Should you try to get your ex back? Experts weigh in on when — and when not — to give it another shot
Things to consider before rekindling your romance
Why not get back with your ex? You had a great connection. You know what split you up the first time and have a strategy for dealing with those challenges this time around. Or maybe, those problems solved themselves. Maybe you've both matured and are ready for the relationship you were always meant to have. What could go wrong?
Your wayward heart could lead you right back into the issues that sent you packing in the first place. Anything can seem better than the misery of a break up. And even if you get past that, the 'single life' can be bad enough to make you nostalgic for worse times. What could go wrong is that you bounce back and forth, just prolonging the difficult process of cutting ties.
Helen Fisher is senior research fellow at The Kinsey Institute and Chief Scientific Advisor to Match.com. She's written six successful books on the science of sex, love, marriage, and gender difference. Janna Comrie is a therapist and the contributor to CBC Life. Both have helped us understand the ins-and-outs of breaking up. This time, we asked them how we can tell if and when it might be worth another try.
When the break-up is so bad that the relationship looks good
One of the most tempting, but most dangerous, times to get back together is right after breaking up. No matter which side of it you're on, splitting up can make us feel isolated, anxious, depressed, guilty and unloveable. Helen Fisher likened the effects to the withdrawal symptoms from addictive substances, so it's not hard to see why people will do just about anything to make it stop, including going back to a partner that isn't good for them.
According to Comrie, the desire to redeem ourselves can be a strong force pulling people back towards their exes. "It's really common to want to prove 'no, he still really wants me' or 'see, I'm not that bad.'" In intimate relationships, how we see ourselves is strongly affected by how our partners see us. "You chose to date them because you respect them, you value their opinion. If they reject you, that's soul-crushing for a lot of people," said Comrie. When our erstwhile partners are angry or disappointed, it's hard not to think that there's something wrong with us. That's why it's so common for people who are going through breakups to suffer low self-esteem, shame, guilt, and other negative self-directed emotions. Getting back together is one way of resolving these feelings. If we can make it okay with them, it becomes easier to be okay with ourselves.
Neither Fisher nor Comrie are particularly optimistic about getting back together with someone you've recently broken up with. The problem is that the horror of the break-up can make us forget the problems that broke us up in the first place or trick us into thinking it wasn't so bad after all.
When the green grass doesn't grow around
People are also drawn back to their exes when their new lives without them don't turn out as well as they'd hoped. Comrie told us "I've seen so many people who say 'I'm leaving you, I found this person. They make me happy.' But then when they get into it, they're like, 'Wow, the grass is so not greener here.'" And it's not just new partners can disappoint us. As Fisher put it, "A lot of people think that being single is great… but it also has a lot going against it. The single life isn't all people are cracking it up to be." When being single isn't what we hoped it would be, many people begin to think kindly on partners past. Time can also make our painful memories fade, making space for us to remember all the good times we had.
Fisher told us that certain personality types are especially susceptible to running back to their exes at this stage. According to Fisher, humans have evolved three different systems for love: sex drive, or lust, romantic love and attachment. Lust and romantic love can happen in an instant. But attachment, which gives you a sense of security and enduring union, can only be built over time. Some people, which Fisher calls "attachment junkies", are highly motivated by this particular form of love. She says it's great for keeping them in long-term relationships, but it can also make them less inclined to make enough of an effort with new partners. Since they haven't had the time to develop an attachment to the new people they're seeing, those people will almost inevitably seem disappointing to them even if they're perfectly eligible candidates for love. Mere seniority makes exes seem more appealing. According to Fisher, this dynamic makes attachment junkies especially vulnerable to returning to less-than-great relationships.
When it actually might work
Trying again has its risks, but Comrie and Fisher aren't pessimistic about it overall. Both have seen many people get back together with exes from their university or high-school days. Comrie said that trying again makes sense when a) the two of you can meet the needs that you have now, and b) whatever problems led to your split in the past can be or have been resolved. Sometimes this is just the result of changing needs and outlooks rather than any intentional effort. Comrie said "People change all the time. Maybe they were in a different place, maybe they were partying a lot and their partner wanted something more serious. But as they grow, they realize that the partner they left then would be a great partner now." When that happens, it's usually pretty easy to see the qualities about your ex that would make them a good match now, even if those qualities weren't so appealing when you split up. "As you grow and mature, you find different things cute, right? What you find cute at 20, you don't necessarily find cute at 30. What you find cute at 30, you don't necessarily find cute at 40." However it's important that you aren't just overlooking the problems that broke you up in the first place. When reunion doesn't work out, Comrie said that "the reason it crashes and burns is usually the same reason it crashed and burned the first time."
Fisher thinks about it in terms of "writing your story." She told us that any serious attempt at getting back together should only happen after you've thought about what you've gained and lost by breaking up and what you'll gain and lose by getting back together. She stresses the importance of honest reflection and speaking to the people closest to you. "When you've thought about your gains and losses and assembled those parts to create a coherent story, try it out on friends and relatives. If they think you've done something honest and true and that this isn't just self-deception, then that's the time to try to win a person back, certainly not before."
Part of writing your story, according to Fisher, is thinking about how likely it is that your relationship will succeed this time. "Have they married someone else? Moved to another country? Also ask if you can fix what was wrong the first time. Ask: 'what needs to change?' Can we accentuate the good parts? Can we enliven the sex? Can we do more novel things together and trigger feelings of romantic love? Can we lie in each others' arms and trigger the oxytocin system? Can I talk them into cooking dinner with me?" The questions will be different for every couple, but it's important to think about them ahead of time.
When you do try it again, Comrie warned us not to expect everything to be the same. Trying to return to exactly the same dynamic you left is unrealistic since each of you may have changed. But you aren't starting from scratch either. Comrie told us to "foster the things from the past that you remember and miss and like about that person, whether it's social connections with friends, playing music together or some other activity. You have that as an anchor. Bring forward those things. If they don't work out, you can always tweak it or adjust it." You have a foundation, build on it.
Clifton Mark writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and other life-related topics. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.