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

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


Welcome back to the blog! This is Part II of our series called, “Should I Give Them a Second Chance?” In the previous article, I set this topic up with some context, and talked you through the first six questions of the twelve-question-framework I developed to support couples who are considering getting back together after a breakup. In this discussion, we will pick up where we left off by exploring questions 7-12. Remember that these questions are designed to be used first to guide self-reflection and then to guide curious conversation with your ex.

I said it in the last article and I’ll say it again. I am neither for nor against the notion of getting back together with your ex. It’s not really a matter of pro versus con. But what I do know for sure is that creating a second version of your relationship is not for everyone. And I do know that I am committed to offering resources and a framework for those who are endeavoring to do so. Sometimes relationships end for very clear reasons that make reuniting impossible, unsafe, and/or ill-advised. The work is to just keep integrating the loss, just keep seeking support, just keep returning again and again to the present moment, and just keep creating a new vision for your future without that person in it. Sometimes relationships end because the timing is lousy, the context feels impossible, or because one or both people have hit a wall in their Relational Self-Awareness. And then context changes or people grow, and there’s an opening to explore what might be possible. 

That’s what we are talking about today. There’s no such thing as picking up where you left off because, as the saying goes, “You never step into the same river twice.” You’ve both gone through a breakup, and you’ve gone through time apart from each other. You cannot recreate version 1.0 of your relationship, even if you wanted. Also, I don’t really want you to want to because version 1.0 of the relationship ended. You need a new version that is built on something more sustainable. So, let’s talk through these questions.

Question 7: What do you need to forgive the other person for before you begin again?

In other words, how will you leave the past in the past? The past is inevitably the context, and you both need and deserve to be seen for how you are showing up today. It’s going to be necessary for you and this person to have an explicit conversation about resentments that you still hold—whether that is for a single incident or from a pattern of behavior. Forgiveness must be offered not demanded, so I am envisioning a conversation or a series of conversations in which partners ask, “What do you need me to own, to witness, and to apologize for?” Like I said at the beginning, this is not for the faint of heart, right? The forgiveness process goes most smoothly when partners can unburden each other by taking responsibility for their part of the dance. Again, it’s not about equal harm, but it is about acknowledging that we each played a part… even if my part is something along these lines: “I stayed quiet when your behavior hurt me, and in doing so, you didn’t get the feedback that might have motivated you to change your behavior. That does not mean that I am responsible for your choices, but it does mean that I need to forgive myself for my silence. It also means that if we are to consider reconciliation, I will need you to be open to my feedback, observations, and experiences. Not that they are right. Not that I am in charge. But I am committing to remaining in touch with my thoughts and feelings, and I am committing to creating a relationship where those thoughts and feelings can be seen, heard, and validated.”

Get clear on what it is that you need to forgive your ex for. And get clear on the risks and benefits of forgiving. Like the line in Shawshank Redemption, “Get busy living or get busy dying.” Bringing old resentments into the relationship will exhaust you, and it will compromise not just trust but ease, joy, and intimacy. 

But I want to honor that letting go of the past is risky. There’s a vulnerability to putting yourself back out there again. Resentment can feel like a cozy blanket—familiar, protective, safe. It’s helpful to just simply name for yourself, “I am taking a risk” and see if you can maybe get in touch with some pride. And remember that trust may be destroyed in an instant, but it is rebuilt in micro moments of risking and experiencing something different and safer. So, yes, you need to be forgiving so that you can get to know this person again, but you don’t need to be forgiving all at once. This is a process.

         Our brains are hardwired with a negativity bias. As Dr. Rick Hanson said, “Our brains are Velcro for the negative and Teflon for the positive.” Outside of conscious awareness, our brains are forever scanning for signs of safety and danger. And we are pattern-recognizers. Well, getting back together with someone you broke up with means there are all kinds of patterns that are already primed.

Let’s take a look at this idea in action. Ruth and Tony are exploring the possibility of getting back together after being apart for six months. Tony was experiencing an episode of depression but was refusing to get the help he needed and deserved. Ruth had tried to be helpful; she had tried to support him and she encouraged him to see a therapist. They got caught in what couples therapists call a pursuer-distancer cycle. The more Ruth pursued (cajoling and pleading and pointing out Tony’s under functioning), the more Tony distanced (pulling back and shutting down). The more Tony pulled back and shut down, the more Ruth criticized. Round and round they went until Ruth ended the relationship. Underneath the pursuer-distancer cycle obviously was a world of pain for each of them:

  • Ruth felt lonely and invalidated. She missed her friend and lover!
  • Tony felt ashamed and stuck. He comes from a long line of stoic men, and he had no role model for how to get help.

