Who Is Most Eager to Get Back Together With an Ex?
What the desire to rekindle a former flame says about you.
We don’t like endings. We don’t like to lose things. That’s especially true when what we’re losing is central to our lives and helps define who we are as a person. That’s why ending a romantic relationship hurts.
In high-quality relationships, we grow close to our partner in ways that make us a better person (Aron et al. 2013). Even if the relationship wasn’t ideal, your life was enmeshed with the relationship and your ex-partner, making a sense of loss inevitable. In fact, the more your previous relationship was part of who you are as a person (e.g., “I’m their girl/boyfriend” “We’re a couple”), the more likely you are to feel that you’ve lost part of your own identity when the relationship ends (Lewandowski et al., 2006). When we experience loss of self like this, it makes us question how well we know ourselves (Slotter et al., 2010). These reductions in self-concept clarity can create confusion about our sense of self and have been linked to depression symptoms (Richman et al., 2016).
When we’re confronted with loss it’s natural to want a quick fix. We just want the negative feelings to end and to try to repair or reclaim what we lost. The easiest way to do that is by getting back together with the former partner.
New research from Morgan Cope of Florida Atlantic University and Brent Mattingly of Urisinus College explored the desire to rekindle past relationships. The researchers had 180 participants (average age of 34) think about a recent breakup and how much they wanted to get back together with their former partner (e.g., “I tried to spend time with my ex-partner” and “I tried to rekindle my relationship with my ex-partner”) Participants also answered questions about their attachment anxiety (e.g., “I need a lot of reassurance and love from my partner”), and self-concept clarity (e.g., “In general, I have a clear sense of who I am and what I am”).
As predicted, participants who needed more reassurance and love in their relationships (i.e., those high in attachment anxiety), were more interested in getting back together. A major reason was that greater attachment anxiety coincided with greater confusion over who they were as a person (i.e., lower self-concept clarity), which was also associated with wanting to rekindle the past relationship.
These findings suggest an interesting dynamic that may happen after a breakup. Losing a relationship can be a destabilizing experience that creates self-confusion, especially for those with greater attachment anxiety. The natural reaction to this turmoil is to reinvigorate the past relationship in order to decrease the self-concept confusion the breakup caused. That is, if you felt like your partner helped make you feel like “you,” the obvious solution to not feeling like yourself is to bring back the person who helped make you feel whole. Or, as the study title cleverly suggests, individuals are “putting me back together by getting back together.”
Perhaps a more important question is, “Should you get back together with an ex?” The simple answer is likely no. Though going back to a past relationship may be an easy solution, it’s often not the best approach (Dailey et al., 2009), and may only prolong the distress.
If you’re not sure about getting back together, or about leaving the relationship in the first place, there’s an easy way to help you make a decision.
Aron, A., Lewandowski, G. W., Jr., Mashek, D., & Aron, E. N. (2013). The self-expansion model of motivation and cognition in close relationships. In J. A. Simpson & L. Campbell (Eds.) The Oxford handbook of close relationships (pp. 90-115). New York: Oxford University Press.
Cope, M. A., & Mattingly, B. A. (2021). Putting me back together by getting back together: Post-dissolution self-concept confusion predicts rekindling desire among anxiously attached individuals. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 38(1), 384–392. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407520962849
Dailey, R. M., Pfiester, A., Jin, B., Beck, G., & Clark, G. (2009). On-again/off-again dating relationships: How are they different from other dating relationships? Personal Relationships, 16, 23–47.
Lewandowski, G. W., Jr., Aron, A., Bassis, S., & Kunak, J. (2006). Losing a self-expanding relationship: Implications for the self-concept. Personal Relationships, 13(3), 317-331.
Richman, S. B., Pond, R. S., Jr., Dewall, C. N., Kumashiro, M., Slotter, E. B., & Luchies, L. B. (2016). An unclear self leads to poor mental health: Self-concept confusion mediates the association of loneliness with depression. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 35, 525–550.
Slotter, E. B., Gardner, W. L., & Finkel, E. J. (2010). Who am I without you? The influence of romantic breakup on the self-concept. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 147–160.
Read it on Psychology Today here.