I’m Thinking About Getting Back Together With My Ex: Part I

This article is based on the Reimagining Love podcast episode “I’m Thinking About Getting Back Together With My Ex: Part I.” To listen to this episode, click here.


Welcome to another blog post. Previously, I created two blog posts about breakups:

In the Breakup Regret article, I focused exclusively on how to deal with the emotions that may come in the wake of a breakup, when someone may start to worry that they’ve made a terrible mistake in breaking up with their partner. The coping strategies were individual ones, but I promised to return to the topic of Breakup Regret and talk more about the relational dynamics—what happens when you really feel like your breakup regret is evidence of a mistake, and you really want to initiate contact with your ex to explore the possibilities of getting back together. So here we are!! In this article and the next article we are going to look at how Relational Self-Awareness can guide a process of exploring a version 2.0 of your relationship. This topic is immensely complex, so I want to give you a few reminders right as we begin:

  1. I am going to offer you some tools and frameworks as I always do, but you are going to have to take all sorts of liberties with the complexities of your situation. Take what feels helpful and relevant, and leave the rest behind. This is true of all conversations we have, but perhaps especially in this week and next week’s articles. 
  2. These blog posts are education, not therapy.
  3. It is not safe or healthy to even consider reuniting with your ex if starting again has the potential to threaten your recovery or to put you back into a situation that is dangerous for your mental, physical, or sexual health. There are lots and lots of situations in which what you need to keep doing is celebrating that you have begun to create a life for yourself outside of the relationship and just keep going. Use the tools from the last article about coping with Breakup Regret to keep noticing the regret and returning to that which is beautiful and bountiful in your life today.

Considering a reunion with an ex is a high wire act. It is not for the faint of heart. Second chances demand Relational Self-Awareness. Second chances require forgiveness, empathy, and intentionality.  A breakup is, by definition, an attachment injury. It is a breach in connection. It is a choice made by one person or by both people to be apart. Not all breakups are tragic or traumatic, but all breakups are, I would argue, attachment injuries in that you are separated from someone who mattered to you. Therefore, getting back together with your ex is, by definition, building a new relationship on top of an attachment injury. You are going back to the person with whom you experienced a rift. I say that just to bring home the fact that in order to frame out a process for self-reflection and dialog, we will have to peel back some layers, getting deeper than just what to do or not do. We need to be talking about emotions and meaning and how the past is being activated.

         If you are strongly considering dating your ex again, or if you are beginning to restore contact with your ex, this discussion is for you. These articles are for you whether you were the one who ended the relationship or not. I am going to take you through twelve questions that will offer you a framework to help you figure out whether and when and how to create a new relationship with an old flame. In this article, we will talk about questions 1 through 6 and in the next article we will tackle questions 7 through 12. Rather than focusing on whether it is a good idea or a bad idea to rekindle with your ex, this discussion challenges you to consider your motivation (your why) as well as your process (your how). Ideally you will use these questions initially to guide your self-reflection and then later to guide curious conversations between the two of you. 

These are questions you can use for both self-reflection and for dialog. This is essential because the process of getting back together must be relational. Two people doing the work of self-reflection and conversation. If a second chance is simply one person crossing their arms and tapping their foot while asking the other person a series of questions designed to see if they have finally learned their lesson, then the second chance is an absolution not a reconnection. 

Hurt does not need to be equally distributed, but second chances that have the potential to be stronger and sturdier than the first relationship require both partners to be curious about their role in the relationship problems and the demise of the relationship. Two people who are willing to look at the cycle between them rather than assigning blame and doling out forgiveness. Use these questions to inspire self-reflection and then use these questions to guide conversation. As I go through each question, I will offer some suggestions and strategies. 

Don’t Say Mistake

Before we start moving through the questions, I want us to begin here: If you are wanting to explore a second chance, please do not say that it’s because you made a terrible mistake in breaking up with your ex. In fact, I would love for you to strike the word mistake from your vocabulary. Why?

