My ex and I broke up, the first time, after I discovered he’d been carrying on an email affair. This was senior year of college—we’d been dating since we were freshmen—and when I confronted him, he said he needed to figure out who he was without me. He spent the next few months getting drunk and throwing things off the roof of his house, mostly beer cans, once a pumpkin, launched venomously into a snowbank while I shouted at him through the window. We spent the next four years breaking up again, and again, and again, until we broke up for good when—surprise!—he cheated on me for what became the final time (although I would have taken him back that time, too, if he hadn’t fled our apartment with all his belongings while I was out of town).
All of that is to say: Whether or not we’ve met (hi!), I have strong opinions about whether you should get back together with your ex. I have eight years worth of strong opinions, eight years of self-flagellation, eight years of mental gymnastics performed to justify and excuse so much bad behavior and poor decision-making on both our parts. Breakups are not a bad hair day; they do not just happen. If you’ve undone your relationship, in other words, you didn’t do so by accident.
And yet. The very woman to whom we owe the glorious rat-nest of glamour that is this website got back together with her ex, and rather successfully so. As Leandra rightly says, “every relationship is its own breathing organism,” and so, as much as I’d like to, I can’t dish out slaphappy relationship ultimatums in good conscience. So instead, I’d like to offer some questions that I think are worth posing before you backslide into your ex’s DMs.
1. Are you sure, or are you just heartbroken?
Breakups can be liberating and restorative, but they are almost always sad, and being sad is hard. Very few of us would choose it for ourselves. Sadness is staying out in the cold when there’s a friend waiting by the fire with a warm drink. We’ve evolved to run toward that warmth. The rub? In the case of a breakup, that means running right back to the relationship. The breakup hurts! You want to feel better! Ergo, undo breakup! Getting to the other side of the sadness may take years. In my case, shaking the sad meant therapy, a new city, a cliché tattoo, lots of crying on the subway, and a drastic haircut. So if you’re questioning whether you should get back together, ask yourself: Am I sure I made a mistake, or am I just heartbroken right now? If it’s the latter, make yourself your favorite snack. Drink a glass of water. Call a friend. If you haven’t been outside today, walk around the block, and then keep walking. Let your own two legs carry you a bit further than they could yesterday. Do any number of things that help you lift the veil, and then reevaluate.
2. What would you tell your best friend if they were in the same situation?
While no one can truly know what goes on behind the closed doors of a relationship, it can be helpful to ask yourself what you’d advise your best friend if they were you. Was the breakup a long time coming, or a heat-of-the-moment decision? Are you full of regret, or nurturing a kernel of relief? We treat our friends with far more compassion than we treat ourselves, so if you’d tell your friend to give themselves a chance to breathe through the pain and see how they feel in the morning, maybe you should take your own advice. And if your own friends respond to the breakup with a relieved sigh? Take that response to heart. Your ex may have wonderful qualities, but it’s worth asking why you’re the only one who sees them.
3. What would it take to fix the problems you had—and are both of you willing to try?
I am a vocal supporter of therapy of all stripes, but especially couples’ therapy, which has been a revelation for my marriage. When my ex and I were in the throes of what would become our last breakup, I sought out a therapist for us. She ended up being my therapist, because my ex refused to walk through the door. You’d think that would have been enough, but I was making excuses for him right up until the bitter end. That’s all to say that if your ex seems to want to get back together but is simultaneously unwilling to put in the hard work required to repair the broken parts (or vice versa)—well, that’s an answer in and of itself. On the other hand, if your ex is right there in the trenches with you for the long haul? The advice of a neutral third party has the potential to unlock a new and better way of being together.
4. Have you given the breakup enough breathing room?
If you’re considering getting back together with your ex, give it a week. And then another week. And then one more. Think of it like a 30-day return policy (or maybe even 90): You need some time to shake off the relationship cobwebs before you’re able to see clearly. Honor whatever confluence of feelings and events caused the breakup—and the strength it took to walk away—by taking the time to evaluate whether getting back together feels truly right, or if it just feels easy. Your relationship is not a flash-sale clearance sweater; if you and your ex are both committed to giving it another try, it will still be there when you come to that decision—together, and with the accumulated knowledge and experience won during your time apart.
5. What are you really afraid of?
I still dream about my ex, often. Last night he was renovating an apartment, and as I followed him through the vast space I realized none of his design decisions included me. He was callous and cold, and I knew I would be forever unhappy, and I begged him to let me stay anyway. What becomes clear in these dreams is that I was more afraid of being miserable alone than I was of being miserable together. My desire for a relationship eclipsed my ability to see that we had long outgrown each other. These dreams, I think, are my way of working that out again and again; of trying to help me acquaint myself with loneliness. I spent almost five years ostensibly single before I met my now-husband. I didn’t love being single, but by then I loved myself enough to know that I wouldn’t accept any less than a true partner, a good person, the kind of love I knew I was capable of giving. Letting fear guide your decisions is a way of getting smaller and smaller as a person, until there’s very little of you left at all. The vast unknowable on the other side of your relationship is terrifying, yes, but it can also be brilliant, an aurora borealis of newness and light, tap dance lessons and the weird shoes your ex hated, a solo vacation where you forget your passport on a train only to have it returned by a kind stranger. Maybe your ex will be a part of that life; maybe they won’t. But you’ll be there either way, living, guided by nothing less than your own brave heart.
Graphic by Lorenza Centi.