My last big breakup happened after a three-and-a-half-year relationship, but it wasn’t as cut and dried as that. The first time we broke up was three months into seeing each other. In that time, he’d gone from obsessed with me to apathetic at best. He took me out for a “romantic” Valentine’s Day dinner date and then asked to split the bill (to be clear, he had asked me out on this date and I believe whoever initiates a dinner should probably do the paying).
But, it was more than that. We’d grown in very different directions in a very short period of time. The breakup itself was rather amicable. We took a walk around the block outside of my office. We said how much we appreciated each other as friends. We decided to “consciously uncouple,” a term made very chic by Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop.
And we kept talking and texting, remaining in constant contact. I’m embarrassed to say that despite agreeing we should end our relationship, I wasn’t finished with it and was still very into him. It was more than “love” though. I was afraid to be alone and felt we could give it another, more successful shot if we both put in the effort.
Two weeks later, we got back together despite every voice inside my head saying this wasn’t a great idea. Strangely enough, things were really good for a few years. Until they weren’t. After three years we broke up in an emotional hellstorm. He couldn’t handle my career growth and ended things, seemingly out of nowhere, leaving me homeless and boyfriend-less in the span of one morning. I was now the collateral damage of another person’s insecurities.
All of this had me thinking, through sleepless nights and tons of anxiety: Why did I get back together with him when I knew it was a terrible idea? Why didn’t I free myself from the misery when I had a clear, clean chance to get out?
What are your psychological motivations for taking your ex back?
According to Justin Lehmiller, Ph.D., a research fellow at The Kinsey Institute and author of “Tell Me What You Want,” common reasons we take back exes including thinking this time will be different and enjoying the thrill of the intense emotional highs and lows of a toxic partnership.
It’s a pretty complex matter, but it all stems from the same thing: When we’re emotionally invested in a person, cutting ties is really scary. Gail Saltz, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital, Weill-Cornell Medical College, says we often have an extreme aversion to dealing with feelings of loneliness and a hard time “tolerating the grief feelings associated with the loss of a relationship.”
If you had asked Joana R., 31, who got back with her ex of three years after 10 months apart (and that was only the first time they broke up and got back together), for her reasoning, she would have simply said, “because I am in love with him.” Now, eight years later, she admits that was really deeply insecure, which caused her to latch onto a charismatic partner who was also deeply emotionally neglectful.
Psyschosexual therapist Cate Mackenzie says that thanks to a cocktail of hormones connected with sex and love, we often forget about how toxic a bad relationship was. Combine that with our fear of losing in love, and it makes sense that Jenna sought safety in what was, at the very least, predictable. “The unknown is unsafe,” Mackenzie says. “Also people can treat us how we feel about ourselves.” That ties in with the insecurity Joana admits to feeling in her early 20s.
“I had never experienced romantic feelings this intense, and I was scared that I might never find it again,” Gisele M.*, 24, recalls of the period after she broke up with her ex of five months only to get back together after three weeks, break up, and get back together again, and eventually cut the cord after nine months total. According to Mackenzie, there can be a component of psychological dependence in high-intensity in romantic relationships, and Gisele was likely somewhat attached to those high highs and low lows.
When Aanchal M., 29, broke up with her partner of six years several months into their relationship, she experienced feelings of shame. “I strongly believed I could fix the situation by changing myself. I spent so much time, money, effort, and emotions on this relationship that [I thought] it had to work out if I just tried a little harder,” she says. While it’s common to feel this way in situations where you lack control, the bottom line is that you can’t shoulder the full burden of a relationship. “There is a comfort in believing you can change people, change circumstances, and accomplish anything with effort,” Saltz explains.
Plus, cutting ties and walking away means that, any way you dice it, for now, you have to hack it on your own as a single person. That can be incredibly scary, but the truth is, getting back with an ex rarely works out, no matter how much we hope that this time things will change for the better. And to move on, we need workable strategies to avoid this behavior.
Consider why you broke up.
“Regardless of the motivation for getting back together with an ex, it’s probably worth stopping and reflecting on why you’re doing it,” says Lehmiller. An ex is usually an ex for a reason.
If we can articulate the major reason(s) for the separation, it’s easier to logically convince ourselves not to send the “I miss you” text. Did you fight all the time? Did you have conflicting goals? Was there a betrayal or did someone cheat? Ask yourself these questions before taking any action.
Take a communication hiatus.
Sometimes you need a complete detox in order to reaffirm your decision to end things. If you can, do what Elyse W.*, 25 wishes she had done after breaking up with her partner of three years, two years in. “The day after I broke up with him the first time, I would have given my phone to my mom for a day to keep me from talking to him,” she says. “I was too emotionally jumbled to be communicating with him.”
While you may think you and your new ex can be friends, that’s a proposition for a later date. Right now, you are still emotionally attached to them. Cut off all communication while you’re working through your feelings, which can, in some cases, take longer than you might think. Saltz recommends waiting at least a year before reinstating contact.
Get some outside help.
If you keep taking back partners when you know, on some level, that you shouldn’t, Saltz suggests speaking to an objective outside source, such as a therapist. “This is an area where some self-exploration to uncover where this pattern comes from and what’s driving these behaviors for you [can help] break the cycle,” she says. “You can know something logically, but without emotional understanding, you may not be able to stop the pattern.”
Try, try again.
We all slip. Such is the plague of human nature. The idea of letting go of something (or someone) is terrifying, so we find ourselves repeating the same mistakes. Sean S., 25, who took his ex of five years back when they broke up after 10 months, says, “I seriously wish I could have broken the cycle sooner, but [my ex] was always making grand gestures to get me back and I kept falling for it. Eventually, I had to let go of the guilt of all that slipping.”.
If you’re kicking yourself for getting back together with your ex against your best judgement, don’t. Instead, glean lessons from the experience.
“If I hadn’t have been through all of that, I wouldn’t be the person I am today,” says Katie J., 23, reflecting on her six-year relationship which ended for nine months at the three-year mark. “So, some part of me is thankful that it happened, because it taught me so much and I’ve come so far since then.”
Dust yourself off. Forgive yourself, once again, and get back to the moving-on process.
*Names have been changed to protect innocent daters everywhere.