  1. The notion of a mistake relies on some grand and abstracted ideas of right and wrong and good and bad, and we know that intimate relationships are far too complex for simplistic labels. 
  2. The notion of a mistake is predicated on the idea that we can or should have a crystal ball and know before we do a thing exactly how we will feel after. Yes, we need to be mindful, intentional, and careful as we make decisions, especially decisions as big as ending a relationship. And, as Maya Angelou taught us, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
  3. Finally, I don’t love viewing the breakup as a mistake because it puts the person who made a so-called mistake in a one-down position.  If and when you approach your ex about your Breakup Regret, I am here for you being contrite; I am here for you asking for forgiveness; I am here for you demonstrating accountability for your actions; I am here for you witnessing the impact of your actions. But I am not here for groveling or begging or approaching your ex from a place of worthlessness, or brokenness, or shame. That is because a second chance has to be a relational decision. It has to be you standing in your worth and wholeness, and you viewing your ex in their worth and wholeness. You have to meet each other on a shared platform of curiosity and exploration. Otherwise there is a risk that what you are seeking is absolution for your mistake rather than an exploration of what might be possible. Seeking absolution for your so-called mistake makes it about you—it’s you seeking escape from your feelings of regret versus you seeking to connect with your ex and build something sturdier and healthier than you had before. I do not want your ex to feel like they need to grant you absolution. I want your ex to have all of the space and time they need to feel their way into (A) what they want and (B) their understanding of what you want. 

When you have the urge to talk about your breakup as a mistake (or anything in your life frankly as a mistake) I have a term I’d like you to use instead. A term that I heard years ago. A term that is gentler and more expansive and better suited to how we approach life and love on this show…. Rather than mistakes, I believe in FGOs—Effing Growth Opportunities.

         If you are considering rekindling with your ex, I want it to be because you have learned something—learned something in the hard way; the big way; the messy way. If you are considering rekindling with your ex, I want it to be because you have grown. You understand something about yourself, about your ex, about your past, etc. Years ago, Oprah said that the universe speaks to us, trying to teach us lessons and help us grow by giving us a brick upside our head. And if we don’t listen, we get the whole brick wall crashing down on us. For some of us, that is what our breakup ends up being. Within the relationship, you had been getting bricks upside the head, opportunities to pause and pivot and grow and try something different. But, for whatever reason, you were not able to make use of those opportunities at the time:

  • Because you were stubborn and had a hard time being humble and/or listening to your ex.
  • Because you had not yet addressed a deeper layer inside of ourselves like a Family of Origin Wound or early trauma.
  • Because you didn’t have the bandwidth to focus on the relationship in the way it needed to be focused on.
  • Because you didn’t have the capacity for reflection and analysis that you do now.
  • Because you didn’t have the perspective that the time apart has granted you.

But the breakup became the alarm clock moment—the one that launched you into a journey of Relational Self-Awareness or that made you realize that you had been checked out or that made you realize that it was time to take your emotional health seriously.

Question 1: How will you cope with the Power of Refinding?

My friend, esteemed couples therapist, Esther Perel, talks about how we bring two seemingly contradictory yearnings into our intimate relationships: the need for safety and the need for novelty. We want a partner who surprises us and a relationship that feels fresh and exciting. At the very same time, we crave security—that sense that I can count on you, that you have my back. Too much closeness and we feel smothered and bored; too much distance and we feel lonely and insecure. This is not a problem to be solved but a paradox to sit in.

If you and your ex are reconnecting after a period of separation, you are poised right on that fulcrum of safety and novelty. You are refinding each other. 

  • There is familiarity: You know that smile, they know how you like your coffee. You know to ask about how their brother’s baby is doing, they know to check in on that art project you had been so excited about.
  • There is novelty: You don’t know what they’ve been doing during your time apart, they are curious about how you have changed.

