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Does Getting Back Together With Your Ex Ever Work Out?

With coronavirus, dating strangers has never been riskier, so many people are returning to old faithfuls — with mixed results

For many single women, the past four-plus months of quarantine has been like a bizarre episode of The Bachelorette in which every guy who gets out of the limo has failed you before. I’ve personally heard from nearly every ex-boyfriend and fling over the past decade, and even a few ghosts defied the odds (and Dr. Fauci) by trying to smash. As amusing as the onslaught has been, though, I tend to believe that relationships end for good reasons and most breakups should stick.

Prior to the coronavirus, this stance was shared by most dating experts as well, including Greg Behrendt, co-author of He’s Just Not That Into You and It’s Called a Breakup Because It’s Broken. But a global pandemic has turned that conventional wisdom on its head, making me wonder if I should have responded to the dude who questioned my toilet paper consumption

“More exes are deciding to give it another shot, because the pandemic is triggering a ton of loneliness in people,” therapist Tammer Malaty tells me. He partially attributes this to how many people are either unemployed or underemployed and finally have time to reflect on past relationships. Beyond that, he explains, “Humans have a need to connect with others, and if you’re in a part of the country that has pretty strict quarantine rules, you’re struggling to connect with anyone, especially if you live alone.” 

“I think people are taking a hard look at their lives now, due to coronavirus and quarantine, and really assessing what they want in life,” adds therapist Jason Fierstein, who also has seen an uptick in couples getting back together during quarantine.

Historically, studies have found that more than one-third of cohabitating significant others and one-fifth of spouses broke up and reconciled at least once over the course of their relationships. As for whether or not getting back together is a good idea, there are too many variables between couples to say definitively, but it’s certainly a bad idea if a couple hasn’t honestly addressed the issues that caused their original breakup. Otherwise, Fierstein says, “Reunited couples may experience an initial high, like in the honeymoon stage, but those issues will come back.”

Likewise, if coronavirus is the main reason for reuniting, exes may just be avoiding moving on and meeting new people. “There’s something called ‘perceived scarcity,’ which basically means that when something is unavailable, we find it to be more valuable,” Malaty says, comparing past relationships to the absurd value we put on toilet paper at the beginning of the pandemic. (I’m not an expert like Malaty, but if you’re treating your ex like something you wipe your ass with, that’s probably not a good sign.)

Sarah, a 29-year-old waitress in New York City, met her ex-boyfriend a little over two years ago at a “crusty old open mic with warm beers and terrible takes.” But as they both struggled with their own individual mental health and substance abuse problems, they eventually broke up after the holidays. “I have major depressive disorder and PTSD, which I’ve been pretty transparent about,” she says. “So I needed to stop drinking and implement healthy habits like going back to therapy, meditating, eating healthy and all those self-care rituals.”

Sarah adds that her now-again boyfriend had his own depression to deal with, which he got help for in their time apart. Although they only took a short break, they took things slow when they reunited a few weeks before the city shut down, recreating their first dates — e.g., trips to the museum and their favorite Italian spot. When Manhattan went into lockdown mode, they resisted the urge to move in with each other, and took the virus and their relationship seriously by talking regularly but quarantining apart for more than two months. 

“He brings meals to his elderly grandma, so we were very careful,” Sarah says. She initially worried that they’d lose the momentum they’d been building before the coronavirus hit, but she now credits the distance with helping them rebuild a much better relationship. “We’re a whole lot less codependent and have healthier boundaries now. It’s been pretty great,” she says, adding that they’re now happily and safely quarantining together. 

Jenny, a 44-year-old teacher in Portland, has a similar success story. In fact, she married the man who once dumped her out of nowhere. “It totally devastated me, as I was so sure we were going to end up together,” she tells me, explaining that they’d dated seriously for a year after being friends for six years. 

But because they’d been friends for so long, they had a string of weddings to attend the year following their breakup, forcing them to frequently see each other under the most romantic conditions. “It was awful, I couldn’t get rid of him,” she recalls. Finally, at one reception she got up the nerve to approach him at the open bar and made a joke about buying him a drink. “The way he looked at me, I will never forget. He was so over it. It was painful and not terribly attractive, and I quickly fucked off and had fun with my friends,” she tells me. (At the same wedding, she’d meet a “sexy paramedic” who she ended up dating casually the following summer.) 

Finally, when they were at another friend’s wedding later that year, her then-ex, now-husband was ready to work things out. “The turning point was when I went over to drop off some glasses for the bachelor party,” she says. “We had a couple of gins and just admitted a ton of imperfections to each other, and a lot of shame we had been carrying around. We both thought that there was no way we were getting back together. I was very much thinking about making sure that our friends would have a good wedding day.”

Still, they had a great time at the wedding and ended up sleeping in the same bed, though nothing happened. “I didn’t trust him,” Jenny tells me. But a few days later, he called and said he was seeing a therapist who had helped him work on his intimacy issues and get to a point where he was ready to commit. “I told him I needed him to say that to my face, which he did,” she continues. “After that, we were done screwing around. By the next summer, we were engaged.”

“The best way to go about getting someone back is by completely letting go of the things you can’t control, and that’s pretty much everything but yourself,” Malaty says, speculating that’s probably what helped Jenny rekindle her romance. “You can only focus on yourself and do some honest self-evaluation.”

Although Jenny and her husband didn’t reunite during a global pandemic, there was similar circumstantial pressure on them because she’s from the U.K. and he’s from the U.S. They wanted to stay engaged longer, but the need for citizenship made that impossible. Jenny admits that nothing about their courtship has been smooth or particularly romantic, but she loves her husband just as much a decade later as she did when he first broke her heart. 

Perhaps more surprisingly, she never worried about him dumping her again. “When we were finally back together, everything moved so fast I didn’t have time to worry about that, which, looking back, was probably for the best,” she tells me. “It would’ve been so easy to not get back together, so the fact that we both wanted to try was enough.”

As for everyone else in a similar situation, Jenny suspects her advice — lockdown or otherwise — would be the same she’d give about any relationship: Let go of the fairy tale. “Don’t get me wrong, I love my husband very much,” she says. “But if I got everything from him, we wouldn’t make it.”

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