Rachel and Ross, Alex and Piper, Serena and Dan: We're all too familiar with the classic on-again-off-again relationship. While the common wisdom is to stay far away from our old flames, many real-life off-and-on relationships suggest a different wisdom — that some of our happiest relationships can be with people we've already been with.
Against all odds: There are, of course, plenty of good arguments for staying away from your ex. A 2013 study from Kansas State University found that many couples who got back together assumed their partner had changed for the better, or that they would be better at communicating. Because of those assumptions, they tended to not discuss subsequent major life decisions, like moving in together or buying that shared pet they always wanted, which negatively affected the new relationship.
The researchers concluded that people dating their exes were ultimately "less satisfied with their partner; had worse communication; made more decisions that negatively affected the relationship; had lower self-esteem; and had a higher uncertainty about their future together," according to a press release from Kansas State University.
But despite the abundant evidence that getting back together is a risky move, the study also found that "one-third of cohabiters and one-fifth of spouses have experienced a breakup and renewal in their current relationship." Meaning that sometimes, against all odds and our better sense, we witness it work — and we decide to give it a go ourselves.
Getting the spark back: Sometimes the very thing the relationship needed can only come after time apart. "It was really different. It didn't feel like it was just out of the convenience of the situation," explains Lucy*, 25, who is one of many who got back together with an ex during college.
The first time around, they had a lot in common, but there'd been zero element of romance and, as Lucy told Mic, "I didn't feel loved by him in that sense. There was no, 'You're so beautiful.' It was not a person I saw as the father of my children." The couple split for a little over a year, a time in which they remained distant friends.
What happened in the break? "Our dynamic definitely changed," Lucy explains. "We were both exploring other social options and dating other people and telling each other about it to varying levels of semi-jealousy. I had some experiences that made me feel much more sexually curious than I ever had during that initial relationship."
When they did get back together, Lucy credited a "physical spark" that hadn't been there the first time but become evident upon reuniting. Without the time apart and the people they dated in between, Lucy says they would have never been able to connect meaningfully the second time around.
This sort of young adult searching is popular with couples. A 2013 study from the Journal of Adolescent Research found that 44% of young adults ages 17 to 24 have gotten back together with an ex in the last two years. The key might be personal growth: Our younger years are full of on-and-off relationships, or what researchers call "relationship churning," due to the uncertainty that comes with that time in life. For those like Lucy who decide to the reconnect through the churn, the success of the second-time relationship often reflects how much each partner has grown.
Waiting out bad timing: Whether or not a couple has a shot at a successful rekindled relationship "has to do with the reason a couple broke up in the first place," Kristen Mark, assistant professor and director of the Sexual Health Promotion Lab at the University of Kentucky, told Mic. Mark says couples need to assess whether the breakup reason was "one that can be worked through or whether it was a true deal breaker."
That's key for couples who broke up due to bad timing rather than more fundamental issues. Jaya, a journalist, is now married to a man she broke up with — twice. The first time happened when Jaya was 16 and Matt was 17. During their five-year break, they kept in touch, developing the kind of friendship where "you immediately call when you've been dumped by someone else, or when your grandpa dies, or when you see something that reminds you of them," Jaya tells Mic.
Their next breakup was a result of Jaya's post-grad confusion and an upcoming six-month solo trip around the world. After a few months alone, it became evident that her feelings for Matt weren't disappearing.
"I think I knew that if I got with him it'd be forever, and I just wasn't ready for that to start yet," Jaya explains. "So yeah, I escaped halfway around the world, slept around and realized that no matter where I was or who I was with, he was the only person I missed. Even if someone is perfect, timing is everything."
The foundation of friendship: Jaya and Matt credit a lot of their relationship strength to their underlying friendship that stayed consistent even through their breakups, one sustained by emails, Gchats and late-night phone calls.
That friendship remains crucial even once a couple finally settles down together. A 2014 study from the National Bureau of Economic found that people who call their partners their "best friend" are two times more likely to report marriage satisfaction. Someone we plan to share a longterm commitment with is also someone we can communicate with and whose perspective we value outside of the romance
That bond is one of the appealing advantages of dating someone you've already been with, says Mark. The "benefits include familiarity and the lack of the sometimes awkward get-to-know-you phase."
Finding yourself: Contemplating a reunion with your ex also means tackling any dramatic self-delusions you may have. "You broke up for a reason. Unless something made that reason change, there is no reason to think the relationship will be different the second time around," warns Mark.
For Olivia, 29, and James, their sixth-month break allowed them to examine the one-sided nature of the relationship. After dating for a year in college in Texas, Olivia told Mic, "We broke up because I decided to attend grad school in New York. I had wanted to attend this school since before we ever dated, so when I got in, I felt I had to follow my dream."
James, not wanting to do long-distance, ended it. "To put it simply, the breakup sucked," Olivia says. But it gave her enough space to help her see her self-worth and focus on her education. "I learned how important and crucial it is to be independent in my life," she says. The couple also learned how much their relationship conversations had been lacking.
As studies have shown, ruminating and discussing breakups are the fastest ways to heal and gain back our individual sense of selves — something essential for healthy and effective reconciliations between exes, ironically. In this sense, the breakup talk itself can be beneficial for eventually get back together.
Back and better than ever: Dating the second time around works for couples when partners become different people than they were at the onset of the relationship, while still retaining all of the attractive qualities that first drove their partner to them.
It can be worth pursuing. A 2005 study found that couples who were together for longer than eight months increased activity in brain regions related to energy, focus, motivation and attachment.
Feelings of deep attachment to a partner, as anthropologist Helen Fisher notes, take a lot of time but usually endure once they're formed. The most successful rekindled relationships benefit from the built-in intimacy of the previous relationship, a kind of comfort you want to keep returning to.
"Imagine if you had a pair of pants that you really loved but they were your comfy jeans. Imagine that you'd put them in a closet for a while and you took them back out and they made your ass look fantastic," Lucy says. "You already knew everything they went with, but they had a totally different feeling."
*Some names have been changed to allow subjects to speak freely on private matters.