Once upon a time, we maintained radio silence. Now, all bets are off.
Words by Kristina Spencer.
Last year was…well, strange, to say the very least. It’s been a year of social awakening, a turbulent United States presidential election and global pandemic. After a summer spent outside filled with socially-distanced birthdays, park picnics, and elbow hugs, some areas, such as Europe, are now gripped by the second wave (and strain) of COVID-19. There are curfews and tighter rules, and no more drinks in people’s backyards. As the days get shorter and seasons shift, the feeling of loneliness has returned. Some of us may be on our phones again sending texts and DMs and emails to our ex-partners after months or even years of radio silence. Once upon a time, the rules of speaking to exes were clear–never do it, even after the third cocktail of the evening. Yet, at the moment, all bets are off.
Emma, a 27-year-old film producer based in Toronto, heard from an old crush at the beginning of the year. Since the pandemic’s outbreak, the two have spoken more now than over the last few years. “He cold calls me every couple of months, and we have a long, multi-hour catchup,” she explains. They make plans to double date–both are in happy, thriving relationships–which never emerge.
April, a 26-year-old college student, didn’t speak to her ex-boyfriend for months after their break up late 2019. At the beginning of lockdown, they started hanging out in L.A. again. The two eventually hooked up, dated for four months, and broke up for the exact same reasons as they did before. Anna, 25, has a similar story–her ex came out of the woods early 2020 and they dated on-and-off throughout the pandemic. She found it soothing to have someone familiar around, even if the problems that caused the relationship to crumble were still there. After the lockdown in Moscow lifted, she realized there weren’t any real feelings left lingering.
Tales of exes making a comeback can vary in intensity. Irene, a 25-year-old visual editor in London, received a message from a man she kissed a decade ago out of the blue. “One day this summer, we spent four hours on the phone talking about life. We are friends now.” Maya, 22, said she woke up to DMs and follow requests from multiple ex-boyfriends throughout lockdown. She wondered if it had something to do with people suddenly having a lot of time on their hands. Maybe it was “the fact that I got into a relationship, and they’ve seen that I am happy and there isn’t a chance anymore,” she wrote.
Texts and calls and emails to exes, all made out of boredom or the feeling of our own mortality.Kristina Spencer
Some people mentioned ex-partners wanting to move countries for them–and some actually followed through. In 2019, we flirted with strangers in bars. In 2020, we lathered ourselves with hand sanitizer. Texts and calls and emails to exes, all made out of boredom or the feeling of our own mortality. We have asked our exes why things didn’t work out. We’ve sent nudes. We’ve gotten drunk at inappropriate hours and scrolled through social media feeds, reminiscing the old days and the paths we never took.
What is making us feel this way? Dr. Christina Moutsou, a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and writer who frequently connects with clients on UK’s leading therapist-matching service welldoing.org, has noticed a few emotional trends in her practice over the last year. One of them is the tendency to reconnect with old, and in some cases, long-lost friends and lovers. Dr. Moutsou believes it could be due to the strains in our current relationships and “the wish to reconnect with people from the past as an attempt to recover apparently lost and forgotten parts of ourselves.”
“The pandemic and the lockdowns that have come along with it have highlighted the cracks. The wish to reconnect with people from the past is an attempt to recover apparently lost and forgotten parts of ourselves. Such forgotten selves may need to come to the surface and get revisited,” she adds. “The problem, though, is that the trigger often is a sense of claustrophobia in our current relationships with partners and friends and a wish to escape.”
Starting an affair with an old lover or returning to a friendship that hasn’t worked out in the past may lead us to repeat the disappointment and to compromise our current investment in the people around us.Dr. Moutsou
The grass may seem greener, especially when your current relationship revolves around grocery lists, child care and the constant worry of paying rent. Should we feel strange about reaching out to our old partners? Are we cheating on our current lives with the ghosts of relationships past? Dr. Moutsou doesn’t necessarily agree. “It is not necessarily negative to reconnect with people from the past as long as this reconnection helps us reflect on what is missing from our present life and what it is we need to work on to change it. The difference between the process of analytic therapy and the acting out of a fantasy is that while in therapy there is space to explore our fantasies and to understand what they tell us about ourselves and our relationships,” she says. “In real life, starting an affair with an old lover or returning to a friendship that hasn’t worked out in the past may lead us to repeat the disappointment and to compromise our current investment in the people around us. Yet, if there is an upside to the pandemic, it is the opportunity for introspection and listening to the strange desires and fantasies that have emerged as a way of understanding what we want and what is possible.”
The anxiety of 2020 has given everyone an excuse to pick up their phones. Jean-Guillaume, a 28-year-old graphic designer based in New York City, hadn’t talked to his ex-girlfriend for over two years after a difficult break-up. They took time to heal and blocked each other on social media. In April, however, she reached out via email and checked in on him and his family. “We decided to set up a phone call. As soon as we started talking it was back to normal,” he notes. “We were still the same people in a way, although we changed a lot. But, ultimately, we haven’t talked since then.”
“We all need deep emotional connections, and the pandemic has created isolation to the way we function as humans.”Lindsay George
There is another trend: younger people are experiencing a loss of security in their lives. In 2018, BBC conducted a study on loneliness that found 40% of 16 to 24-year-olds often feeling lonely, compared with 27% of people over 75. This was before the era of social distancing. Dr. Moutsou points out that many young people moved back in with their parents, in “yet another attempt to recover a sense of security, but also, a regression, an attempt to return to the past and to being a child, to be taken care of in a safe environment. Surely, the pandemic, as well as many current socio-political factors, have made many of us feel the past was a better premise than the current state of the world and the state of our lives now.”
Lindsay George, a psychotherapist and member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, notes, “We all need to feel secure, and the pandemic has created a lot of anxiety.” Looking out for old connections can feel safer than trying to meet new partners, especially when we are not allowed to take it further than an afternoon walk. “We all need deep emotional connections,” George says, “and the pandemic has created isolation to the way we function as humans.”
Technology is a blessing and a curse–Zoom, HouseParty, FaceTime and WhatsApp have kept us ticking over when the world around us was lighting on fire. It has also given us a mirage, with many of us haunted by the spirits of relationships past. Perhaps it is good to open up the old wounds, face the ghosts, and ask ourselves the difficult questions. But as we sail through the choppy waters, make sure to turn your phone on airplane mode from time to time. Your DMs may thank you.
* Participants chose to not include their last names.