The amazing reappearing ex: You've likely either had one, heard of one, or helped counsel a friend with one. They're the former partners who, sometimes after months of silence, fire off a text message to see how their ex is doing, or go on an Instagram-liking spree that rivals even the most loyal Beyoncé stans. And they're able to pull their exes back into the emotional turmoil of the initial breakup with a single email.
So what is with these people? The answer is complicated – and it's almost entirely dependent on the circumstances of the breakup. But oftentimes, it has to do with guilt. "People really look to be absolved," says Elle Huerta, the founder and CEO of Mend, an app that helps men and women through breakups. "If the breakup was particularly messy, or they cheated on you, they may be looking for you to confirm that they're not a terrible person. And by talking to them, you're giving them a sign that they're forgiven." Even though your former partner may not be explicitly saying as much, reaching out could be their own attempt at closure, Huerta adds.
Another factor to consider is whether or not you're contributing to the dynamic. "You need to be really clear to see whether you're sending your ex mixed signals," says Eric Yarbrough, MD, the director of psychiatry at Callen-Lorde Community Health Centre. "If you're liking their photos, or looking at their Snapchats, or texting them when you've had a little to drink, those are signals that you might be receptive to picking up communication again."
"A lot of times, pride is what keeps us in difficult places in breakups."
Elle Huerta, founder of Mend
Ideally, as soon as the relationship ends, you and your former partner should hammer out how each of you feels about keeping in touch, and then set boundaries. "Here, you can discuss anything from how to deal with mutual friends to whether or not to unfollow each other on social media," Dr. Yarbrough says. "You're going to run into them post-breakup, either online or in person. And if you're vulnerable, you're more likely to go back to them." (And remember, there is a difference between annoying check-ins and an ex stalking you — which is never okay. If you feel like that might be the case, there are steps you can take to protect yourself.)
Both Dr. Yarbrough and Huerta say that, sometimes, the best way to get an ex to leave you alone is to simply ignore them. If your ex's interactions are limited to social media, Dr. Yarbrough says it's totally fine to just block them. "There's no need to have a long, drawn-out conversation," he says. "And it's impossible to try to change someone else's behaviour. You can really just control your own."
But if you've tried that, and they still blow up your inbox, it may be time to have a chat. "You really need to check your pride at the door," Huerta says. "A lot of times, pride is what keeps us in difficult places in breakups. But if their constant contact is knocking you off your journey of moving on, you have to tell your ex as much." Having your ex in the picture can sometimes keep you from moving on — and if that's the case, it's usually a good idea to let them know, even if that means exposing your own vulnerability.
You may not feel like you're "winning" the breakup by admitting your pain, but you'll win the freedom to move on — and that's the most important thing you could get.