Transforming Ordinary into Extraordinary Marriages
Winter 2008

Reunions - The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

In the movie, "Romy and Michele's High School Reunion," Lisa Kudrow plays a character who goes to her high school reunion hoping to impress people with a made up story about being the inventor of Post-Its. Why would someone set themselves up for such humiliation? The need to be reunited with people from our past is a very deep human need. Once we have bonded with others and invested ourselves in relating to them, we want to continue to recapture the bond. However, just because you have an urge to reunite with someone does not always mean that it is a good idea to do so. In our work with couples we have seen destructive results to marriages from some reunions.

Reunited and It Feels So Good

Attachment needs are as basic to human development as oxygen and food. Just like our cave ancestors, modern humans depend on the help of others in the growing, gathering, and cooking of food and protection from the elements and enemies.

Rene Spitz and his associates found that babies in an orphanage who were isolated and handled by caregivers only for diapering and feeding in order to minimize contagion got sick and sometimes died. When the researchers redesigned orphanage policy to include caregivers picking up the babies and holding them at times other than just feeding and diapering, the babies thrived.

While the persistence of attachment usually helps us survive, there are examples of when it hurts us:

Reunions - the Bad and the Ugly

Here are some guidelines for seeking reunion with those with whom you have formed bonds.

  1. Attachments persist even when they are not good for you. While you may not have control over the attachment feelings, you do have control over what you choose to do about them. Sometimes it is healthy to put limits on contact with difficult people such as your parents or siblings. Just because these folks try to play the guilt card, does not mean you have to feel guilty and give in to their requests for contact that is damaging to you, your spouse, or your children.

    The key question here is to be healthily selfish: Does contact with this person have a good result on the rest of my life as I choose to live it?

    You don't need to breakup with these folks with angry accusations and dramatic door slamming. Instead, limit contact to group settings, infrequent short visits, or mail contact. This leaves the door open for that alcoholic parent to get into recovery and become a positive influence in your life.

  2. Once an attachment forms it remains in some form. When a couple divorces, they are not "ending their relationship" as many people expect unless they are childless, move to different cities, and have no overlap in their worlds. One of the hard tasks of divorce is for a couple to transform their relationship to manage the welfare of their children. Reminders of both good and bad feelings can interfere with getting clear about the new form of the relationship - that of having the children's best interests at heart without acting out their old scripts.

    The key question to answer is: how can I (we) transform our relationship? While it is difficult for most ex's to socialize together around children's birthdays and major life events, post-divorce couples who are able to transform their relationship will be able to put aside their emotional leftovers for the sake of their children.

  3. Some reunion motives are healthy; some are not. Going to a high school reunion hoping everybody else is fat and unemployed may represent a less than healthy urge to buy self-esteem by feeling good in comparison. Be careful of this one though, because for every three fat/poor former classmates there will be two who are more fit and richer than you are. Seeing them can result in a loss not a gain of self-esteem.

    The key questions here are: What are my motivations to reconnect? Are they healthy motives? What is my expected result and what is the probability of that result? How will I feel if I don't attain that result?

Reunions - The Good

The healthy reason to seek a reunion is that it is likely to have a positive influence on your current life. High school and family reunions are a great way to see people that you keep in contact with even though you have moved far from home. They can provide a chance for healthy reminiscences, continue to offer support of friends' lives, and integrate your past life and your current life with your spouse.

Check out the motivations and expectations of the others involved especially your spouse. For example, at a family reunion, are the parents or the grandparents taking care of the children? Are we cooking or eating out? How do we split the expenses? Do we always meet in the home town so that the out-of-towners do all of the traveling or can we sometimes meet at a destination reunion? Do we have enough private space to retreat when we get enough stimulation and reminiscing? If my spouse does not want to spend time with these people, shall I go by myself or shall I stay home? What are the implications of each option?

To make individual reunions positive, check out your own motivations and expectations using the questions above. Then check out the motivations and expectations of the other person/people by corresponding ahead of time. Don't call or show up at their front door.

In the special case of adoptees and birth parents: Save yourself and the other person from the potential heartbreak of these life-changing reunions by laying the groundwork ahead of time to make it right for both people. Use a third party such as the adoption agency to explore the willingness of both parties to be reunited before making the initial contact. Use mail or phone to get clear about expectations.

In the special case of looking up ex-lovers: It is almost never a good idea if you are married. Don't tempt fate; the bond of sexual energy is a particularly powerful and enduring one. Instead of Googling your ex, spend your energy talking to your spouse about how to keep your marriage vital. Even if you are widowed, don't phone your high school sweetheart. Instead, use snail or email to make sure of the ex's marital status and willingness to revisit old feelings.

As evidenced by the immense popularity of the book and movie, "Tuesdays with Morrie," reconnecting to the people who have mattered to us can be a powerfully positive experience when the timing and motivation is right.

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