Your break up sucked. Sure, your relationship had it’s problems, but so does everybody’s, right? But hey, you put all that behind you. You’re past the “hiding in your own apartment, listening to angry music and writing bad poetry” stage. You’ve quit complaining about it to all of your friends. You can get a beer again without breaking down into tears about your poor broken heart.
But you’ve survived. You’ve worked past the pain. In fact, you’re stronger now than you ever before. Whatever doesn’t kill you better run motherfucker, amiright? For the first time in you don’t know how long, you’ve got your head on straight and you’re in a really good place.
And then after all that pain and sorrow, your ex just waltzed right back into your life. A bit tentatively at first; a ping text or two trying to reconnect with you. A request to reconnect on Facebook. Then, as you think that maybe you should be willing to be friends with your ex, you’re finding yourself increasingly in contact with them. A couple of e-mails back and forth. A hesitant, awkward chat over IM. Maybe a phone call.
And you know what? Sure, you got really fucked over by that break up but things are feeling… pretty good, actually. Sure, you’re both a little gun-shy but you seem to be on good terms here. Almost like old times, really. In fact, it might just be your imagination, but you could swear that you detect a little bit of that old spark.
Sure, there was a lot of anger and built up resentment after the two of you broke up, but maybe, just maybe… you’ve been given a second chance.
But should you take it?
Why Go Back? Or: The Joy of Sex (With Your Ex)
Break ups, as a rule, suck. Even in the cases where the break up was relatively amicable, the circumstances that lead up to it – or the fact that you had to break up at all – is usually painful enough to make up the difference. One would be forgiven for thinking that the pain associated with the relationship would be enough to keep you from wanting to go back to the person who hurt you so badly.
You’d be wrong, of course.
But it’s understandable that you’d think it.
(If a bad break-up were all that it took to make folks cut their exes out of their lives, I’d be out of a job; at least half of the questions I get fall into the realm of “My girlfriend dumped me for the guy she was cheating on me with how do I get her back?” )
Like moths to an emotionally destructive flame, we frequently want to get back into our failed relationships – often against our better judgement. Or that of our friends. And occasionally the courts.
There are any number of reasons that someone might want to get back together with an ex, very few of which are good. The problem, of course, is that it we rarely realize what the actual reasons are; we tend to tell ourselves that we have nothing but the purest of motives in wanting to take our former lovers back. It takes a very self-aware person to realize right away that sometimes the impulse to run back to our ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend isn’t as straightforward as we’d like.
Before you make that offer to take your ex out for coffee and talk about the relationship, you need to stop and take a very long and hard look at what you’re getting back into… and why you want it so much.
Why Did You Break Up In The First Place?
The first thing you need to ask yourself is: why did the relationship end at all? Whether the break up came like a bolt out of the blue or it was the end result of the long, slow, painful death of a relationship, most relationships end for a reason and more often than not, those reasons haven’t changed. If she dumped you because you were a lazy slob who’s only ambition is to play World of Warcraft and get really, really high and the only difference is now you play a Blood Elf shaman instead of a Dwarf hunter1 then you can look forward to having the same fights. If you were sexually incompatible in the long-term – you had mismatched libidos, he had needs that you couldn’t or wouldn’t meet, she was poly and you couldn’t handle it – you’re still going to be incompatible, even if the sex is great in the short term. If your ex was physically or emotionally abusive… well, convincing his victims that he’s changed is a prominent part of the cycle.
Regardless of the reasons of why you broke up, running straight back into the relationship without examining it is just an opportunity to replay the exact same failure a second time, only this time you have the added bonus of seeing it coming and realizing that there’s still nothing you can do to stop it.
Even the circumstances are different this time, it’s very hard to resist the tendency to fall back into the old dynamics of the relationship, and those dynamics are what ultimately lead to the two of you breaking up in the first place and your house being set on fire in a fit of jealous rage.
You Never Got Over Them
One of the words I hate more than any other when it comes to relationships is “closure”. Looking for “closure” in a relationship translates as “Things didn’t end in a way I found emotionally satisfying.” Sometimes that search for closure includes holding on to the idea of a reconciliation with all of your might because you can’t accept the fact that things ended at all.
Break ups, especially if you’re the one who got dumped, can be a stinging blow to the ego. You’re often left feeling like a failure, or that you are somehow deficient and the failure of the relationship is all your fault. You may feel betrayed because you didn’t accept your ex’s reasons as valid. All you know is: you broke up… and you’ve never managed to let go. You’ve been holding on to that little ember of hope that maybe you could make your saving throw vs. failed relationships if you just got a second chance.
The problem, of course, is that your unwillingness to let go means that you’re unwilling to let yourself change and grow emotionally. You’re holding yourself in frozen in one point in time because you can’t accept that things don’t always go the way you hope, no matter how badly you may have wanted it at the time. You’re deliberately cutting yourself off from other relationships – ones that you would benefit from, with partners who match what you need instead of what you want.
Closure, ultimately, is something you have to give to yourself; it can’t be found by trying to recapture the old magic while you’re hoping for a different ending. It can only come from being willing to accept the past and let go of it before it begins to fester.
They Found Someone New
Jealousy is an ugly emotion. Unfortunately, it’s also a very human one. You would have to be a literal saint in order to not feel jealous of someone… especially when you’re watching someone is make out with a person who used to be your exclusive snugglebunny.
