As a gay men’s specialist therapist for individuals and for gay men’s relationships for over 27 years, I notice how certain themes come up regularly. Lately, several of my clients have presented the dilemma in their therapy of whether they should go back with an ex, and form a “Version 2.0” new/resumed relationship with them. This is one of those situations where my client will outright ask for advice, or even ask me to tell them what to do, which as a therapist, I can’t really do. It’s up to each person I work with to make their own life choices as self-empowered adults; therapists just facilitate the process of your own decision-making.
But what I can do is offer some observations based on previous clients’ experiences, because part of what I offer as a gay men’s specialist therapist’s perspective, from working with gay men with similar presenting problems in therapy in the past, is knowing how things ultimately worked out for them, and using that experience to help you. Of course, everyone is different, but there are some common pitfalls and considerations that happen over and over, with hundreds of previous “case studies” in my head, and my gay male clients in therapy seem to appreciate someone who has a lot of experience helping guys in similar situations over the years, with the unique aspects that come with specifically gay male relationships.
When guys are in this situation (where they have dated someone, they break up, and then something happens where they revisit dating them again) several considerations tend to come up:
First, you have to look at why you broke up in the first place. Did they dump you, or did you dump them? If they dumped you, and then they want to reverse that decision, they better have a good explanation for it, because if they broke your heart and left you (in therapy) trying to cope with the loss, they better be careful in proposing to reconcile, because it’s cruel to offer you a second chance at a relationship with them if they don’t really mean it this time. However, at the same time, they might not be able to commit to permanently dating you and never dumping you again, because that kind of commitment might be premature. If they propose dating you again, it is just that: dating again, with only the possibility that it might lead to a long-term commitment. And you have to avoid perhaps the temptation to dump them before they get a chance to dump you for a second time, just so that you save face.
If you dumped them, and you’re having second thoughts, you have to look at what’s changed to make you reconsider. Getting back together is generally “not done”; once it’s over, it’s over, and you have to trust that you made the right decision based on the information you had at the time. It’s like criminal cases: once the body is buried, it takes a LOT to get a judge to issue a court order to exhume the body. There has to be some serious new evidence in the case to reopen it. If you’re tempted to go back just because you’re lonely, that’s when you need therapy to get validation for your feelings and support for how to cope with the loss.
But back to if they dumped you: If they propose reconciling, you have a right to express your feelings and ask them to hear and understand the impact of their actions, and how much they hurt you. Being dumped can affect your self-esteem, health, work, social friendships, self-image, and overall functioning for a long time, not unlike a death in the family. So if they propose reversing that, you have a right to ask them: 1) why they dumped you (in some detail, too); 2) what changed that they are now coming back; and 3) what assurances you have that they are more serious this time around.
Whether or not to forgive them, and date them again, is based on many considerations: Does their explanation of their feelings and actions satisfy you? Are you getting all your questions answered? Does their explanation make sense, or are they just waffling? What does your gut tell you? Are you drawn to this person in your heart and mind, or are you just sexually attracted to them, and you are vulnerable to their seductive charms? Do you want their love, companionship, and sharing in life, or their sex?
Recently, my client “Jeff” was in this position. When he asked his ex these questions, his ex explained that he had had a history of abusive relationships, before he had started dating Jeff. Jeff’s ex explained that, in hindsight, he started dating Jeff too early after recovering from the abusive experiences. He was still very vulnerable to trusting a new dating partner, and his fears got the best of him, leading him to withdraw from Jeff out of self-protection. When he approached Jeff about dating again, he explained that he had had more therapy to recover from his past experiences, and he realized that Jeff was an entirely different kind of guy, and was worthy of his trust. He asked Jeff for patience, and Jeff was willing to cautiously, slowly, explore spending time together again, but not yet ready to date exclusively.
Another client, “Jay”, was somewhat verbally mistreated by his ex, Mike, who was often too frank and sarcastic. Mike had a bad habit of criticizing Jay, frequently expressing jealousy and possessiveness. And Jay, frankly, was putting up with far too much from Mike’s mercurial personality, running hot or cold on any given day. But Jay was distracted by Mike’s overall persona: Mike had lots of money, a glamorous job, tons of the “right” friends, and offered Jay (who was from a small town and grew up sheltered) many new adventures that made Jay excited and delighted when they spent time together. Jay was devastated when Mike got irrationally jealous, and dumped Jay impulsively with little explanation. A couple of months later, when Mike approached Jay about reconciling, Jay discussed it with me. I was careful to remind Jay of the things that Mike said to him, and I validated Jay’s anger at being treated that way. But Jay explained that Mike had apologized for acting that way, and really “owned” that he was distancing Jay because he was overall afraid of intimacy, and that’s why he pushed Jay away with his remarks and behaviors. Mike had apparently done his own work in therapy to confront his fears, and realized that his pushing Jay away was only because he was getting close to him. Jay wanted to forgive Mike, but I questioned if only a couple of months of therapy would change Mike enough to prevent him from being anxious or even verbally abusive. Jay decided to proceed with caution, because he really liked Mike and wanted it to work – but with a new-found sense of self-confidence (and boundary setting!) that Jay had learned in his own therapy, too.
My colleague, Joe Kort, Ph.D., author of Ten Smart Things Gay Men Can Do to Improve Their Lives, makes a great point: He basically says that we don’t become perfect human beings and then pair up; we pair up and then work through our own stuff, becoming better people together, while sharing our lives. So if you’re in a situation where you are looking at reconciling with someone you’ve dated before, be advised that many other writers would say, “never go back; you broke up for a reason.” But others might encourage you to revisit the circumstances with a clear, self-aware examination.
Maybe you broke up with an ex because they had a drug or alcohol problem, but now they’ve been clean and sober for a year or more. Or maybe they were irresponsible and couldn’t hold a job, and now they have grown into a new profession and they are stable and reliable. Maybe they were not ready for a relationship soon after their previous breakup, and now enough time has elapsed that they are healed and ready to date again. Whether or not you reconcile is based on if the original circumstances and dynamics of your previous breakup have changed, and if so, how much have they changed (magnitude), and for how long (duration).
Sometimes, the function of therapy is to help you “reality-test” your situation. An astute therapist will help you explore some considerations, perhaps both for and against reconciling, that you couldn’t realize on your own. There is also an art to couples who are reconciling, and this sometimes includes couples counseling. Reconciling with an ex is generally a risky business, and you will find people with strong arguments against it. But, in my experience, I have seen it work, if (and that’s a big IF) the partners, individually and together, get the support they need to “get it right this time”. But you have to balance that against the opportunity to explore new relationships, with new partners, who aren’t perhaps laden with the old baggage. Don’t go back with an ex just because it’s expedient and helps you avoid the pain and risks of dating new people; that’s just lazy and taking the path of least resistance. But whether it’s with a previous dating partner, or a new guy, relationships take work – on yourself, and together – and it’s a matter of who do you want to do that work with. There is no getting around that a relationship is going to take work, with the skills of good communication, compromises, and a strong sense of commitment (another article on that is here).
Try not to make decisions in isolation when you’re navigating a new relationship. Whether it’s practical issues like money and taking care of yourself as adults, or managing your careers, or dealing with your respective families, or dealing with your social life in today’s global gay communities, and of course all the sexual issues (between you, and whether or not to involve others), having support for making these decisions can help you get your relationship off on the right foot.
Dr. Esther Perel, one of my favorite therapist authors/speakers, author of Mating in Captivity and The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, has said that sometimes couples have to sit down and realize that they have to just let the past go, start all over again, and discover partners who can better meet their needs – but to do it, together, with each other.
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