The Boomerang Exes of Quarantine

Sometimes social distance can lead to unexpected contact.

Unanswered text messages pile up on top of one another, saying things like "Been way too long!!!!" and "Heyy, what's up!?"
Pablo Rochat

When an event alters the life course of a generation, the official accounts usually have the best chance of surviving as historical records: speech transcripts from heads of state; front-page newspaper photos; in the case of a war or a disaster or a pandemic, the final body count. What often gets lost to history is how the moment in question affects the social and emotional lives of the ordinary people who survive it.

So in the interest of helping create a robust and comprehensive historical record, I’d like to note for posterity that the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 was a time during which scores of quarantined or self-isolating people reconnected with their exes.

Life in quarantine has been challenging for just about everyone. Many people are constantly lonely, thanks to social-distancing practices, and they are looking for new ways to connect and new people to connect with. Meanwhile, and perhaps relatedly, exes around the world have been “coming out of the woodwork,” sending texts or Instagram DMs or emails to their onetime partners after weeks, months, or even years of radio silence. Some seem to be fighting off boredom, loneliness, or a growing awareness of their own mortality; others seem to be coming from a place of genuine care. In normal times, the rules for initiating contact with a former partner are unspoken but familiar: Don’t do it if you don’t want to seem desperate or too horny for your own good. But they seem to have been suspended under the extraordinary circumstances.

Melissa McDowell, a 43-year-old lifestyle blogger and educator in Atlanta, has heard from two of her exes in the time since she’s been homebound. One, whom McDowell says she last spoke with when they broke up about six months ago, texted her, “Hey, stranger.” She found the flirty undertone particularly exasperating. “I’ve had situations before where we’ve broken up and then, months or years later, they may reach out … to see if maybe I miss them or something,” McDowell told me. But in this case, she suspects her ex’s motivation was at least partially I’m bored. Let me start scrolling through my contacts.

Fatima Tareen, a 19-year-old college student in Pakistan, also recently woke up to texts from two exes she hadn’t spoken with in months, both of whom told her that they missed her. She does talk to one of them now and then, but this time, his texts were “more of a desperate attempt to get back together,” she wrote to me in an email. Tareen wondered if that impulse was rooted in her ex’s suddenly being isolated at home with his family and having little to do during the day. “Most of us are experiencing an extreme sort of loneliness and aren’t used to having so much time to think about our lives,” she said. Plus, “we’ve hardly ever spent so much time with our families before, which could be very difficult.” (Tareen noted that she had also felt the impulse to reach out to people in hopes of dulling her own loneliness. She ended up sending texts not to her exes, but to a few people she had feelings for.)

Gwendolyn Seidman, an associate psychology professor at Albright College, thinks that people are hearing from their exes for precisely the reasons McDowell and Tareen put forth—namely, unprecedented levels of boredom and loneliness. Seidman also has a few theories of her own. She’s noticed anecdotally that people seem to have been both posting and consuming a higher volume of social-media content since social-distancing protocols went into effect. (Facebook disclosed on its blog in late March that across WhatsApp, Instagram, and Facebook, the company was seeing “new records in usage almost every day,” and that messaging between users had increased by 50 percent.) So even if someone from your romantic past wasn’t already on your mind, they might be after you spend a few minutes on Instagram.

Seidman also noted that humans’ collective appetite for romantic or sexual interaction hasn’t gone anywhere during quarantine, but our ability to meet anyone new has. Getting drinks or coffee or dinner with a Tinder match has become difficult, if not impossible (not to mention illegal in some regions and cities). Plus, Seidman told me, “we’re missing some of the other avenues for having that kind of romantic contact. Maybe you had an eye on one of your co-workers and thought that could turn into something, or someone in your biology class. But now it’s going to be a lot harder to [act on] any of those things.”

This is a uniquely bad moment, too, in which to be cut off from interpersonal contact. In times of danger and fear, when people are confronted with their own mortality in a more acute way, they search for meaning more intensely, Seidman noted; this means that they think a lot more about their families, work, religious beliefs, and intimate relationships. That could lead some people to reach out to a past partner in hopes of reuniting, confessing their lingering feelings, clearing the air, setting the record straight, or apologizing. “If you’re reevaluating your life,” Seidman said, “that’s definitely a place I think a lot of people would go.”

In addition to making people want to reach out to their exes, the stress of a global pandemic gives everyone an excuse to do so. Until a few weeks ago, Ali Salcedo, 25, hadn’t talked to her ex-boyfriend since they split up last summer. It was a difficult breakup, Salcedo told me, so she and her ex had taken time away from each other in order to heal. By late March, though, Salcedo was ready to be back in communication. She wasn’t sure how her ex would respond if she were to ask how his family was doing out of the blue—so she opened with a work-specific question, about how his branch of the company they both work for was handling a coronavirus-related issue.

Initially, “I was kind of expecting it to dead-end,” Salcedo said. But when he answered, “he was actually very conversational. He gave me thoughtful, substantial responses.” They went on to update each other about their families, about work in general, even about motorsports, a hobby they share. Coronavirus protocols provided an opportunity for Salcedo to extend an olive branch of sorts to her ex without it seeming forced or flirtatious, and Salcedo told me that they continued texting intermittently over the next few days.

Seidman agreed that reaching out to an ex to ask with genuine sincerity how they’re doing seems more appropriate at this particular moment than during normal times. Ordinarily, “it looks kind of fishy,” she said. “But because of what’s going on, everybody’s feeling like you should check in on people.” Seidman added that she lived in New York City in 2001, and in the days after 9/11, a number of characters from her past called just to ask whether she was okay. Whether that was truly all they were after is hard to say, she added, but the tragedy provided a respectable reason for getting back in touch.

When I spoke with Andrew Heflich of Chandler, Arizona, he was hoping that’s how his exes were interpreting the messages he sent earlier this month. Heflich, who has three kids and has been divorced for about two years, had been self-isolating for several weeks and told me with a chuckle that he “maybe had a little too much to drink” that evening. So he texted three women he’s dated since his divorce, saying, as he paraphrased it, “Hey, just wanted to check in to see how things are going, how you’re handling things.”

Heflich was well aware when I spoke with him that, at face value, getting drunk and texting your ex (or exes) is generally frowned upon, because in normal times, it might imply that you’re looking to line up some, shall we say, short-term amusement. But Heflich told me he just wanted to make sure that the women who had quite recently been important figures in his life were doing all right. “For the most part, all of my relationships have ended well,” he said. “So it’s not like we haven’t spoken [since we broke up].” The woman he dated most recently, after initially responding with a “New phone, who’s this?,” sent a friendly reply once he clarified—and soon they were talking about homemade ice-cream and biscuit recipes. Heflich said they chatted for a solid 20 minutes.

The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has been a time of certain social rules being relaxed (see: no sweatpants during the workday) and surprising coalitions and communities popping up to fill needs that have never existed before (see: the medical students babysitting hospital workers’ kids). So perhaps it’s unsurprising that some people have decided that it’s okay to text your exes in times when you feel more cut off from the world than ever before; after all, you could argue that exes chatting to pass the time in quarantine constitutes a sort of unlikely coalition against crippling loneliness. But that doesn’t mean every friendly missive will be eagerly received. As McDowell, who was on the receiving end of the “Hey, stranger” text, put it, “I probably wouldn’t have paid my ex any mind, no matter what he said.”

Related Podcast

Listen to Ashley Fetters discuss this story on an episode of Social Distance, The Atlantic’s guide to the pandemic:

Subscribe to Social Distance on Apple Podcasts or Spotify (How to Listen)