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7 Reasons Why Exes Get Back Together

How people win or lose by returning to an ex-partner.

Key points

  • Research finds that 40-50 percent of people have reunited with an ex to start a new relationship.
  • On-again relationships tend to suffer lower relationship quality and worse functioning than never-broken relationships.
  • People often resume relationships with ex-partners because of lingering feelings.
bernatets photo/Shutterstock
Source: bernatets photo/Shutterstock

Moving through a romantic break-up isn't pleasant. Feelings get hurt, egos bruised, and plans change on a dime. In the aftermath of a break-up, ex-partners must find a way to manage their mixed emotions of grief, distress, and (sometimes) relief. A person is forced to rebuild who they are, separate from a partner. This is hard work.

Yet, people often return to their previous romantic partners. They might get back together after a few months of separation, but other times, partners move on and live completely separate lives for years before finding a way back to each other. Consider Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck: They split up in 2004, dated and married other people, separated from those partners, and ultimately reunited in 2021. While this may seem unusual, the pattern of returning to an ex-partner is actually quite common. By some estimates, 40-50 percent of people have reunited with an ex to start a new relationship (Dailey et al., 2009).

Is this a good idea? Should you get back together with an ex?

On-Again Relationships Are Often Lower Quality

Concerns about reuniting with an ex-partner have some basis in research. Evidence suggests that on-again relationships are qualitatively different from only-on relationships. Compared to relationships that have never experienced a breakup, on-again partners tend to report (Dailey et al., 2009; Dailey et al., 2017):

  • lower satisfaction.
  • less felt validation.
  • less love.
  • lower sexual satisfaction.
  • less need fulfillment.

This doesn't imply there are many benefits to reuniting with an ex. Further, the more frequently couples separate and reunite, the more negative characteristics they tend to cite about their relationships. Yet, they keep coming back. Why?

Reasons People Get Back With an Ex-Partner

People get back with their ex-partners for a variety of reasons, but the big one? Lingering feelings. Ex-partners are, quite simply, not over each other. Evidence suggests that maintaining lingering feelings is the most commonly cited reason for getting back with an ex-partner (Dailey et al., 2011). Love, it seems, doesn't stop when a breakup happens, and it can spur people to get back together.

Other reasons include (Dailey et al., 2011):

  • Familiarity. The devil, you know, right? People understand what to expect of an ex-partner, and the comfort of familiarity has a strong pull. Such familiarity may seem like a good reason to get back together when the other option is to step into the uncomfortable world of dating.
  • Companionship. Loneliness is a heavy burden to carry, and if it doesn't lighten in the days, weeks, or months after a break-up, maybe getting back together solves an important problem. Reuniting can provide companionship, a benefit that might outweigh the reasons their partners broke up.
  • Insight. People can realize, after they break up, that their ex-partner is actually "the one." They might also learn more about their ex-partner in their absence, changing their perceptions of who that person is and why they may have behaved as they did. Ex-partners might see each other in a new light after time has passed, perhaps because they have, in fact, each changed, matured, or in other ways had life experiences that make them, now, well-suited for each other.
  • The ex is still better than other partners. Sometimes, people get back together with their ex-partner because they discover that other available potential partners aren't so appealing.
  • Regret. Breakups can happen suddenly or unfold gradually over time. Sometimes they're intentional, other times a heat-of-the-moment type decision. Some ex-partners get back together because they believe they should never have broken up in the first place, and they view the break-up as a regrettable mistake.
  • For the partner's sake. Not all reunions are desired equally by both partners. Evidence suggests some people reunite not because they want to but because they feel guilty or indebted to their ex. They might feel bad for their ex and see getting together as a way to manage their ex's distress.

Together Again, for Now

Ex-partners who reunite could do so for the long haul. They might relaunch with renewed commitment. They might both have a readiness to be with each other that wasn't present before. They might bring a new appreciation for each other that elevates their relationship to the next level.

Many on-again couples, however, cite problems in their renewed relationships. Besides the emotional roller coaster of separating and then reuniting, people note that they might expect their relationship to be different this time and experience disappointment and regret when they discover that the same patterns or problems that may have made them unhappy the first time around emerge again (Dailey et al., 2011). They might feel friends' and parents' concerns rather than their support, and they might question whether they can truly trust their partner.

Remember, though, that people's reasons for breaking up in the first place differ. Breaking up because of a mismatch in habits or goals, for example, is different from breaking up because of parental disapproval or a move that would have made the relationship long-distance. Likewise, people who get back together because they're lonely or feel bad for their ex-partner may be less happy in their new relationship than people who have gained new realizations about themselves and their partner.

Even though self-reports show that on-again/off-again relationships are of lower quality on average (Dailey et al., 2009), there may be subgroups that not only do well but thrive in their take-2 attempt at a happy relationship together.

Facebook image: bernatets photo/Shutterstock

References

Dailey, R. M., Pfiester, A., Jin, B., Beck, G., & Clark, G. (2009). On‐again/off‐again dating relationships: How are they different from other dating relationships?. Personal Relationships, 16, 23-47.

Dailey, R. M., Jin, B., Pfiester, A., & Beck, G. (2011). On-again/off-again dating relationships: What keeps partners coming back?. The Journal of social psychology, 151(4), 417-440.

Dailey, R. M., & Powell, A. (2017). Love, sex, and satisfaction in on-again/off-again relationships: Exploring what might make these relationships alluring. Journal of Relationships Research.

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