During their time apart, Tony started therapy and joined a men’s group. Ruth felt obviously conflicted: she has love for Tony so of course she wants him well and thriving, but she feels frustrated that he didn’t address his emotional wellbeing until she turned the volume all the way up in desperation. As Ruth and Tony begin to explore reconciliation, they will need to do some forgiveness work. Ruth needs to forgive herself for staying in a relationship in which she was not being listened to. Tony needs to forgive himself for not being able to listen to Ruth and take in her observations and care. Ruth needs to forgive Tony for not listening to her. Tony needs to forgive Ruth for the things she said when she turned the volume all the way up. I want to talk you through how the part about forgiveness of the self might look, and how the part about forgiveness of the other might look.

First, let’s talk about forgiveness of self. Forgiveness of self looks like massive doses of self-compassion. Self-compassion work is anchored more deeply when you can tie the self-abandonment to a Core Wound, usually from Family of Origin. So for Tony, he needs to be compassionate with himself about how blocked he was from listening to Ruth. He connects this to a Family of Origin pattern: he grew up in a home where he watched his father invalidate his mother’s needs and concerns over and over again. And, by the way, he grew up in our patriarchal world in which we are all too eager to talk about women who nag or women who are hysterical, so ignoring a woman in pain is our collective inheritance, isn’t it? For Ruth, she needs to be compassionate with herself about allowing herself to be ignored and her concerns to be diminished. She also connects this to a Family of Origin pattern: she was an only child of two very busy and overachieving parents. She remembers coming home after school to an empty house and feeling so lonely. The times she complained about their busy schedules, her parents were unable to offer empathy, instead just telling her to focus on their nice home and all of the privileges she has. Tony’s tendency to see her concerns as “too much” was all too familiar for her.

Now, let’s talk a little bit about how Ruth and Tony began to forgive each other. Tony needed to use all of that self-compassion to regulate himself on this inside (the rise of shame, the temptations of defensiveness) so that he could bear witness to Ruth’s loneliness. He acknowledged how hard that must have been for her—he was unavailable because he was depressed and further because he was not open about his depression. As Tony showed that he could be gentle with himself while offering empathy to her, Ruth had glimpses of a felt sense that something was shifting. Tony was developing more capacity for relationality. He was developing an intimacy with himself that was making space inside of him to see and feel what she was going through as well. Ruth was able to apologize to Tony for the harsh things she said to him when she felt like she was at the end of her rope. Yes, she has compassion for how lonely and upset she felt. But making threats and being critical is not who she wants to be. This example is simplified but it gives you a sense of how that process of titrating acknowledgement, self-compassion, apology, and forgiveness needs to go.

Question 8: When one or both of you is experiencing doubt, what do you want to remember?

When getting back together, you should anticipate a honeymoon period, but also anticipate a moment when version 2.0 reminds you of version 1.0. One of the biggest fears for couples who are beginning again is that moment when they experience a sense of, “Uh oh, here we go again.” That moment will understandably scare you and may create a rush of doubt (“What were we thinking?”). A resonance doesn’t have to be a repetition as long as you use curiosity and humility to handle a familiar moment in a new way! The question for you to reflect on, and talk about, is: When you encounter issues that caused our separation in the past, how will you handle those issues differently? I want you to meet that moment first by not fighting it. Remember my favorite Byron Katie quote, “When I argue with reality, I lose, but only 100% of the time.” Of course, there are echoes; you are still you and your ex is still your ex. And remember the negativity bias in your brain. Your brain is protecting you by scanning for similarity. Here’s how to turn toward this moment with curiosity and humility so that you can handle it in a new way:

  • The moment is happening. You do not have control over when you feel a resonance, but you can do your level-best to do something different this time.
  • Pause. Slow down. Take a break and step away if you need to.
  • Because your brain is going to be looking for old patterns, make sure you are consciously taking in the moments when the old pattern does not happen. Develop a practice of savoring your partner tending to your concerns. Of you speaking up when you would have stayed quiet. Whatever it is.
  • So, imagine what that moment will be for you. What would your ex be doing or saying that would give you that déjà vu feeling? That moment points you to the realm where you need amends. You have a tender spot there that needs your ongoing attention and care. I like the idea of you and your ex talking about those fears together. Maybe you both share the same image of what that deja vu moment might be. Maybe you have different ones. Regardless, do a little rehearsal, preview what each of you wants to remember and how each of you wants to meet that moment if and when it happens.

