Why Getting Back Together With Someone Feels So Emotionally Intense
Restarting a love affair kickstarts all the unresolved big feelings you once buried.
Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck’s reunion is often discussed as the only good thing to have come out the pandemic. . What helped to zap up the Bennifer saga was that there was round 2; that they got back together made this love story ripe for cultural dialogue.
Getting back with your ex is the most divisive (post)relationship decision. Especially one that many in a pandemic world might have been tempted to explore. It inspires to-do lists, plays with memory, has playlists making comebacks, requires multiple consultations with friends. The only method to this madness seems to be diving into nostalgia and fantasy to imagine a version of the relationship that actually works for you. Research even suggests a staggering number of couples who break up eventually get back together; it’s as high as 50%. Why harp on about a long-lost romance that clearly didn’t work out at the time?
The intensity comes from a sense of redemption. A relationship that ended in the past — possibly due to parental or economic factors — feels like a split in the fabric of the world for a lot of couples. “For most [couples who reunite], they [the new relationships] are intense because they finally get to ‘right the wrong.’ They feel like this is the person they were meant to be with,” Nancy Kalish. Ph.D. in psychology at California State University in Sacramento, told Quartz. “Prince Charles never stopped loving Camilla. But it didn’t work out when they were younger and so he had to marry somebody else.” (And what a mistake that way). A present-day version of this could possibly be abandoning an online relationship during the lockdown, but wanting to pick it up as things re-open.
Nostalgia also works at lightspeed to make this old love feel comfortable. “The further people get from an experience, the more likely they are to remember all the good parts,” Helen Fisher, a research fellow at The Kinsey Institute, told Nylon Mag. In a pandemic world, the sense there could not be a tomorrow also thrives. When “[people feel like] they’re living in a state of Armageddon,” Judith Kuriansky, a relationship and sex therapist told BBC, the desire to go back to a person who was once an agent of comfort is strong. She calls it “apocalyptic love and sex.”
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Then there is the matter of the relationship clock. To everyone who believes the clock resets when people get back together, this is a rude awakening: it doesn’t. People already know things about each other — likes, memories, what breaks them, what keeps them going. Most couples then ride right past the “getting to know you” phase. “We can go from ‘nice to see you’ to seeing them naked in less than 24 hours. It’s an instant relationship, you just don’t put it in the microwave,” clinical psychologist Joe Carver said. The pro here is that this dynamic is familiar.
People do have a “familiarity bias,” the tendency to choose things that are closest to us. And chances are when people get back with someone they know, they are at least aware of what they might be getting themselves into. What their political beliefs are, their social lives, etc. According to research, perpetual differences like money, sex, friends make up 69% of the problems a couple faces.
“You’re basically trading 69% of perpetual differences with one partner with 69% of perpetual differences for another,” Michael McNulty, a couples therapist in Chicago, told BBC.
Plus, there’s a fair assumption that history doesn’t always repeat itself — what broke people up the first time may not happen again. This may be because partners have changed. But also people would now have the foresight to not fall into toxic patterns or do what they did the last time. “With an ex, you get more of a before-and-after snapshot,” BBC wrote. In New Girl, Jess and Nick’s relationship has a very “will-they-won’t-they” vibe. The chase, relationship, break-up, hook-up, dating, and proposal all carry an unnerving intensity. Nick and Jess are a lesson in why timing matters.
It’s good news then if science says rekindled love stories may have a longer shelf life. In a 2015 study, Nancy Kalish, professor emeritus at California State University in San Francisco, looked at 1,001 people who broke off a relationship and then revisited it at least five years later. She found that 72% were still with their “lost love” and 71% found the reunion was their most intense romance of all time. Of course, this may be as concerns of parents or what restricted people may no longer feel as apparent.
Of course, the caveat here is the said partners have great self-clarity, know what broke them up, and know why they are jumping back into a relationship. The familiarity and fantasy of getting together with an ex can, and does, make these considerations fuzzy.
“Pulling a ‘Bennifer’ of your own can yield positive benefits – if you’re willing to put in a lot of work, and have an open mind,” journalist Bryan Lufkin wrote in BBC.
How does one possibly navigate this romantic mind game? Set yourself somewhere between unflinching faith and absolute cynicism; avoid looking at old pictures and text, know what you want. And well, people can always get by with a little help from your friends.
Saumya Kalia is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. Her journalism and writing explore issues of social justice, digital sub-cultures, media ecosystem, literature, and memory as they cut across socio-cultural periods. You can reach her at @Saumya_Kalia.