The marriage of Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck over the weekend comes almost 20 years after they first got engaged and then broke up soon after.
Both went on to marry other people, divorce them and have other relationships before officially reuniting last year.
Mr. and Mrs. Affleck may be a world-famous couple, but a romance that’s rekindled many years or even decades after people first fall in love is a universal experience.
It’s very common for couples to decide to give their relationship another try, whether it’s a year later or 20 years later, said Rachel Needle, a licensed psychologist and executive director of the Whole Health Psychological Center in West Palm Beach, Florida.
There are many reasons why people go back to an ex, including safety, familiarity, comfort, loneliness, unresolved feelings, love, regret and fun, she noted.
“It can be easier than going out, meeting and getting to know somebody new… there’s an investment that has been made at some point. For some, they haven’t stopped thinking about that other person,” Needle told TODAY.
“For some, the love that they have felt for somebody never went away and for others, it’s easy to fall back in love.”
Love can absolutely be reawakened after a relationship ends, especially in cases where the breakup wasn’t mutual or wasn’t a clean break, leaving ambiguity about whether the relationship is really over for good, said Amber Vennum, an associate professor of couple and family therapy at Kansas State University.
Continued contact with an ex-love and lack of contact with other potential partners boosts the chances of the couple getting back together, added Vennum, who studies on-and-off again relationships.
“Essentially, when we see our ex, we remember those feelings of love, and the pressure of being in the relationship is less during ‘off’ periods, so it can feel easier to be together,” she said.
“We were attracted to that person for a reason, and often that reason still exists, despite the parts that are incompatible or hurtful. We still may feel attraction or love, and hope the other person, or ourselves, can change to make it work.”
When the relationship ended the first time around, it might be because it just wasn’t the right time for it, but people and circumstances do change, Needle noted. Still, it can be easy to fall back into old patterns, which might not be a good thing, she cautioned.
Reconnections can be 'devastating' if people are married
Many rekindled romances do work, at least when both people are single, according to research by the late Nancy Kalish, a psychology professor at California State University, Sacramento, who studied reunited couples.
Her 1997 book, “Lost & Found Lovers,” was based on the experiences of 1,000 Americans who responded to her public invitation seeking people who loved someone years ago, broke up and then tried a second relationship with that person five or more years later.
Reuniting with a young love was the most common scenario: Two-thirds of the participants got back together with their first loves from when they were 17 years old or younger, and 78% went on to stay together, Kalish found. The overall success rate for staying together was 72% for the whole sample.
But social media changed things. When Kalish did another similar survey in the mid-2000s, many of the 1,600 participants had found their lost loves online. But most, 62%, were either married or their old flame was married, and they found themselves in “unexpected emotional (and often physical) extramarital affairs,” according to Kalish’s research. “The reconnections were devastating to the spouses, children, and the lost loves themselves.”
Only 5% of these couples married each other, she found. Most ended their rekindled romances after a few years. Kalish “strongly discourage(d) married men and women from having any contact with their lost loves at all,” according to her website.
Should you reconnect with an old love?
The benefits to returning to an ex include already having a foundation for emotional intimacy, but it’s very important to address both the issues that caused the relationship to rupture in the first place and the hurt caused by that, Vennum advised.
Without addressing those issues, there’s potentially greater risk of the on-again-off-again pattern repeating, she said.
“Do the work to go into it with eyes open. Honestly assess what didn’t work in the relationship before, what you are willing to personally change — and not change — to improve the relationship, and what you need the other person to do differently for the relationship to be healthier this time around,” Vennum said.
Communicate expectations before getting back together, then continue having the conversation with yourself and your partner, she advised. Are your expectations being met?
When reuniting with an old love, you have to be willing to forgive and leave some things in the past, Needle added.
“Make a plan for how you’re going to have a healthy relationship moving forward,” she said.