DEAR DR. JENN,
My ex and I broke up a couple years ago, but despite a series of flings since, I’m still not over him. Is it crazy to try and get back together? —Backslider
First thing’s first: There was a reason why you broke up—remember that. It’s easy to get relationship amnesia after a series of unsuccessful romantic entanglements. Sometimes failed dates or hook-ups can leave us sorting through our history and idealizing old, familiar partners. Feeling discouraged or, worse, desperate leaves us in a bad position when it comes to decision making.
That said, sometimes an old flame didn’t work out for one reason back then but would thrive now. To figure out which scenario yours is, you need to ask yourself a series of questions. You may even want to implement the help of an honest, objective friend to explore the answers:
-Why did you break up?
-Are you idealizing your former partner and/or the relationship?
-What has changed that makes you think things will be different this time around?
-What has your former partner done to become a more capable partner, since the break up?
-If trust was broken on either end, can you rebuild it?
-Are you both willing to do the work it takes to repair what didn’t work before? How will you do that work?
-Who broke up with whom?
I particularly want to stress the third question on that list: What has changed? It's one that too often goes ignored. Have you reconciled? What work have you done on yourself to help you improve your relationship skills? What work have they? It has been said, “wherever you go, there you are.” It's the same way with relationships. The core problems that once existed are likely to continue to exist once you get past the honeymoon stage. Unless both of you have done a lot of work on yourselves and truly grown, developed new skills, and learned new tools, you are likely to find yourself back in the same place where you were when you broke up.
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That journey, especially if it was a contentious breakup, begins with reconciliation. Sometimes when a relationship dissolves, it’s because of a slow erosion that occurs in the connection and interactions between the two parties. Other times—more frequently—there is a precipitating event. One person betrays another, words are said that are so painful that there's no turning back, addictions affect your joint life, one partner fails to show up to support the other person, the list goes on. Whether you were on the giving or receiving end of the behavior that ultimately terminated the relationship, to move forward, you need to make amends.
When it comes to making amends, I always recommend looking for what I call the four R’s in my book The Relationship Fix. Without these four essential steps, a relationship can't heal:
1. Remorse. A heartfelt apology comes from the realization of the hurt that you have caused. Saying “I’m sorry“ is not enough. Those are just words. A meaningful apology verbalizes the understanding of the pain that you have caused and shows regret for the actions taken.
2. Responsibility. Taking responsibility is showing ownership of your actions as well as their impact, even if the pain caused was unintentional. When you take responsibility, you let the other person know that you understand the gravity of the situation you have caused and recognize what you have done wrong.
3. Recognition. It's important to provide a forum to talk through what happened and process everyone’s feelings. When people know that their pain has been heard, it helps them heal.
4. Remedy. The person making amends must repair the damage that has been caused and take action to avoid repeating the bad behavior. Having a plan of action that addresses the issues that caused the person to behave badly is good start. Sometimes that can mean ditching social media, switching jobs, attending therapy, or going to rehab.
That fourth step—putting a plan of action in place—is probably the most vital, if there's any chance of mending the relationship, but too often couples skip it or assume it's a one-and-done conversation. I can’t tell you how many calls I have gotten on my radio show from people whose spouse has done something terrible repeatedly and the caller has chosen to take them back. I see this most often in women. I ask, “What did he do to make you think it would be different this time? What plan of action does he have to correct this bad behavior?” The answer is always the same: nothing. “He said he was sorry and that he wouldn’t do it again." Without a plan of action, nothing changes. To take someone back who has repeatedly harmed you, but is not committed to doing anything differently, is to sign on for more of the same hurtful behavior. To apologize without implementing a plan is to set yourself up to reoffend and hurt your partner.
Reconciliation and action are not always possibilities. There are some indicators that should be absolute deal breakers. Any abuse—whether it is physical, emotional, or sexual—is totally unacceptable in a relationship. If your partner has hit you once, there is always the possibility that they will do it again, and you will never be free to be totally honest with them or trust them not to hurt you again. If someone has an addiction or mental illness but is unwilling to get treatment, that's a deal breaker. If someone is morally and ethically not aligned with you, that is not going to change. You can change behavior, but you can't change character. If someone is a compulsive cheater, that likely to remain the case, though that’s different than someone who screwed up one time. If someone is a compulsive liar, you will never be able to trust them, and trust is the foundation of any successful relationship. If your former partner was guilty of any the above, I recommend moving on.
But—and here’s the big but—sometimes a relationship ends because of bad timing. Usually, in that case, two partners are not on the same page about big lifestyle decisions or stages, whether it's about settling down, marriage, kids, career, moves, or commitment. With time, though, one partner’s priorities may catch up to the other’s. If everything else in the relationship worked, but a major discrepancy in goals drove you apart, it makes perfect sense that as those goals shift, so does your compatibility. Call it “backsliding,” but in such a case, getting back together with an ex seems more than sensible.
If after reading all of this, you're still think getting back together is the right thing, then go for it. But start slow. Reach out to your former significant other and see if he or she is willing to meet up to have a conversation. Spend some time together. See if you connect like you used to. You may discover that you’re actually completely over them. Or you may discover that your story together has just begun.
In Hump Day, where award-winning psychotherapist and TV host Dr. Jenn Mann answers your sexiest questions—unjudged and unfiltered. Email us anonymously at HumpDay@instyle.com.