It’s a quirk of the human psyche that there’s nothing we want so badly as that one thing we’re told that we can’t have. We may have been relieved to see the back of that relationship, but the instant their relationship status on Facebook changed to “is in a relationship”, suddenly those old screaming matches and tear-filled nights seem way less important than they did before. Now all you can think of is that gnawing feeling in your gut whenever he makes another shmoopy post about his new squeeze and how much you wish you could have him back.
This, incidentally, is one of the reasons I advocate the nuclear option; not only are you potentially torturing yourself by watching your ex find eventually finding happiness with someone else, you’re just setting yourself up for wanting her back just because she got over you first.
The Power Of Nostalgia
Memories is a funny thing. We like to think that a memory is a perfect snapshot of an event; a moment in time indelibly frozen in our minds that we can recall with perfect clarity and accuracy.
Unfortunately, the reality is that memories are notoriously unreliable. Not only is our recall imperfect at best, but we are also prone to subtly re-writing our memories to better match how we want to remember things. Which includes editing out the bits we don’t like… like all the bad parts of our relationship. It’s not terribly surprising; after all, who wants to recall all those fights were so vicious you couldn’t stand to be in the same room together afterwards. Who wants to keep the exact look on your lover’s face when you saw his heart break for the last time or dwell on all of the ways you were an asshole to someone you supposedly cared about?
And while we’re busy toning down all of the bad parts of the relationship, we’re highlighting all the parts we did enjoy.
We wrap those warm, happy memories around ourselves like a blanket. We want to feel the way that we felt back then when everything was new and every day was a gift. We enjoy comfort and familiarity and that is part of what makes getting back together with an ex so tempting. It’s like sliding into a broken in pair of shoes.
Except of course, the shoes may still not fit, no matter how well worn they may be. The temptation of an old relationship is how easy it is, but that an unwillingness to leave your comfort zone – even one that ultimately leads to suffering and misery – makes it impossible for you to meet someone new. Meeting new people is frustrating. It can be stressful. Hell, it can be downright terrifying. But it’s also how you find someone who’s right for you… not by trying to relive the past.
“It’s Better Than Being Alone”
Sometimes getting back together with your ex is less about what you had and is far more about what you don’t have: someone else. Sometimes there can be nothing quite as depressing as an empty bed and Saturday night is the lonliest night of the week. Yeah, you may not really love each other. Hell you may not even like each other very much. But who wants to face another long stretch of holidays alone, spending your nights in bars nursing your mix of bitterness and whiskey while resenting the fuck out of all the happy couples around you?
Then, one day, you’re back in touch with your ex. And hey, you’re both single, you’re both lonely and God knows neither of you have any prospects… so why not?
Well, because sometimes the properties of individuals aren’t additive. You aren’t really together; you’re just alone with someone else, using each other as a way to try masking the void you’re both feeling.
And that’s if you’re both on the same page. You may be using her as a balm for your loneliness… but she is trying to make an honest second try at this. Now not only are you trying to numb yourself to what you’re really feeling, but you’re doing incredible damage to your partner.
You Want The Power Back
Sometimes, wanting to get back together is less about nostalgia or an unwillingness to let go of a relationship that you can’t accept ended the way it did.
Sometimes, it’s about wanting to fuck somebody else over. You got dumped. You were hurt, not just because the relationship ended, but because you weren’t the one who did the dumping.
Straight talk: I had no idea that this was a thing until it happened to a friend of mine. Then another. And then I found out that someone I had dated briefly had tried to pull this on me because I had the temerity to be the one to end things.
Look, even under the best of circumstances, we can’t control the way that relationships end; sometimes you’re the dumper, sometimes you’re the dumpee. If you are so hung up on the power dynamics – or so bitter from a bad break up – that you’re trying to get back together with someone for revenge, then you are profoundly fucked up and a horrible person. See a goddamn therapist before you dip your toe back into the dating pool.
You Are Not The Exception
Getting back together with your ex isn’t automatically a bad idea… but it’s rarely a good one. Even under the best of circumstances it’s incredibly tricky and filled with potential pitfalls. But even though we all know, intellectually, that the odds are stacked against us, the siren call of the past and the hope for glorious reunion sex can override the logical parts of our brain. Everybody knows of at least one couple that broke up then got back together stronger than ever, overcoming time distance and circumstance with the power of True Love, so why couldn’t you be that couple?
Well, one of the perks of my job is that I get to apply the Chair Leg of Truth to people’s fantasies.
And the truth is: those couples are the exception to the rule. You are not. How do I know you’re not? Because you’re relying on the idea that you might be. This is the same thought process that leads to people buying lottery tickets: somebody’s gotta win, so why couldn’t it be you? The fact that you’re hoping to be the one person to beat the odds is an indicator that deep down, you already know that this is doomed from the start; you’re just trying to convince yourself that it’s not.
It’s not about being delusional in one’s commitment to an idea or a fantasy, it’s about the attitude you’re bringing to the possibility of a second chance. It’s one thing to know that the odds are not in your favor, but you’re willing to put in the effort and emotional toil that it takes to make a relationship work because it’s that important to you. It’s another entirely to pin your hopes on the notion the roll of the cosmic dice is going to come up sevens instead of snake-eyes.
Unfortunately, confirmation bias and the temptations inherent in rekindling a failed romance are powerful forces, and it takes a strong, self-aware person to overcome them.
If you really want to get back with your ex, you need to put your heart (and libido) into check and take a very long, hard look into what you’re trying to do… and what you really want.
- Alliance scum… [↩]