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When Preeti Majumdar sent Avinash Sen a friend request on Facebook, she was riddled with doubt. “Avinash had been like my boyfriend in school. But that was 19 years ago and we had lost touch,” recalls the 38-year-old doctor, who lived in Calcutta with her husband. She wondered if she had done the right thing by trying to reconnect with an old boyfriend and whether Avinash still remembered her.

When Avinash — who worked with a software firm in Bangalore — accepted Preeti’s friend request, the two began to keep in touch. One thing led to another. They decided to meet clandestinely when Avinash was on a business trip to Calcutta two years ago. “Something clicked between us and a long-distance romance started,” recalls Preeti, who was going through a rough patch in her marriage. When Preeti’s husband confronted her about her relationship, she walked out. Subsequently, she married Avinash and is now in Bangalore.

Thanks to technology, a first love fever seems to be spreading across India. Like Preeti Majumdar, a number of urban Indian users of social networking websites are finding their married lives thrown into turmoil as they try to reconnect with childhood sweethearts.

Take Rajiv Arora, a computer instructor at a Jamshedpur-based firm. He had made grand plans to marry his colleague-turned-girlfriend Tista Sen. But a caste divide played spoilsport. “Sen’s family was against the marriage. So we parted ways,” recalls Arora, who went on to join the Indian Army and got married.

Seventeen years later, Arora began searching for Sen through social networking websites. “I could not forget my first love,” says the army officer, who is currently posted in Kota. Arora first tried Orkut, and finally found Sen through Facebook. She lives in Durgapur with her engineer husband and two children. “When we reconnected with each other, we found that our emotional attachment was still fresh,” recalls Arora.

Though Arora’s wife has not objected to the virtual relationship as yet, Sen’s marriage is in trouble. “My husband has reservations about the relationship. Even my 16-year old daughter has ganged up with her father,” she says. There has been misunderstandings in the family over the issue. Sen even thought of leaving home last month, but decided to stay on. But never mind her husband’s objection, she plans to meet Arora later this year.

Rajan Bhonsle, founder, Heart to Heart — a Mumbai-based marriage counselling centre — says in the last five years, he’s seen a 10-fold increase in the numbers of marriages breaking because lost loves have been found on social networking sites. “The trend of reconnecting with former flames through social networking sites is rising,” he says.

The reason people are reconnecting with their puppy loves, according to Bhonsle, is a human tendency to try out old, unfinished relationships. “People usually harbour happy fantasies about a love from the past. Now that technology has made it easy to locate old lovers, these fantasies are increasingly turning into real relationships,” he explains.

Bhonsle recently counselled a Mumbai-based corporate professional, Aditya Bhatt — who, on one dull work day two years ago, sent a friend request on LinkedIn, a networking site, to his college girlfriend Sangeeta Gupta on the off chance that she would respond. “The friendship started on a harmless note but ended in a full-blown affair. It rocked Bhatt’s marriage,” recalls Bhonsle.

After becoming virtual friends, Bhatt and Gupta exchanged telephone numbers and were soon having long, nocturnal phone conversations. “Bhatt then travelled to Delhi on the excuse of a business trip to meet Gupta, based in Delhi,” says Bhonsle. When Bhatt’s wife found out about the affair, she demanded a divorce. The couple is currently undergoing counselling.

Divorce lawyers in India are finding that Internet-driven love affairs with old friends are increasingly becoming a reason for separation. Five years ago, divorce lawyer Siji Malayil, head of Siji Malayil & Associates, Bangalore, was taken aback when an IT professional approached him to initiate divorce proceedings against her husband — who she accused of having a relationship with a school sweetheart he found on Facebook. “It was the first time I fought such a case. Now, five out of every 10 cases I handle cite this as one of the reasons for divorce,” says Malayil.

