Why Do We Get Back Together With Our Exes?
You've done it — or, at the very least, you've thought about it: getting back together with an ex. In fact, so many of us have thought about revisiting a past relationship that it's something of a dating cliche: you're looking at some old photos or stumble across a memento of your time together, and think, "Why did we break up again? I wonder how they're doing...maybe I'll just send them a quick text..." But no matter how your particular relationship ex-cavation goes, you should know that there's more going on here than just nostalgia, questionable decision-making, or the rational decision to give things a second try. As the first episode in the second season of Love, Factually — Bustle's video series exploring the real facts behind how we experience love, dating, and relationships — shows, there are actually biological reasons that make us keep going back.
In fact, our brains are awash in chemicals that make giving relationships another shot feel natural; similarly, various psychological mechanisms prime us to get back with our exes. And these mechanisms are present no matter whether our reunion yields a new, happy relationship, or the repetition of past mistakes and a chorus of friends shouting "I told you so!"
So if you've been confused by your own urges to see how your old love is doing — or are on the precipice of a romantic reunion and want to know what you can do this time to give the relationship your best shot — read on.
Your Brain Chemicals Want You To Get Back Together With Your Ex
You know that sense of compulsion you sometimes feel after a breakup, where all you can do is think about your ex? I am sorry to report that your brain is doing that to you (and you thought that you and your brain were friends!). Your brain's reward and pleasure system are engineered to make you want to take a second shot at your relationship, due to the chemicals dopamine and oxytocin.
As Dr. Francesco Ferrari, Clinical Assistant Professor & Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center, says in the video, dopamine is "the brain's way of saying 'Wake up! Pay attention!' This is what's really important." Dopamine is tied to any pleasurable experience, be it having a glass of wine or playing a refreshing round of mini-golf — and you'll experience a dopamine rush any time you see something (or someone) you like. The flipside of this, of course, is that dopamine is also a chemical that plays a role in addiction — so when you're going through a breakup, dopamine is what makes not seeing your ex (that someone you like) feel as bad as being deprived of sunshine.
But it's not just dopamine pummeling your brain by reminding you that your ex is important to you; oxytocin, the "cuddle drug," also plays a role in your post-breakup feels. Oxytocin in a bonding brain chemical — it's part of what connects us to our parents when we're born. Evolutionarily, oxytocin created bonds that made human beings feel compelled to protect each other from threats; but in our modern world, oxytocin may be responsible for the feeling that you're still connected to that ex who was wrong for you in practically every way.
So during or after a breakup, this brain chemical cocktail may be responsible for the lingering feeling that you and your ex still have so much in common and such chemistry (even if all real-world evidence may point to the contrary).
Our Brain Wants To Get Back With Our Exes Because We've Already Spent So Much Time With Them
Have you ever wanted to get back with an ex just because you have "so much history"? Turns out that's not just a whim motivated by a late-night viewing of The Notebook; there's actually a psychological term to explain our compulsion to want to stick it out with someone we've known for a long time.
It's called "the Investment Model." When we pump a lot of money into a purchase, we're more likely to want to fix it when it has problems, rather than throw it away; similarly, when we invest a lot of time and energy into a relationship, we're more likely to try to fix it.
It's not just time investment alone that determines whether we want to give a relationship another go, of course — as Dr. Ferrari notes in the video, we also take into account what our other "options" beyond this relationship are, and how satisfied you feel with the ratio of good things to bad things in your relationship. But issues of investment — like having a home, child or pet together — can heavily influence our decisions.
Getting Back Together With An Ex Isn't A Bad Thing
Almost all of us have friends who will roll their eyes any time someone mentions getting back together with an ex, as if you're always making an enormous mistake. But getting back together with an ex is incredibly common — as Rene Dailey, associate Professor, University of Texas at Austin, notes in the video, "Up to 2/3 of individuals have experienced an on-off relationship."
And it's also not an endeavor doomed to fail. Dailey notes that many breakups are due to communication difficulties or problematic behaviors, rather than, say, inherent incompatibility; based on her research, Dailey recommends that folks getting back together with an ex have an "explicit discussion" about your difficulties and whether you have the same goal for your relationship. This kind of frank discussion could lead to a permanent breakup, of course; but it could also lead to you two getting real about your problems, developing solutions, and ending up in "a more stable relationship, in which you have better communication patterns."
And if you seem to constantly be breaking up and making up with the same person, and kind of like it that way? Don't feel ashamed; Dailey found that some people enjoy the novelty and mystery of on-and-off relationships, and reported high relationship satisfaction with that set-up. For some people, an on-and-off relationship is torture, but for others, it's an ideal state of affairs that keeps them feeling excited. Not everyone needs to work towards a steady, monogamous relationship as an ideal; all different things can float our boats. And if that thing is getting back together with an ex, know that, if nothing else, you have a lot of company in that one.
Images: Love Factually/ Bustle; Giphy