A reader recently submitted the following question:
“I had a 9 month long-distance relationship (LDR) with a girl I met on an internship abroad. Toward the end of the LDR, I felt that she changed and became uninterested and less available. I admit that I made a mistake by having my life revolve around her, which little by little killed her attraction. I also jeopardized our relationship by being manipulative. She originally said she didn’t want to break up and assured me that she loved me, but a day later she told me she wanted to break up. I was shocked and devastated.
We stayed friends for 2-3 weeks, but I was still miserable and tried to get her to change her mind by hanging out with her day and night. A few weeks later, I told her I loved her to death, which only turned her off more. I then told her I would stop contacting her, hoping that this would be the way to get her back. She replied, saying she respected my decision and still wanted to be friends.
I haven’t replied yet. I still love her very much and still have hope that staying away from her for a while and then reconnecting will show her that I have changed and she will want to be with me again. I’m afraid that I’m not doing the right thing, though. What steps should I take? How should I approach her again? I don’t want to lose her.”
A: Thanks for submitting your question. We certainly understand that this is an upsetting time for you. Breakups are difficult to handle, especially in situations like yours where you weren’t the one to initiate it. On the bright side, these negative emotions do tend to fade with time.1 However, it sounds as if you may also be experiencing unrequited love, in which the love you feel for someone else is not returned.2,3 Unfortunately, if this is the case, it may take longer than expected for your negative feelings and hurt to fade. Hopefully we can provide some helpful advice to assist you in navigating this tumultuous time in your life.
It is commendable that you and your ex have tried to stay friends, especially in light of evidence that most people do not remain friends after breaking up.4 But I can’t help but wonder why you are staying friends? Individuals possess varying motivations for wanting to remain friends with an ex.5 Some exes stay friends because they still have hope for the relationship to work out, while others stay friends because they have shared possessions (e.g., property, pets) or shared social networks (e.g., friends, co-workers). Further, some exes stay friends so they can exact some revenge on their ex! When you say that you “don’t’ want to lose her” and you “tried to get her to change her mind”, it sounds as if you fall more into the first category. If my hunch is correct, then it turns out that you are in the most difficult situation to navigate. Understandably, you still have strong emotions for her and want her back. However, as you are currently experiencing, love is a strong emotion – so strong, in fact, that being in love resembles being addicted to drugs.6 Because love is strongly associated with brain chemicals,7 it is practically impossible to choose who you fall in (and out of) love with. Let’s try looking at things from her perspective. She cares enough about you that she wants to remain friends. She probably also feels guilty for breaking off the relationship,3 and she is probably hurting in her own way, as well. Chances are, if she could change her emotions and fall back in love with you, she likely would.
We should also keep in mind that relationships are not a “sure thing.” As depressing as this may sound, the chances of a brand-new relationship lasting forever are low.8 Think about it – how many people do we tend to date before getting married? Mix in a divorce rate of nearly 50%, and the odds seemed stacked against us. So, objectively speaking, there is no guarantee that everything would work out if you were to get back together with your ex (of course, the same could be said about any romantic relationship). Some relationships actually cycle back and forth between breakups and initiations – what researchers call “on-again/off-again” relationships9 – which means you would have to deal with this whole set of negative emotions again in the future (and again and again).
How should you approach this situation, then? First, being clear when you communicate is vital. She can’t read your mind, so you need to say what you mean.10 Second, see if she is willing to hang out just as friends. Engaging in shared activities – particularly ones that are novel and interesting – is a great way of fostering and nurturing a relationship (but there are risks to remaining friends, such as having conflicted feelings).11,12 Third, try putting yourself in her shoes. Being able to take her perspective will help ease the difficult times you may encounter.13
If worse comes to worst and the relationship is not rekindled, all is not lost. Although it may be difficult to do, you may try giving the friendship a chance. Sure, you may not want to be “just friends,” but post-dissolution friendships can be quite satisfying.14
1Sbarra, D. A., & Emery, R. E. (2005). The emotional sequelae of nonmarital relationship dissolution: Analysis of change and intraindividual variability over time. Personal Relationships, 12, 213-232.
2Aron, A., Aron, E. N., & Allen, J. (1998). Motivations for unreciprocated love. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24, 787-796.
3Baumeister, R. F., Wotman, S. R., & Stillwell, A. M. (1993). Unrequited love: On heartbreak, anger, guilt, scriptlessness, and humiliation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 377-394.
4Kellas, J. K., Bean, D., Cunningham, C., & Cheng, K. Y. (2008). The ex-files: Trajectories, turning points, and adjustment in the development of post-dissolutional relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 25, 23-50.
5Bullock, M., Hackathorn, J., Clark, E. M., Mattingly, B. A., & Dawkins, J. C. (2009, May). Friends for revenge: Motivations for friendships after romantic relationship dissolution. Paper presented at the 2009 Midwestern Psychological Association Conference, Chicago, IL.
6Aron, A., Fisher, H., Mashek, D. J., Strong, G., Li, H., & Brown, L. L. (2005). Reward, motivation, and emotion systems associated with early-stage intense romantic love. Journal of Neurophysiology, 94, 327-337.
7Aron, A., Fisher, H. E., Strong, G., Acevedo, B., Riela, S., & Tsapelas, I. (2008). Falling in love. In S. Sprecher, A. Wenzel, & J. Harvey (Eds.), Handbook of relationship initiation (pp. 315-336). New York, NY: Psychology Press.
8Le, B., Dove, N. L., Agnew, C. R., Korn, M. S., & Mutso, A. A. (2010). Predicting nonmarital romantic relationship dissolution: A meta-analytic synthesis. Personal Relationships, 17, 377-390.
9Dailey, R. M., Rossetto, K. R., Pfiester, A., & Surra, C. A. (2009). A qualitative analysis of on-again/off-again romantic relationships: “It’s up and down, all around”. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 26, 443-466.
10Gottman, J. M. (1994). Why marriages succeed or fail. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
11Stafford, L., & Canary, D. J. (1991). Maintenance strategies and romantic relationship type, gender, and relational characteristics. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 8, 217-242.
12Aron, A., Norman, C. C., Aron, E. N., McKenna, C., & Heyman, R. E. (2000). Couples’ shared participation in novel and arousing activities and experienced relationship quality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 273-284.
13Fehr, B., Gelfand, M. J., & Nag, M. (2010). The road to forgiveness: A meta-analytic synthesis of its situational and dispositional correlates. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 894-914.
14Bullock, M., Hackathorn, J., Clark, E. M., & Mattingly, B. A. (2011). Can we be (and stay) friends? Remaining friends after dissolution of a romantic relationship. Journal of Social Psychology, 151, 662-666.
Dr. Brent Mattingly - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Mattingly's research, broadly conceptualized, focuses on the intersection of romantic relationships and the self. His specific lines of research all examine how individual-level constructs (e.g., motivation, attachment, self-regulation) are associated with various relational processes.