There is no state of  skepticism quite as poignant as that of the return of a left-for-romantically-dead ex. What do they want? Why now? How do I feel about this? Our gut-borne defensiveness is not coincidental, and is absolutely not misplaced. It’s there for a reason, a reason which is at least a thousand words longer than I had honestly expected it would be.

Part 1 – Questions To Ask Ourselves

What is prompting them to reach out now?

The only difference between today and yesterday is context. If no outstanding reasons have made them reach out (they’ve suddenly moved back in town), then we would be well served by asking ourselves what the nature of this context is.

If their newfound interest is a product of their past romantic failures (post you), does that make us special, or does that make us just a better (but less than ideal) option?

Being better than the rest, from a hindsight perspective, isn’t necessarily a bad thing for us. It may even well bode well with regards to a future relationship, but at the same time if their interest is only through the lens of recent failings it may mean that we are only contextually a better option, and the same reasons that forced you apart the first time around will persist once they have dealt with the contemporary baggage.

Granted, time and experience are unparalleled teachers, and there is always the chance that they may genuinely feel that they took the past with you for granted, but be on the lookout for exes who are clearly looking to rebound and find some comfort (as someone they feel they know, you remain accessible) to ease their current predicament at your ultimate expense.

What is their stated intent?

No, it goes without saying that an ex who contacts you from out of the blue isn’t always having second thoughts, and this may well be a subtle and deceptive preamble before asking you for a favor instead (for example).

The only way to manage over-analysis and potential disillusionment is to resist redefining the contact around mixed messages. If there are remnants of fragility, and hope is giving you the jitters, this is understandably difficult to do — but do it anyway.

As always, there is obviously a difference between stated intent, and what their intent actually is, but there’s no way around this problem unless we spontaneously develop the ability to read minds. If you remain adamant about black-and-white communication however, and refuse to cater to an ex’s need for comfort, or a quick self-esteem upper, then they will quickly be forced up the ante or look elsewhere for their fix.

If an ex is forthcoming about their contact just being a quick catch-up, even if you sense that there’s something more lurking below the surface, then give the contact the importance that it deserves — which is to say not much (other than being a pleasant way of dissolving post-breakup resentment).

What does the nature of their communication betray about their emotions?

Understanding the hows and whys of their communication can help give us clues as to what their underlying intention (beyond the stated intention) actually may be. In any case, it’s probably in our best interest not to guesstimate too much and remain on the conservative end of the expectation scale.

  • How personally are they communicating? An ex who appeals to the personal side of things (your history, inside jokes and characteristics about you few may know) is attempting subtly to establish a personal bond. While the intention isn’t always flatly romantic, it usually is a sign that they miss your presence in their lives.
  • How personal is the medium of their communication? There is a vast symbolic difference between a call and — say — a faceless, toneless E-mail. One embraces opening the gates to potential hurt or resentment, while the other remains deeply segregated behind thick defensive walls. If anything, this shows how willing they are to risk and commit to their professed expectations. Should the means of communication escalate naturally from impersonal to the personal, it is a good sign they are beginning to feel more confident.

Important: Personal history will play a large role in deciphering clues, as some people are fundamentally more comfortable breaking the ice than others! If your ex has a history of manipulative behavior, you’re probably better off ignoring this section entirely and walling out any and every form of mixed message.

What is our intention?

It is by no means a given that a simple declaration of interest by an ex ends up striking a resounding chord with us down the line. Even if we fundamentally disagreed with the breakup, time apart will have changed both you, and your ex, in unpredictable ways. Nor is there any guarantee that time will have brought the resolve or wisdom necessary to transform what was once broken into something that may now work.

In essence then, deep down, are you really — realistically — willing to take another hit? Or is this all just a way to satisfy some deep-seated karma-borne curiosity?

Part 2 – Questions To Ask Them

Wanna meet halfway?

If our expectations are never externalized then for all intents and purposes we/they may well assume there is no spark or point of romantic origin. There is a fine line between forcing clarity, protecting ourselves and kick-starting reconciliation, without risk there is rarely ever a reward and so at some point, should we feel optimistic enough, we have to start communicating intent back.

Now that we’ve begun to take an educated guess (or as close as we realistically can given what we have) about their intent, it’s time to decide what signals we are going to send back.

While it is natural and occasionally also justifiable to hide behind the notion that “they broke the relationship, so now it’s up to them to fix it”, I can almost guarantee that reconciliation will not succeed along these lines of logic because your lack of feedback will usually cement the notion that you aren’t interested. On the plus side, one needn’t profess undying love or take an insane leap of faith either.

The best way to begin building up the walls of trust and affection is with small, concrete steps. Not only is this more comfortable, it is also a good way of weeding out impatient ex’s who need something now, to curb temporary pain. Draw it out, but move inexorably closer to your desired end.

