The Psychology Behind Wanting An Ex Back, Even When You Know It Won't Work Out

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If you've ever been through a breakup, then you know the temptation to go back to an ex can be very real. Whether they're reaching out to you, or you're thinking about them, it can definitely seem like a good idea — and sometimes it really is. You might realize, once you spend some time apart that you are able to sort through your differences.

The trouble is, this longing can occur even when you know full well the relationship would never, ever work, and that reaching out would be a very bad idea. You broke up for a reason. And yet it's so easy to look past all that in favor of texting again, and eventually getting back together.

While it might not make sense, it is "extremely common to go back to an ex, even when we know it won't work out," Estepha Francisque, LCSW, LISW, therapist and executive director of Forward Ethos Counseling, tells Bustle. Every situation is different, but there are a few running themes that may help explain the desire to rekindle an old flame.

To start, and perhaps most simply, it's often all about craving what you're used to. "We are very tied to familiarity and the comfort of what we know," Francisque says. For better or worse, going back can mean falling into old, comfy patterns with a person you know well.


This also stems from the basic human need to connect and feel safe. "Although we likely experienced pain in this relationship, the lower parts of our brain geared for survival disincentivizes us from trying to go out and test the waters," Francisque says. "We have evolved to fear aloneness, as associating with others has been key to our survival for so long." So when you're sitting alone on the couch, and considering texting your ex, you have thousands of years of evolution to thank for that.

With a little space, you may even start to forget why the relationship ended, which can leave you pining away for what once was. "It is easy to over-romanticize something when there is distance or time has elapsed," Steven Reigns, MA, a licensed psychotherapist and founder of Therapy For Adults, tells Bustle. "We can forget the details and nuances that turned us off initially.”

It can be so easy to focus on the good stuff, and forget about the fact you didn't get along, or didn't want the same things. And when you're looking at the relationship through rose-colored glasses, of course you'll want to go back and have those good times again.

And if the relationship really was amazing in the beginning, and you had a lot of fun together, it's only natural to "hope to regain some of that or recreate some of those feelings," Elisa Robyn, PhD, a relationship expert who specializes in life transitions, tells Bustle. "Because there is human fear of being alone, and because of our memories, which are not necessarily reliable, we return with the hope that we can stay together and feel safe and loved."


Returning to an old relationship can also be easier, in some ways, than throwing yourself back into the dating pool. "It is easier psychologically to be with a person we know," Robyn says, "than to meet and build a relationship with someone new." So if an ex comes back into your life, you might find yourself gleefully deleting your dating apps, without a second thought.

Wanting to get back with an ex can, however, go a bit deeper than that. And in some cases, it might even be due to an unhealthy power dynamic. "Sometimes couples re-engage in an order to 'win' or 'settle the score' from the past," Reigns says. "The partner who feels distanced by the ex might go back to them, wanting to fulfill the unmet needs of the past."

You might view it as a second chance when it really might be more about having the last word, or proving something to yourself or to them. And for that, and many other reasons, it's always a good idea to pause — and think twice — before getting back with an ex.

"It is important to remember what went wrong and why," Robyn says. By taking the time to remember why the relationship didn't work out, you might realize it's actually better to continue on your merry way, and not take a thousand steps backward by trying again.

That said, it is OK if you want to give it a shot. "If you pursue an ex and don’t expect you’ll get back together, try to avoid self-criticism and judgment," Reigns says. "Get curious about your actions. Gentle inquiry into your motivations will help you understand yourself more and strengthen the relationship you have with yourself.” And that can mean having better relationships going forward.


Estepha Francisque, LCSW, LISW, therapist and executive director of Forward Ethos Counseling

Steven Reigns, MA, licensed psychotherapist and founder of Therapy For Adults

Elisa Robyn, PhD, relationship expert who specializes in life transitions

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