"If they hadn't had that breakup, I really don't think they'd be here today," my buddy says to me as we ride a shuttle to the wedding of our mutual friends, Shanna and Amy. "It really made them realize what they had together and what they wanted in life."
Years ago, Amy had been hesitant about commitment: cold but rational in reaction to bad previous experiences. Shanna had grown increasingly frustrated that, although they'd been together for a long time, the possibility of a family seemed no closer. Convinced the clock was running out on her lifelong dream, she ended the relationship in hopes of finding someone else who was ready to commit.
When asked about couples who get back together after breaking up, most responses fall into one of two camps:
"Nope. It's never a good idea."
And: "Time apart, followed by lots of hard work, is sometimes the exact thing a relationship needs."
The first response is often made by people who rekindled a defunct romance and found the problems that led to the split still existed. "Remember you broke up for a reason," they say. They had apparently assumed that separation alone would be enough to get perspective, to learn how to prioritize differently, maybe even to be a better partner.
The assumption is that once something is lost, a person will finally realize how much they had taken it for granted. Once it's returned, they'll work hard to ensure they never feel the pain of losing it again.
This outlook, though, doesn't take into consideration that relationship success isn't just a matter of wanting something to work, it requires specific skills. I can really want my car to drive, but that doesn't automatically mean I can replace a spark plug.
If there's no effort invested in learning and practicing these skills, a person may never be able to find a consistent, healthy relationship, regardless of whom they date. They might float from partner to partner, repeating the same mistakes (or variations), often blaming their taste in "crazy girls" or "a-hole guys," rather than acknowledging that the relationships lacked communication, flexibility, trust, mutual vulnerability, or honesty.
That's not to say that every split is due to lack of effort. People can like each other a great deal, treat each other well, be highly skilled at communication, and still not be a good match as romantic partners. Geographic distance, bad timing, differing life plans, and other obstacles can all lead to amicable but necessary breakups between people who might otherwise work.
These types of splits can be extra difficult, as there's no healthy place to focus anger and moving on is harder when one's heart is elsewhere. As with any setback: Only the passage of time, a good support system, and plenty of distraction can heal the wounds. But what if, after some time, the obstacle that kept the lovers apart is removed?
After going to colleges in different states, a pair of former high school sweethearts later take jobs in the same city, for instance. They might be an ideal match. They already have established trust and intimacy and with some experience in the world as individuals, might be better equipped as partners than if they'd stayed together the whole time.
Relationships can recover after many significant pitfalls, including: infidelity, dishonesty and cruel words said in anger. The wrongdoer must acknowledge their mistake, understand why it was harmful, do their best to repair damages, and be committed to a more loving course of action going forward.
Not everyone should get a second try, though. Physical violence, emotional abuse, and long-term patterns of deception are often rooted in personal issues far too big for a couple to work out on their own. Someone who is manipulative, coercive, or shows callous disregard for others' feelings may be able to build better relationship skills, but it's also possible that they never will.
Getting back together may motivate positive change or it could be the honeymoon phase of the cycle of abuse. In situations where children or animals are in danger of being collateral damage, there's no room for optimism about an abusive partner's growth. Staying apart in these cases isn't just a good idea, it's your responsibility as a caretaker.
Back to Shanna and Amy.
Several years before the bouncy shuttle ride to their wedding, they had been separated for a few months and each was floundering, trying to make sense of a life without the other.
Shanna discovered that commitment and family meant nothing without the right partner and Amy realized she'd been letting fear keep her from experiencing real happiness. Separately and together they engaged in soul-searching, emotional and relationship work, learned about being better lovers and, over time, repaired their connection.
Like the way a muscle tears and rebuilds with exercise, they replaced their old relationship with an even stronger one.
If you're contemplating rekindling an old flame, here are a few things to consider:
Dr. Timaree Schmit earned her Ph.D. in Human Sexuality from Widener University, where she now trains future sexologists and clinicians. Her passion is bringing rational, empirically-based, sex-positive information to the world, empowering others to celebrate their bodies, build intimacy and experience pleasure.