Why Do I Keep Getting Back Together With My Ex Girlfriend?
The pain of a breakup is an experience shared by nearly everyone at some point in their lives. As a San Francisco psychologist with a focus in stress and anxiety, the loss of a relationship is one of the most common reasons male clients reach out for assistance.
Depending on how recent the breakup occurred, the symptoms can range from acute panic to a dull emptiness. Given this unpleasant spectrum of emotions, it makes sense that some men will reach out to their ex and attempt to rekindle the relationship. If we dig deeper, there are biological and psychological factors that drive this behavior.
Why Do I Keep Getting Back Together with My Ex Girlfriend?
Your Brain After A Breakup
Researchers Helen Fisher, PhD and Lucy Brown, PhD are experts when it comes to the brain’s reaction during a break up. Their area of research focuses on the brain’s reward pathway system, love, and relationship loss.
One of their studies perfectly illustrates what happens to the brain after a breakup. In this experiment, Drs. Fisher and Brown recruited participants that were recently dumped by their partners. These participants were then shown a photo of their ex while they received a brain scan.
The scans showed an increase of activity in the ventral tegmental area, ventral striatum, nucleus accumbens (the brain’s reward pathway system) as well as dopamine. Dopamine is a feel good neurotransmitter that is involved in forming relationships, but also in developing drug addictions. When someone loses a relationship, they also experience a decrease in dopamine.
The findings from Drs. Fisher and Brown’s study reveal:
- After a break up, people crave dopamine in a way that is similar to when an addict experiencing cravings.
- When we obsess over the relationship (i.e. looking at photos of the ex), it triggers the reward pathway system of the brain. As a result, we feel driven to either get back together with our ex girlfriend or think about them constantly (you can read more about their findings here).
In short, the desire for men to get their dopamine “fix” provides a strong biological explanation for why it makes sense to get back with the ex.
Attachment Theory Explains our Breakup Thoughts
So we understand the biological factors that play into breakups. But what about the psychological factors? After all, what good is knowing about the reward pathway system and dopamine if we can’t understand our thoughts.
One of the most popular models to explain our thoughts during a breakup is The Attachment Theory.
If you haven’t heard of Attachment Theory, it seeks to describe the ways people form relationships with each other. It is based on the work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, who studied the behaviors of young children and their caregivers. The theory has since expanded to include how adults “attach” or form relationships with each other.
There are generally three types of attachments, or bonds, people form with each other are secure, anxious, and avoidant.
Secure Attachment Type
A secure attachment is exactly what it sounds like. These individuals are comfortable expressing emotions in a relationship, holding healthy boundaries, but also comfortable being single. People with secure attachment styles have trust in their relationships. This allows them to discuss difficult topics and address conflict that naturally happens when they are dating someone. The ability to regularly talk about difficult topics help them to feel heard and understood, which only reinforces the trust they feel in the relationship.
Someone with a secure attachment style generally has a balanced view of themselves, and is likely to date someone who also has a secure attachment style. While it’s not impossible, it is less likely that (over the long term) a secure person will date someone who has an anxious or avoidant attachment style.
Example of a Secure Attachment Style
A current client, *JD, is a good example of a secure attachment style. JD is in his early 30s and has been dating his girlfriend for about two years. When issues come up, JD knows the conversation will be challenging, but he does not avoid the conversation.
Recently they discussed moving in with each other. Prior to his current relationship, JD was single for a year. During that time JD would only go on dates with women he believed it was possible to have a long term relationship (aka – not just going on a date because a woman was attractive). He would rarely go on a third date if he didn’t feel genuine interest.
Anxious Attachment Type
An anxious attachment style means the person lacks trust in a relationship. As a result, they will reach out to their partner to tell them everything is “okay” when they start to feel worried about the relationship. Anxious types depend on their partners to provide reassurance constantly. For example, an anxious type might text “Haven’t heard from you in a bit. Everything okay?” (even if it’s only been a few hours since the last communication).
Why? Theoretically, they received mixed messages of love and affection growing up. As a result, their sense of self is critical and insecure. This makes them feel anxious or distrusting of their relationships. (From the anxious type perspective: If they do not view themselves as worthy, why would anyone want to date them?)
To resolve, or reduce their anxiety, they require constant affirmations from their partner to provide reassurance that the relationship is stable. However, this only provides short term relief (if any), and the need for reassurance continues.
This anxiety about the relationship also makes it less likely to discuss deeper relationship issues. This prevents closeness from developing in the relationship. Essentially, the anxious type creates the distance they fear.
Over the long term, it is more likely that an anxious type will date an avoidant type.
Example of an Anxious Attachment Style
A current client, *Adam, is in his late 20s and has an anxious attachment style. Adam’s relationship with his former girlfriend was difficult. He expressed jealousy and a lack of trust when she would have a night out with her friends.
To cope with the stress, Adam would drink too much and then call or text her to reassure himself that she wasn’t “getting hit on by other guys.” After several on again / off again breakups, the relationship officially ended in a public yelling match.
Now single, Adam is on multiple dating apps and goes on three to four dates per week. He says his motivation for dating is to “just be happy.” When asked to clarify, Adam admits he has difficulty being alone and believes he will only be happy if he is dating someone.