Let’s go back to Ruth and Tony. Ruth had a few different triggers. When Tony seemed quiet or slept in later than usual, a part of her would get scared he was not just a little tired but instead slipping away into depression again. Tony was committed to being proactive, so he took it upon himself to offer Ruth updates about therapy and his men’s group—not specific details necessarily, but knowing where her tender spots were, he’d find ways to let her know that he had attended and that he was engaging in the work. Rather than feeling like a good boy trying to please his mommy, he felt proud of being someone who took his partner’s concerns seriously. This is relationality! This is how you build a solid foundation for an intimate partnership. Honoring the tender spots and taking responsibility for ourselves.

Question 9: How will you handle the inevitable 

Pace Discrepancies that will arise during this process?

Pace Discrepancy is my term for when intimate partners are not on the same page about the speed at which they will arrive at the next commitment milestone. Pace Discrepancies are so common for couples. The chances that each of you will be ready for the next commitment milestone (taking dating apps off your phones, exclusivity, sex, talking to family and friends, traveling together, etc) are very slim. Still, this kind of discrepancy is tender and can evoke powerful feelings.

When you are reconciling with an ex, the whole commitment trajectory can feel so tricky because you are inevitably hitting milestones that you experienced once before—the most significant being couples who divorce and then marry each other again. Those couples have two weddings… with the same person. Even if your situation is not as significant as that, there will be firsts that are not really firsts. The timeline can feel confusing because the relationship had already progressed to a certain point, now are we back at square one? It’s a both/and: new and not new. So, what are you supposed to do about it?

Well, first is just acknowledge it. It’s a bit funky. That does not need to mean it’s doomed or less than or embarrassing. It just is.You get to move slowly. That rush of pessimistic thoughts and doubt might be a reflection that you’re going faster than your body is ready for. Slow down and see if that helps you return to a place of ease and optimism. If not optimism, just openness. Resist the urge to speed right back up to where you were and resume “things as usual” because this is version 2.0, and it might need to look different this time. Avoid making assumptions about what your partner is ready for and talk about it instead. See if you can celebrate small progressions/victories: having a nice dinner with each other’s friends, solving a difficult problem together as a team, doing something slightly differently than before the breakup. These are all celebration-worthy!

Question 10: What are our highest values as we consider getting back together?

Let’s talk about the difference between goals and values. This is something I learned from Dr. Yael Schonbrun. A goal is what you want to do. A value is how you want to feel as you progress toward a goal. Let’s imagine a goal of taking a five-mile hike. That’s the “what,” the goal. But there could be a few different values that guide you to that goal:

  • A value might be speed: How fast can we take this hike?
  • A value might be intimacy: How deep can our conversation go as we take this hike?
  • A value might be solitude: How meditative can each of us get on this hike?

Let’s see how this looks regarding reconciliation. Rather than having the goal be “getting back together,” the goal might actually be to decide whether a process of reconciliation is feasible, wise, and in everyone’s best interests. But you also need to move toward that goal in a way that is guided by your values. How will you move toward that goal? What will be the values that help you make micro-decisions along the way? Possible values include honesty, freedom, safety, adventure, respect, concern, empathy, curiosity, and humility. Because the two of you need to chart a course that works for both of you, being explicit about your values will help you set boundaries and parameters that build trust and help you co-create a vision for the relationship. 

You will need to see what fits for your situation, but here are a few mission statements that might help you and your ex get clear on your values:

  • Exploring the possibility of reconciliation gives me an opportunity to learn more about myself.
  • Reconciliation can only happen if both people feel this relationship can serve our individual wellbeing.
  •  I want my partner to feel free, not obliged, to choose this relationship again.
  •  I want to feel free, not obliged, to choose this relationship again.
  • I am committed to gentleness no matter what.
  •  I am willing to engage in a process even though I have limited control over the outcome.
  • I bring curiosity and patience.

Your values are like a compass. Getting as clear as you can on your values at the outset will help you notice when you’re making choices that align with the person you want to be and when you’re drifting off and becoming a version of yourself that you are less proud of. Your individual values and your ex’s individual values may not be identical. They can’t be diametrically opposed, but they may not be identical. For example, if you were betrayed in version 1.0, your highest value may be safety and your ex’s highest value really needs to be transparency or respect. But you can also identify a shared vision of the values that would guide the relationship, like trust. In doing so, you provide yourselves and each other something to come back to, to guide the choices along the way.

Question 11: How will you talk with your family and your friends about the face that you might be, or are, getting back together?

I think it is important to have even a small group of allies who know that you two are exploring the possibility of getting back together. And that is first and foremost for a very practical reason. That is because if you rekindle your relationship in the dark without anyone in your life knowing, the reconciliation may be fueled by the fact it is transgressive and secret. Secret relationships have a tendency to be super-charged, and I worry about that excitement being confusing. Perhaps your excitement and eagerness are more a reflection of the thrill of being hidden or naughty rather than the excitement of creating something healthy. I want your Second Chance to be fueled by health and Relational Self-Awareness. I want you to keep the lights on (so to speak), even just a little by having even just a couple of people in your life know what’s going on.

