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The Pros and Cons of Reconnecting With an Ex

Letting loneliness force recoupling, no matter the cost.

Key points

  • Despite less than favorable research results, for many people the desire to re-connect with an ex is compelling.
  • After a breakup, it is important to balance the question of reconnecting with an ex with considerations that support and strengthen you.
  • It is valuable to put into perspective the impact of a breakup on sense of self, feelings of loss, and fear of having made a mistake.

“Never go back to your ex. It’s like reading the same book over and over again when you know how the story ends.”

“Sometimes people need to fall apart to realize they need to fall back together.”

Popular advice may differ, but many people do consider going back to an ex. While internet posts would suggest that breaking up and making up seems particularly common for the college crowd, research suggests that breaking up is indeed hard to do, and leads to considerable distress, in that age group.

In research with cyclical and non-cyclical couples, Amber Vennum and colleagues found that it's complicated. While movies, books, and TV shows portray re-connecting as romantic, the results of getting back together are less than desirable for both cycling married and cohabitating couples.

It would seem that although happy endings are not guaranteed, the wish to re-connect with an ex can be very compelling. We are human, feelings are complicated, relationships are based on conscious and unconscious factors and the unknown is frightening. It is what makes the Google search “Get your ex back” so popular.

Who Am I Now?

Breakups call into question definitions of self whether initiated by you, the other partner, or both. You are standing at what we call "the liminal space” between what was and what is yet to be.

Most people feel a certain amount of fear, loneliness, guilt, and confusion in this space. Propelled by the emotional pain, many begin looking backward instead of forwards. Consider that the safety warning in rearview mirrors reminds us that the backward perspective is often faulty.

Do you really understand what happened in your relationship? Does your ex? For relationships to be different, both partners have to be different. If you are considering reaching for your ex, consider first reaching for supportive friends, professional guidance, a new challenge that invites an expanded definition of self, or maybe self-permission to date and to see the world from a forward perspective.

Why Am I So Sad?

No matter how bad a relationship may have been, it was a bond. As such, it is inevitable that a breakup will be experienced with feelings of loss. Sometimes if a loss has been suffered in connection with other significant people, the pain can be significant.

The fact that you feel loss is a reflection of your capacity to connect, not necessarily a testimonial of your prior relationship. You may feel love for your ex. The question is whether the relationship is viable. If not, the desperate need to re-connect often leads to more breakups and loss.

Suffering loss is human and does not equate with instability, inadequacy, or dysfunction. It is a necessary dynamic to finding self and ultimately finding a different type of partner. Handling loss is greatly facilitated with family and friend networks of support.

Equally important is self-compassion. As psychologist Kristin Neff describes it, self-compassion is taking a moment to be mindful of how you feel, recognizing how human and understandable your feelings are, and giving yourself the emotional hug and kindness you would share with a friend who was in your situation. It is unexpectedly empowering.

Maybe I Was Wrong

Regardless of how correct the breakup may have felt, it can start to feel terribly wrong when you find that she/he has connected with another partner.

Images of the beginning magic you once had become what you assume he/she now has with another person. Sometimes there is even the assumption that your ex has become the person you always wished for, but with someone else.

Fantasy may be good in the movies but no one walks out of a problem relationship and into a phone booth to turn into a superhero. It is worth considering that your ex is still the same person but may have found a match—someone you do not want to be. It is worth considering that if you feel you were bypassed for someone else, you were with the wrong person for you. So, if you decide to pursue your ex by becoming the person he/she needs you to be, you may end up with your ex, but who will you be?

Trapped in Euphoria

A common trap in the aftermath of a breakup is to remember and define the relationship in terms of a euphoric phase. As discussed by Helen Fisher, author of Why We Love, this is the initial phase of a relationship in which the partners are physically, psychologically, and neurochemically in a state of yearning, obsession, and desire for each other. The pre-frontal cortex that registers negative judgment is suppressed and there is an increase in dopamine which has a similar effect as cocaine. A relationship needs the Euphoria but it needs to be able to sustain much more.

Couple at Any Cost

A common prompt for pursuing an ex is a feeling of loneliness in a world of couples. If it doesn’t drive you to return and try to accept what was once unworkable with your former partner, it may lead you to settle for connections with partners that are not suited to you. The result is unfair—mostly to you.

While it is understandable to want to be with someone wonderful, positive connections usually come as part of a journey of nourishing and finding yourself. However you choose to move on, if your journey includes recognizing and developing your own sense of self, the chances are that you just might find someone who will light up your life.

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