What's Really Going on When People Stay in Touch With Exes
Why keeping the idea of a reunion on the back burner may be a problem.
Posted Sep 18, 2016 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
It’s fairly common for people to maintain contact with former romantic partners.1,2 But what happens when you enter a new relationship? Do you maintain contact with an ex or cut them out? Can it be bad for your new relationship if your ex is still in your life? These are questions many of us can relate to, but they haven't been examined much by relationship researchers—until recently.
In two studies, Lindsay Rodriguez and her colleagues surveyed young adults in romantic relationships to determine how often they communicate with exes, why they maintain contact, and what that says about their current relationship.3 The first study surveyed 260 undergraduates, who had been with their current partner for at least a month and had a previous relationship that lasted at least three months.
They found that about 40 percent of the students kept in touch with an ex. For the vast majority (over 90 percent), this communication began within a couple of months of the breakup and continued to occur at least once every couple of months. Most people didn’t communicate with their ex too often, but a small subgroup—13 percent—had contact with exes several times a week.
Who is more likely to stay in touch with an ex? The more serious the status of the current relationship (e.g., married or nearly engaged vs. dating), the less likely participants were to have contact with an ex. However, continued communication with an ex was unrelated to how serious the relationship with the ex had been. (This is probably because these participants were relatively young, so they would not have the same level of investment that requires future contact, such as co-parenting, that can occur when more committed relationships break up.) Instead, it was their feelings about their ex and about the breakup that predicted contact: People were more likely to communicate with exes they still had feelings for. They were also more likely to stay in touch with exes if they felt that the breakup was more positive—characterized by understanding and a lack of mean and nasty behavior. Finally, those who reported that they were not over the breakup were more likely than others to maintain contact with their ex.
What implications does this have for people’s current relationships? In general, those who stayed in touch with an ex tended to be less committed to their current partner than those who did not, but contact with an ex wasn’t associated with how satisfying they found their current relationship.
In a second study, the researchers further explored how contact with exes relates to the quality of the current relationship by examining people’s reasons for staying in touch. They surveyed 169 undergraduate students in relationships, who said they communicated with an ex at least once every couple of months.
This time, the team found a link between contact with exes and the quality of the current relationship: The more frequent the contact with an ex, the less satisfied participants were with their current relationship.
These two studies together suggest that just being in touch with an ex may not indicate anything about how happy you are with your current partner, but it could if that contact is frequent.
The researchers also asked participants to rate how well each of four different motives described their reasons for communicating with their ex:
- Your friendship with your ex is strong and rewarding.
- Your ex is seen as a possible “backup” if the current relationship fails.
- Your ex is still part of your larger group of friends.
- You feel like you invested a lot of time and have been through a lot with your ex.
How did these motives relate to the quality of participants’ current relationships? Those who maintained contact because they were keeping the ex in mind as a backup tended to be less satisfied with and committed to their current partner. On the other hand, if they were communicating with an ex because that person was still part of their social network, they were more likely to be satisfied with their current relationship (perhaps having such contact indicates good social adjustment, or it is more positive because it occurs without being deliberately sought out). For the most part, communicating with an ex because they were still a friend or because they had invested a lot in the relationship wasn't related to how the respondents felt about their current partner.
Should you keep in touch with your ex?
The answer isn’t a simple yes or no. You should think about your motives for wanting to maintain contact. If you’re using an ex as a backup, contact with the ex is likely to undermine your current relationship. Other research has shown that reminders of your ex can keep you attached to that person and make it more difficult to get over them.4
But does hanging onto your ex as a backup harm your current relationship, or does a bad relationship make you more likely to hang onto your ex as a backup? Longitudinal research suggests it’s a bit of both: Greater longing for an ex is associated with decreases in satisfaction with your current partner over time, and decreases in satisfaction over time are associated with increases in longing for an ex.5 The authors of this latest research also point out that if you already contacted an ex with backup motives prior to meeting your current partner, you may enter into that new relationship less committed in the first place.
Is there a reason to be jealous if your partner is friendly with an ex?
Knowing that your current partner is still in touch with an ex certainly can create jealousy. In the age of Facebook, we often know if a partner is still in touch with exes.6 If your partner is communicating with an ex, it doesn't necessarily reflect poorly on your relationship. If that ex is just part of their larger social network, it’s more likely that they are actually satisfied in their relationship with you. And if they’re still friends with an ex or have invested a lot of time in that relationship in the past, it doesn’t necessarily relate to how they feel about you. The only motive for interacting with an ex that was associated with problems in the current relationship was thinking of the ex as a backup partner.
This research shows that maintaining contact with exes is pretty common, but whether it indicates a problem with your current relationship most likely depends on why you keep in touch.
1 Kellas, J., Bean, D., Cunningham, C., & Cheng, K. Y. (2008). The ex-files: Trajectories, turning points and adjustment in the development of post-dissolutional relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 25, 23–50.
2 Schneider, C. S., & Kenny, D. A. (2000). Cross-sex friends who were once romantic partners: Are they platonic friends now? Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 17, 451–466.
3 Rodriguez, L. M., Øverup, C. S., Wickham, R. E., Knee, C. R., & Amspoker, A. B. (2016). Communication with former romantic partners and current relationship outcomes among college students. Personal Relationships, 23, 409–424.
4 Sbarra, D. A., & Emery R. E. (2005). The emotional sequelae of nonmarital relationship dissolution: Analysis of change and intraindividual variability over time. Personal Relationships, 12, 213–232.
5 Spielmann, S. S., Joel, S., MacDonald, G., & Kogan, A. (2012). Ex appeal: Current relationship quality and emotional attachment to ex-partners. Social Psychological and Personality Science 4(2), 175-180.
6 Bowe G. (2010). Reading romance: The impact Facebook rituals can have on a romantic relationship. Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology, 1, 61–77.