Why You Reach Out To Your Ex After A Breakup, And What It Means

Welcome to the Ex Games: a content series about love lost. Whether it's the realization things need to end, the act of rejection, the reality of being single, or the resurrection that is moving on, the Ex Games has every stage of a breakup covered.

And to really bring these stories to life, we've launched the Ex Games podcast, where we delve into the two sides of a break-up story with a new couple each week, and aim to end up somewhere near the truth. Because when it comes to affairs of the heart, everyone plays, but does anyone win? Let's find out. 

Would you like a “wow, you're pathetic for reaching out to your ex” look? My friends give that to me all the time.

But, seriously, why does every party or low-key night have to end with us pondering the little details of that last breakup? I mean the sex was barely average and your parents did say your ex was a tool. So, what's so special about this one?

Do you actually miss that person? That person who decided that you're not worth fighting for. Or do you just miss the idea of having someone care for your crazy?

Real talk: Any reasonable person will tell you, it's a bit of both.

Case in point: Clinical Psychologist Sahar Bhaloo comments:

It's a bit of both. The time after a breakup is a very lonely one and people are afraid of being alone, so naturally they miss the closeness. In addition, significant relationships are pretty much etched into your brain for life, and there is a natural urge to go back to what you know, even if it's not good for you. The pull to repeat things that are pleasurable is stronger than the push to stay away from discomforts, like heartbreak.

I agree and I also think that this pull to repeat things that are pleasurable, “to be afraid of being alone,” and to “naturally miss closeness” may be stronger in some of us than the others. Which is why reaching out to your ex comes down to your attachment style developed in that specific relationship.

In "Attachment, Breakup Strategies, and Associated Outcomes," authors Tara J. Collins and Omri Gillath explain that “the attachment behavioral system of a person is thought to act as a regulator of proximity and security.” “When people are threatened,” for example in loneliness after a breakup, “the attachment system is activated, and people are motivated to seek proximity to their security providing attachment figures” (aka your ex).

During the course of your relationship, your ex shapes your mental representations of yourself and the other people around you, “therefore, because of this, you may develop a secure or insecure attachment style” based on your interactions with them. If your ex often made you feel unsure and overwhelmed by your feelings, you may develop “insecure attachment,” which can turn “into anxiety and avoidance.”

This “attachment anxiety is positively associated with preoccupation with the breakup, physical and emotional distress, and angry and vengeful behavior following a breakup”. Additionally, this “anxiety is related to more attempts to reestablish the relationship, and more unwanted pursuit behavior toward the ex-partner.”

So, like everything else, blame your drunk text and “unwanted pursuit” also on your ex (because that's where your attachment style stemmed from). Am I right or am I right?

Just kidding, it's not all their fault. Your self-complexity and self-composition may also have a lot to do with you picking up that phone.

Let me explain.

Your self-complexity is the summation of all the aspects of your self. In "Is Self-Complexity Linked to Better Coping?," Erika J. Koch and James A. Shepperd suggest that self-aspects are “self-relevant knowledge such as traits, roles, physical features, category membership, abilities, preferences, autobiographical recollections, and relations with others.” For instance, I am a daughter, writer, badass, potential Mrs. Channing Tatum 2.0, etc. Basically, “greater self-complexity is associated with greater demands, more experiences, and multiple roles.”

However, when our self-complexity is low, we are more prone to respond badly to “stress, negative feedback and other negative events” such as a breakup . This is potentially why I am drunk dialing you at 2:00 am. It's because I am a very simple woman with no other self aspects to really fall back on.

Speaking of self, here's another thing reaching out to your ex could potentially mean: You don't recognize yourself without him anymore.

In "Who Am I Without You? The Influence of Romantic Breakup on the Self-Concept," authors Erica B. Slotter, Wendi L. Gardner and Eli J. Finkel conclude that “romantic relationships alter the selves of the individuals within them.” “Partners develop shared friends and activities and even overlapping self-concepts. This intertwining of selves may leave individuals' self-concepts vulnerable to change if the relationship ends.”

Given the interdependence of being a ride or die, breakups change who we see ourselves as.

You go from “I like the McDonald's drive-thru” to “we like the McDonald's drive-thru” to “Do I even like McDonald's anymore?.” When you no longer have someone to buy you a Big Mac, “there is confusion of the self, a reduction in the clarity of the self-concept.” So, sue me for calling you for some clarity.

OK, let's be honest. It might have been more than just a call.

Like Lora E. Park, Diana T. Sanchez and Kimberly Brynildsen propose in "Maladaptive Responses to Relationship Dissolution," reaching out to your ex can range from “pestering or harassment (e.g. calling or emailing someone after being asked not to do so), to aggravating intrusions, to more severe cases of vandalism (e.g. breaking into someone's apartment).”

Ahem, I never participated in that last one, I swear.

However, clinical psychologist, Sahar Bhaloo has a more mild take on reaching out by Generation Y. She says:

In the past, it would be a text or call, 'random' run in as options. More recently people stay peripherally connected through social media, and what used to be pumping your mutual friends for info about your ex – is now Facebook and Instagram stalking. It feels safer to reach out through these passive mediums because it involves less risk.

Amen. It's not risky unless your double tap.

But how you reach out and how much you reach out may also depend on how much self-worth was at stake in being in that rowdy relationship. Tara C. Marshall, Kathrine Bejanyan and Nelli Ferenczi, authors of "Attachment Styles and Personal Growth following Romantic Breakups" state,

The more an individual derives his or her self-worth from being in a romantic relationship, the more intense his or her reactions to a breakup may be. Those who strongly base self-worth in this domain may be more susceptible to experiencing emotional distress following a breakup, which, in turn, may predict greater obsessive pursuit behaviors toward their ex-partners.

So, your drunk texting, sober emailing or Carrie-Underwood-inspired car keying maybe all just be you trying to reclaim your self-worth in your own sweet little anxious attachment style. But does it really help anyone?

I mean it never helped me. I would wake up with a hangover and immense regret for putting myself out there and being rejected all over again. Not much good can come out of a pursuit that stems from “a mixture of anger and desire” toward an ex. You are basically “reflecting resentment over being abandoned and simultaneously yearning for the loved one.”

But are there any better ways to reflect or reach out? Well, according to Tara C. Marshall, Kathrine Bejanyan and Nelli Ferenczi, yes.

There are three reaching-out strategies associated with attachment styles.

Being open, empathetic and negotiating one's needs and desires with the ex, known as the “secure strategy.” Suppressing your feelings and being nonchalant/self-resilient, is referred to as the “avoidant strategy.” Or my go-to, bat-sh*t-crazy, “coercive strategy” which ranges from angry demands to flirtatious attempts to get what you want.

Oh, but don't worry too much about this. Post breakup, mid-loneliness, your mind goes into auto-pilot when reaching out based on your “past experiences with parents during childhood as well as later experiences with romantic partners” and mostly picks its own way forward.

There is really no winning when reaching out to your ex. You just have to understand that based on your attachment style, self-complexity, self-concept and self-worth, your reaction will “typically progress through three stages.”

Stage one being “protest.” This is where the “crying, anger, disbelief and and attempts to re-establish contact and proximity with the lost attachment figure set in.” Again, the intensity depends on all the variables discussed above. Stage two will be despair and sadness, which you can deal with via ice cream, binge watching Game of Thrones or by masturbating until you pass out.

In stage three, eventually, there will be a “reorganization of one's attachment hierarchy” and your friends will finally un-judge you as you start showcasing the detachment they so desired naturally.