Like most of us, I’ve been sheltering in place since mid-March because of the Covid-19 pandemic. As I try to make sense of my new reality—balancing my indoor free time while working from home, constantly binging social and news media, managing mini midday anxiety attacks, debating whether a wine run is worth it—I’ve been relieved to discover a few acquaintances coming out of the woodwork to check in. What a small mercy it is to receive a kind message or hilarious meme from a friend. However, with the good, also came the unexpected—and uncomfortable. The welcome wave of old friends also washed in a few of my exes.
During the best of times, most of us could be called guilty of silently checking in on an ex on social media. During a time of global crisis, though, lurking seems to be on the rise. I occasionally take a moment to observe the list of instagram accounts that watch my stories. Mostly because I think it’s only fair to watch the stories of those who watch mine—simple reciprocity, you know? But last week, I was surprised to see a few ghosts from my past. In a way it’s flattering to know that an ex would want to keep track of my movements, although in reality it always seems to be the bad eggs that insist on lurking.
I’m not the only one with exes coming out of the woodwork in quarantine. I did a small survey among several women in their thirties and found that they too were indeed experiencing an uptick in outreach from exes and ex-lovers—some more cringe-worthy than others.
One friend of mine had an ex reach out who seemingly wanted nothing more than to strike up an idle conversation about his problems, which seems kind of nice. And also a little annoying. Emotional labor is a large part of being in a relationship—being someone’s rock, hearing them out, helping them process their feelings—but once the relationship is severed, that is no longer the ex’s responsibility. We’re all sympathetic to the fact that this is an incredibly complex and rough experience, but that’s what therapists and friends are for—not the ex-girlfriend you never appreciated.
There are apparently also some exes who feel a pandemic is the right time to absolve themselves of their relationship sins. Be weary of ex partners, reaching out now to apologize for all their wrongs in a time where there are almost no social consequences and reduced expectations. One friend I spoke to shared with me that her ex-husband emailed her to ask for financial forgiveness. When they were married they failed to pay taxes, and as a result jointly owe the IRS a fairly large sum of money. But since “the world is ending” he requested permission to stop paying his share. No, sorry, the world is not ending. It may feel that way, but it’s atrocious to think you can take advantage of a former partner, and put her in financial health in jeopardy.
Then of course there are the always awkward sexts from the ex. A friend shared with me that several of her ex lovers had reached out to flirt and she received a few botched sexting attempts. It’s a lonely time if you’re single, I get it. But that’s what the apps are for (apparently they’re thriving), leave your exes be.
Still, the impulse to reach out can be normal: “In times of stress and crisis our attachment style—the ways we relate to others in order to have our emotional needs met—can become activated leading us to reach out,” says Letizia Rossi, a licensed clinical social worker, based in New York. It’s a way to seek comfort and connection, she says, and “also to replay dynamics, helpful or otherwise, from our past that feel familiar to us.” That certainly explains the “how you doing?” text from the ex I haven’t spoken to in years and the sudden influx of “likes” on my Instagram posts from another ex I haven’t heard from in months.
And seeing an ex’s name light up your phone isn’t always bad. One of my dearest exes sent me such a heartfelt message inquiring about my safety and my family’s health that I nearly cried when I read it. It was a golden example of how beneficial it can be to treat former partners with tenderness and respect. Kudos to all the sensitive ex-lovers out there, that remember the names of all your family members and friends, and are genuinely concerned about their wellbeing.
At the end of the day, we’re all experiencing an extremely stressful and anxiety amplifying global event, it’s only natural to want closure or satisfaction. Maybe it’s actually the most healthy thing a person could do in this situation. After I spent some time mulling this over, I couldn’t resist reaching out to a couple exes myself. What’s wrong with letting people know that you’re thinking about them? As long as it’s tasteful—and doesn’t involve sexting.