Put your phone away, now. Charley Ross has looked into the psychology behind our craving for contact from former lovers while we’re cooped up inside. It’s human nature, but not necessarily the best thing for your wellbeing – here’s what you need to know.
We’ve all had to adapt pretty quickly to the odd, dystopian reality that is self-isolation. One minute we were carelessly living it up in bars, restaurants, cinemas and seeing friends and family whenever we chose – now it’s apparently all about virtual dating, Zoom dates with friends and House Party blow-outs on a Saturday night.
With this change comes more time alone – whether you’re sitting in front of a screen filled with loved ones or not. It brings with it many opportunities for self-reflection and thinking about what’s past.
For me, that has involved thinking about my ex. Whether I’m listening to a song or watching a film I know he likes, or walking past somewhere we used to go on my government-mandated walk. Or late at night, when there’s literally not much else to do, I think about picking up my phone and calling him.
Just a few presses of a button and I’d hear his Geordie accent and his stupid dad jokes. He’s probably as bored as I am, after all – and it’d be fine to pass the time by having a chat in these unprecedented, terrible times right? We didn’t know this was going to happen when we broke up, so this is an exception right?
A rational mind will tell you that the answer to these questions is an emphatic no. But we aren’t living in overly rational times right now. So why are we feeling this way, and what can we do?
“We are inherently relational beings. Our lives are built around a series of different relational dynamics. At the moment, whilst we’re amidst a life-threatening pandemic, our emotions are unstable in response to the unstable environment,” Charlotte Armitage, a psychologist at YAFTA Consultancy, says.
“As a consequence, our perspective has changed and we begin to focus on what is most important to us, which is invariably the relationships with those around us, from both our past and present.”
So the positive upshot is this – the way that myself and so many others are feeling right now is completely normal.
“Our exes may be exes for a reason, but just because the relationship didn’t work doesn’t mean that we don’t still care about them – and in times like this, it’s natural to think about the people that we once had deep and intimate personal connections with,” Charlotte says.
Taking into account the stress of the situation, it’s not surprising to feel the impulse to run back to what was familiar and made us happy. When I feel the most acute fear for my family’s health, for my friends who are living alone right now and for my own career and wellbeing, it is more tempting than ever to contact the person who has given me some of the happiest moments of my life, just for a bit of light relief.
I’m not alone in constructing this logic, and others have followed through with it. One of my best friends received a text last week from an ex he dated two summers ago: “Hey mister, hope all is well in this mad world… thought I would say hi”. Another has received a Bumble message from someone she hasn’t spoken to since 2016. Wild.
A lot of this activity we can put down to boredom, panic, and having more time to mess about on our phones. But what about the more complex, volatile ex-relationships that are best left in the past, or the ones that took a lot to leave behind?
Christina, 26, moved from Brighton to Leeds in February, breaking up with her boyfriend in the process. Now, it feels even more difficult to stay distant from someone she used to be so close to. “I haven’t been able to meet people because of Covid-19, so I feel quite lonely and out of my depth right now,” she says. “Because of this, I feel this yearning to speak to my ex and feel that warm happiness he brought me.”
Of course, now definitely could be a time to reconnect with someone you’ve lost touch with, or someone you feel you could’ve made more effort with. But there’s unfortunately a unique risk that comes from letting an ex back into your life, especially in these unpredictable times.
“We need to remember that at the present moment, our perspective has changed due to the current situation, but this will be over one day,” Charlotte says. “If you open up the relationship again, would you want to keep in touch with that person when you return to some semblance of normality again? If not, you need to think about that before contacting your ex, [because] it could cause both of you unnecessary upset.”
Are some of us (namely, me) partially over-romanticising what we once had? Probably. Sometimes it feels like there’s not much else to do. Our lives feel physically emptier right now, and thinking about filling it with someone who used to sleep next to you and bring such warmth to your life is, unfortunately, human nature.
But we must resist, because, get this. Eventually, this will pass. Life will continue as some reflection of how it used to be, at some point. And we must ask ourselves that, when that day comes, do we want to bring old stresses, anxieties and problems from a broken relationship into it? Or do we want to act to protect ourselves from further hurt and complication?
Charlotte says it could help to envision your life once the initial threat of Covid-19 has passed and to ask yourself whether your ex is in that image. Or, perhaps writing a letter will be enough to satisfy the urge, without sending it. Alternatively, she advises that you can delve into your reasons for wanting to make contact: ask yourself why you want to contact your ex, and then in turn ask yourself why this reason has presented itself etc – try to get to the core of how you’re feeling.
Of course, trying to stay away (digitally, not just physically) from someone you have loved – but have ultimately decided to separate from – during these trying times is beyond difficult. But I have to believe that it will be worth it, and is a skill that is worth honing.
To all who carry this burden, I send you solidarity. Here’s to a few months of restraint, in exchange for the unencumbered adventure that awaits us when self-isolation ends.