This Is Probably Why You Keep Going Back to Your Ex

If you feel like you're on a relationship merry-go-round, and you can never get off the ride — break up, text, make up, repeat — this therapist has some advice for you.

This Is Probably Why You Keep Going Back to Your Ex
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The relationship isn't working, and you've known it for a while. So, after some emotional turmoil, careful contemplation, and a lot of courage, you finally pull the plug. But then, a few months later, you... start hanging out again?! But why? Why do you (like so many others) keep going back to your ex as if you didn't have plenty of reasons to break up in the first place?

Well, there are actually lots of different reasons — many of which are quite common. Mainly, people stay involved with an ex-partner, or even prolong a breakup, as a means of diluting the ending (in an effort to delay or soften the pain) — something that is (typically) inherently finite. It's understandable: breakups, just like relationships, aren't black and white, and they can feel uncertain or complicated.

Still, in my work as a psychotherapist, I've seen firsthand the fallout from these watered-down or prolonged breakups. I often hear from patients who are navigating some pretty complicated feelings after following an urge to text or online "stalk" an ex — and even more so if they decide to hang out, have sex, or get back together with their ex. (Related: Here's Why Your Exes Are Texting You During Quarantine)

If that sounds familiar, keep reading to understand why, exactly, you tend to fall into this pattern of behavior, and what you can do to break the cycle.

Why You Just Can't Quit Your Ex

The real question: If you know in your heart that the relationship is over, why go back?

The most prevailing reason I observe: You think the discomfort of finalizing and grieving this massive loss in your life will be worse than the discomfort of stringing out the ending over time — but you're wrong. Your mind does a lot of things to protect you from feeling pain, and finalizing an ending can be quite painful. Grief is complicated and often felt intensely. Stringing out a breakup by avoidance or going back to an ex gives you a choice in the matter— which can make you feel like you have more control over your grief. However, pain isn't always wrong or bad. In the case of heartbreak or mourning a loss of a relationship, pain is a healthy and natural reaction. Avoiding a definitive breakup will not spare you from this very natural pain, it just puts you in limbo until you finally cut ties (more on how to do that below).

While this slow-burn breakup might be one of the common reasons I see people returning to an unhealthy relationship or to someone they have clearly outgrown, it's far from the only factor. If you're guilty of texting your ex one too many times, maybe you'll find a reason that resonates below.

You have a difficult relationship with being alone.

You're convinced that being single will feel lonelier than being emotionally alone while in a relationship. Often, this is not the case. One discomfort (being unattached) is healthy and can ultimately lead to self-growth, while the other discomfort ("feeling" alone while partnered) is indicative of a relationship that lacks real intimacy and can ultimately negatively impact your mental health. (Related: What Does It Mean to Be Emotionally Unavailable?)

You feel guilty about leaving your partner.

For some people, putting yourself first is an unfamiliar experience. You've been taught somewhere along the way that your own needs or best interest come after others'. While this can occur in any relationship (familial, platonic, or otherwise), I've often seen this experience in those who are attempting to leave an abusive relationship. (Related: What to Do If You Feel Stuck In a Relationship)

You are uncomfortable with the idea of your ex being with someone else.

It sucks to see an ex move on or start to date someone else, but feeling this way doesn't mean you made the wrong choice to end things. It could mean you just haven't fully healed from this loss. This can also be because you're still struggling with uncertainty around your break-up (something that may only come with time and reflection), or heightened pain of the conclusion. Remember, it is normal to feel pain after a loss.

You're being reactive to your emotions rather than sitting with them.

It's easy to imagine sitting at home alone on a Friday night, feeling lonely, and beginning to miss the companionship your ex brought to your life — then shooting them a text. Suddenly you're rationalizing away all the red flags that felt so present leading up to the breakup, and — boom — you're pulled back in. This is more of an impulsive reaction to feeling alone rather than something you actually want to do — or someone you actually want to be with.