Avoidant Attachment Type
An avoidant attachment style is someone that has one foot in, one foot out of their relationship. As a result, the closeness that exists with the secure type, and is fretted over by the anxious type, is less important to the avoidant type. They prioritize their independence and are usually uncomfortable with emotional closeness.
Theoretically, avoidant types act this way because they did not receive the closeness they wanted early on in life, which was painful. To protect themselves from re-experiencing this pain as an adult, they keep others at a distance. There is a desire for closeness, but at a “protective” arm’s length. A partner’s attempts to get too close will trigger the avoidant type’s desire for independence.
As a new relationship forms, the non avoidant partner will naturally want to spend more time with the avoidant partner. Think of an avoidant man that only wants to spend one day a week with his girlfriend. Any additional time, such as spending the weekend together, causes the avoidant man to feel their partner is “too clingy.” He might respond to this closeness by saying “I told you I wasn’t ready for something serious” despite maintaining the relationship over a long (sometimes years) period of time.
Example of an Avoidant Attachment Style
*Andy is in his late 20s and has an avoidant attachment style. He has an interest in being in a relationship, so long as it works on his terms. Often his relationships start off casual (aka – having sex with someone, but not wanting more from the relationship).
In the past he has been involved in more than one casual relationship at the same time. While he is currently in a monogamous relationship, Andy often says he feels his girlfriend “doesn’t understand or respect my friend time.” When asked what ratio of friend time to girlfriend time would work for him, Andy “jokes” that he would like “about a 10 to 1 ratio.” When asked about the future with his girlfriend he says “I mean I love her, but I don’t think this is forever.”
Often the avoidant individual will date the anxious individual. If you think about it, this makes sense. The anxious person is doing what they have known their entire life (pursuing someone that is unavailable) and the avoidant person has someone constantly pursuing them that is willing to tolerate their distance.
More often than not, men with attachment issues tend to be avoidant types.
So How Does This Explain Why I Want to Get Back with My Ex-Girlfriend?
A securely attached person goes through the same biological breakup pain (as described by Drs. Fisher and Brown), as an anxious or avoidant person. However, the secure person will view the pain of the breakup differently. They will think “Yes, this sucks, and I’m sad/mad/embarrassed about it. But apparently this wasn’t the person for me. With enough time, I’ll get over the pain and move on. I’ll find somebody else.” They have a healthier approach to the pain and a more hopeful future. Their life experiences have taught them that this is true. The anxious and avoidant types view the pain differently, because they have different life experiences.
Remember, anxious attachment types are anxious because they received mixed messages about their worth growing up. These life experiences are the “evidence” that supports their anxious beliefs.
So, if you are an anxious attachment man that is going through a break up, you were used to having a girlfriend to make you feel better and validate your worth. Losing that person shakes the core, because you no longer have that person to feel better about yourself. The “safety blanket” has been taken away. Additionally, the break up (consciously or unconsciously) feels like a familiar pattern; People say the want to be with you, but then change their minds.
This causes internal distress that feels overwhelming, and anxious type men use short sighted thinking to “make the pain go away” by trying to get back together with their ex girlfriend. Instead of looking at the breakup pain as something that can be useful and and a growth opportunity, anxious type men only look at the pain as something they want to go away as soon as possible. The quickest way to make that happen is to get back together with their ex.
During a breakup, a similar pattern is true for men that are avoidant attachment types. They are avoidant (usually unconsciously) to protect themselves from the pain of an “inevitable” outcome where people leave them. To cope with this inevitable outcome, they do not allow themselves or others to get too close. Ironically, when the relationship ends, the avoidant approach does not prevent them from feeling loss or pain.
Similar to the anxious type, an avoidant does not look at the breakup pain from a healthy perspective or opportunity for introspective growth. They view the pain as something that is intolerable and needs to go away as soon as possible. The way to make that happen is to get back together with their ex.
Often this is why avoidant types will suddenly “love bomb” or commit to the type of closeness they were dreading while they were in the relationship. Their shortsighted thinking is focused on making the pain go away. This isn’t to say that avoidant types don’t actually believe what they are saying in the moment, but they do not realize the source of their sudden, newly found commitment comes from an insecure place. In reality, the best thing for an avoidant type is to learn healthy ways of tolerating the breakup pain, and focus on self validation.
Conclusion: Why Do I Keep Getting Back Together My Ex Girlfriend
The pain experienced during a breakup is the result of two factors: the biological and the psychological.
Biologically, the brain is experiencing withdrawals from feel good chemicals, like dopamine, that are part of the reward pathway system. This withdrawal creates breakup pain.
Psychologically, this pain can be interpreted differently, depending on one’s attachment style. A secure attachment type will cope with the pain directly, understanding the relationship wasn’t the right fit, and have a hopeful future (i.e. they will eventually feel better and find the right person).
Anxious or avoidant types do not cope with the pain directly. They avoid it because their life experiences have “taught” them they cannot deal with the pain. As a result, they have a less hopeful future (they will not feel better and will not find the right person). From this painful mindset, they opt to try and get back together with their ex.
In short, if you find yourself wanting to get back together with your ex, address the emotional pain and consider your motives before reaching out.