Taylor Swift has a whimsical way with words. So much so that her fans poke and prod at every song, lyric by lyric, trying to determine what – or who – Swift, 32, sings about. Her latest album “Midnights” dropped last week and fans rushed to connect it to John Mayer, to whom Swift was romantically linked at 19 when he was in his early 30s. Less than a year ago, Swift fans turned on Jake Gyllenhaal after the release of on “Red (Taylor’s Version”) with a 10-minute version of breakup ballad “All Too Well.”
Swift – like anyone – is welcome to share her truth. (We are still talking about that scarf for a reason!) But for Mayer, Gyllenhaal and regular people each day: What does this feel like? How do our relationships look in hindsight? And what should you do if your ex reignites old relationship drama by sliding into your DMs or gossiping about you to mutual friends?
Every romantic connection is different and may warrant a unique response if an ex directly or indirectly orbits your life again. Relationship experts say focusing on what you can control will ultimately help you in these situations.
The bottom line: You have no obligation to engage.
“Having empathy for your ex doesn’t mean taking their call when they reach out. Having empathy for them is just being able to say to yourself, ‘oh, let me remind myself that this person is having a emotional and cognitive reaction to the breakup, whether it be three days ago, three months ago, three years ago,” says Benjamin Goldman, a mental health therapist.
Constant breakup reminders are ‘really challenging’
Don’t let those “bright side” people fool you: breakups stink.
“Breakups have the ability to shake us, cause self-doubt, lower self-esteem, and often create a sense of guilt or failure,” Goldman says. Sometimes breakups are mutual; sometimes they are one-sided. Either way, “one of the beautiful, but challenging things about relationships is that it’s equal parts individual and collective,” Goldman adds.
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An ex reaching out – even just thinking about them while you toss and turn in the middle of the night – catapults you right back to a potentially toxic place.
“What can be really challenging when you’re trying to heal is when you are constantly reminded of what happened and you’re not able to disconnect and to be able to have healthy boundaries from that person,” says T.M. Robinson-Mosley, counseling psychologist.
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It may be worth reexamining how the breakup went down. “It takes raw honesty, from the person who’s being contacted to be introspective, to look into ‘well, did I take advantage of this person? Did I have culpability in a certain situation?’ And then to take a personal journey from there,” says Kim Polinder, relationship coach.
Of course, being in touch with or even friends with your ex is certainly a possibility. Maryanne Fisher, a psychology professor at St. Mary’s University in Canada, says “lots of people stay in touch with ex-partners, remain friends with them, or have some emotional attachment, even after starting a new relationship.” It just may not work for everyone.
What you do next matters more.
What to do if your ex tries to reenter your life
Run in the other direction. “If you’re in a functioning, healthy, and happy committed relationship, best to move on,” Fisher says. “A quick acknowledgement and close the door to the past would likely be the best step, if the goal is to maintain a current relationship.”
Polinder adds: “Generally when they won’t let it go, they keep hounding you years later, they’re still dragging your name through the mud, then at some point, letting them just spin their wheels, taking the high road can go a long way.”
… But if you don’t want to run, control what you can control. “The question isn’t as much of is it good or bad to reach out to that ex, or respond to that ex,” Goldman says. “The question is, can I handle the challenge of the discomfort or do I have the space for reengaging with a (person) that might reinvigorate some of those past unhelpful thoughts?”
That doesn’t mean you need to respond – though that’s easier said than done when your reputation is at stake. If you do speak up for yourself, tread lightly. “The act of trying to correct the narrative can just dig you in deeper,” Fisher says.
Just acknowledging someone’s feelings may be enough to quell further drama. “The biggest reason that people hold on to resentments is that they feel misunderstood,” Polinder says.
When in doubt, set boundaries. Was it a particularly bad breakup? Block them on social or avoid that bar you know they frequent. That means “being intentional about who we’re connecting to, and how we’re connecting with folks,” Robinson-Mosley says
Remember why you broke up in the first place. Nostalgia is a fickle friend. “The relationship ended, and unless there are dependents involved, there is very little to be gained emotionally by continuing on,” Fisher says. “Many people get back together with their ex-partners, but those relationships tend to be less satisfactory than relationships where there has been no prior breakup.” Think, too, about why you want to reengage.
If you feel your ex occupies too much of your headspace, consider seeking help to move forward with that heartache in your rearview mirror.
“What you do have control over is the amount of time that you spend reiterating these messages to yourself,” Goldman says.
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