Rekindling a friendship with a long lost love usually starts on an innocent note. “It never starts with the aim of having an affair,” explains Gitanjali Sharma, head, Family Marriage Counselling, a Delhi-based counselling centre. “Most people use networking sites to catch up with an old love they have lost touch with. But often, it doesn’t end there,” she adds.

Like it happened with Sunil Garg, team leader at a Delhi-based software firm. Garg met an old girlfriend on Facebook and the two started keeping in touch. “It started on a platonic note,” recalls counsellor Sharma, who worked with Garg and his wife two months ago.

Garg and his former girlfriend put daily updates on Facebook — of life in office, at home, their angst and emotions. They also put pictures of their house, children’s birthday parties and holidays. “This gave them an insight into each other’s personal lives. They started feeling they knew everything about each other,” explains Sharma. The two then met and a sexual relationship followed. When’s Garg’s wife learnt of the affair, she walked out on him.

For Sharma, handling cases like Garg’s is becoming a routine matter. “Restarting a past relationship is an issue in four of every 10 cases of marriage counselling that I handle,” she says.

The first love is, clearly, difficult to forget. Early relationships leave a deep impact on people and not everyone can get over it easily, says counsellor Rajan Bhonsle. “Sometimes relationships break because of reasons that are beyond both partners. This means there is no emotional closure. So when the two people meet again, the attraction creeps back,” he explains. While earlier, people lost touch with each other and continued with their lives, today technology is bringing them face to face again, adds Bhonsle.

The phenomenon of reconnecting with an old love is a reaction to a mid-life crisis, says Amitabha Mukherjee, consultant psychiatrist, Lifeline Hospital, Calcutta. “A decade into a marriage, most couples begin to find fault with their relationship. They start feeling that the old boyfriend or girlfriend, who they did not marry, would have made a better spouse,” explains Mukherjee. So they re-establish contact.

Also, today’s urban marriages come with a lot of stress, adds Delhi-based psychologist Aruna Broota. “There is the pressure of work, children and parents-in-law. So people tend to look back at their adolescent romances as ‘those-good-old-days’ and yearn to reconnect with old loves,” she explains, adding that people try to relive their adolescence by entering into such relationships. Broota says she sees about six to seven cases every month of past loves rocking present lives.

Sometimes people seek out old friends for emotional support when there is trouble in their existing marriage. Manju Jain and her husband Parag — both call centre employees in Gurgaon — met each other only on weekends. One worked a day shift and the other was on a graveyard shift. “A communication gap grew between the two. Manju began feeling she couldn’t talk to her husband,” says Nisha Khanna, founder, Bye Tense, a Delhi-based marriage counselling centre, who counselled the couple recently.

Last year, Manju reconnected with a former boyfriend through Orkut. “As her marriage hit a low, Manju began leaning on him for emotional support and confided all her problems to him. The two want to get married now,” says Khanna.

Finding first loves through networking websites is not just a big city phenomenon. C.J. John, chief psychologist, Medical Trust Hospital, Kochi, says he’s seeing old loves coming out of the closet and wrecking marriages across Kerala. The reason, according to John, is that most people have long-distance marriages. “The husband usually works overseas. So communication and an emotional connect is breaking in marriages,” he explains. Old friends — found via the Internet — then fill the void.

The blame for a marriage breaking, however, cannot be put on an Internet-driven re-appearance of an old love alone, say critics. “People get associated with someone from the past only when their marriage is already on the rocks. It’s not the other way round,” says Amreen Pradhan, a relationship counsellor at Masina Hospital, Mumbai.

Also, a relationship with an old love does not always have a happily-ever-after ending, says psychiatrist Amitabha Mukherjee. “The reunion is initially euphoric, as it brings back positive teenage feelings. But in the long run, it runs out of steam,” he explains, adding that couples are back in the same circle of a relationship. “The same feelings of dissatisfaction arise again,” he says.

But Preeti Majumdar — who is reunited with her school sweetheart in Bangalore — is not thinking that far ahead for now.

(The names of people have been changed to protect their identity)

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