It’s not surprising that a lot of us have thought about our exes in this past year of upheaval. The pandemic, the social isolation and then reconfiguring what ’normal’ means, coupled with time on our hands, has got many of us hankering for the past with a pang of nostalgic longing.
We want to hark back to a time when things were easier, happier and more carefree. And – although your past relationship ended for a reason – it’s easy to gloss over the messier elements when you’re three glasses of pinot down on a lonely Sunday night.
Yet, for those who’ve been hit by exactly that craving, it’s important that you resist.
An intriguing study, published in October 2020, from two American psychology academics finds that people who are most driven to reconnect with their ex feel that way due to a loss of sense of self.
Titled Putting Me Back Together By Getting Back Together, the research by authors Morgan Cope and Brent Mattingly followed the thought processes of 180 participants in their 30s who had recently suffered a breakup.
“Participants who needed more reassurance and love in their relationships (ie those high in attachment anxiety), were more interested in getting back together,” writes relationship coach Dr. Gary W. Lewandowski Jr., explaining the results of the study in Psychology Today.
“A major reason was that greater attachment anxiety coincided with greater confusion over who they were as a person (i.e., lower self-concept clarity), which was also associated with wanting to rekindle the past relationship.”
This, in turn, suggests a powerful link between your past relationship and the loss of self that it engendered.
“If you felt like your partner helped make you feel like ‘you’, the obvious solution to not feeling like yourself is to bring back the person who helped make you feel whole,” Lewandowski explains.
If this is the case it may point to an element of codependency in your former relationship: that is, you put your ex’s feelings, desires and overall sense of wellbeing far ahead of your own needs.
This compulsive pattern of behaviour is very common and typically kicks into play in tight-knit, passionate relationships.
There’s a fine line between falling in love and losing who you are. And so, as you “fall for” someone, there’s a risk you may simultaneously begin to lose focus on your own identity and boundaries (often without even realising it).
This familiar dynamic is then amplified when you break-up, as your sense of self – anchored as it is to your partner – is thrown further into disarray.
“I was hugely in denial when I broke up with who I thought was the big love of my life,” digital manager Cara*, 27, tells Stylist. “For years I was desperate to know what he was doing, clutching on to any breadcrumbs that would give me an excuse to strike up conversation and feeling hugely validated whenever he’d reciprocate.
“I wasn’t happy at the time (clearly), but I also wasn’t happy in the relationship because I relied so heavily on him and our coupledom defining who I was. My world revolved around him and I let it continue to do so even after we ended things.”
However painful breakups are – indeed the shock affects us physically as well as emotionally – they are at least a chance to rediscover who you are, outside the boundaries of you in a couple.
Most people experience an erosion of self during a long-term relationship, even if that occurs in a more benign way. That is, losing your identity isn’t the result of your partner’s manipulative behaviour (though that’s all too often the case) – it’s simply the gradual outcome of you aligning your life so closely within someone else’s.
Regardless, it’s not a healthy state to be in. Research shows that we thrive when we’re autonomous; when we have the ability to take control of our own needs, goals and desires.
Science is also clear on the fact that reconnecting with an ex – even for a one-night stand – makes the pain of a breakup worse, and more intense to move on from.
The upshot? Instead of looking back in wake of a messy split, try to take stock of who you are in the present. Sooner or later the real you will reemerge, and you’ll be all the stronger for it.
Need support with a difficult relationship or breakup? Find confidential help at Relate
*Names have been changed