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Getting back with your ex? Here's what therapists want you to know

Experts explain how to set your relationship up for success the second time around.
lover holding hand
Getting back together with an ex? Experts off some relationship tips to help make sure things go smoothly.Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Love is in the air once again for TODAY Lifestyle and Commerce Contributor Jill Martin, who recently announced that she got engaged to her fiancé, Erik Brooks, for a second time 18 months after the couple decided to end their engagement.

After hearing Jill's happy news, TODAY was curious to know: What does it take to make a relationship work the second time around? We consulted several relationship and mental health experts to find out everything you need to do to make sure your relationship goes the distance.

1. Seek to understand why you initially broke up in the first place.

Before you can move forward, you really have to reflect on why you broke up in the first place and understand the issues that contributed to that breaking point.

"Consider why your situation would be different now. Have you worked on those issues? Are they still issues and if so, how would you handle them differently now?" Niro Feliciano, a psychotherapist and podcast host of “All Things Life,” recommended.

Take some time to look at the whole picture and understand what your relationship was like before and how you both have changed to make sure you're heading in the right direction together.

"Don't just make decisions based purely on feelings, which certainly will fluctuate especially over time. If not, you could end up in the same place once the initial emotions of new love fade once again," Feliciano said.

2. Make sure you're getting back together for the right reasons.

It might seem obvious, but before you jump back into things with an old flame, both parties should ask themselves why they're taking this big step. After all, we all have different motivations for wanting to be in a relationship.

"Don't just get back together if you are lonely or afraid you will never find someone else. There were reasons your relationship didn't work out the first time, and something has to change to make it work a second time around," Susan Zinn, founder of Westside Counseling Center and bestselling co-author of "The Epiphanies Project," explained.

If you hold on to old trauma, drama, and pain from the past, it doesn't leave room for a new version of your relationship to occur.

Susan Zinn

If you've spent time apart, worked on yourselves and learned to appreciate what you loved about the relationship, that's ideal. But it's far too easy to idealize the relationship once you start missing your significant other.

"It is important to ascertain that each individual is returning to the relationship for the right reasons and that absence has not cast on an unrealistic glittery glow on the past," Sanam Hafeez, neuropsychologist and director of Comprehend the Mind in New York City, said.

3. Don't expect that everything will be perfect this time.

Real talk: There were probably a few major issues that made you realize you weren't great partners the first time around. People can certainly change, but no one is perfect, and your renewed relationship won't be either.

"Unless an issue was one-dimensional (like someone being jobless and now they are employed), most situations don’t simply disappear and people don’t change without making the effort to change and being shown how to change. It is unrealistic to simply say, let’s just start fresh," Hafeez said.

That second honeymoon phase without doing the work will only last for so long, so be prepared to be honest about what you want out of your revived relationship.

"It is important that both people are on the same page about what they want and also honestly evaluate if they can meet each other's expectations. You want to feel that your partner’s expectations for you and the relationship are realistic. If not, that in and of itself is a breeding ground for conflict," Feliciano said.

4. Leave past drama out of your new relationship.

It can be tempting to use things your partner once said in the heat of an argument against them, but if your renewed relationship is going to work, you can't punish each other for past mistakes.

"If you hold on to old trauma, drama, and pain from the past, it doesn't leave room for a new version of your relationship to occur. You will never forget what happened, but if you hang on so tightly to the past, it doesn't allow you room to create something beautiful in your future," Zinn said.

It is not 'if' you are going to fall into old habits, it is 'when.' Best to be realistic about that and plan for it.

Gertrude Lyons

Think of it as removing an invisible barriers between the two of you.

"When done responsibly, this process is like removing pillows you didn’t know were between you and have been keeping you from experiencing genuine and intimate contact," Gertrude Lyons, senior life coach and director of family programs for The Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential, said. "Also, once the couple has put everything out on the table and they have repaired the breaches, then old drama and hurts are not allowed to be brought back out and used to hurt each other in the heat of an argument."

5. Don't be afraid to ask for help from a professional.

You might want to seek professional help to work through any unresolved resentment and create a new foundation of trust and safety.

"Working with a couples counselor can be highly beneficial. If you skip over this process, you can miss a huge opportunity for you and your partner to grow and increase your communication skills, which is the foundation for a successful relationship," Zinn said.

6. Continue to date each other.

It's easy to get back together and settle into a routine, but if you want to set your renewed relationship up for success, it's important to keep dating each other.

"Your partner may have changed in significant ways during that time apart, so don’t assume that you know everything about that person. Stay curious and make the time to get to know them again," Feliciano advised.

Life gets busy, but carving out some time where you give your partner your undivided attention is a critical element of a healthy relationship.

"Relationships that grow and thrive take work. And not periodic work, consistent work with systems and structures in place to keep it from getting stagnant. For example, having a consistent weekly date night. Put the phones away and have dinner together. Go on a hike or to a movie," Lyons said. "What you do isn’t as important as keeping the commitment. It reflects that your relationship matters and provides security in our busy lives that you will have some contact with each other."

7. Make time for outside interests and friends.

In her essay, Jill revealed that she took herself out on weekly dates after she and Erik broke up, and said it's a routine she still maintains now. Feliciano told us this is one of the best things you can do for yourself to help create a space of your own outside of your relationship.

"Making your partner an important part of your world rather than your entire world goes a long way in creating a healthy emotional balance in a relationship and avoiding co-dependence. Because time apart has helped the relationship, it could be something that will continue to be beneficial to the relationship on some level going forward," she explained.

Ultimately, we're all responsible for taking control of our own emotions and Zinn said it's critical to understand that a partner can't "complete you."

"Your partner is not responsible for your happiness. Even though it is painful, sometimes it can take a breakup to realize that only you are responsible for your emotional state and how you want to feel every day," she said. "Once you learn that you can have complete control over your feelings and take responsibility for your self-regulation, your relationships can grow into healthier and happier relationships and truly give love a second chance.

8. When you start falling into old habits, nip it in the bud ASAP.

No matter how hard you try, the odds are likely that either you or your partner will eventually fall into some of the old habits that led to the conflict in your relationship the first time around.

"It is not 'if' you are going to fall into old habits, it is 'when.' Best to be realistic about that and plan for it. Catching any regression into a historical or disempowering behavior as soon as possible should be considered a big win," Lyons said.

But the second time around, it's more important than ever to recognize this pattern right away.

"Just like a disease, the earlier you catch it, the better chance you have to survive it. As soon as you see this happening, it’s tempting to sweep it under the rug and not want to deal with it for fear that you will lose the relationship again. You must deal with it," Hafeez said.

Whether you choose to go to professional counseling or simply schedule a time to check in with your partner and discuss the issue at hand, it's important to recognize what is happening and stay calm.

"Old habits can be changed and it’s normal to fall into them, especially in a relationship where they occurred in the first place. New behaviors must be employed consistently and practiced to become habits and that takes time," Feliciano explained. "Think through solutions on how to change the habits and communicate them to each other."


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