we would be together forever overwhelming.
“Yet that’s what drew me back to him 18 months later. His sheer willpower and resistance to my obsession for this other man, and his deeper intelligence and understanding of me, saved us.”
External circumstances were to blame
My friend’s relationship has worked, suggests Dr Nancy Kalish, because the split was down to extraneous, ‘situational’ reasons that, once removed, no longer posed a threat.
Kalish, professor emeritus of psychology at California State University, Sacramento, and author of Lost & Found Lovers: Facts and Fantasies of Rekindled Romances, is the world’s leading authority on long-lost love reunions. She has been studying rekindlers for 22 years now and has looked at couples aged from 18 to 95 from 45 countries. Her conclusions as to why some reunions fail while others succeed are fascinating, and worth reading in depth.
You never stopped loving them
She uses two of the most famous examples to illustrate her point: Prince Charles and Camilla, and Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. “Prince Charles and Camilla split for situational reasons,” she says. “It wasn’t that their personalities didn’t fit, or that they had stopped loving each other – it was purely down to the constraints imposed by the monarchy.
“Their relationship is a paradigm of what can happen in that situation: people meet when they’re not ready to commit, their parents object, they split up and marry other people.
“But once you remove all those factors, all those obstacles, then what remains is a relationship that can go the distance. The reunion is actually a continuation of a love that was interrupted.”
The Burton/Taylor unions were doomed, Kalish suggests, possibly because they weren’t compatible, but probably because of their mutual addictions.
Their fights were legendary; Burton once said, “You can’t keep clapping a couple of sticks of dynamite together without expecting them to blow up”. But no one can know what would have happened had they got rid of their situational problem, which was their addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs.
Shared roots and good friendship
Kalish’s studies indicate that reconciled couples who initially split because of circumstance rather than personality have a very good chance of staying together, with the success rate increasing with age and length of separation.
“The shared roots are the important factor,” she says. “Rekindling a lost love is not a fantasy. These people really do know each other despite the years apart. If they were good friends to begin with, they have a good chance of a successful reunion.
“Interests and some values may change over time, but personalities don’t. If they loved each other once, they probably love each other still.”