Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Last May, I texted my ex-boyfriend: “What are you doing next Friday?”
I’d only seen him once in the six years following our college graduation, as I’d moved to New York while he hopped around Northern California, Utah, Missouri, and Michigan. The two of us had taken a perfectly friendly walk around Central Park, after which I went home and listened to Beyoncé for four hours.
“Possibly driving to St. Louis to watch a baseball game,” he replied. “Why?”
“Want to come to a wedding?”
I needed a last-minute date for my sister’s wedding in L.A. While asking him was her smart idea — he was an extrovert who could entertain himself and/or my family while I did maid-of-honor duties — it also seemed more like a dare, because Austin was the ex-boyfriend.
I met him during my sophomore year of college. He was a great boyfriend: kind, super-smart, thoughtful, and so funny that I’d sometimes get the hiccups from laughing so hard. I could be totally myself around him. So when he broke up with me after four months —citing differing social circles and my ex, with whom there’d been some, uh, overlap — I was devastated.
I spent months drafting lengthy, apologetic emails about why we should get back together. I’m pretty sure one was in the form of a sonnet. (We’d met in poetry class, okay?) It didn’t work. He moved to the West Coast with his new girlfriend and I gave up, mentally slapping a “One Who Got Away” sticker on his face and tucking him into a back corner of my brain.
So when Austin texted: “I’d be happy to go and support!” to my invitation, I began to panic. Was I that dumb? I’d just ended a serious relationship. This was like dropping my beaten-up heart into a coffee grinder.
Except that it wasn’t. That wedding weekend led to daily texting, which led to phone calls, which led to four more weddings together that summer, which led to he’s my boyfriend again.
As I told this story to literally everyone I met, I learned that it’s common for people to rekindle relationships after years apart. And often, those relationships are at a unique advantage. “You already know that you’re attracted to this person,” explains Erica Slotter, an assistant professor of psychology at Villanova University, “and are aware of their strengths and weaknesses in relationships, as well as the strengths and weaknesses they bring out in you.”
Plus, by spending years apart, you have a chance to learn from your mistakes, date and learn from other people, and understand who you are and what you want. That was the case for my friend Kim, 28, who got back together with (and eventually married) her high school sweetheart after six years apart. “Breaking up was a total blessing in disguise, because it allowed us both to grow separately during college,” she says. “It also made me less critical, and less focused on the perfect version of what I as a teenager thought a partner should be.”
This growth can make or break a relationship redo, so it’s critical to consider what’s changed about you and your ex, says Atina Manvelian, a doctoral student at the University of Arizona who studies romantic relationships. “What about the situation has changed? In what ways have you grown and learned from past experiences?” she suggests asking.
What helped us early on — as in, the day after my sister’s wedding — was a candid conversation about our newfound-ish feelings. We discussed our past relationship, our respective exes, and what we wanted in the future. (One big thing we have in common is being detail-oriented, apparently.) The biggest challenge was that we lived a few states apart. And trying to build a long-distance relationship off one good weekend seemed like another breakup waiting to happen.
We eventually agreed to “keep talking and see how things go,” which drove me crazy — I did not want the one who got away to get away again — but was also the most prudent option. Neither of us had been big on prudence in college. As frustrating as it was, testing out our compatibility this time around was essential for relationship 2.0.
And we were on to something: Taking a little extra time between “off-again” and “on-again,” Slotter says, keeps you from getting back together for the wrong reasons. “If the person is interested in rekindling the romance because they are lonely, or unsure of who they are without their ex, they may be setting themselves up for trouble,” she explains. “It’s probably not great for their well-being and may even decrease the odds of the new relationship lasting.”
Also a bad idea: getting back together because you realize on your sixth Bumble date that you hate dating. “Reuniting with an ex can alleviate much of the anxiety that you may face when dating someone new,” explains Manvelian. “Ask yourself if you are rekindling an old love because you’re avoiding the challenging process of finding someone new. Or was this person so wonderful that they are worth pursuing yet again?” For me, it’s definitely the latter. And, sure, I’d rather pull out my nails than go on first dates, but the long-distance relationship we established was no picnic either.
Still, not every rekindling works out. My best friend went to visit her ex after a few years in different cities; the weekend started off romantic and then got weird, and he ghosted her once she got home. Some amount of risk is inevitable, though. After all, “there’s a reason —or reasons — you broke up,” says Slotter.
Austin and I have left our last record in the dust, and he’s moving to New York this summer. So who knows? Maybe the second time’s the charm.