4 expert strategies to stop taking back that ex who keeps showing up in your life


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In an ideal world, matters of the heart (and mending a broken one) would be black and white: Navigating a nasty breakup with the partner of your dreams would lead directly to a Zen period of healing, self love, and lots of yoga. Shortly thereafter, love would reenter your life again—and it would be so much better this time around. But, let’s say there’s a guy from your past with whom you have great chemistry but who just “doesn’t want a relationship.” If he shows up (and he very well may), you’d walk away immediately, dignity intact, and never hear from him again. You’d then follow up this power move by finding someone who actually deserves you.

In the real world though, lust, love, and everything between tends to skew a lot messier. Memories of the girl who broke your heart years ago and the guy who claims he just can’t be in a relationship right now (despite calling, texting, and watching your Instagram stories) haunt the prospect of love that so many romantics earnestly chase.

Particularly in the case of the guy who keeps coming back even though he says he doesn’t want a relationship, interpreting the mixed signals can be incredibly confusing. And not giving into the temptation of giving things another go can feel near impossible. But also, like, why does he keep coming back if he doesn’t want a relationship? The situation can lead to sleepless nights, an inability to move on, and constantly beating yourself up about the whole thing. Not so happily ever after, huh?

So, what’s with these mixed signals, anyway? Let’s take a closer look at what could be going on—and what to do about it.

Why does he keep coming back if he doesn’t want a relationship? Here’s a deep dive into the mixed signals:

1. issues with Personal connection

When someone says they don’t want to be in a relationship, it’s easy to take the statement personally. Somehow when those words leave the mouth of the person speaking them, they shape-shift from their original meaning into you hearing that you’re not smart enough, attractive enough, funny enough…the list goes on and on. But according to relationship expert Linda Carroll, LMFT, it almost always has to do with the other person, and their own issues with connection.

“If he or she she says they don’t want the relationship, but they just can’t seem to let you go, there’s something much bigger going on here.” —Linda Carroll, LMFT

“If he or she she says they don’t want the relationship, but they just can’t seem to let you go, there’s something much bigger going on here,” Carroll says. “This is usually a statement about his or her connection issues more than anything else. This person won’t be able to be in a healthy relationship until he or she does some work on their own, like talking through childhood issues with a therapist. This person will probably need to look at how they learned about love they were younger—there’s probably a lot there.”

2. They just got out of a relationship

Anyone who’s had trouble moving on from an ex, despite giving the situation their earnest best efforts, knows how difficult it can be to fully commit to a subsequent someone special. And if the person who keeps coming back was recently in a serious relationship, that might explain a lot about why the actions and words aren’t quite matching up. “This person may just need more time to move on from their last relationship, especially if it was a serious one,” Carroll says.

3. The attraction is there, but that’s where it ends

I know, I know: This is a tough one to swallow. But sometimes, a potential suitor is truly and honestly attracted to you, but they still don’t see you as “the one.” This can go beyond the physical attraction, too: They may enjoy spending time with you, and find you funny and charming and the whole nine yards. But still, you’re not someone they want to fully commit to for one reason or another.

4. Commitment issues

Past trauma can be a huge indicator that explains commitment issues. This might mean someone was broken up with unexpectedly or something awful happened in a past relationship. Whatever the cause, it has led the person to a situation that makes embarking on subsequent relationships difficult, Carroll says. “In that case, the thought of diving into something new with their full heart can be terrifying.”

While people certainly can change, Carroll says that the idea of someone doing a total 180 is unlikely. “It’s kind of like asking someone who has a nasty temper if they will ‘come around’ and stop exploding at the drop of a hat. Yes, they can learn to manage it, but they will need intention, willingness, guidance, and practice. And it takes a long time,” says Carroll.

So, what can you do if someone from your past is back in your life—but doesn’t want a full-blown relationship? Quite a lot—here are a few options.

Thumbnail for 4 expert strategies to stop taking back that ex who keeps showing up in your life
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How to deal when someone from your past is giving you mixed messages.

1. Pretend you’re the person on the other end of the situation

Right now, you can probably only see the situation from your own perspective: You’re in a constant state of confusion and anxiety trying to figure out why this person, who says they don’t want a relationship, keeps coming back, over and over again. According to Carroll, though, seeing the situation from the other person’s perspective can provide enough strength to walk away.

So let’s say you’re the other person: If you see someone as disposable and are willing to let them go, it may mean you don’t have it in you to give your whole heart to them. Once you can understand this POV, the other person and the situation you’re in together may automatically become less attractive to you.

2. Ask yourself why you aren’t treating yourself with more compassion

Someone once told me that if I spoke to others the way I speak to myself, I probably wouldn’t have many if any friends. So if you’re in a tough situation like this one, start by treating yourself with more compassion (and, really, always work to treat yourself with more compassion). “Ask yourself, what am I doing to myself by being in this?” Carroll says. “Am I holding on to a fantasy?”

By prioritizing yourself and your own happiness, you’ll be more equipped to make great choices.

3. Talk to a therapist or another mental-health professional

There’s no doubt that being in a situation like this can be extremely taxing. And according to Carroll, continuing to participate in it can signal that you still have some issues of your own to work out. Therapy is an excellent way to sort through any complicated feelings you may have around relationships. Participating can help you figure out how to extract yourself in a way that feels healthy and empowering.

4. Have an open, honest conversation

Holding onto hope that someone will change is a slippery slope—especially if you haven’t yet had an open, honest conversation with the other person. So, give it a try. You may learn a lot, and if they promise to start working on themselves, hey—that’s a good sign that things might be moving in the right direction.

Being in an on-again, off-again relationship with someone who just can’t commit can be incredibly confusing and anxiety-inducing, and often it can feel there’s no end in sight—certainly not a happily ever after one. But there’s a lot you can do to be an active participant in the story—so get started today.

After you end things for good, try giving exposure therapy a shot for helping you to get over your ex once and for all. Or, go all in and just take a dating sabbatical to focus on yourself.

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