We all know that one couple with the classic on-again-off-again relationship. Sometimes you just want to send them a guide to a smarter breakup. But maybe those wishy-washy romantics are onto something: Approximately 50 percent of couples get back together again after breaking up, and a new study suggests that the reason is that they were ambivalent about breaking up in the first place.
While the sensible thing is to stay far away from an old flame after calling it off, some people can convince themselves there are arguments for getting back together. A 2013 Kansas State University that found nearly half of all couples reunite also revealed that couples who got back together assumed their partner had changed for the better or that they would be better at communicating. But the newer research suggests their motivation may be more prosaic.
In a series of studies recently published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, researchers from the University of Utah and the University of Toronto questioned people about why they might want to stay in or leave their relationship. Popular reasons for wanting to stay were optimism (hoping that the partner will change), emotional investment in the relationship, family duties, and fear of the uncertainty that would follow. Most people (66 percent) said they wanted to stay because of the intimacy and dependence they had developed with their partner over time.
On the split side of the coin, people wanting to leave a relationship cited emotional distance, a breach of trust, and general incompatibility (frequent fighting). And more than a third—38 percent—wanted to leave due to unfaithfulness. Despite the negative feelings, 49 percent of those considering leaving still had mixed feelings about hitting the road. The researchers point out that the findings align with the reality that about 50 percent of separated couples get back together again.
The researchers also note that a breakup is often harder on the person doing it because of the doubt that lingers in the decision. This ambivalence explains why such a staggering amount of couples will choose to reconnect after a split.
“As long as there aren’t serious issues such as abusive behavior in the relationship and each partner really cares about the other, a second chance at a successful relationship could work. Communication is the foundation,” says Noelle Nelson, PhD, psychologist and author of Dangerous Relationships: How To Identify And Respond To The Seven Warning Signs Of A Troubled Relationship. (And if you’re in doubt, here are the signs your partner is emotionally abusive.) “If you are considering reconnecting, be totally honest with yourself. Examine your motives for doing so. Don’t get back together because you’re lonely. Don’t get back together because you’re bored or that you’re afraid you will never find someone else.”
If you do happen to get back together for a valid reason—and be sure to ask yourself these questions before getting back together with an ex—remember to use your first round as a learning experience. Double check that you aren’t mistaking those lingering feelings for heartache or dread of being single; make an effort to address the problems responsible for your initial split.
“Obviously, since your relationship didn’t work out the first time, something has to change to make it work the second time around,” notes Nelson. “Otherwise, the same conflicts that caused so much trouble will re-emerge. Each partner has to understand and be willing to work on whatever caused the breakup in the first place.”