I couldn’t possibly tell you what’s going on inside Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez’s rekindled romance, but what I can say is that the imagery of it is deeply, weirdly affecting. I’m talking about the Instagram photo of them locked in a passionate kiss while celebrating Lopez’s 52nd birthday on a boat. The pictures of their red carpet debut at the Venice Film Festival, where they smooched and smiled, serving Hollywood sparkle. The paparazzi photos of them taking their PDA to the streets of New York, looking like the epitome of a Nora Ephron rom-com couple. Comeback stories are powerful stuff.
The apparent joyfulness of their current relationship is especially moving in contrast to the years-long meme that is paparazzi photos of Ben Affleck looking sad while staring at the ocean, sitting on Disney World rides, and carrying Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffees. As the New Yorker’s Naomi Fry wrote in 2018, “These depressed-Affleck images can arouse both amusement and a sense of poignancy, a touch of Schadenfreude as well as something like sympathy.” (“I’m doing just fine,” Affleck tweeted in response.)
Seeing him light up around Lopez now, you get the sneaking suspicion that he is returning to this relationship with greater perspective and humility. Or maybe he’s just grateful to be reunited with her butt.
While it’s often inadvisable, getting back with an old love interest can be a very attractive proposition. I myself have tried dating the same person twice — both were short-lived flings that happened several years apart — and while I knew it wasn’t my best idea the second time around, I didn’t let a little thing like logic get in my way.
A silver lining for my dignity, though: Therapists say there are a wide variety of reasons why someone like me or you or even professionally hot and talented people like Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez might want to get back with an ex.
There’s the pull of returning to something familiar, which can be particularly tempting when you’re in a low place and reaching for quick ways to feel better — it’s the same reason you’ve seen that one episode of 30 Rock 58 times. There can also be a degree of fantasy thinking, of trying to create an alternate timeline for yourself, Marvel Cinematic Universe-style. “There’s this appeal of, ‘What if it did work out?’” says Seattle-based couples therapist Zach Brittle, who co-hosts the podcast Marriage Therapy Radio. This might also explain why the second coming of Bennifer is so enchanting to the rest of us: It brings us back to a time when we weren’t living through a global crisis. Safely swaddled in our nostalgia for the hottest couple of the Y2K era — you can say the same of pop-punk’s revival and the return of early-aughts fashion — we can almost pretend like right now isn’t happening. (Masked makeout at the Met Gala notwithstanding.)
In other situations, a young person might break up with a partner, only to date around and realize that first love was comparatively pretty great. A couple might split because of life circumstances, and when those factors change, they decide to give it another shot. (Bennifer’s 2004 breakup, for instance, reportedly had to do with media scrutiny so intense that, a year earlier, they called off their wedding after realizing that hiring three decoy brides was no way to celebrate.) Even when the relationship ends due to interpersonal problems, someone might get back with an ex precisely because they know what issues are going to arise. “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t” and whatnot.
Citing research from the Gottman Institute, Brittle says that about two-thirds of issues that couples face are “perpetual problems” that are rooted in personality differences. “The way I teach it to clients is that two-thirds of what you’re dealing with will be there forever,” he says. “The secret in managing conflict in a relationship is: solve your solvable problems, and then create dialogue, compassion, empathy, and compromise around your perpetual problems.” If a couple can re-enter a relationship with greater awareness of those perpetual problems, and less of an urge to change the other person, that may work to their advantage.
What I find most compelling about Bennifer 2.0 — what I’m projecting on them when I look at photos of Lopez watching Affleck work the red carpet at The Last Duel premiere — is the idea of returning to a former relationship with the benefit of nearly two decades of growth and experience.
"I had a client who was married to the same person three times. Their third marriage was their favorite one," says Brittle. “They were really thriving, in part because they were asking for help and leveraging their knowledge. They were using life experience, and they had more perspective.”
If a person feels inclined to revive a past relationship, Brittle would want them to think about why they want to do so. “What makes you think this is going to go differently? People need a clear answer to that,” he says. “Dopamine is a deceptive reality. It will tell us things are better than they are.” Similarly, Andrew Christensen, a professor of psychology at UCLA who studies couple conflict and couples therapy, says that as natural-born rationalizers, humans are inclined to vilify our exes when we break up and romanticize them when we start to miss them. Reality intrudes when the dopamine wears off, and the partner we remembered through rose-colored glasses turns out to have their own mix of flaws and strengths.
I’d argue that Bennifer’s public admirers can be susceptible to this thinking, too. Watching their reunion unfold, in all its over-the-top splendor, brings its own kind of dopamine rush; surprise, drama, and nostalgia are a heady combination. Would we be wise to temper our expectations and remember that celebrities are just like us? Maybe — or maybe a dose of Hollywood escapism isn’t the worst thing in the world right now.