They have been “yours,” so there’s the comforting pull of familiarity and safety. They are not “yours,” so there’s the intoxicating pull of seduction and novelty. This is some powerful magic! 

What to do about the Power of Refinding:

  • “Name it to frame it” as neuropsychologist, and former Reimagining Love guest, Dr. Dan Siegel says. Name to yourself, or a trusted friend, all of what you feel inside. The process of putting words to bodily sensations helps your rational mind get a hold of those big raw emotions.
  • Go slowly, even if the erotic tension can be cut with a knife. Contain. Breathe. Remind yourself that you have time.
  • Add structure. Resist the urge to engage in hours and hours of processing or to spend endless amounts of time together. Little bites. Dip a toe in the water. Let your body settle, step by step. This will assure you that you are making responsive rather than reactive choices.

This is all in service of the need to be mindful and measured even as you feel the pull. 

Question 2: What is your why?

I want you to be really curious and specific about the “draw” of getting back together with your ex. What is your motivation? In a 2012 article in the Encyclopedia of Sciences of Learning, Feltman and Elliot defined motivation as “the energization and direction of behavior.” In the field of psychology, we talk about two types of motivation: approach and avoidance. Approach is about moving toward or maintaining contact with a desired stimulus. Avoidance is about moving away from or maintaining distance from a desired stimulus.

Approach motivationsAvoidance motivations
I miss this person.I believe we both have learned and grown.I like who I am with them.We have shared values.The obstacle that was present before has been resolved or removed.I need/want relief from my loneliness or grief.I am having a hard time with dating.I worry that they will move on and I won’t.I feel judged or unsupported by my family or friends about being single.I am struggling in the relationship I pursued after we ended.

Motivation is not an all or nothing endeavor, but ideally you have more approach motivation than avoidance motivation as you imagine and work toward reconciliation. My wish for you is that you have the experience of feeling OK without your ex so that rekindling with them feels like a choice rather than an effort to escape a void or a loneliness. Obviously, you won’t be 100% OK because then you would not experience a pull to reconnect, but I want you to feel clear that you can be OK on your own so that you know you are choosing rather than seeking refuge or rescue. Approach motivations fuel a sense of pride and agency in what you are choosing and creating whereas the goal of avoidance motivations is relief. If what you are wanting is relief, I worry that it is more of a short-term and less sustainable type of fuel. Because second chances tend to be marathons not sprints, you need motivation in the tank that is more long-lasting than just relief. You need to feel anchored in that felt sense that you want this and you are excited about it and hopeful about it and willing to dig in with patience and curiosity.

Question 3: To what degree have you grieved the loss of this person?

A breakup is a loss which is why you have heard me use the language of grief in both the closure article and the Breakup Regret article last month. Grief is not something to be fixed or solved. It is something to be carried with evermore grace and ease. And remember there is grief in a breakup whether you were the lead or the follow in the breakup. If you are considering rekindling with your ex, I want you to have grieved the loss of them before you begin with them again, and that is for a couple of reasons. 

The first reason is what I just got done talking about in terms of approach versus avoidance: if you have not given yourself some time and space to grieve, you might be rekindling with your ex to avoid your grief and/or to rescue them from their grief. When we attempt to bypass or avoid our feelings, they don’t go away—they morph. Your unprocessed grief about the end of the relationship will then travel with you into version 2.0 of your relationship. Unprocessed grief might show up as anxiety, hypervigilance, irritability, flatness, or boredom. These emotions would live inside of you and create tension and negative cycles between you and your partner. 

The second reason I want you to let yourself grieve is because a breakup is a portal, an opening, a gateway. A breakup holds the power to take you deeply into yourself. Many people describe feeling “cracked open” by their breakup. For sure we never feel giddy or excited about painful experiences AND at the same time, there are learning opportunities within painful experiences. We can have an experience we never wanted, one that we’d never wish on anyone else, and that experience can grow us nonetheless. 

