He Left Me. How Do I Know He’s Back to Stay?

Jenna Birch
Contributing Writer
Illustration: Hannah Jacobs for Yahoo Beauty

The current romantic culture is one of coming and going — just take a quick look at today’s epidemic of ghosting, breadcrumbing, zombie-ing, and benching. In a dating market saturated with singles, it’s tempting to believe the grass might be a little greener with someone else. That’s just not always true.

Sometimes men and women will end a good, healthy relationship to dip their toe back into the dating pond; maybe they’re restless, unsure if they’re “ready” to settle down, or haven’t dated much and can’t decide if their ex is The One. But once they’ve indulged that itch, in time they frequently return to their ex asking to start over.

A reader recently asked me this question:

The short answer is: You don’t. The longer answer is: You don’t, but you can take a slightly more holistic assessment to determine if he’s likely to stay and worth the risk.

In researching and interviewing for a book, I’ve noticed something of an abandonment complex among young people today. If something is going really well, it’s easy to assume the bottom is going to drop out, because everyone has been left at some point.

Frequently, this departure comes out of the blue. A boyfriend or girlfriend, who you love, suddenly says he or she is taking a job in another state. Someone with whom you’ve been on multiple great dates ghosts you, and you don’t get an explanation. So you do the work. You heal yourself. You get to a point of “closure.”

And then the person you worked so hard to get over comes back. This has happened to me and my friends so frequently that I coined the slightly nebulous phrase “They always come back.” It’s nebulous because you never know why they’re back.

There are many reasons for disappearing or breaking up, some of which are understandable. With the trend in marriage age for college-educated singles creeping toward 30, there’s a compulsion to make sure you’ve sampled the relationship market before settling down for good. If you don’t date around, how will you know for sure that you’re not with the wrong person? How will you feel sure that you’ve chosen the most compatible partner? These are legit questions, and trust me: You’d rather have your partner answer them sooner than later, down the line, with a marriage and two kids involved (for instance).

Another reason is simple timing. Maybe you met someone you clicked with, but he or she was in an emotionally unavailable place at the time. Maybe he was preoccupied with work, and a partner was a bit too much to juggle. Maybe she went through a gruesome breakup, and the rush of feelings caused her to get skittish and disappear. Maybe he had to take an opportunity in another state after college, but wasn’t ready to make a major commitment like marriage, so he left. Throw our generation’s horrible communication skills into the mix, and you’ve got a recipe for a lot of confusion and hurt feelings.

These failed relationships are not unfixable; I’ve met couples who broke up with the eventual loves-of-their-lives at some point, due to timing or youth or indecisiveness, and they ended up happily married. Sometimes experience is the only teacher, or perspective is the only way to crystallize what you have and be a better partner.

Breakups or disappearing acts can cause a lot of hurt. Everyone knows that. Every emotionally mature adult who wants to start over is going to have to put in a lot of effort to rebuild the relationship from the ground up. Of course, there are always people who will come back to relationships for the wrong reasons, like boredom, emotional abuse, or a lack of other momentary options. So here are two questions to ask so you can decide if it’s even worth it.

How irreplaceable does this person feel to me?

One woman, who married the man who dumped her five years prior to take a job opportunity, said she just couldn’t shake her ex. When he came back into the picture, she was skeptical — even though he claimed to be sure. When he kept checking in with her, she really did some soul searching.

She realized her now-husband was “the bar to which I compared everyone else,” as she told me. He was the person with whom she was most happy, most excited, most intellectually stimulated, most supported. And although it had been years, she couldn’t help but wonder if that feeling was still there. Sometimes the quality of the connection means it’s a risk worth taking.

How much time has passed?

The only reason to consider restarting a relationship is an issue of timing or immaturity. Until significant time has passed for said issue to resolve, you can’t possibly start over. Growing into yourself, or out of a tough life period, takes real time and reflection. If it hasn’t been six months or a year, at the least, the odds of the return “sticking” are extremely low. If someone comes back after just a few weeks, he couldn’t possibly have worked through whatever problem was preventing the commitment. In that case, my advice would be to drive on.

So let’s say your ex leaps the two hurdles above, and she’s a possible contender. Here’s what you absolutely must see if the relationship is going to succeed.

Communication

Every couple that considered starting a relationship over (and survived) had no secrets with each other in Round 2 — especially the person who did the leaving. If your ex comes back, there should be absolutely no question he is unwilling to answer. He should be able to tell you exactly why he left, how he was feeling at the time, how he’s feeling now, the growth he’s done in the interim, who he dated and how those relationships compared — or anything else you want to know.

Do not put up with evasive nonsense. Your partner should be 100 percent open, honest and specific with his answers and history, so you can determine if he’s back for the right reasons. When you restart a relationship, start from square one and not wherever you left off. Check every skeleton in the closet. Level that house to the ground. Build something better and stronger in its place, on a new solid foundation.

Consistency

I believe that people need to grow, learn lessons, and feel sure of themselves before settling down — which you can’t always do while in a relationship. I do not believe that people learn these lessons, realize how much you mean to them, and don’t spend every day trying to prove that to you with consistency.

If someone wants back into your life, they need to show up for you. All the time, no questions asked. If you call, they answer. If you text, they reply in a timely manner. If you need them, they show concern. They need to be in contact, with regularity. You should feel like a priority. If you don’t feel like one, they haven’t grown enough or don’t care enough. Do not put up with anxiety-provoking behavior or intermittent reinforcement.

Commitment

This C word shouldn’t seem scary to the returning ex. Not that you have to (or should) jump back into a full-blown relationship right away, but the person should be able to make plans and talk about the future with ease. They should want you to know they’ve grown and they now want the same things you do.

Last, leaving or ending a relationship once can be a mistake — or a gift for the long-term health of the relationship, if you rebuild with mutual honesty, trust, and commitment. More than one split, though, and it’s the beginning of a toxic cycle.

While I have seen one breakup-and-makeup cycle create strong couples, I have never seen constantly on-and-off relationships end well. So if that’s the sort of ex we’re talking about, let that one go. I don’t know him (or her), but I do know you deserve better.

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