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Married, divorced, reunited: Why ex-spouses fall back in love

It's possible to reignite a spark after ending a marriage, a relationship expert says. A couple shares what it's like to get back together after a divorce.
/ Source: TODAY

Like many divorced people, Dr. Brittany Bankhead and Dr. Brian Kendall are giving marriage another try, but their love story comes with a plot twist: They’ve already been married to each other.

Married in 2008 and divorced in 2021, the couple is now planning a wedding in the summer of 2024. It’s not a scenario they ever imagined when they split up.

“When it first happened, I would put the chances at zero,” Kendall, 40, tells TODAY.com.

“Same. We never got divorced thinking this was just a break. It wasn’t a separation; it was a true divorce. We truly were moving on from that part of our life,” adds Bankhead, 37. “But then we were able to look at one another and realize, ‘You’re the one all along who I was meant to be with.’”

Brittany Bankhead and Brian Kendall
Dr. Brian Kendall and Dr. Brittany Bankhead share a happy moment during a trip to Denmark. "We've known each other for a decade and a half, but I've never been so in love," she says.Courtesy Brittany Bankhead

About 12% to 25% of married couples report breaking up and getting back together, says J. Kale Monk, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Missouri College of Education & Human Development who researches relationship quality and instability.

That’s often in the form of a trial separation, but it can also be people divorcing and reconciling, he adds.

Famous people who married, divorced, then re-married the same person include Elon Musk, Pamela Anderson, Melanie Griffith, Dionne Warwick, Judy Sheindlin (aka “Judge Judy”) and Barbara Walters.

A couple who married, divorced, then reunited got engaged live on TODAY on Feb. 14, 2024.

Feelings often linger for many former couples: In one past survey, about 40% of divorced people regretted ending their marriage, Monk notes.

“There are large groups of divorcing couples who may be open to reconciliation, so it is possible to reignite a spark if all parties involved are open to working on the relationship,” he tells TODAY.com.

But Bankhead and Kendall — a trauma surgeon and emergency medicine doctor who live in Lubbock, Texas — say they don’t regret divorcing, noting the time apart was necessary to help them grow as individuals.

Friendship turns to love

The future doctors met at Texas A&M University in 2006 when they both took a medical communications class.

She sat right in front of him, so the first thing he remembers is liking her ponytail. She liked how tall he was and his deep voice.

When they started talking, they realized they had a lot of dreams, values and goals in common. He noticed she was kind; she saw he was engaging and driven.

Brittany Bankhead and Brian Kendall
The couple met at Texas A&M University.Courtesy Brittany Bankhead

But Kendall was about to go off to the Peace Corps in Albania, and Bankhead was starting a master’s degree program in Miami, so it seemed “like the worst timing ever to meet someone,” she recalls.

They were friends at first, then started dating long distance in 2007 via email, chat and occasional phone calls for about six months. When Kendall returned from Albania, he visited her in Miami, where they held hands and kissed for the first time. He proposed two weeks later.

The couple married in 2008 and have two children, a son and daughter who are now 12 and 5.

'It just was not working'

The marriage was “good for a long time,” but the pandemic helped uncover cracks, Bankhead recalls. She was especially shaken by her experience working in a Boston intensive care unit at the height of the coronavirus crisis in 2020.

“COVID really, really rocked my world and really turned everything upside down,” she says.

“I realized that I had a lot of learning and growing to do, and that I was really going to have to do that on my own.”

“We weren’t good for each other in a romantic sense,” Kendall adds. “Romantically, it just was not working.”

After attending individual and marriage counseling, the couple decided to break up in 2021, calling it the most amicable divorce ever. They used the same lawyer, split everything 50-50 and vowed to keep things the same as co-parents and friends.

“I told Brittany on the day we decided, 'We will always be family,'” Kendall says. “I want the best for you. I want you to be happy.”

They moved to the same neighborhood and bought houses a 7-minute walk from each other, with a community pool in the center so that it would be easy for their children to go back and forth.

Both had an open-door policy: She was free to come over to get bedtime snuggles with the kids, and he was welcome to say good morning before school. They celebrated birthdays and Christmases together.

Brittany Bankhead and Brian Kendall
“I told Brittany on the day we decided (to divorce), 'We will always be family,'” Kendall says.Courtesy Brittany Bankhead

But there weren’t any lingering romantic feelings, they say. The couple moved on and dated new people “pretty extensively,” Bankhead recalls.

'I’ve always loved you'

The next two years gave them a chance to work on themselves and grow as individuals.

“Being on my own made it so much easier to figure things out,” Kendall says.

“I had to learn on my own,” Bankhead agrees. “The problem was that we got married so young. … It was too soon and too early.”

They grew closer in the summer of 2023. She had to deal with a family tragedy out of town, and he comforted her when she came back, inviting her to his house so she could decompress with the kids around. Bankhead remembers feeling hygge, the Danish word for being cozy and content.

A month later, they spent another weekend together marked with comfort and ease.

“We stood in the hallway of his house, and I said, ‘Will you ever be able to love me again?’ And he looked at me and he said, ‘Brittany, I’ve always loved you,’” Bankhead recalls.

Brittany Bankhead and Brian Kendall
In 2023, the couple got engaged the second time after she proposed to him in an indoor plant store with cupcakes that read "Grow with me."Courtesy Brittany Bankhead

This time, she proposed to him. They are back under one roof living as a family and planning a wedding on the French Riviera in the summer of 2024.

“Even knowing the worst in each other and even in the hardest of times, we’re still right back here choosing one another,” Bankhead says.

What to consider before reuniting with an ex-spouse

If violence or infidelity was not an issue, ex-spouses should think about the reasons they broke up, Monk advises.

Are there persistent issues impacting the relationship? Will things really be different this time? What needs to be improved or repaired?

Then, spend some time thinking about the motives for a reconciliation.

“Why do you want or feel like you need to get back together? Is the reason rooted in dedication and positive feelings, or more about obligation and convenience?” he says.

Divorce rates in general are higher for subsequent marriages. But if ex-spouses get back together for positive, relationship-driven reasons and take active steps to strengthen their bond the second time around, the outlook may be more favorable, Monk points out.

Some people reunite because they feel there's no one better out there for them. Others feel pressure to give it another chance because they’ve already invested so much time and effort into this relationship. Thinking you have to get back together can result in feeling trapped, he says.

A therapist can help couples decide if working on the relationship is the right choice.

Before rushing in, take some time to make an informed decision, Monk advises.

"Are things really different now and moving forward? This will help (a couple) determine if reconciliation is the right decision for them," he says.