The Real Reasons Your Toxic Ex Keeps Crawling Back — According To Research
Ever wonder why the person who mistreated you seemed to pursue you relentlessly after the relationship was over? Why your emotionally unavailable ex-partners seemed to be the most “available” after you left them?
Although people stay friends with their exes for a variety of reasons, when a toxic ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend reaches out, there’s usually something deeper going on than just “missing” their former partners. One of the biggest misconceptions people have is that if their ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend reached out, it must bebecause they truly love and miss them. They desperately want to believe in the illusion that a friendship with their ex-partner or some other dubious arrangement will fulfill their needs long-term. They may hope that this second chance provides a pathway for their ex to finally morph into the ideal partner.
While there are people who can be friends with their ex-partners (usually after they’ve taken the time to heal), when it comes to a toxic relationship where a person has continually demeaned you, the fantasy of establishing an idyllic friendship after a break-up is far from the harsh reality. After all, when someone has been a toxic relationship partner, it’s doubtful that he or she will be that great of a friend.
Reality check: Toxic ex-partners may not miss you, but they sure do miss what you provided for them.
Researchers Mogilski and Welling (2017) discovered that those who had darker personality traits (such as narcissism, duplicity and psychopathy) tended to stay friends with their exes out of convenience, sex and access to resources.
If you’re dealing with a toxic narcissistic ex, the decision to reach out is usually one driven for the need to regain control over their former partners. According to a narcissism expert:
“Narcissists hate to fail or lose, so they will do what they can to maintain some connection if they didn’t make the choice to end it…They can experience narcissistic injury when rejected by a partner and have difficulties letting it go or healing from it… they may stay connected [to exes in order to] have access to valuable resources. They also have inside information about their exes’ vulnerabilities and weaknesses that they can exploit and manipulate which gives them a sense of power and control.” Dr.Tony Ferretti, Narcissists and Psychopaths Love to Stay Friends With Their Exes
When a toxic and/or abusive ex-partner reaches out or asks to stay friends, they’re most likely looking to ensnare you back into the unhealthy dynamic that made the relationship lethal in the first place. In the abuse survivor community, this type of behavior is known as “hoovering.” Named after the Hoover vacuum, it aptly describes the way a malignant partner tries to “suck you back” into the traumatic vortex of the relationship long after its expiration date.
Why Do We Reconnect With Toxic Exes?
Now that we know why toxic ex-partners reach out, why do we let them back into our lives? It’s tempting to reestablish contact with an ex-partner because during breakups, our brains process the psychological pain of a breakup in a similar way that they register physical pain (Kross et. al, 2011).
Staying friends with our exes can be one of the coping mechanisms we use to immediately tackle the threat of emotional annihilation because we still get to “keep” our exes in our lives, albeit at a distance. We get to use a faux friendship with a toxic ex or a “friends with benefits” deal as a stopgap — a way to deter the inevitable outpour of grief that would follow a total loss of that person.
Unhealthy relationships also cause stronger trauma bonds (intense bonds resulting from shared emotional experiences) and an unwavering biochemical attachment. Research has shown that rejection by a romantic partner affects brain activity that is associated with addiction cravings, rewards and motivation; adversity-ridden relationships can also cause similar activity in the brain as cocaine (Fisher et. al, 2010; Earp et. al, 2017).
When we’re pulled “towards” a toxic partner once more, it’s because our bodies have grown accustomed to the highs and lows we receive from the relationship on a biochemical level through chemicals like oxytocin, dopamine, cortisol and serotonin (Carnell 2012; Fisher, 2016).
Toxic love, is quite literally, a drug addiction. Rehab requires that we cut the cord with our toxic ex-partners so we can detox from the relationship — unfortunately, it’s rarely that simple.
Studies show that we tend to link the ending of a relationship with our self-image, which tends to hinder our recovery (Howe and Dweck, 2016). The ending of a relationship can bring about feelings of self-doubt with regards to our desirability. Reconnecting with an ex, no matter how toxic or abusive that person might be, may provide temporary relief because we think it will somehow provide reassurance of our self-worth.
Not to mention that we see the reunion in itself as an indication that our ex-partner can “redeem” himself or herself. We “hope” for a better relationship the second time around on the crazymaking carousel, and this false hope keeps us entrenched in this chaotic dynamic despite the fact that we’re probably much better off without them.
Reasons Why Narcissistic Exes Reach Out
If you’re dealing with a toxic ex-partner who also happens to be a malignant narcissist, watch out. Our reasons for allowing narcissistic ex-partners back into our lives can be even deeper and darker — they go beyond everyday dysfunction and have to do with the effects of abuse. Toxic exes who are also narcissistic tend to hoover for the following reasons:
For mind-blowing sex that will cause you to stay attached.
Remember, the biochemical bond we develop with toxic partners is inexplicably addictive. Sex only strengthens that bond by releasing oxytocin and keeping the reward circuits in our brain tied to our ex-partner, creating a dopamine high like no other. A malignant narcissist knows this and will use sex to prevent you from “detoxing” properly from the relationship.
To make you a backup source of supply.
Your toxic ex may have seemingly moved onto a new source of supply (in other words, someone to stroke their ego, financially support them and tolerate their toxicity), but that doesn’t mean he or she is done with you just yet. You’re still valuable in the sense that you could be a good fallback person for whenever their new boyfriend or girlfriend “falls short” of their arbitrary standards and moving goal posts. If you do submit to their requests to remain friends, rest assured that they will exploit your compassion and feed off of your emotional labor whenever they need a break from their new target.
To use their friendship with you as a sign of their normalcy.
The ability to stay friends with a toxic ex-partner may tempt you into believing that you’re both mature people capable of evolving, but the truth of the matter is that only one of you is truly capable of evolving and it’s not the narcissist. A malignant narcissist will use their friendship with you as a way to say to the world, “See how great I am? He/she still wants to be my friend. There was never any dysfunction in the relationship after all!” This allows your toxic ex to treat your breakup as a symptom of mere incompatibility rather than abuse.
To control you and prevent you from moving on.
Many narcissists stalk and harass their ex-partners after the ending of an abusive relationship. This allows them to maintain control over your life and ensures that you do not move forward — whether that be moving forward in your own healing or onto a healthier relationship with a new partner.
After all, if you’re too busy agonizing over their mixed messages and ambivalent behavior, you’re far too preoccupied to rebuild your life, pursue healthier self-care or meet new potential mates.
To create love triangles and add you to their harem.
If you’ve ever been with a true malignant narcissist, you’ve also met their “harem” — their shady social circle which often includes exes that never seem to fade from the picture, flirtatious “buddies” they call “just friends,” and new people they groom to eventually serve as your replacement. Malignant narcissistic exes thrive off of the attention of having multiple lovers at their beck and call. Even after the break-up, they will attempt to add you to their harem so they can triangulate you with their various exes, current partners and potential targets.
To access your resources.
If you’re in any way wealthy, have a great social network, have a good reputation and a track record of success, the malignant narcissist will not want to let you go. Access to you, after all, equals access to your resources. When you allow a space for them to re-enter your life, you make it convenient for them to drop by, sleep over at your beautiful apartment, ask for a loan, hang out with your friends, make use of your talents and ideas and benefit from being associated with you. They relish the fact that they have you on call for whenever they need something — whether it be your body or your bank account.
When assessing whether to be friends with a toxic ex or give them a second chance, remember that true friends do not maliciously harm, exploit or use you. Do not remain friends with someone who has tried to destroy you in the past; they most likely are planning to do more of the same in the present.
Shahida Arabi is the bestselling author of Power: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse and the poetry book She Who Destroys the Light.