I never considered getting back with either of my ex’s.

Not that they were chomping at the bit to be with me again, either; there was far too much water under the bridge.

Yet saying good-bye to love, or what you defined as love, can be a lot more difficult than you anticipate. And you can far too easily bounce back to an ex just to avoid the pain of letting go forever.

Let’s look at some of the most common destructive patterns when you can’t make a breakup stick.

The drama of the yoyo relationship…

Many people break up and reconcile. Break up and reconcile. Break up and reconcile. These relationships can be quite dramatic, and in fact for some the very chaos of that pattern can be addictive. You can become so accustomed to life being full of traumatic, angry good-byes and reckless, seductive reunions that a more stable, healthy relationship seems boring in its wake.

And you’re likely to exhaust the energies of friends and family who watch you do this over and over.

The desperation of love addiction…

You can create problems by becoming obsessed with the search for love. There’s even a diagnostic category of love addiction complete with specific symptoms. One highly acclaimed treatment center says this about the love addict:

Love addicts live in a chaotic world of desperate need and emotional despair. Fearful of being alone or rejected, love addicts endlessly search for that special someone – the person that will make the addict feel whole. Ironically, love addicts oftentimes have had numerous opportunities for the truly intimate experience they think they want. But they are much more strongly attracted to the intense experience of “falling in love” than they are to the peaceful intimacy of healthy relationships. As such, they spend much of their time hunting for “the one.” They base nearly all of their life choices on the desire and search for this perfect relationship – everything from wardrobe choices to endless hours at the gym, to engaging in hobbies and other activities that may or may not interest them, to the ways in which they involve others in conversations and social interactions.

This sounds like its own version of emotional hell to me — acting on the belief that that perfect relationship will fix your inner fear. Healthy relationships don’t complete your life. They enhance your already fulfilled life.

The bitterness and confusion of not getting emotionally divorced…

Then there’s what I call emotional divorce. Perhaps you’ve heard someone talking about their ex or their divorce, and the intensity of their anger or sadness feels raw and almost ugly. Yet when you ask, “So how long ago did the relationship end?” The answer startles you, “It was five years ago.”  Emotional divorce takes time, energy, and self-reflection. You have to take responsibility for your part of the failure or the struggle that was never reconciled. If not, you can remain bitter or despairing.

But many people do have fantasies about getting back together. They talk about what they did wrong and wonder if they’d still be together if they’d only tried harder. That kind of question is hard to face. Yet sometimes couples often don’t want to do the hard work of letting go. So, they continue sleeping together, meeting late at night at Sonic, or spending significant time together…even if they know they’re holding on to a memory of what was and no longer is.

Is it normal grieving or have I made a mistake?

But let’s say you simply miss your ex, whether you were dating or married. How do you know if this is normal grieving or if you’ve made a mistake?Relationships are a mixture of happy and not-so-happy. And remember, you’re not only grieving your ex, but you’re grieving all the effort you put into the relationship. That can take a reinterpretation of the relationship and your own history. 

Here are some questions to consider when you’re uncertain about your breakup.

1) Are you afraid of being alone or are you simply lonely? 

Loneliness, or the fear you’ll not find another partner, can be much harder to handle than anyone expects. If you’ve got kids together, you may miss those moments that you used to share; the type of moments that only the two people who brought these particular children into the world would find funny or tender.

So first, you need build skills at handling being on your own, whether it’s single parenting, or enjoying solo Saturday nights. Creating new routines, getting comfortable with your new life. I read an article yesterday by Dr. Patrick Carnes and his advice was: “Learn how to turn loneliness into solitude.”  Once you’ve accomplished this emotionally, you’re far more likely to be assured “getting back together” isn’t based on fear.

2) Are you romanticizing or idealizing the relationship that was? 

History and familiarity can be very comforting. You used to smile when he sang in the shower. You had a soft spot for the way she curled up next to you. You miss those things. And memory can romanticize “the way we were” and rediscovering passion can excite and seduce. But what has changed enough for you to trust that whatever broke you apart would be different now?

Try to be more reality-focused on the positives of your ex and the changes they’ve made; quote those reasons to yourself when you’re considering rebooting the relationship rather than the more romantic memories. “He has a steady job now and seems to have matured.” “She’s much more giving than she used to be.”

But remember that your own changes, your own growth are the only things that you have control over. If you do try again, give the “new” relationship between the two of you time to develop to see if you can build and maintain fresh patterns of communication and behavior. This will give you confidence that this relationship has far more healthy potential.

3) Do you believe you and your ex have the capacity to fully forgive? 

Forgiveness is key. Both of you must take responsibility for your end of whatever caused the break-up; this is vital for a relationship to reemerge. You have to talk through those disappointments and hurts, give apologies for the impact of your choices on the other, and not rationalize mistakes. What fresh information are you learning? Can you truly leave the past in the past? (This process can be healing whether it’s for emotional closure or for actual reconciliation.)

But it has to be a two-way discussion, and forgiveness must be something you can both offer if you want to move forward into a healthy new chapter together.

4) How will you handle the reactions of others who supported you during the break-up?

Handling other people’s reactions can be difficult as well. The people that love you witnessed the devastation, heard about the fights, the affair, or the silent treatment. They may have misgivings that they either voice openly or keep to themselves.

This is true especially if either of you have trash-talked the other. You may have done the work to forgive, but others may need more time to accept and trust this new alliance. Having open discussions with them about the work you two have done together to explain how things have changed might be necessary to have their support.

If you do decide to try again, remember you want to build a new relationship, with fresh patterns of communication and different expectations.

You cannot go back. You can’t recreate what was. But you can gently go forward.  


You can hear more about mental health and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive one weekly newsletter including my weekly blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!

My new book entitled Perfectly Hidden Depression has arrived and you can order here! Its message is specifically for those with a struggle with strong perfectionism which acts to mask underlying emotional pain. But the many self-help techniques described can be used by everyone who chooses to begin to address emotions long hidden away that are clouding and sabotaging your current life.

And there’s a new way to send me a message! You can record by clicking below and ask your question or make a comment. You’ll have 90 seconds to do so and that time goes quickly. By recording, you’re giving SelfWork (and me) permission to use your voice on the podcast. I’ll look forward to hearing from you!

This was originally published on July 1, 2017 and was updated on April 27,2019 and again on May 2, 2021.

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