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Why getting back with an ex is so compelling
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(Credit: Getty Images)
You broke up, for good reasons. So why do so many former couples reunite further down the line?
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Earlier this summer, 17 years after they split, Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck got back together – and triggered an internet avalanche of early 2000s nostalgia, glamorous celebrity intrigue and cultural analyses. They’re a power couple, and tabloids and Twitter users alike can’t look away.

But perhaps the most relatable reason regular people are so fascinated by what’s otherwise a celebrity-gossip story is that exes found love again.

For many, navigating ex-partners is a reality of romance. That reality can be negative – one filled with cautionary tales and former partners who can’t take a hint. But rebuilding a relationship can also be a tempting venture and even a goal for some people, especially when the success stories sound like something out of a fairy tale. Plus, research suggests the amount of couples who break up and get back together is as high as 50%.

The pandemic has even accelerated this process for some: amid a global health crisis and lonely, sexless lockdowns, many people found themselves reaching out to an ex, hoping to find that old spark.

Experts say that, if both former partners are interested, pulling a ‘Bennifer’ of your own can yield positive benefits – if you’re willing to put in a lot of work, and have an open mind.

What draws people to exes

One of the biggest upsides of re-entering a former relationship is that you mostly know what you’re getting into. “There can be some real advantages to really knowing a partner well before giving a long-term relationship a try again,” says Michael McNulty, a couples therapist in Chicago and trainer at the Gottman Institute, an organisation that studies relationships and offers counseling.

McNulty says every romantic relationship has “perpetual differences”. These are points of possible conflict, like navigating a shared living space, money, sex, kids, friends, family and more. Even happy couples have them, since a relationship is always fundamentally two different people with different personalities and worldviews.

Getting back together with an ex can lead to a fairy-tale happy ending, but only if both partners seriously revisit what went wrong before, experts say (Credit: Getty Images)

Getting back together with an ex can lead to a fairy-tale happy ending, but only if both partners seriously revisit what went wrong before, experts say (Credit: Getty Images)

McNulty says, according to Gottman Institute research, these perpetual differences make up 69% of the problems most couples face in a relationship. Long-lasting, slow-burning issues are the real relationship poison – not big, explosive, single events or confrontations. “Most marriages or relationships end by ice instead of fire,” says McNulty. Some couples “find it too hard to talk about or work on differences around key problems. They often grow more distant, and [become] more like roommates than they are spouses or lovers.”

That’s why some people may want to get back together with an old partner, or to try and stick it out with their current one. Because while we often go into a new relationship expecting it’ll be better than the last, McNulty urges some caution: “If you’re in a relationship and you’re thinking about leaving, be careful, because you’re basically trading 69% of perpetual differences with one partner with 69% of perpetual differences for another.”

So if you get back with an ex, you at least already know what those perpetual differences are going to be. Getting into the groove of the relationship could feel like less hassle than meeting someone new and starting from scratch.

People need to know what their irreconcilable issues were before, and really take an honest look at whether or not everything’s different now – Michael McNulty

“You’re picking up where you left off,” says Judith Kuriansky, relationship and sex therapist, and adjunct professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City. For some people, it feels “better to go back to someone that you kind of know something about, than someone you don’t know anything about”.

Celebrating what’s changed

Another benefit to getting back with an ex is awareness of what’s changed in the time you’ve spent apart. You may be disadvantaged when dating someone brand new, because you’re not aware of how they might have grown and changed in a positive way over time. With an ex, you get more of a before-and-after snapshot. Kuriansky says one of the most common reasons for exes rebooting their romance is “feeling like they’ve grown and matured”.

Violette de Ayala is the Miami-based CEO of a women’s networking organisation called FemCity, who’s spoken publicly about how she remarried her ex-husband of 20 years in 2019. “When we started to date again, it was nice because we knew each other, but certain elements of us had changed,” she says. “We both worked on areas we needed to work on while apart, and we were in many ways ‘new’ to one another.”

“The elements of ourselves that evolved made reconnecting a beautiful process while working through some of the pain from the break-up,” adds de Ayala. “He no longer took our relationship for granted. He started to get me thoughtful gifts, and will now stop randomly and share his love for me and appreciation. That didn’t exist the first time around.”

Conversely, if you’ve spent a long time away from someone, get back together and find that you fall into the same toxic patterns as before with that person, that knowledge can be advantageous, too. Sensing that you’re going to run into the same headaches all over again could give you the foresight to avoid the same disaster twice.

“Sometimes, with the wisdom of years and experiences in other relationships, people feel like, ‘oh gosh, maybe I can work through that gridlock issue we had’,” says McNulty. But he stresses the key is “people need to know what their irreconcilable issues were before, and really take an honest look at whether or not everything’s different now”.

Rekindling an old romance is definitely not for everyone, relationship experts say, but the familiarity that exists can lead to possible benefits (Credit: Getty Images)

Rekindling an old romance is definitely not for everyone, relationship experts say, but the familiarity that exists can lead to possible benefits (Credit: Getty Images)

‘Apocalyptic love and sex’

Before you start sliding into your ex’s DMs, ask yourself why you’re doing it – because plenty can go wrong.

While one of the joys of getting back with an ex is the comfort or familiarity, Kuriansky says that longing for comfort can be misplaced, especially lately as we seem to live amid constant chaos. Last May, when lockdowns were rolling out, research from Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute, which studies sex and relationships, suggested that as many as one in five people were texting their exes while in isolation.

You’re picking up where you left off – Judith Kuriansky

“I call it ‘apocalyptic love and sex’,” she says. “Which is, ‘there ain’t no tomorrow, so I better settle’.” Kuriansky has studied romance during periods of disaster and terrorism, and says it’s common for people to reconnect with past lovers due to “the sense there could not be a tomorrow – now with Afghanistan, natural disasters everywhere, [people feel like] they’re living in a state of Armageddon”, so they want to go back to a person who at one time provided love and security.

Take a hard look at why you’re reaching out to an old flame. Is it because you’re trying to quiet anxiety from scary news headlines by seeking comfort from an old flame, and not because you actually miss the relationship and are willing to go through the very real effort of making it work? If it’s the latter, take that as a red flag.

Kuriansky also advises soliciting the feedback of friends and family before pursuing an ex. Many may react negatively, especially if the relationship ended badly. But the purpose of this exercise isn’t to invite judgment from loved ones; rather, they can bring you back down to Earth and remind you why the relationship was problematic.

“Be prepared for other people’s opinions. Most people will say, ‘What? You’re getting back together? Are you kidding? Why?’ They’re going to bring up all those memories, so how are you going to deal with that?” says Kuriansky.

Be ready to confront those memories – not just with yourself and with your loved ones, but with your ex themselves, which can be the hardest part. “That is one piece that was rather challenging and we had to work through. Leaving the past in the past,” says de Ayala. “There is so much history that can be dragged up, but there has to be a mutual agreement that from here forward, forgiveness, communication and the feeling of [starting] anew” is what will carry the relationship further into the future, she says.

Many of us may find ourselves longing for a lost love. If we go about it in a realistic, healthy way, it could, possibly, work out – if both people are on the same page.

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