Attention — 11 July 2004
The joys and risks of high school reunions

Receiving an invitation to a high school reunion triggers a variety of emotions. Some people greet it with nostalgia and anticipated pleasure, others with recollections of pain and the urge of avoidance. Regardless of the initial reaction, few view it as an invitation associated with risk. For some it becomes one.

High school experience may be recalled as a period of growth, pleasure and positive memories of being popular, academically successful, playing sports and falling in love for the first time. Or it may be four years associated with less positive recollections of confusion, isolation, rejection, inferiority, being bullied or ostracized. Perhaps trying to fit in unsuccessfully and being insecure, scared and lonely. Or it can be viewed as a fairly benign and insignificant transition to adulthood.

What often matters after ten, twenty or more years is the comparison between the way we used to be then and the way we are now. Have we overcome our earlier poor self-perceptions? Have we proven our worth? Have we exceeded or disappointed ourselves compared to our projected fate written in the yearbook? Men often gauge their current status by their financial, academic or success measures. Women add to these their looks.

Those who decide to attend their reunion are more likely to be those who, by their own perceptions, have faired well as adults. They choose to return to show their accomplishments, particularly if they had not been deemed likely to reach them. Then they are those who are simply curious to see how others faired in their lives. Those who feel that they have weathered the years well come to meet their classmates with a sense of pride. The “ugly ducklings ” turned into swans are there with their full array of beautiful feathers. For others, it is an opportunity to reconnect with those who mattered a great deal in the past and who went their separate ways. Perhaps now they can test the connection they once had with their first boyfriend or girlfriend.

Since reunions are about a segment of one’s past, the spouses of the former classmates may not find their partner’s reunions an enriching experience. Many spouses forgo the joy of attending their mate’s return to the past and choose instead a quiet night at home.

A tenth year reunion is still a safe enough event. The risk begins to mount as the years pass. On the twenty-fifth or thirtieth reunion some of the participants are divorced and others are in the midst of their midlife crisis.

Imagine a scenario of an accomplished man feeling slightly bored with his life, questioning his direction, vitality and desirability, coming to a reunion and encountering his first high school girlfriend. She is still a beautiful woman and is currently divorced. She is unhappy with her life. Meeting her first love, she feels energized by the attention she gets from him and feels cherished anew.

For two less than happy people, this reunion is an opportunity to turn the clock back, feel young and vital again and revel in the memory of youth they have shared. The experience is exciting and the words flattering. They both feel emotionally intoxicated with their renewed appreciation of each other. An instant bond is formed appearing to erase the years and invigorate them with their newfound youth.

If the story ends here, it may become just a harmless pleasurable evening. For some, it becomes the beginning of the collapse of their current life and family. If they choose to pursue their fantasy relationship, the illusion of being eighteen again, the promise of all that can be and hasn’t been in their lives, they may act childishly and sacrifice their spouses, children, stability and commitments for the dream of recouping their youth.

Other risky events occur when the newfound sweethearts choose to resume a relationship regardless of their marital status. This is another formula for pain and devastation to many.

Another formula for heartache is the one night’s stand that few people undertake. Though this choice is very rare, it is a destructive and regrettable behavior.

The vast majority of people attending their reunion enjoy reminiscing about the past and sharing their history with their former classmates. For them it is a healthy, safe and positive event.

Vulnerable people are the ones at risk if they attend their high school reunion during a time of a personal crisis or discontent.

Spouses of mates who are at risk need to be aware that the combination of their mate’s low self-esteem with an unfinished history from high school may be an unsafe combination.

If your partner is unhappy, bored, disenchanted with his or her life, going through a difficult time of reassessment and searching for happiness:

  • Consider his or her vulnerability to attention from former classmates at a reunion.
  • Be aware that old dreams about “what would have happened if I could have been with him or her.” could be dangerous prelude to wanting to test it out.
  • The strength of your marriage and your partner’s commitment to the family are good predictors of your partner’s behavior even in face of temptations.
  • Remember that you can not police or prevent a weak mate from acting irresponsibly. You can only be aware of the risks involved.If you are concerned, you may choose to accompany your partner to his or her reunion. An evening of boredom may be a worthwhile sacrifice for a slight increase in safety for the family.Remember that your love and ongoing support of your mate is the best way to help him or her through a crisis and keep your marriage strong and solid.

July 11, 2004

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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