According to a new study, people who stay in touch with their exes may do so because they feel less committed in their new relationships and want a backup plan. The research, published this month in Personal Relationships, is among the first to examine communication between former partners and how it affects a person's current relationship.
Researchers performed two studies, analyzing the survey answers of more than 400 mostly female undergraduate students who were in a relationship of at least a month and who had dated someone previously for at least three months. They found that about 40 percent of respondents kept in touch with a former flame.
In the first survey, participants were asked what their breakup was like and to share how they felt romantically about both their current and former partners. According to their results, "[t]hose who still communicated with former partners reported higher levels of romantic feelings for their former partner and experienced poorer adjustment to the breakup." Moreover, the study found that "these individuals reported lower commitment to their current partner."
Researchers were particularly interested in understanding why people chose to keep in touch with former partners. Lindsey Rodriguez, assistant professor of psychology at the University of South Florida and lead researcher on the study, tells Broadly she was interested in understanding how people handle the "very physical and emotional 'break' in their lives when relationships end."
In a second study, she and her colleagues identified four reasons for maintaining communication with an ex—including overlapping social networks and wanting to have a backup plan in case a new romance doesn't work out. They found that people who talked with their exes more frequently were less satisfied in their current relationships. And if they did so for the purposes of maintaining a backup plan, their current relationship was more likely to suffer.
"If individuals perceive that they are heavily invested in the relationship and that there are few desirable alternatives to the relationship, they are likely to be more committed and satisfied," the authors write. "However, when other desirable alternatives to the current relationship are available, commitment may decrease, particularly given romantic (i.e., backup) motivations with the former romantic partner."
So should people be wary when they see their partners texting ex-lovers? Not necessarily, Rodriguez says. "Generally, this research shows that communication with former partners is not universally good or bad for current relationships. The important factor is why the person continues to communicate with the former partner," she says. "It is possible to continue to stay friends with an ex for purely platonic reasons, and that can be inconsequential or positive for the current relationship."
There are real consequences for those who do continue to communicate, both for themselves and their new relationship.
But, she says, if a person really wants to move on from a past relationship, they need to cut off communication. "Many people find themselves 'stuck' on former partners or unable to really break away from the idea of a relationship with them. When this happens, they experience higher rates of depression and anxiety, and are less likely to find themselves in a healthy new relationship."
"As our research and previous work shows," Rodriguez continues, "there are real consequences for those who do continue to communicate, both for themselves and their new relationship."