Grief is synergistic—meaning that grieving the loss of this relationship very likely activates for you the loss of other relationships, or places, or experiences. Losses are sort of chained together in our psyches. I think it’s part of why a breakup is so damn hard: you are grieving this person, you are grieving the future you had envisioned, and if that was not enough already, you are also grieving, consciously or unconsciously, every other loss you’ve experienced. This means that grieving the loss of your ex also means reflecting on and honoring experiences of loss that you survived years or maybe even decades earlier. Be clear: I am not talking about blaming your ex for breaking up with you and therefore making you hurt all over again about the death of your father or the loss of your home country. I am talking about noticing and validating for yourself that the loss of the relationship with your partner has tendrils that extend and touch other losses.

Finally, grieving the loss of your ex means using Relational Self-Awareness to see if you can put your finger on what exactly was so painful for you about the breakup. This seems silly, right? Like duh. It’s a breakup. Of course it’s painful. But if there were ten people in a room telling their breakup stories, there would be differences between those stories—differences that go deeper than details like length of the relationship or sequence of events. There would be differences in what the breakup meant to each person, how the breakup lives inside of each person, and which parts of the breakup were most painful for each person. Although some of those deeper differences would be due to the nature of the relationship itself, some of those deeper differences would be about the terrain of each person’s heart. The ways in which this breakup felt like prior hurts or betrayals or shameful experiences—the echoes of the past. See if you can get in touch with what exactly and specifically it was about the breakup that was most difficult for you:

  • Was it that you felt misunderstood?
  • Was it that you felt alone?
  • Was it that you felt replaceable? Like you didn’t matter?
  • Was it that you felt out of control or unsafe?
  • Was it that you felt bad or rejected or not chosen?

See if you can stay with the unique strand of pain that you experienced, and do a little of what I call ‘ghostbusting.’

  • How does this pain echo another pain? 
  • When was another time in your life, likely when you were little, that you felt this way?
  • Can you reach back to that younger version of yourself and offer comfort, witnessing, and support to that you that you once were?

The intention of that avenue of self-reflection is to honor the importance of letting ourselves grieve not just this loss but all of the ways that this loss ties to old losses. And in doing so, we bring ourselves back to the present moment as full and as present as we can possibly be. And goodness knows that we are going to need our fullest and most present self if we are going to do the hard and delicate work of getting back together with a former partner!

Question 4: How have you grown during your time apart?

You may have heard me say this before because I love this framework: love does not leave us where it finds us. Because the self is relational, we are changed by the experience of loving and being loved. So, how have you grown during your time apart? What do you do differently now versus before the relationship or during the relationship? How has your thinking changed? About yourself? About relationships? How do you relate to your emotions differently now than you did before? What have you learned?

A breakup might teach you about the boundaries you need in order to feel both connected and protected. A breakup might teach you about when to speak up and when to let something go. Perhaps because of the breakup you feel better able to care for yourself. Perhaps because of the breakup you have more compassion for people who are struggling. Perhaps because of the breakup you are a bit less idealistic and a bit more realistic. 

Question 5: What behaviors are you committed to not repeating?

You know that quote that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results? That quote is essential for anyone considering getting back together with an ex. I would argue that your biggest task is to focus on the question, “What will be different this time around?” But I was sneaky here! Rather than having you explore the question, “What will be different this time around?” I am having you explore the question, “What behaviors are you committed to not repeating?” That’s because I do not want to give you any exit doors—any way for you to focus on your ex. If I had you explore the question, “What will be different this time around?” you might give answers like: my ex will be more patient, my ex will be more attentive, my ex will go to therapy each week. But here’s the problem. There is only one person on earth you can control and that’s your sweet sweet self. So even if you desperately want your ex to be more patient, more attentive, and more in a therapist’s office, you cannot make that happen. So I’m having you return your steady focus onto yourself. What are you going to do to invite what you want and need from your ex? What can you do about the part you have control over?

