Tell your best friend you’re thinking of getting back with an on-again, off-again ex, and she’ll likely have a million reasons for why that’s a Very Bad Idea. But according to new research, it’s not only possible to have a serious future with an old flame—it’s actually surprisingly common. More than a third of co-habitating couples and a fourth of now-married couples have actually broken up at some point in the past, per a recent Kansas State University study.
For the study, researchers polled a nationally representative sample of 323 cohabitating and 752 married couples about their relationship histories—specifically, whether they had experienced “cycling,” or splitting up only to get back together later. Participants were also asked to rate their relationships in terms of commitment, relationship uncertainty, and overall levels of satisfaction. “We found that past cycling is a common occurrence among both cohabitating and married couples, who were able to make things work long-term despite relationship roadblocks,” says study author Amber Vennum, Ph.D., assistant professor at Kansas State University.
But the study presents a double-edged sword for cyclers: Though many couples were able to sustain serious relationships after having previously calling it quits, those who had histories of cycling were also more likely to cycle again in the future. And even worse, second-chance couples also reported feeling less satisfied and more uncertain about their romantic bonds than couples who had never broken up before.
So if there’s one thing this research re-affirms, it’s that rekindling things with an old flame can be tricky business—but that doesn’t mean it’s totally irrational or out of the picture. If you’re considering giving your ex another shot, Vennum recommends giving yourself a few pre-relationship gut-checks first to prevent history from repeating itself:
Be Brutally Honest with Yourself It’s natural to miss the positive stuff about your ex. But before making any moves to seriously reconnect, Vennum says you have to be 100 percent sure why you’re doing it—and you have to be willing to call yourself out if you’re not in it for the long-term. Do you really miss him, or do you just miss having an automatic date every Friday night? Is he someone you could settle down with, or are you just falling back into old patterns? If it’s between spending the occasional evening solo and being stuck in a relationship you aren’t digging a few months down the road, you’re better off being bored.
Make Sure You Can Be Friends First Friendship is at the core of every relationship, says Vennum. With a breakup comes messiness and feelings of resentment—obstacles you have to be able to move past, and not while under the influence of hormones. Before plunging back into full-on couple-territory, plan a few platonic hangouts, like grabbing lunch or happy hour drinks. That’ll give you both a chance to assess the post-fallout situation and determine if things are still too raw to proceed—or if you’re ready to move on together.
Lay Everything Out on the Table You broke up for certain reasons—and you need to discuss those reasons openly and honestly to avoid falling into the same toxic patterns. For example, if constant bickering led to your split, make an effort to identify your triggers, and make a pact to really try avoiding setting each other off. “Be really clear which things you can work on letting go and which are deal-breakers,” says Vennum, “and come to some reasonable agreement about how to hold each other accountable going forward.” Because if you just repeat the same mistakes you made together the first time around, the odds of things working during round two are slim to zilch.
Go Slooooooooow It’ll be tempting to immediately jump back into the “I love you’s” and weeklong sleepovers. But not only is it unrealistic to assume you can pick up right where you left off, Vennum says it’s important to remember that you’ve both probably changed during your time apart. Rather than viewing your relationship as a reboot, which can also make it easy to fall into old pitfalls and frustrations, act as if you’re dating a guy you just met. Don’t assume you know everything about him already—instead, make an effort to learn his likes, dislikes and habits all over again. That way you can start things off with a clean slate.
Be Willing to Walk Away In giving things another chance, you’re definitely taking a leap of faith. But with more cyclical couples reporting lower levels of satisfaction and higher levels of relationship uncertainty, Vennum says it’s important to know from the get-go that things may not be as great the second time around. The further you go down the relationship path with an ex, the trickier it can be to break it off. Of course you want things to work out—but it’s important to be mentally prepared to walk away if it turns out the relationship just isn’t what you expected.
By Kelly Thore