You probably know a Boomerang Man. Maybe you met him through a dating app or through a mutual friend and the connection was instant. After weeks, months or years spent together, however, you realized it wasn’t to be.
Perhaps you wanted an exclusive commitment, or children, and he didn’t. Perhaps he emotionally took advantage of you, and you gathered the strength to realize you deserved better. You walked away. But then he returns, almost like magic, during the season where everything seems to be going right in your life.
He is The Boomerang Man.
When I suffered my biggest heartbreak to date, my mother attempted to console me by saying, “He’ll come back. They always do.”
If popular culture is any guide, she was right. We’ve seen a woman’s transformation presage the arrival of a Boomerang Man in some of our most popular movies. In “Legally Blonde,” Elle Woods’ boyfriend Warner Huntington III dumps her because she does not fit the mold for the aspiring senator’s wife: staid, sensible, sexless. But when Elle gets into Harvard Law School and wins her first court case during an internship, Warner decides he wants her back. She rejects him and instead chooses the man who was right for her all along.
In other films like “Grease,” “Why Did I Get Married?” and “The Mirror Has Two Faces,” The Boomerang Man returns once the heroine has undergone a physical transformation. Now that they’re traditionally attractive ― now that they’ve lost weight or gone blonde ― he comes back around.
Elle and her pop culture compatriots have all experienced a “glo up.” A glo up is when a person flourishes: they get a makeover or take a vacation, they get promoted or buy a home. Or, they find a suitable partner. In these movies, the glo up predicts, or even triggers, the return of The Boomerang Man.
Why would a man come back when things are going well? Does he return because he genuinely misses the companionship or the ability to make contact with the woman as a kind of ego trip? Or is something less romantic going on? The impeccable timing behind a Boomerang Man’s return underscores his desire for attention and, arguably, control. A glo up represents a new form of power for a woman to wield, whether it’s social capital (a new partner), cultural capital (new hobbies or an Insta-glam lifestyle) or economic capital (the new job or home). Now that her life has improved, The Boomerang Man senses that she is harder to control.
“A 'glo up' represents a new form of power for a woman to wield. Now that her life has improved, The Boomerang Man senses that she is harder to control.”
Sometimes, The Boomerang Man shows up at an eerily precise moment. For Kaitlyn Greenidge, critically acclaimed author of the novel We Love You, Charlie Freeman, a recent personal milestone and the appearance of a Boomerang Man coincided with almost cosmic accuracy. When Greenidge got engaged, she told very few people ― yet somehow, three of her exes sent texts revealing that they had just been thinking of her.
One New York-based author and editor broke up with her ex in 2016 after two years of dating. Now, every time she is busy and things are going well professionally, he attempts to revive their relationship. The timing, she says, is “odd,” because they aren’t connected on social media, which is one of the easiest ways to keep track of exes.
It’s also one of the easiest ways to document and disseminate a glo up to the entire world. Instagram has 800 million active users, 68 percent of whom are women. Snapchat has over 300 million active users; 70 percent are women. And about half of Facebook’s over 2 billion active users are women. Through these social media giants, women can share photos and videos of their new and improved lives, evidence of their ascent that their entire communities ― and their exes ― can see. Social media has made it much easier for The Boomerang Man to know when, and how, to return.
When another writer I know posted on social media that she was moving across the country for a new job, one of her exes got back in touch with her within a day. “It happens so many times,” she says. “I think social media usually sparks it, like a selfie of some sort, but then they text.”
Alana Hope Levinson, deputy editor of Mel Magazine, agrees that social media has made it easier for men to boomerang. “There is this trope in pop culture that the ex always comes back when you get over them and it’s totally real,” she says. “But in the digital age, it’s worse because they can literally see you moving on. It’s not just figurative.”
Boomeranging “is also the move of the emotionally unavailable person,” Greenidge says. “The Boomeranger, I think, is thinking, ‘I wish I could connect with this person. I wish I could have a relationship with this person. But an actual ebb-and-flow relationship is too scary and hard. So let me just come back in when things are good for this person.’”
There’s a darker side to the Boomerang Man, beyond the need for attention and affection. Greenidge’s Boomerang Man quickly turned controlling, from late-night phone calls followed by lashing out to selfies on Valentine’s Day long after the breakup. Sometimes, the line between boomeranging and stalking is very thin.
“There is this trope in pop culture that the ex always comes back when you get over them. But in the digital age, it’s worse because they can literally see you moving on. It’s not just figurative.”
Even the Boomerang Men who don’t cross that line exploit the societal expectations imposed on women. Where men are conditioned to believe they are entitled to women, women are taught that relationships are achievements, the missing puzzle pieces that will complete their already full-grown lives. When a woman does well for herself, whether it be through professional mobility or personal growth, she is exerting independence and autonomy, two traits that have traditionally been seen as unfeminine and therefore threatening to men.
There are exceptions to any rule, and some men do return with every intention of being better partners than they were before. But more often than not, that they return by mere coincidence when women’s lives are going well is a sign of their inability to be strong partners who remain when a woman’s glo up is dimmed ― and of their subconscious desire to regain power and control of the woman who left them.
And as for the man who broke my heart, my mother was right. He did come back. Or he tried to, at least; I did not let him back in. I’ve had my own glo up of late: a best-selling debut, a new apartment, a personal trainer who kicks my butt and makes me feel great, and wider social circles. I used to know the Boomerang Men, and they used to know me, but I don’t give them that privilege anymore. Instead, they are relegated to knowing me through two-dimensional avatars.
Morgan Jerkins is the author of the New York Times best-selling collection This Will Be My Undoing.