You convince yourself that maybe they've changed.

Relax. It's been three weeks (or two days, or four months — heartache doesn't tell time well). Just because it suddenly seems (based on their online presence or word of mouth) like your ex has suddenly learned how to self-reflect and say all the right things — things you've been waiting for years to hear — doesn't mean they've changed. While change is always possible, real evolution requires time and effort and rarely happens all at once. For example, if communication issues in the relationship took form in chronic withdrawing or conflict avoidance, it typically takes lots of internal work to develop deeper self-awareness and communication tools. (Related: What You Can Learn from the Couples Therapy Scenes In Season 3 of 'You')

You're seeking out familiarity and comfort.

It's normal to want to feel safe and comfortable, and when it comes to your relationships, that means even when they're potentially dysfunctional or unhealthy. Humans are instinctively drawn to familiarity because it can be perceived as safer than the unknown. It requires a lot of courage, effort, and support to identify what or who isn't serving you, and to walk (and stay) away.

To be clear, in some cases, reaching out to an ex can be okay — outside of needing to stay in touch over practical factors such as shared responsibilities, distance and time can be healing for a relationship and for those involved. However, most of the time, there are one or more factors at play clouding your judgment. (More here: The Psychology of Getting Back with Your Ex)

How to Stop the Cycle of Going Back to Your Ex for Good

If you're reading this and you haven't yet let your vulnerable moments push you back into old habits — or old arms — use my go-to steps for resisting the urge for when the next inevitable pang of fear, guilt, or loneliness, hits you in the gut. (Also read: How to Break Up with Someone In the Healthiest Way Possible)

Remember that it's normal to feel a loss and to grieve.

You don't need to act on your difficult feelings, you just need to experience them. For example, when you feel lonely or sad, an impulse might be to 'fix' that feeling with something (or someone) else because those emotions are perceived as a problem. While they can be uncomfortable, it's so much better to sit with the experience of your loss without judgment (this is key). Try this mantra if you're stuck: "Just because I am feeling urgency around 'fixing' this feeling, doesn't mean I need to act on it." (Related: Try These Mantras for Anxiety When You're Feeling Overwhelmed)

Reflect on the purpose of the ending.

Your mind can be deceiving when you're feeling alone or vulnerable. Recall the reason(s) for the breakup, and why it made sense at the time. The reasons likely still apply, but your anxiety is telling you otherwise. Don't ignore the red flags.

Check in with your emotions.

Ask yourself: "Were you feeling closer, or further from your authentic self while in that relationship? Were your core values in life aligned with what you experienced while together?" You may also want to consider: "Are you missing this person, or just being with a person?"

A good way to step outside your emotions and see the relationship more clearly is to think about a close friend in your shoes: Would you want to see them go back into this type of relationship?

Create boundaries with your thoughts.

If needed, you can choose not to engage in a conversation with these intrusive thoughts. Try not to internally talk back, fuel, or reason with them. You can also try the "I'll sleep on it, and revisit this if it still needs my attention tomorrow" technique. Often, some of the same thoughts or memories you were fixating on the night before will be gone by morning.

Healthy distractions are also helpful when you're feeling too overwhelmed to begin to process feelings. (You just don't want distractions to be the only coping mechanism in your toolbox.) Here's your cue to turn on your favorite movie, FaceTime your best friend, get something on your social calendar this week, or pick up that book sitting on your nightstand. (Related: How to Tackle Personal Growth and Self-Work In a Healthy Way)

Give it time.

If one headspace is telling you to get involved with an ex-partner, and another is asking you to stay away, give yourself some time. Rule of thumb: Before making any more decisions about this relationship, you need time to reconnect with yourself — your self-esteem, confidence, desires — following the breakup. Time is inherently healing if we let it be.

Olivia Verhulst is a licensed psychotherapist based in New York City specializing in women's mental health, relationship health, and trauma.

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