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Why Do We Get Back Together With Our Exes?

"It's like the devil you already know."

Michelle Malia

JB Lacroix/WireImage; Shareif Ziyadat/Getty Images

Breakups can go down in so many ways. They can be mutual or one-sided, friendly or dramatic, definitive or open-ended. When it's over, there's one guarantee: you've lost someone—but maybe not forever. If Selena Gomez's breakup with The Weeknd and her recent outings with Justin Bieber show us anything, it's that being someone's ex doesn't completely exclude you from their dating pool. Maybe it takes a month, or a year or three, but research in college students suggests that down the line, about two-thirds of people find themselves wanting to give that relationship another shot.

Yes, that relationship. The one that failed the first time, and the second time, and maybe even the third time. Those failures don't stop people from getting back together—about a quarter to a third of young people's relationships are on-again, off-again. "As humans, we want to belong, we want to feel like we're experiencing close connections with others," says Stephanie Spielmann, a psychologist and assistant professor at Wayne State University. "If we've had a rewarding connection with a past partner, and we know they understood us on a deep level, that's going to continue to be appealing. It's like the devil you already know."

Just like some people cringe at the thought of their ex, others cringe at the thought of being on their own. That aversion can have you crawling back to them in no time. In a 2015 study, Spielmann explored the connection between the fear of being single and the desire to get back with a former partner. The study, published in the Journal of Personality, found that not only do people long for their exes more if they're scared of being alone, but also that they're more likely to try to rekindle the relationship on days when the fear feels particularly overwhelming.

Single life can seem scary, especially if you're leaving behind someone who you've grown really comfortable with. (Say goodbye to shamelessly peeing with the door open.) It forces you to venture into the unknown world of dating, with apps offering us seemingly endless options. "We're bombarded with choices. That can be a bit paralyzing," Spielmann says. "There are so many people you can sift through on Tinder that it's hard to meaningfully connect with any one of them." In a market with so many what-ifs, the familiarity of an ex can be tempting.

Giving into that temptation isn't always the best option—it could mean you're settling for someone just because they're available. As Spielmann's work shows, some people hook up with their ex not because they think that person is the best option for them, but because it's better than nothing. They're there, so why not? "People might just find out that being lonely or alone is not what they want, and they would rather go with the poison they know than a new one," says Omri Gillath, a professor of social psychology at the University of Kansas, whose 2017 TEDx talk dove into the benefits of secure relationships.

Those kinds of relationships are the ones least vulnerable to perpetual breakups and makeups. Social psychologists study three main types of attachment styles: secure, avoidant, and anxious. Gillath gives the rundown in his TEDx talk: Secure partners are most likely to have the longest-lasting and most satisfying relationships, avoidant people steer clear of intimacy and closeness altogether, and anxious types are "preoccupied with fears and anxieties of rejection and abandonment." People with anxious attachment styles are most prone to cyclical, on-off relationships. "They often feel distressed and they want their partners to be there for them, but they feel insecure about themselves," Spielmann explains. "They push and pull all the time."

René Dailey, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has been studying on-off relationships for about a decade. Her research shows that you're more likely to get back with an ex if you still have feelings for that person and if the breakup was less than clear-cut. Did one of you actually say, "We are breaking up"? That statement puts a definitive end to the relationship. But if one of you suggested something wishy-washy like "taking a break" or "giving each other space," it leaves the door open. And a breakup that's open to interpretation is easier to reverse.

Dailey takes a neutral stance on returning to your familiar "poison"—it's not always a bad thing. Sometimes, getting together with a past love has nothing to do with insecurities or fears of flying solo. Maybe things fell apart the first time not because you're inherently incompatible as a couple, but because of something less threatening—you were young and immature, or your work schedules didn't mesh, or you wanted different levels of commitment at the time. Those factors are always in flux, and it's possible that over time, two people who didn't make sense as a couple before suddenly do.

Still, Dailey's work does show that people in on-off relationships are more likely to report negative qualities like uncertainty and poor communication and are less likely to report pluses like love and understanding, two cornerstones of a successful relationship. Before you re-enter a relationship, remember that your memories of your time with that person might be biased.

"The reasons why we might want to get together with somebody aren't necessarily the reasons why we might want to stay with that person," says Eli Finkel, director of the Relationships and Motivation Lab at Northwestern University and author of The All-or-Nothing Marriage. Maybe you're physically and emotionally attracted to each other, but you're incompatible when it comes to resolving conflict. "When we're single and looking for a romantic connection, it can be easy to forget about the incompatibility issues—love and passion become the primary considerations again," Finkel says. (That's important, because passion may play a bigger role in relationship satisfaction for on-again, off-again partners, so physical attraction might overshadow compatibility problems.)

So why didn't it work out that first, second, or third time? Be honest with yourself about why you split. "A breakup is a great opportunity to grow and understand what we need and what we can change in ourselves and in our selection of a partner," Gillath says.

That approach can put an end to the fluctuations and make for a better relationship in the long run. Although most on-off couples were less satisfied in their relationships, that wasn't true for those who "capitalized on the transition," as Dailey puts it. "They explicitly talked about, 'what didn't work? How can we make this relationship better moving forward?'" she says. "They seemed to have a good way of transforming the relationship to make it more stable, and their relational quality was much more like people who hadn't broken up and renewed." For that to work, both partners need to be on board and willing to put in the effort to try again.
Maybe you did look back on your relationship objectively and realized it truly was bad, but it's still hard for you to move on. If you're trying and failing to get over your ex, it really is best to try dating someone new. Dailey's research shows that people who dated during off-periods were more likely to move on than those who stayed single.

In the end, don't make any hasty decisions about jumping back into it, especially if it was a toxic partnership to start. "When you're hungry, you might go get some fast food even if it's not the most healthy for you because it's right there and easy to get," Gillath says. "When you feel lonely and depressed, you might go ahead and make this mistake of getting back with an ex even if it's not the healthiest option for you."

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