Unpopular opinion: Troy and Gabriella’s relationship in “High School Musical” is B.S. Don’t get me wrong: I totally loved the movie growing up. But it always bothered me how those two would break up and then just reunite seamlessly in the end. Where was the communication about their issues, like Troy hurting Gabriella, thus making her feel unimportant? What happened to the scene where they agreed upon a way to make each other feel valued?
Hollywood gets a lot wrong about relationships in general, and that’s perhaps never more true than when it comes to two people getting back together. Movies tend to depict an intense breakup, followed by a reunion that pushes aside all the couples’ previous issues. This is not only unrealistic, but also unhealthy. However, there are healthy ways to reenter a relationship, all of which include putting in the time to work through previous problems and considering seeking out professional advice.
We do want to note that this is presuming you broke up because of circumstances — like becoming long-distance — and it’s never a good idea to rekindle a relationship that was unhealthy or unsafe.
For those whose relationships were, at one time, healthy and safe and are thinking about continuing a past romantic plotline, here’s how to finish the script.
Talk about the first try.
In order to change, you have to sort through what happened when you were last an item. “Ideally, couples begin by addressing what went wrong the first time around and agree to be attentive to those problems,” says Cyndi Darnell, sex and relationship therapist. This is also the time to bring up any doubts you have about trying again and not hold back on expressing yourself — whether that’s speaking to personal insecurities created from the initial breakup or having painful conversations about previous patterns of behavior.
Spencer*, 23, and Monica*, 22, a couple who got back together after a year apart, both found this conversation tough. “We talked about everything — the people we were with [while we were apart], the anger we felt, and all the hurtful things we carried. It was hard listening, but working through those issues together helped rebuild the trust we lost,” Monica says.
Learn the relationship skills you lack.
“The actual nuts and bolts of running a relationship is heavy-duty emotional labor. In essence, love is not enough. Love is an incentive, but you need the skills,” says Darnell. These skills include communication, actively listening to your partner, and learning how to manage your own issues. Most times, when a relationship ends, it’s because you or your partner (or both) lack the emotional resources to continue it. These could include not understanding how to ask your partner for things you need, not being willing to talk about what upsets you, or not understanding how to find healthy compromises. If you are struggling with understanding what skills one or both of you lack, Darnell suggests considering seeking help from a professional to pinpoint and build them.
A good way to practice these skills is to develop a routine, like a weekly check-in with your partner. Relationship coach Jillian Turecki believes these “executive meetings” help to rebuild the foundation of a relationship. It’s a time to focus on the partnership aspect of the relationship, not the romance. Instead of discussing where you want to go on dates, talk about how much time you want to spend together each week. And always make sure to end these “meetings” on a positive note. Turecki suggests doing this by giving your partner a compliment or calling out something you love about them.
Look for the change.
To see progress within this rekindled relationship, you need to look for evidence of how you or your partner has changed. “Apologizing means nothing unless it is accompanied by an actual feasibility statement of what the person is willing to do differently,” says Turecki. Dylan*, 26, and his girlfriend, Rebecca*, 24, dated for a year before breaking up. When they got back together six months later, it was constant little behaviors, not grand gestures that helped fix their issues. For example, they didn’t communicate effectively, which eroded their trust in each other. Now, they make a point to speak up immediately if the other has done something to upset them.
Monica also found it important to set the framework for change when she and Spencer got back together. “We both live such hectic lives, so we knew it wasn’t possible to talk all the time. We realized that communication had been a problem [for us], and we talked about what our needs are. We created this system of daily check-ins with each other to help fix our communication. Sometimes it’s as simple as sending a meme, but it makes me feel more valued this time.”
Treat the relationship like it’s new.
Although you have history, it’s important you distinguish this relationship from your first in order to (re)build a foundation of trust. “Let each other know what makes you feel loved and safe, and then see if [the other person] can follow through on those things consistently,” says Pam Shaffer, LMFT. She recommends taking things slow — perhaps even more slowly than you did the first time — so you don’t feel pressured to hop back into the same intense connection you once had.
This fresh-start mentality also extends to shaping your relationship to fulfill your needs, which have likely changed. This means you have to create new guidelines and rules. To help figure out what works, Shaffer says you should recognize “moments when you feel safe and loved with your partner, and let them know what they can do to help you feel more secure [more of the time].”
Rekindled relationships require attention, practice, and the willingness to be vulnerable and change behaviors on both sides. Hollywood might not get it right, but that doesn’t mean you can’t.
*Names have been changed to protect innocent daters everywhere.