How do we do that? Well…

  • By slowing escalating the medium of contact. If you’re currently emailing back and forth and are interested in moving forward, switch to live chat such as MSN, Skype or Facebook. If you’re currently back and forth with calls, why not propose an informal face-to-face?
  • By starting to piece together a communication schedule. Routine is the hallmark of any relationship, in the sense that you are both prominent fixtures of each others’ everyday lives. Why not slowly move towards that goal by establishing something of a fledgling communication routine?
  • By accepting the pillars of their message without judgment (for now). Feelings are feelings, and are rarely logic based because they deal with aspects of our minds that are not subject to conscious oversight. Which also means that most of their post-breakup assumptions and conclusions will seem remarkably alien to you. By allowing them to openly vent their insecurity without undue resistance, you are encouraging them to be more honest. The corollary of which is an atmosphere which will allow you to open up and say what you feel you need to say without fear of being shutdown or being labeled as delusional.

For those of us who are skeptical about being proactive in the face of someone who once let us down, I would add that — for what it’s worth — they did take a small, but still courageous leap of faith in breaking the wall of silence that separated you, and therefore throwing something back does not mean being needlessly naive. In any event playing along is the only way to see how deep the rabbit hole goes.

All of the above

The questions we posed ourselves in the first part of this article are also great questions to ask them. Even if you feel they are being less than honest, there will nevertheless be a torrent of cues, clues and feedback that will help you crystallize what is going on behind their mask.

The most common opposition I get from readers and friends on this topic revolves around the idea that being too direct can often scare them off, because it can sound abrasive or intimidating. Sure, it is always a possibility that addressing the elephant in the room may be less efficient than getting there in stages. At the end of it all however, if all it took was a direct question to scare them off, how much were they really prepared to invest in you to begin with? If anything it seems to me to be a fantastic way of forcing clarity, and their reluctance to play along is an answer, even if it isn’t the one we hoped for.

Image courtesy of gubgib at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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11 Comments

  • Blindsided16
    Posted Sep 6, 2015 at 12:56 pm 0Likes

    I dated my ex bf for 10mths. Everything was perfect. We talked marriage, moving into together, purchasing a home, etc. He and I are both divorced parents. I had dated before him but never had a deep connection with anyone else. He was the first to bring my walls down. He introduced me to his parents, coworkers and best friends. They loved me and for sure we were perfect for each other and headed toward marriage. He even through lots of hints about getting married. Suddenly we were faced with a dilemma. He was moving back to his country bc of his employment but timing was uncertain. I also had to move and was dealing with some stresses at work and felt I was stressed in our relationship bc of the uncertainty of him moving. We both felt the tension. He suddenly started treating me cold and distant. I knew something was wrong. I became so stressed that I decided to give him space since we always spent every weekend together. That space turned into not much as he continued to reach out to me. The stress continued and he suddenly wasn’t sure where we were headed. I decided to break up with him bc he told me he wouldn’t be able to. I almost felt and mentioned to him I thought he wanted me to initiate the breakup. So I did. We both cried and I of course didn’t want this. He said he loves me and cares too much but that it doesn’t make sense to stay in something that will ultimately have to end. We had previous conversations of our future together where we’d marry and it wouldn’t have to end so that if he left I would follow. I can’t figure out what happened. He said it wasn’t me its him. Which means nothing. He does have a lot to work on personally. We’ve been apart for 2mths now. He’s mostly initiated all contact. He just got back into town and would like to have lunch to “catch up.” This made me so happy as I’m not one to listen to my friends who say all the typical breakup rules: unfriend him, don’t answer his calls, ignore him, etc. I’m hopeful and yet he’s such a realist and fearful of failure. He had a bad divorce where his ex had an affair so I’ve always tried to be understanding of that. But suddenly I ran into his online dating profile. He told me during the time he has left here he’s not even interested in relationships. That he wants to leave with all the good memories he and I had. But on his profile he’s looking for a relationship and someone long term with kids?? Should I take this as wow he lied and is really over me or he’s just confused and on a rebound? My daughter loves him. He loves her. He’s an overall good guy. But could he be stringing me along and if so why? He still calls me baby and wants to come over to visit us. During our breakup he said time will tell if we get back together. But how would that happen if he’s looking for someone new? The hopeful side of me says give him space and if he wants me he’ll come back so I should just focus on me. Know that I just moved close to him bc the plan was for us to have a future together. It’s hard being new here and not seeing him. And awkward that I could potentially run into him. He’s insecure in many ways but I feel he’s only keeping in touch out of guilt. Coukd this just be classic case of fear of commitment? His previous relationship ended in the same amount of time except she cheated on him as his ex wife did. I love him still dearly as he’s made me such a better person. Should I mention his online dating profile when we meet for lunch and what should that conversation be focused on? Yes I want him back.

