The Ex's Who Self-Resurrect
[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
Tell me if this sounds familiar. A man or woman breaks up with you, or you break up with them. The sequence of actions leading up to the breakup don't really matter. Maybe you go through the five stages of grief. Maybe you're simply relieved. Maybe you have a nice chat and decide to part ways, or maybe the whole relationship goes up in flames. What matters is that you part ways, and if you're like me, you plan on not hearing from them again. But then six, nine, twelve months pass and you get a call or text from them. Usually, it's a "Hey, I was just thinking of you," text. Sometimes they want to see you. Maybe they're looking to reconnect, but I think that more often, they're looking for validation. I'm not sure if the holidays are the reason all the ex's resurrect, but it happened to me a lot in the weeks leading up to the new year. A guy I broke up with at the beginning of the pandemic recently reached out, expressing that he missed me. After chatting briefly, I wondered why I'd ever been attracted to him in the first place. A guy I broke up with this past summer sent me an Instagram message, then a letter, then an email. I ignored his advances before telling him to "please stop contacting me, what the hell is wrong with you?" The week before Christmas I got a text from an unsaved number that said, "I'm back in CA visiting my folks. Thought of you." I didn't know who it was until looking up the number and realizing a man who had ghosted me last year thought that I ought to know that he had "thought of me." Like...okay? We all have thousands of thoughts everyday that aren't worth sharing, so I let his messages disappear, just like he had.
I have some peer-reviewed theories about why people do this. I'm going to write with he/him pronouns because I'm a woman who dates men, don't be offended.
1. He's romanticizing you and your memories together.
2. He’s lonely.
3. He wants an ego boost.
4. He’s feeling sentimental.
5. He’s drunk.
6. He just broke up with someone (and feels lonely).
7. He regrets the breakup.
8. He misses intimacy (but not necessarily you).
As you can see, most of my peers attribute ex reach-outs to loneliness, which is probably true. One of the Dalai Lama's said "Silence is sometimes the best answer," which isn't all that profound when you think about it. But silence is actually the best answer, according to a mildly famous relationship expert. He states that there are three main reasons an ex will come back.
Reason #1: Reactance
Reactance teaches us that when humans have their behavior freedoms threatened they will fight to get that freedom back. If you move on and have no contact with your ex, you eliminate any potential for a a future with him/her. The freedom from that future, even if they weren't really interested, jerks them into reacting. A good example of reactance is Black Friday: deeply discounted goods are scarce, so people react in extreme ways to obtain them. Similarly, if you become scarce, you might inadvertently inspire an ex to come back.
Reason #2: The Zeigarnik Effect
The Zeigarnik Effect states that human beings remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed ones. A lot of breakups feel incomplete and leave one person (or both) wanting closure. If your ex wants closure and you move on, you indicate that the unfinished business of your relationship will never be completed, which can in turn make them want to reach out and gain closure even more.
Reason #3. The Uncertainty Principle:
The Uncertainty Principle was designed to help us understand how people react to certain conditions and uncertain conditions. Scientists actually made two mazes for rats to solve: a complicated one and a very easy one. When the rats solved the complicated maze, they ate more of the cheese that was at the end of the maze than they did when they solved the easy one. In terms of relationships, your ex may be operating under the assumption that they can get you back whenever they want. If you respond to their efforts to contact you, you confirm that assumption. But if you move on and don't respond to them, you show them that you weren't a sure thing and that uncertainty makes you more interesting.
Personally, I recommend silence if you're uninterested in your ex, silence if you're curious, and silence if you're annoyed. The best time to reestablish connection is if you're both emotionally healthy and willing to engage in a true friendship or to try a relationship again. There is a lot of data surrounding how common reconciliation is, but less data surrounding the failure/success rate of reconciliation, probably because it's such a difficult thing to measure. What is clear is that the less available you are to your ex, the more they may be inclined to reach out.