The Psychology of Getting Back with an Ex, According to a Relationship Therapist

·7 min read

"I wonder if he's thinking about me…"

"I could just text to see how they are…"

"She better text me on my birthday… I miss her so much."

It's no secret that breakups can be rough. If you've ever been through one, you probably understand why there's a song titled "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do" and thousands of others about the experience, in general. Whether you formed a monogamous, ethically non-monogamous, or another type of bond, transitioning in or out of a relationship can create complicated feelings. As a human, your behavior is often triggered by your feelings, while your feelings are generally triggered by your thoughts. (Note: This isn't necessarily always the case, such as with mental illness where a chemical imbalance can also cause issues.)

Psychology-of-Getting-Back-with-a-Long-Ago-Ex-GettyImages-74681893
Psychology-of-Getting-Back-with-a-Long-Ago-Ex-GettyImages-74681893

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Given that breakups can create super complicated thoughts and feelings, it would then make sense that your behavior after a breakup may be complicated, too. Some people go the rebound route, embodying the old mantra of "the best way to get over someone is to get under someone else," while others cocoon themselves in emotional and physical isolation to heal from the pain. (Related: What It's Like to Go Through a Polyamorous Breakup)

There's no great way to call it quits, but sometimes after healing (whether that's months, weeks, or years doesn't matter — it's your journey), you may think about getting back together. You might find yourself thinking, "I wonder if he still does that funny thing," or "they may have matured more and are now ready for what I wanted." (Related: Why You Should Go On a Post-Breakup Vacation)

The recent Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez situation seems to be a perfect example of this phenomenon. Once fondly known as "Bennifer," this Hollywood couple broke the hearts of many when their fiery romance came to an end in 2004. Now, they seem to have reconnected on a trip to Montana. And they're not the only ones: About 50 percent of couples reported getting back together after breaking up in a study published in the Journal of Social and Public Relationships.

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But is that a good thing? And can it ever work? Keep scrolling to learn why so many people feel called to revisit past lovers or partners to "try again" or "rekindle a flame" — plus, whether or not you should really send that "Hey, how are you?" text in the first place.

Why Getting Back Together Is So Alluring

Let's be honest: If you're entertaining the idea of getting back together with an ex, it's likely because you weren't totally sure about breaking up with this person in the first place. Maybe it's because the breakup happened on their terms rather than yours or because things ended due to timing, different values or priorities, or a specific scenario (say, long distance) that made being together at the time difficult, if not impossible.

Regardless, if you find yourself being drawn back to someone, it's easy to see why: The comfort that can come with a familiar touch, smell, sound, and feeling can make exploring an old relationship very appealing. I'd argue that you're not exploring an old relationship, but rather exploring a new one with someone you tried a relationship with before. (Related: Expert-Backed Tips to Go from a Casual to Committed Relationship — If That's What You Want)

It's also super important to recognize that there are different types of getting back together with an ex. There's the rebound-y I'm-not-over-you-yet-please-ease-my-discomfort-by-getting-back-together-with-me thing that tends to happen not long after a breakup, and then, there's what's seemingly going on with Bennifer. While J.Lo is fresh out of her relationship with A-Rod and may be leaning on her past flame for comfort and affection, it's still been over 15 years since she and Ben broke up. She's had a lot of time to get distance from the relationship and gain some perspective, so if she's choosing to experience Ben as J.Lo in 2021, good for her!

Can Reuniting with an Ex Ever Work?

It's not always an A+ idea to re-explore things with a former flame. That could be because the other person just isn't a great partner, you may have your own "stuff" to deal with, or maybe the relationship dynamic isn't healthy. So, how can you determine whether any of these are the case?

First off, if you feel incomplete without someone else or someone to take care of, it's probably not the best idea to get back into a relationship. The societal and entertainment norm of the "you complete me" narrative is incredibly damaging in real-life relationships. If you're not a whole, healthy, adult human, you can't create a whole, healthy adult relationship with another human! Yes, I know that sounds basic, but boiled down, that's true. Secondly, if your ex (or former lover or fling) is displaying the same behaviors that contributed to your breaking up in the first place, pump the breaks. Chances are, things won't be different this time around. And sometimes, even if both people in a relationship feel whole, the relationship dynamic can be toxic and even abusive. If there was any type of abuse (physical or emotional) in your relationship, don't go back into it without the support of a professional.

At the end of the day, only you know whether or not getting back in contact or together with a former romantic interest is a positive thing for you. A relationship is where you and another person overlap, so most likely the relationship will feel different than it did before because time has passed and you've both changed. I mean, didn't Ben learn a lot from his time with himself and others? And hasn't J.Lo learned how to be even more of a badass? The two people reuniting can likely be different versions of themselves. (Also, FWIW, we're just speculating from the outside; no one will ever truly know what it's like inside a relationship besides the two people in it. And that's especially true with celeb relationships, which we love to become invested in even though we don't truly know the people themselves.)

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How to Approach Reuniting with an Ex

If you want to explore a romantic relationship with a previous partner after reading all of this, I recommend doing three things:

  1. Be very clear on your "why." Do you want to explore? Do you want to get "closure"? Do you want to try again? Do you want to heal? It's incredibly important for you to be 100 percent clear on why you're wanting to reunite.

  2. Share how you feel and your "why" with your ex. If this sounds too scary, return to step number one and question why you're wanting to get back together with them. You need to be able to bring fears, excitements, and concerns to your partner(s); and sharing your feelings and hopes/intentions can help give your ex some context and an overall better understanding so that they can be present.

  3. Have an open dialogue about what you want to be different and what you want to be the same this time around. Which elements from your previous relationship do you want to bring into the present? And which ones do you want to make sure stay in the past? Having this conversation can help mitigate expectations and get you on the same page.

Feeling inspired to follow in Bennifer's footsteps? Happy journeys into the land of redefining relationships.