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Summer Lovin': Why Romance Tends to Heat Up This Season

The four valuable life lessons summer love taught me.

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illustration of woman waving hello on passenger seat and man driving red car, summer romance
Laura Edelbacher
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New York City, June 1978. The movie Grease premiered at Studio 54 starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. Danny Zuko and Sandy Olsson’s summer romance was hot, hopeful and tragically short. They had a wildly unrealistic, one-in-a-million chance to reconnect.

Sure enough, Danny and Sandy rode off into the sunset in an airborne 1948 hot rod convertible on a Paramount Pictures lot. But does anyone really believe they lived happily ever after?

Summer flings are meant to be brief, exciting and wistfully remembered. And to make lots of money for romance writers and studio executives: Grease grossed over $400 million at the box office worldwide. Fantasy might bring great financial riches but the essential ingredients for summer romance usually don’t make for longtime partnerships. Why is summer so seductive, so mesmerizing, when it comes to love?

Patricia Rich, a Philadelphia sex therapist certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists, observes that summer love can be inherently erotic, steamy, fun and meaningful, despite its short duration — or perhaps because of its short duration.

“Summer love can provide the safety of a time limit,” Rich explains, a capsule similar to the cocoon of a conversational tell-all with a stranger in the airplane seat next to you. “If you know you will never see the person again, summer romance may soften concerns about commitment and practicalities of daily life. Your summer lover doesn’t need to meet your criterion for a long-term mate. They’ll never have to meet your parents (or your children). You can reinvent yourself, and share your deepest secrets or fears, in ways that feel utterly thrilling.” 

Additionally, explains Rich, the backdrop of summer — heat, minimal clothing, fewer life and work obligations — creates what she terms “a pleasure-promoting combo of sensuality, freedom and unhurried spaciousness.”

In other words, summer romance makes us feel alive in ways that are often impossible to recapture, or sustain, once we return to our regular life of alarm clocks, folding laundry and morning breath.

Yet it’s important for all of us to remember as we head into the heat of summer that this seasonal love is not entirely frivolous. It shows us a deep part of ourselves, a part we would be sorry to abandon forever. Despite the cotton-candy plots of Grease, The Notebook or Dirty Dancing, the summer movie genre is trying to make a critical point: enjoy the freedom and opportunities of summer love.

Let’s turn to two other classic summer movies. Summer of ’44 followed five carefree 16-year-old boys enjoying their literal last summer, lounging at the pool ogling the sexy lifeguard before they all are forced to fight — and most of them to die — for Germany in the last year of World War II. Another summer movie, Summer of ’42, similarly juxtaposes a young Nantucket boy’s crush on an older, just-married woman waiting to see if her new husband survives the war.

The contrast between the fantasy of the sun and water and the grisly horrors of war underscores this point: Summer fantasies matter. Most of the young soldiers die within months, and the few who survive are never the same. The older bride does indeed become the Nantucket boy’s first lover — the night she learns her husband has been killed in the war. But she flees the island the next day, leaving behind a short note that she must return to reality.

Here is a sampling of my own summer loves: The long-haired blond boy I rode the Hershey Park roller coasters with and never saw again. The soulful Canadian whose sister called to tell me he'd died of a heroin overdose. The Brazilian boy with whom I could not exchange one sentence to bridge the gap between English and Portuguese.

They all live in my memory, young and smoking hot forever.

Summer love taught me four valuable lessons about living our best lives: Trust your instincts. Share your innermost feelings. Don’t overthink any of this. Like swimming in the ocean, once you know it’s safe to explore, let passion take you away. Summer romance means being in the moment — which is, after all, the goal of centuries of yoga and meditation, decades of self-help books, relaxation audiotapes and millions of dollars spent on therapy every year.

When my friends Gay Cioffi and Mark Obenhaus connected in 1978 in their late 20s, they let summer loving work its healing magic on them. They were both reeling from divorce. They met jogging on a Hamptons beach and had a magical three-week romance, quite similar to Danny and Sandy’s summer fling in Grease.

Come September, Mark and Gay went back to their real lives. Gay founded a preschool in Washington, D.C. Mark created documentary films in New York City. But they had helped each other reconnect with that hope, that love, that divorce can destroy.

Ironically, but important to emphasize, is that many of the ingredients of summer romance re-appear, often somewhat unexpectedly, later in our lives.

“In later life, we may have the freedom of summer again,” explains therapist Patricia Rich, who has partnered with the same man for 36 of her 59 years. “Our kids are around much less, and even when they visit, they no longer barge into our bedroom unannounced. We have the opportunity to rediscover the mystery of our partners and our own sexuality.”

One of my most treasured summer romances started in recent years, at the age of 58. A 28-year-old bartender left a note on my windshield that July. He’d seen me on the deck of my lake house wearing a bikini top and my favorite hot pink Positano pants (the ones that artfully cover my cellulite thighs). We never connected in person, but the torrid texting that followed his note woke me up to the many romantic possibilities summer brings.

Trust me, I’m going to be wearing that outfit on my deck for years to come, and yes, I’m single. You never know who might come into your life as a result of the energy you put out — and not just for a summer fling, but someone who might just transform into your partner for life.

Decades later, after kids, more divorce and widowhood, my friends Gay and Mark reconnected. They discovered that the beach spark still burned brightly between them. Keep this in mind this summer when you hit the shores or the mountains — sometimes, summer love can outlast all of life’s challenges and obstacles.

When they married in East Hampton in 2013, only a few miles from the beach where they first met 35 years earlier, their vows began with this: “I offer you not the summer of my life, but the autumn, brisk and vibrant.” 

Do you believe summer brings out the romance in people? Let us know in the comments below.

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