This Is the Scientific Reason Why Couples Get Back Together After a Breakup

Over a third of co-habitating couples who separate give it another go. Science has an explanation—and with the right mindset, reuniting may not be such a bad idea, after all.

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We all know that one couple who is always breaking up just to get back together again. It’s enough to make you want to send them a guide to a smarter breakup and end the roller coaster of pain—for everyone involved. Yet those wishy-washy romantics often don’t see it as a problem and a new study suggests that it’s because they were ambivalent about breaking up in the first place. So it’s like… a breakup that was never really a breakup?

Conventional wisdom says the best thing to do after a breakup is to steer clear of your old flame but reality proves that many couples will get back together again, sometimes repeatedly. In fact, more than a third of all broken-up couples will reunite, with the most popular reason being that they thought the other person may have changed, according to a previous study focusing on married and cohabitating young-adult couples done by Kansas State University  However, a series of newer studies, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, found that the reasons for getting back together among young-adult couples were more varied. Answers ranged from optimism that things will be different this time, an emotional investment in the relationship, a feeling of family duties, or a fear of the uncertainty of what would happen next. Two-thirds of respondents said they wanted to get back together because of the intimacy and dependence they had developed with their partner over time. (Here are clear signs you’re in a codependent relationship.)

On the other hand, people who wanted to break up for good said it was due to emotional distance, a breach of trust, frequent fighting, or a general feeling of incompatibility. And more than a third—38 percent—wanted to leave due to cheating. Yet despite all these excellent relationship deal breakers, half of those considering leaving still had mixed feelings about hitting the road—which makes sense considering about 50 percent of separated couples will get back together again. (Be sure your partner isn’t micro-cheating before getting back together, though.)

The study also put another common argument to rest: The breakup feels harder for the person doing the dumping than the one being dumped. Why? The one who initiates the breakup has to deal with most of the doubt as to whether it was the right choice or not.

(Here’s how to stop thinking about someone you’re trying to move past.)

But the truly important question is whether or not getting back together is actually a good idea. That depends, says Noelle Nelson, PhD, a relationship psychologist and author of Dangerous Relationships: How To Identify And Respond To The Seven Warning Signs Of A Troubled Relationship.

“As long as there aren’t serious issues such as abusive behavior in the relationship and each partner really cares about the other, a second chance at a successful relationship could work,” she says. “Communication is the foundation of a good relationship.”  (Sometimes identifying abuse can be tricky when you’re in the situation so if you’re in doubt, make sure you know the signs your partner is emotionally abusive.)

“If you are considering reconnecting, be totally honest with yourself,” Dr. Nelson says. “Examine your motives for doing so. Don’t get back together because you’re lonely. Don’t get back together because you’re bored or that you’re afraid you will never find someone else.” (A good place to start is reading what therapists want you to consider when getting back with an ex.)

If you do end up getting back together, make sure you learn from the mistakes you made in your first go-round, Dr. Nelson says. This may mean getting counseling to help prevent repeating your painful history. (Here’s where to start in fixing a broken relationship.)

“Obviously, since your relationship didn’t work out the first time, something has to change to make it work the second time around,” notes Dr. Nelson. “Otherwise, the same conflicts that caused so much trouble will re-emerge. Each partner has to understand and be willing to work on whatever caused the breakup in the first place.”

Medically reviewed by Ashley Matskevich, MD, on August 01, 2019

Hana Hong
Hana Hong is a journalist/storyteller whose writing has appeared in many publications and websites, including Reader's Digest, InStyle, CollegeFashionista, Her Campus, and The Fashion Network, among others. She hails from the midwest, where she graduated from the University of Illinois with a B.A. in News-Editorial Journalism, but has a passion for the East Coast. Visit her website: Hana Hong.