This question is about embracing your part of the relational dance. It is about taking responsibility for the role you played in the breakup and therefore the role you can play in reconciliation. Not to blame yourself but to feel your power. Resist the urge to focus on what happened to you. Focus instead on how you are going to grow from it.  What behaviors are you committed to not repeating?

  • I will not…
  • I will stop…
  • I refuse to…

Question 6: How will you ensure that you are not going to repeat those behaviors?

As Aristotle said, Nature abhors a vacuum. So what will you do instead? What are your commitments? What will you do on a daily/weekly/monthly basis? What behaviors help you feel sturdy, curious, patient, and wise so that you can bring that to the relationship? Maybe it is listening to a podcast each week. Maybe it is limiting alcohol and/or drugs. Maybe it is a movement practice or exercise—not to meet an aesthetic goal or to please your partner but so that you feel present in your body and strong and capable. Maybe it is having time each week with your friends—this is especially important if you are someone who has a pattern of making the relationship the center of your world. Maybe it’s raising a concern when you are a Level One of upset instead of stuffing it down until you are a Level Ten of upset. Maybe it’s asking questions instead of making assumptions. Maybe it’s staying on your medication so that you are able to bring your healthiest self to the relationship. Maybe it’s apologizing more quickly and wholeheartedly and feeling so proud of yourself when you do.

This question is an opportunity for you to spell out the healthy behaviors that you would want to commit to—for yourself and because they would put you and your ex in a good position to create a new version of this old relationship.

Relational Self-Awareness Dialog with your Ex

Before I let you go, I just want to talk with you about one more thing. I said at the top that these twelve questions are for both self-reflection and for Relational Self-Awareness Dialog. I am going to remind you of the six questions we covered here and as we go through them, imagine talking about them with your ex. If it feels impossible to imagine your ex being able to talk at all with you about any of these questions, that is data for you! These are the kinds of questions you will need to wrestle with, individually and together, in order to build a 2.0 version of this relationship on solid ground. OK, so here are the six questions. Imagine what it might be like to talk with your ex about these questions:

  1. How will you cope with the Power of Refinding?
  2. What is your why?
  3. To what degree have you grieved the loss of this person?
  4. How have you grown during your time apart?
  5. What behaviors are you committed to not repeating?
  6. How will you ensure that you are not going to repeat those behaviors?

If and when you use these questions to invite a conversation, remember that it is both of you sharing your reflections on these questions. 

  • Each of you is talking about your respective motivations. 
  • Each of you is talking about your process of grieving the other. 
  • Each of you is talking about how you have grown during your separation.
  • Each of you is talking about the behaviors you are committed to not repeating.
  • Each of you is talking specifically about how you will avoid repeating those old behaviors.

For those last two, it is especially important that you speak for yourselves. If you and I were trying to explore getting back together and we are using these questions to guide us, I am talking to you about the behaviors I am committed to not repeating and how I am going to hold myself accountable for change and you are talking about the behaviors you are committed to not repeating and how you are going to hold yourself accountable. If we stick to that vision for dialogue, then each of us is making healthy and helpful behavior changes that will benefit the relationship by taking responsibility for ourselves. This is a much more durable process than me talking about what you need to change and how I am going to ensure that you change it, or you telling me what I need to change and how you are going to make sure that I change it. Now, if I want to supercharge my Relational Self-Awareness here, I could ask you, “What are the behaviors that you’d like me not to repeat?” And if you want to supercharge your Relational Self-Awareness here, you could ask me, “Alexandra, what are the behaviors that you’d like me not to repeat?” That is brave and beautiful indeed!!

Conclusion

There you have it! Thank you for reading Part I of this series, “I’m Thinking About Getting Back Together With My Ex.” Today we covered Relational Self-Awareness Questions 1-6. Check back in with the blog for Part II where we will discuss questions 7-12. Good luck with your exploration. As you know, feedback is my love language, so share your a-has with me! Until next time, take good care of you!

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