    • James Nelmondo
      Posted Sep 7, 2015 at 5:15 am 0Likes

      Hello there Blindsided, thanks for stopping by.

      Does he know the reason why you broke up with him? I.E That it wasn’t so much a question of love as it was of insecurity about where tomorrow will find you both. Knowing this may help him regain a modicum of confidence in the idea of restoring the relationship. If not, as you say, especially if he fears failure, then he may bring down the walls and act a little more defensively than he might feel. Which typically makes communication a mess.

      I wouldn’t read too much into his online dating profile, he’s clearly looking to fill some type of emotional hole. Which, no matter how he feels about the breakup, is a natural thing to do regardless of intent.

      I personally don’t believe it’s guilt that makes him keep in touch, at least from what I can gather. Personally, answering E-mails and other low effort examples may well be, but initiating a face-to-face catch up requires a fire that guilt alone just wouldn’t fuel. Actions and not words. Then again, that’s just my opinion, and as I’ve stated pretty much everywhere I can, I tend to be just as wrong as anyone else, so take it with a grain of salt!

  • D.H.
    Posted Sep 9, 2015 at 7:49 am 0Likes

    Hi James!
    Thank you for your articles. They really make me think.
    I am almost 2 months out of a rebound relationship (1 year). We started when her previous (really bad and traumatic) breakup was very recent and we had been friends before.
    She broke up with me saying she wanted to be alone and stay just friends. I wasn’t supportive of the idea of being friends. At the beginning I was devastated and desperate (crying, begging), but then I apologized. We’ve kept very limited contact since, initiated by her, 1-2 line texts once a week, nothing relationship-related except some good memories brought up by her once. We also went for coffee a week ago (mainly just catching up). Then I asked her to go to see a play in a couple of weeks. She thought about it but then accepted (I don’t know if it means something or we are just heading towards friends for the moment).
    I am not bitter or angry at her. I know I made some mistakes during the relationship (nothing fatal though), besides of it being unhealthy itself. I also think it is good she gets to be alone and figure out what she really wants (she didn’t have this time before our relationship started). I do love her. And hope for reconciliation (or a new start).
    I try to focus more on myself now and less on our (still limited) communication and her moves on social networks. I have a feeling that there is a chance (although small) for us to be together again and I really hope that with time we get a chance to try and build something healthy. What are your thoughts about it? Any advice?

    • James Nelmondo
      Posted Sep 10, 2015 at 8:09 am 0Likes

      Hey there D.H,

      I tend to take parting messages at face value for my own sanity. Given this principle, it seems clear that — for whatever reason — she may have felt a little cornered by the end of the relationship. This may, or may not have anything to do with you as a partner, especially given her history. It seems both plausible and reasonable for her to want to stop and reflect (if this is what it’s all about). And, as you say, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

      The fact that she keeps a minimum of contact open might be a sign that she’s not willing to close that avenue. Perhaps she needs a little affection to bolster her resolve, or perhaps she’s as a yet uncertain about her decision. Whatever it is though, is a good sign. Meaning that she still considers you approachable and a source of something positive.

      My only real advice here is to let her dictate the tempo. This liminal stage is something she feels she needs, and thus it is also up to her to solidify her position with regards to you, and her future as an individual. If you’re patient and curious enough to wait it out, and have the stomach for what might ultimately be romantic rejection (there’s no knowing where this leads), then I’d hang on without pushing matters.

      Do I think there’s hope? Yes, given your base of friendship, and your respectful stance towards her needs (which she reciprocates in her own way) I’d say that there is. But that shouldn’t stop you from moving on with your life regardless.

  • D.H.
    Posted Sep 11, 2015 at 7:32 am 0Likes

    Thank you! Makes perfect sense.

  • D.H.
    Posted Sep 17, 2015 at 3:25 pm 0Likes

    Hi James!
    Sorry for popping up again, but your advice is very helpful and I am in desperate need of some external point of view.
    We’ve met again today for coffee, had a light chat about work and stuff and then she invited me to her place because I had to get some of my books and she said we could also have lunch and work together (I had my laptop with me). Considering our limited contact lately, I was surprised but accepted.
    The thing is, we’ve spent some hours together and she acted as if no breakup ever happened (we used to work side by side all the time while we were together). I am utterly confused because it was literally like fast rewind to the time we were together with no change at all. We laughed quite a bit, she joked, talked about her friends, she didn’t seem nervous or self-conscious at all, like about touching me or about keeping personal space (I was a bit though). At the same time, there were no clear romantic cues.
    I don’t know what to make of this sudden escalation of the contact. Is it a sign that she completely “friendzoned” me after having some space over the past two months? (still weird that she just jumped into spending so much time together while she knows how I feel about “just friends”) Is she still confused herself? Is she trying to start over? (why is it so sudden then?) I know there is no clear answer to these questions unless I confront her (I don’t think it’s time to do so yet) but I can’t quite put my finger on her behavior and I wonder how would you interpret it.