I also want you to have allies because intimate partnerships tend to be strongest when they are buoyed by a community. I have this memory of sitting in a first couples therapy session and getting to know a couple. I asked them about family. They didn’t really have anyone they were close to. I asked about friends. They didn’t really have much of a friendship network. I asked about religious affiliations and other community membership. They didn’t really have much outside of each other. I remember feeling almost dizzy for a moment like there was so much pressure on each of them to be an entire world for each other. And therefore pressure, in a way, on me to help them heal and grow without being able to leverage outside resources.

An intimate partnership creates a bridge between families and groups of friends. It’s part of why weddings tend to be community events. A robust community helps a couple’s good times be even more fun. A robust community takes the pressure off intimate partners to be everything to each other. A robust community provides witnessing and validation during tough times.

This is of course where things get complicated. I have had so many experiences over the years of getting to know my people’s partners. And it is very clearly a both/and. I can love and appreciate you as my person’s partner while knowing full well that if the relationship goes south, my primary loyalty is to my friend or my sibling. This doesn’t mean blind loyalty—I will likely see ways in which my person had a hand in the relationship problems. I might, if asked, even talk about that with my person. But that is all happening while knowing that if push comes to shove, I will support my person.

         So, when you and your partner went through your breakup, so did your people. They felt some kind of a way about your breakup. It wasn’t your job to take care of their feelings (you had enough going on in the breakup, I’m sure), but I hope you were able to be accepting of the fact that they had feelings about it. Now that you’re considering reconciling, your people will likely have feelings once again. They have stories and biases and angles. Perhaps their story is gracious, but perhaps their story is of a villain and a victim. They might feel protective of you as you step back in. They may need to forgive your ex and take the risk of seeing your ex again with fresh eyes.

See if you can have compassion for your people if they are feeling protective or nervous. If they were in the trenches with you post breakup, they come by their concern really honestly. You can have compassion for them while being clear for yourself that you are making careful and mindful choices.

See what it might be like to say to your people: “Listen, I know you’re concerned. Frankly, I am too. I’m going slowly. I’m being careful. I get that you might need some time. I am not going to try to sell you on my vision. I can be patient. But in the meantime, please let me know what kind of updates you want. And please know that if and as we get back together, I might want to start bringing them around again. Let’s please keep our lines of communication open about how to make that as gentle as it can be.”

You may need to get out of the way. If your people have an issue with your ex, maybe your people and your ex need to sit down together, without you even there, and talk it through. The more you try to sell your people on the goodness of your ex, the more they might dig in. What might it be like for your ex to bear witness to your people’s hurt and ask for forgiveness and patience? 

Question 12: What are you most proud of about how you are handling this process so far?

Because healing is far more curvy than linear, second chances can feel like two steps forward and one step back. Make sure that you notice what is going well. Make sure you celebrate little wins. Make sure you notice a moment that could have gone sideways but didn’t. Make sure you notice how the two of you handle situations differently now than you could then. Progress is fuel. Visiting old patterns with new skills is fuel. Every time you relate to each other with more curiosity and compassion, you create what therapists call a corrective emotional experience. You have the opportunity to feel something now that you could not or did not feel then. And you have the opportunity to witness yourself offering something now that you could not or did not offer then. Noticing the victories is not about being in denial about the hard stuff or the slip ups. It is about knowing that the victories are the fuel. When you catch one of those moments, savor it for yourself and share it with your partner.

You might have the urge to say, “If you can listen to my concerns now without defensiveness, why couldn’t you just do that back then?” Or, “We could have been spared so much difficulty if you had just been like this before!” Or, “See, that wasn’t so hard, was it?” That’s your hurt talking. That’s your fear talking. That’s your sadness talking. And that’s real. But see if you can stretch yourself a little to try some version of, “Thank you for giving me now what you couldn’t give me then.” Or even, “I love how you’re responding. A small part of me, of course, grieves for the fact that I have now what I couldn’t have then. But a lot of me is glad to have it now. I’m getting used to it. I get a little scared to trust it. I get afraid of losing it, or losing you, but I am trying to really appreciate where we are.” See if some pride might be able to sit alongside the worry.

Conclusion

OK, we did it! Thank you so much for reading Part II of this series, “I’m Thinking About Getting Back Together With My Ex.” Remember that this article comes with a companion worksheet. Head to dralexandrasolomon.com/secondchances to download it and subscribe to my newsletter so that you can receive all future worksheets. Until next time, take good care of you!

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