Pop culture would have us believe that getting back together with an ex is as common or simple as flipping a light switch. Movies and TV romanticize on-again-off-again relationships. The back and forth feels exciting and passionate. We have a fascination with “the one who got away.”
But rekindling a relationship with a former flame — and having it be successful this time around — isn’t as easy as the movies make it out to be. It takes serious time and personal growth. And it’s not always (or even rarely) a good idea.
Completely severing a romantic relationship is tough. We used to love or at least really like this person and now they’re nothing but some learned lessons and memories.
For many folks, putting themselves back into the dating scene is also tough, and there’s comfort in the familiar.
Rather than take a risk on someone new, they might slip on some rose-colored glasses, get nostalgic about their ex and try to patch things up, said Rachel Hoffman, a New York-based social worker and author of “Dating and Mating in a Techno-Driven World: Understanding How Technology Is Helping and Hurting Relationships.”
“When things in our lives feel difficult, anxiety-provoking and challenging, our brain tricks us that whatever we had prior should be put on a pedestal,” she said. “Instead of remembering the reasons for the ending, we reflect on the fond memories and moments of giddiness.
“The fear of the unknown of the future creates a longing for connection, and the person you last connected to.”
This nostalgia is especially potent for couples who break up for reasons unrelated to the functionality of their relationship, like moving away for a job or school.
Exes can easily become sources of desire. But it’s time to analyze if you should actually act on those feelings.
In a 2012 study, Kansas State University researchers found that “cyclical relationships are quite prevalent,” especially for younger adults.
But those on-again-off-again couples were less happy with their partners, had lower self-esteem and also had poorer communication with each other.
The researchers believe that’s because these people are “more impulsive about major relationship transitions” and aren’t actually fully committed to their decisions. They’re caught in a cycle of unhappiness. The researchers recommended erring on the side of not getting back together.
Hoffman agrees with the findings. She doesn’t recommend folks get back with an ex — there’s usually a good reason why the relationship ended.
“However, exceptions do exist,” she said. “When both individuals allow time for growth, reflection and understanding of the ending, and conclude that they both want to attempt a new relationship, it is possible to establish a connection.”
The key? Understand that rekindling the old flame doesn’t mean you’re lighting the same candle. In other words, think of it as starting a totally new relationship as two new people. For example, maybe you two were just too young to realize the full potential of the relationship.
Basically, you need to make sure you’re not lured into reuniting with your ex because of guilt, pressure or anxiety about the future. (Of course, that’s where time apart and healing can help.)
“The right reason to reunite with an ex is when there have been respectful conversations together about past mistakes where ownership for those mistakes has been taken and apologies made, and there is a sincere mutual love and desire between the two of you to try again, now wiser,” Beverly Hills-based psychologist Tiffany Towers said.
So how do we get wiser? Ideally, both people would have gone to individual therapy to understand themselves and the relationship better — and yes, this takes time, so be patient.
“If both people have developed insight into what attracted them to their ex in the first place, what did and didn’t work the first time, what personal growth they and their ex have made since the breakup and why they want to get back together, then they can go into the second time around with mindfulness,” Towers said.
If you and your therapist notice that you jump from relationship to relationship and keep going back and forth with your ex, then maybe that’s not the right move for you.
If you decide to give it another go, own up to your mistakes. Your partner should be doing the same. If you’re blaming each other for what went wrong, old problems will never be corrected, psychotherapist Tina B. Tessina said.
Keep communication open and strong so you can consciously talk about what went awry and do things differently this time.
Tessina suggested to move very slowly.
“Rushing into things means you’re trying to avoid some truths,” she said.
Going slowly can help you build a stronger foundation than the one you had before. Go on dates as if you’re just getting to know each other — in a way, you are, as new and improved version of yourselves.
Kathleen Wong is a Honolulu-based writer with bylines in The Cut, Broadly, Mic, Mashable and more.