‘I’m nostalgic for my great student love – and about to meet them again’

Is there any cure for this adolescent fantasising?
Is there any cure for this adolescent fantasising? - R.Fresson/A Human Agency

Dear A&E,

I’ve been invited to a 40th anniversary university reunion in seven months’ time. My ex-boyfriend will be there: the focus of an intense student affair from which I took years to recover.

I know from social media that he married the girlfriend after me, moved abroad, had a family and has recently returned to this country, without his now ex-wife.

I’m tolerably happily married, children grown/flown, starting to look at the foothills of retirement. I can’t stop thinking about rekindling this ancient romance – I’m already terrified, and excited by the prospect of meeting him again.

Is there any cure for this adolescent fantasising? Is the cure to tear up the invitation and forget all about it?

– Nostalgic

Dear Nostalgic,

Well, it seems as though this low-hanging fantasy has literally been delivered to you, wrapped in a ribbon and ready to go just as you are wondering (in your longer letter) ‘Is this all there is?’

You’re panicking about the void that retirement might throw up. You’re bored. Your marriage needs looking at – how exhausted does that make you feel? Very.

Your children need you less and you find yourself struggling for breath in an unedifying slog of a life situation. Perfect timing for this fantasy to land. Perfect environment for this fantasy to blossom into obsession.

And it possesses a compelling narrative, doesn’t it? He was your first love. You re-discovered each other – purely by chance – at a reunion. Yes, it must have been the Universe’s way of putting two passionate people together again.

Two people who will never argue about who finished the milk; who wouldn’t dream of pushing down all the rubbish in the bin to avoid taking it out; who would agree that golf club membership is a waste of money but that pony trekking across Patagonia emphatically is not.

Anyway, you looked into each other’s eyes over a warm glass of Frascati and the deal was done. The years fell away. It was as if no one else was in the room.

You say that the end was acrimonious; that it took you years to recover. These intense youthful affairs can take a lifetime to recover from. That doesn’t mean he was the one that got away.

It may mean that the dynamic you had with him formed part of your personal blueprint around what love is; what lover means; how love feels. These agonising and protracted endings – combined with on-again, off-again messiness just at the point when you were trying to become a person ready to launch into the world – can cause us to muddle things up.

‘I feel so much. I feel so hard. It must be love.’ Maybe it’s not love. We must be careful not to confuse passion with pain.

These milestone events throw into relief the difference between you at 22, with the world at your feet, and you at 58 when you know that you have not (yet) spent a year diving in Costa Rica, written your novel or won a Nobel Prize.

Even if you have managed the considerable achievement of a life lived largely in quiet satisfaction, these reunions seem to demand headlines: the elevator pitch of your last 40 years. They hold up a mirror and the reflection does not always feel flattering.

And so you feel dull and he might be shiny. A knight in shiny armour. If you were a betting woman would you put money on him being worth exploding your life for? Or would you assume that you have yearnings, and yearnings need somewhere to land?

You want to re-access some of that youthful joy and so your heart has decided that it makes sense for that to come from him. Let it begin with you, Nostalgic. Be grown-up enough to take action so that you can rediscover that elation.

Be wise enough to take the first steps in reinvigorating your life before you do something…silly. It takes work to make a life more exciting. It doesn’t just happen. Tolerable marriages do not morph into wonderful partnerships without concentration.

Perhaps consign this ex-boyfriend to a ‘fantasy window’ whereby you get to roll around in all the (unlikely) possibility of it for ten minutes a day. For the rest of the time you are disciplined and you put it to one side. Have some marriage counselling.

Even if you and your husband end up parting ways, you will still be working on the next phase of your life because ‘tolerable’ leaves you vulnerable to bad decisions.

This is not about the ex-boyfriend. This is you wanting more. More love and laughter and…something to look forward to.

Don’t tear up the invitation – see how you feel nearer the time – but start to give your current life your best possible shot. It has taken years to build. Do not dismantle by taking a punt on the past.

The past is another country – they do things differently there. The student boyfriend has awakened the student you. And is she really equipped to make the best decisions?