Earlier this summer, 17 years after their breakup, Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck got back together, sparking an avalanche of early 2000s nostalgia, glamorous celebrity intrigues and cultural analysis online. They are a powerful couple, and the tabloids and Twitter users cannot look away.
But perhaps the biggest reason ordinary people are so fascinated by what would otherwise be a celebrity gossip story is that exes found love again. For many, the thought of getting back together with exes is a real possibility for romance. A reality that can be negative, riddled with warnings and ex-partners who cannot take a hint.
But rebuilding a relationship can also be a tempting adventure and even a goal for some people, especially when the success stories sound like something out of a fairy tale. In addition, research suggests that the number of couples who break up and get back together reaches 50%.
The pandemic has even accelerated this process for some; In the midst of a global health crisis and lonely, sexless lockdowns, many people reached out to an ex again in hopes of finding that old spark.
Experts say that if both exes are interested, starting your own “Bennifer” can pay off if you are willing to work hard and have an open mind.
What attracts people to their respective former couples
One of the biggest benefits of getting back into a previous relationship is that most of the time you know what you are getting into.
“There can be some real benefits to getting to know a partner well before trying a long-term relationship again”, says Michael McNulty, a couple therapist in Chicago and a trainer at the Gottman Institute, an organization that studies relationships and offers counseling.
McNulty says that every romantic relationship has “perpetual differences”. These are possible points of conflict, such as navigating a shared living space, money, sex, children, friends, family, and more. Even happy couples have them, as a relationship is always fundamentally two different people with different personalities and worldviews as well.
McNulty also states that according to Gottman Institute research, these perpetual differences make up 69% of the problems faced by most couples in a relationship.
Long-running, slow-burning problems are the real poison of the relationship, not the big, explosive, or one-time events or confrontations. “Most marriages or relationships end with ice instead of fire”, adds McNulty.
Some couples “find it too difficult to talk or work through differences around key issues. They often become more distant and [become] more like roommates than spouses or lovers”.
This is why some people may want to get back with a previous partner, or try to move on with the current one. Because while we often enter a new relationship thinking it will be better than the old one, McNulty urges caution.
Long-running, slow-burning problems are the real poison of the relationship, not the big, explosive, or one-time events or confrontations. “If you are in a relationship and you are thinking of leaving, be careful, because basically you are exchanging 69% perpetual differences with one partner with 69% perpetual differences with another”.
So if you get back with an ex, at least you already know what those perpetual differences will be. Getting into the rhythm of the relationship may seem less complicated than meeting someone new and starting from scratch. “You are picking up where you left off”, explains Judith Kuriansky, a relationship and sex therapist and associate professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City. For some people, it feels “better to go back to someone you know something about than to be with someone you know nothing about”.
Celebrating what has changed
Another benefit of getting back with a former partner is the awareness of what has changed in the time they have been apart. You may be at a disadvantage when dating someone new, because you are not aware of how they might have grown and changed positively over time.
With an ex, you get more of a before and after snapshot. Kuriansky says one of the most common reasons ex-boyfriends restart their romance is “to feel like they have grown and matured”. Couples often grow apart over time.
Violette de Ayala is the CEO of a Miami-based women’s networking organization called FemCity, who has spoken publicly about how she remarried her ex-husband in 2019. “When we started dating again, it was nice because we knew each other, but certain elements of us had changed”, he says.
“We both worked in areas that we needed to work on while we were apart, and in many ways we were ‘new’ to each other. Evolving elements of ourselves made reconnecting a beautiful process as we overcome some of the pain of the breakup”, adds De Ayala.
“He no longer took our relationship for granted. He started giving me thoughtful gifts and now he randomly stops and shares her love and appreciation for me. That did not exist the first time”. On the contrary, if you have spent a lot of time away from someone and you get back together and discover that you fall into the same toxic patterns as before, that knowledge can also be advantageous.
Feeling like you are getting the same headaches over and over could give you the foresight you need to avoid the same disaster twice. “Sometimes, with the wisdom of years and experiences in other relationships, people feel like, ‘Oh my God! Maybe I can fix that stuck problem we had’ “, McNulty says.
But she emphasizes that the key is that “people need to know what their irreconcilable problems were before, and really look honestly at whether or not everything is different now”.
“Apocalyptic love and sex”
Before you start directing your ex, ask yourself why you are doing it, because a lot can go wrong.
While one of the joys of getting back with an ex is comfort or familiarity, Kuriansky says the longing for comfort may be out of place, especially lately, as we seem to be living in the midst of constant chaos.
Last May, when the lockdowns were being implemented, research from Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute, which studies sex and relationships, suggested that one in 5 people texted exes while in isolation. “I call it ‘apocalyptic love and sex’, says Kuriansky, which is, ‘there will be no tomorrow, so I better settle down’.
Kuriansky has studied romance during periods of disaster and terrorism, and says that it is common for people to reconnect with past lovers because of “the feeling that there might be no tomorrow: now with Afghanistan, natural disasters everywhere, [people feel like] they are living in a state of Armageddon”, so they want to go back to a person who once gave them love and security.
Take a look at why you approach an old love. Is it because you are trying to calm the anxiety of scary news headlines by seeking solace in an old love, and not because you really miss the relationship and are willing to put in the real effort to make it work?
Kuriansky also advises seeking the advice of friends and family before pursuing an ex. Many may react negatively, especially if the relationship ended badly. But the purpose of this exercise is not to invite judgment from loved ones; rather, it can bring you back to Earth and remind you why the relationship was troubled.
“Be prepared for other people’s opinions. Most people will say, ‘What? Are you going to get back together? Are you kidding me? Why?’ Are you going to deal with that?” Kuriansky asks. Get ready to confront those memories, not just with yourself and your loved ones, but with your ex as well, which can be the hardest part.
“That is a piece that was quite challenging and we had to work on it. Put the past in the past”, says De Ayala. “There is so much history that can drag on, but there has to be a mutual agreement that from now on, forgiveness, communication and the feeling of [starting] over” is what will carry the relationship into the future, he says. Many of us can find ourselves longing for a lost love.