After you've been hurt in a relationship, should you ever go back? Niamh Devereux explores the complexity of falling back in love with an ex.
After a breakup, we’re advised to cut our ex right from our life and to never look back – and certainly to never get back with them. We know the right procedure; to block them on social media, to delete the messages and pictures of happier times, and to try and move on as a single pringle. On paper, this sounds straightforward. In reality, it couldn’t be any more complicated. And sometimes it doesn’t go to plan. Even though we know we’re going against our gut instinct that screams to us ‘DON’T GIVE IT ANOTHER CHANCE’, sometimes we go with our hearts over our heads.
Ciara*, a 26-year-old accountant from Co. Kildare, split with her boyfriend of four years in 2016, after she found out he’d been unfaithful to her. “I still can’t articulate the sensation when I found out,” she says. “It was like I could feel my heart shattering. It was so painful, that I almost felt numb.” After learning about her partner kissing another girl on a drunken holiday with his friends, Ciara admitted not only her heart was broken, but her trust too. “I just knew I had to end it. I didn’t see him in the same light anymore. He was a different person to me, and I couldn’t bare to even look at him,” she says. “My friends and family despised him too, after what he’d put me through, and I just thought the relationship was doomed. So, I pulled the plug on it.”
For the first few weeks, she went through the usual grieving stage that comes with a breakup, but it was elevated with confusion; her ex continued to fight for her and their relationship, pleading with her for forgiveness and begging for a chance to try again. “My head and heart were battling each other,” she confides. “I mean, I was so hurt and angry, but I knew I still loved him. Yet, as time went on, my pride was stopping me from even considering a reunion. I didn’t want to be weak, and I didn’t want my loved ones to judge me for what I thought would be a terrible decision.”
However, as more time passed, Ciara decided to throw caution to the wind and risk it all for another shot at their relationship. “It was torturous, but in the end, I knew how sorry he was and how much we genuinely care for each other. I knew I’d always wonder ‘what if’ if I didn’t go there.”
Then came the hard part…learning to fall in love again. Yes, the initial love was there, but it was tainted; by pain, by heartbreak and by that vicious break in trust. Could things ever be the same again? Can you love someone the same amount as before after they’ve hurt you so badly?
It’s a tough one. Because at first, you’re so enamoured at the thrill of second chances and the universe bringing you two back together, and you feel a strong, schoolgirl-like infatuation.
“When we got back together at first, after being apart for so long, it was so incredible,” Ciara says. “We were lovey-dovey all the time, couldn’t keep our hands off each other…it was like when we first met, years before.”
But the thing is; like all forms of pain, it comes back to the surface after a while. And while things may be plain sailing initially, that all can change the second something happens that triggers your past heartbreak. If that happens, you can get it into your head that you’ll be hurt again, and you can drive yourself crazy. “A few months in, we were in bed and he was on his laptop, when a message popped up from a girl I never heard of before on his Facebook,” Ciara confides. “He explained they were friends from school, but it brought back all my fears of being betrayed right back. I began to relive everything that had happened at night, and convinced myself it would happen to me again.”
It’s at this time, when these feelings of anxiety sink in, that you realise you may not be able to love this person with your full heart, because when you did that before, they broke it.
“It was a very difficult period for me,” Ciara admits. “I just had to hold the faith that we could rebuild the solid relationship that we had before, and that’s what we did, slowly, bit by bit, by him proving his trust and me allowing myself to be vulnerable again.”
Deb Hirschhorn, PhD, Relationship Expert, agrees that this process, of learning to love someone again, is all about having patience and channelling your inner strength.
“Of course, feelings can come back, but the process is backwards from the way it was the first time,” she explains. “The first time, you just opened yourself up and there it was. You can’t do that this time. Even if you really would like to, your survival instincts won’t let that happen, and you must honour those.”
First up, Dr. Hirschhorn, says that like in Ciara’s relationship, your partner must prove to you, in every conceivable way, that they have changed. “If your partner has truly overcome their hurtful behaviour, then it must go along with an attitude of patience for your healing—and giving of themselves. It has to be about you, not them, this time around.”
She adds: “You must be patient, too. Allow yourself time to heal from the hurts of the past, because that is a natural process that cannot be rushed.” Another step in the relationship that is vital, according to Dr. Hirschhorn, is to communicate, at all times. “Respect and trust will allow you to open up gradually,” she says. “Your partner opens the door to intimacy when you know that they’ve heard you, and you become willing to open up more and more.
“In turn, your partner will be able to talk about their dawning awareness of their past selfishness and hurtfulness and any regrets felt over them. In these admissions, they too will be vulnerable, and this will open the door wider to falling in love again.”
Overall, Dr. Hirschhorn insists it is possible to re-fall in love, it just won’t be the same love that existed before. But it might be something better. “It can be something rich and mature that you can’t feel the first time around: it’s a rock-solid knowledge of who this other person really is, leading to a much deeper bond, greater respect, and stronger trust than you could ever have with a new person,” she says. At the end of the day, all you’ve got to do is figure out whether this person is worth the time and effort.
This article first appeared in STELLAR’s August issue. Our September issue is on shelves now!
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