OK, we all know how things turned out with the love that remained in our life. (Not always so well, according to our high divorce rate.) But what about the one who didn’t stick around — the one who got away? That one often haunts us. Why?

Getting caught up in the fantasy
When Lisa and Robert were high school sweethearts, they won the title: “Ken and Barbie of Homecoming.” But they lost touch after graduation. On the rebound at 19, Lisa married Cal, although she always held Robert close to her heart. She spent the next 25 difficult years withstanding her husband’s physical abuse, cheating and compulsive gambling until she drummed up the courage to leave. Now she was 50 pounds heavier, had two kids and was in a heap of debt. Lisa’s life was in shambles, but her fantasies always gave her an escape… back to Robert. He now lived in Vancouver, which was a far cry from Lisa’s sunny Florida home. She found his phone number and called the now-bald and paunchy Robert who was himself in the midst of an ugly divorce.

Thrilled to drop into a dreamy reverie with his former high school sweetheart, he asked if she still looked like Barbie. Lisa said, “of course!” Lie! She questioned whether Robert still looked like Ken. He said, “of course!” Lie! With no intention of ever seeing each other, neither thought there was any harm in fudging the facts about their current looks. But they craved the conversational rush, ecstatic that each could still be desired by the other.
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Less than two months later — in real life — Lisa met Tom, an intelligent college professor with plenty of money saved up. The couple had a garish wedding, which was intended to prove to Lisa’s ex that she could find love again. They moved into an expensive home, and Lisa felt financially secure. But she didn’t know Tom all that well before they tied the knot and the man she married turned out to be stingy and nasty once they were living as husband and wife. The couple’s constant fighting caused the demise of their union after 10 almost-violent years together.

How did Lisa cope? By immediately dialing Robert’s digits, of course! Picking up where they had left off with their previous round of flirting, they continued their journey in the land of “What If?” in their conversations. “What if we had remained together?” they giggled. “What if 35 years had never passed?” The question the pair should have been asking was, “What if we were to meet up now — just as we are?” Of course, they avoided that question because Fantasy Boulevard provides more exciting scenery than the corner of Reality and Truth Streets.

Never long without a man, almost-single Lisa was, in the meanwhile, very busy. At the same time she was flirting with Robert and divorcing Tom, she met Jason, a good-natured widower. As soon as this successful attorney saw her, he wanted to make her his wife. She agreed, and lived with Jason until he died. The couple had great rapport and lots of laughter, but no passion. However, for Lisa, her need for security trumped her desire for romance — except when it came to Robert (that is, the version Robert that she remembered). Had she been honest with herself, she would have realized that she was able to tolerate her dead-end marriages only because of the escape provided by her fantasies of the one who got away. This wasn’t fair to the men she married, nor was it fair to herself!

As my Gilda-Gram warns, “Life dents us. Some people work to fix the dents, and others work to cover them.” During these years, Lisa had continuously filled her personal dents with men. Despite her three marriages, she never considered that these artificial fillers hadn’t served her well. If anything, they prevented her from finding true love. Being alone now could finally bring Lisa the gift of self-assessment and growth. However, Lisa instead chose to reapply her favorite bandage to her wounds: another partner. And so it was that the one who got away 35 years earlier became Lisa’s new target.

When reality and fantasy collide
Lisa and Robert continued their hot verbal rendezvous via phone. They each wondered: How could this flame not be rekindled? At last, the pair decided to meet. The problem was that neither had confessed the truth about how they had changed over the years. So when they glimpsed each other after all that time, both of their jaws dropped. In the silent moments that followed, their “Ken and Barbie” myth screeched to a sudden halt.

Be careful! As Lisa and Robert discovered, the lure of “What If” is potent — and if it’s allowed to grow, it can get you into all kinds of trouble. One of my single male clients began an online flirtation with the one who got away 15 years earlier. The problem was that the woman he was in contact with was married. I’ve heard therapists say that online flirtations with unavailable prospects are harmless because they exist only in a computer, but I’m not one of those doctors. This woman’s husband became irate when he discovered his wife’s indiscretions. Not only did the fantasy end, but so did their marriage. Today, the woman is not in my client’s life, and he flies solo seeking love again.

Resist the strong lure to live in your fantasies
The fantasy of the one who got away is best left in dreams. But it may beckon you anyway, because it has some useful functions:
  1. It can temporarily postpone digging into your soul when you are not yet ready to confront your own demons.
  2. It can overpower your sense of self-doubt and insecurity.
  3. It can stimulate creative visual imagery that motivates you.
  4. It can allow you to safely experiment with any solution to any problem, leading to any outcome you want.
These four benefits are powerful. However, the more they entice you, the longer it will take for you to discover grounded love. The downside to the lure of chasing the unavailable is that you’ll waste your years on make-believe. Sure, it’s fine to savor occasional fantasies, but recognize that these mind-games will only provide a temporary fix. As soon as you snap back to the here and now, love that lasts will triumph! Remember these cautionary tales the next time you’re tempted by the lure of the one who got away.

Relationship expert Dr. Gilda Carle, Ph.D., gives Instant Advice throughout the world via Skype, email and phone. She is the 30-Second Therapist for Today.com. Her best-selling books include Don’t Bet on the Prince!, 99 Prescriptions for Fidelity and How to Win When Your Mate Cheats. Please visit her website at (DrGilda.com).