    • James Nelmondo
      Posted Sep 18, 2015 at 12:42 pm 0Likes

      Hello again!

      I’m not sure I agree with the premise of being “friend-zoned”, she may or may not have underlying romantic intentions but having a base of friendship never hurts, it’s what keeps long-term relationships alive. Attraction may ebb and flow, but attachment is what keeps it all running. And there clearly seems to be some of that left…

      I’d take the escalation of contact at face value though, the only real clues you can draw are those that are evident; she continues to trust you and enjoy your company. Regardless of whether her intention is that of subtly starting over, or testing the waters, I think the greater point is that you continue to have a platform to work with.

  • D.H.
    Posted Sep 20, 2015 at 7:57 am 0Likes

    thanks again for the perspective!

  • grateful
    Posted Apr 8, 2016 at 9:16 pm 0Likes

    Hi, my relationship with my ex ended about two months ago. Things were going really bad. The relationship lasted two months and we were friends a couple of months before we started dating. I would say my insecurity in past past relationship affected in a way though he had his own issues. He texted me first two weeks after the breakup to ask how I was(I called him first a few days after the breakup to know how his health was because he was sick when he broke up) then he texted last week also. He called me few days ago asking me how I was and how my exams went because he broke up with me just as I was about starting my exams saying we were not working and he wanted me to be happy. Well, he also said I could let him know if I needed help concerning my paper am currently writing. To some extent, I have been working on myself since the breakup and I feel a lot better about myself and happier now. I actually wouldn’t mind his helping me with my paper. I just want to know whether its okay to take him up on his offer to help me or just do it myself. Though I want him back, I really don’t want to give myself false hopes or anything so I kind of resolved to just set my mind on moving on

  • Sadie
    Posted Apr 14, 2016 at 6:35 pm 0Likes

    My ex broke up with me 4 months ago after a 3 year relationship. I acted desperate and needy after the breakup (something I am not proud of). I have since backed off quite a bit. I text him on occasion with issues that are necessary but not about our relationship (business related things). He generally responds immediately and asks how I am but the conversations are very short. He never contacts me first anymore. About a month ago he made the comment that he hopes we will get back together in the future but not right now. That left me more confused than ever. We were once deeply in love but he lost that feeling for me because I had trust issues. I have since worked on myself and have made changes but I still want him back. I have read so much about this subject and there are so many conflicting opinions.I have no idea where to go from here. I also moved out of the State and asking to have coffee is not possible. I just wish I knew whether or not to give up or to try. I don’t want to appear needy and desperate anymore.

    • James Nelmondo
      Posted Apr 14, 2016 at 11:43 pm 0Likes

      Hey Sadie,

      Here’s me being redundant but… Neediness is only partly dependent on reconciliation. The act of “fearing appearing” needy or desperate is, perhaps a little ironically, a little self-defeating if taken too far, because despite trust issues or insecurity, they are a reflection of how you feel. It’s just the packaging that needs to change, not the driving emotion.

      Obviously, if your own insecurity was part and parcel of the breakup itself, because they threatened his needs, then that probably needs to change too, but you mention being aware of that — so there’s that.

      However, emotions can be transparently and honestly conveyed, or you risk drowning reconciliation in it’s own game of emotional charades. I’d rather look desperate and be rejected than “what if” myself for the rest of my life without knowing where pushing forward would have led. Projecting insecurity is one thing, but being hurt and needy is a sign you care. They are not the same.

      How would you react to receiving an emotionally charged, yet honest call from him? Chances are you’d welcome it, neediness and all. It’s the manipulative and confusing aspect you don’t want, and that’s the result of the insecurity (to mask intent for fear of losing). Don’t be afraid of showing your true colors communicatively. Even if it goes down the tubes the ensuing clarity will make it easier for both of you in the long run.

      But there’s a limit to pushing too. If you have communicated openly, without mind tricks, or covering the message in a mile of emotional foundation, and the answer is still “no” (and yes, not right now but maybe later is a no for all intents and purposes, because while it might happen one day, you owe it to yourself to continue living), then it is up to you to throw in the towel and draw a line in the sand.

      You do not rely on him to feed you the answers you need. You can force clarity if you need to.

      P.S Easier said than done of course.

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