On this episode of Social Distance, staff writer Ashley Fetters joins Katherine Wells and James Hamblin to discuss her most recent article, “The Boomerang Exes of Quarantine.”

Listen to the episode here:

Subscribe to Social Distance on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or another podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they’re published.


What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of their conversation.

Katherine Wells: Our question for you today is this: On a micro level, should you text your ex right now? And on a macro level, what is happening to feelings and relationships in this strange time?

James Hamblin: Ashley, what is happening to feelings?

Ashley Fetters: I’m glad you asked, because right now that seems to be my entire beat.

Let’s tackle that first question—is it okay to text your ex right now? I think the reason why you text your ex is a big factor here. Some people are texting their exes right now out of boredom or loneliness. Some people are trying to satisfy some sort of lingering romantic or sexual desire when they don't really have access to new people.

Hamblin: This is happening right now, right? This is a trend that people are doing.

Fetters: Yes, this is definitely happening. I first heard about it from people who were receiving these texts, and the recipients were asking, “Are anyone else’s exes coming out of the woodwork right now?” That gave me the tip that maybe this is something to look into.

So I looked into it. And what I found was that, yes, some people felt that their exes were texting them, getting back in touch after weeks, months, even years of radio silence, just because they were lonely and bored and maybe horny.

The other reason people are texting their exes is to patch things up or to clear the air or apologize. One of the more compelling things I heard in my reporting was something called terror-management theory, which is this idea that when people are confronted with their own mortality, they start to seek meaning. They start to think about religion more and also things like their personal relationships and their family relationships.

A lot of people right now are confronting, some of them for the first time, this idea that death is very possible and very close. And they are feeling this impulse of I should apologize to this person or maybe I should clear the air and get back on good terms with this person or I should resolve this conflict that I let linger.

Hamblin: So it’s not about the other person. It’s about the reacher-outer?

Fetters: As always, yes. A lot of these people are confronting this idea of I could die.

Hamblin: I like that your two alternatives are that people are either experiencing tremendous existential grief and trying to put things in order so that their soul can be at peace forever, or they’re horny. How would one go about distinguishing, if they were to read a text message, what the motive on the other end might be?

Fetters: If you receive one of these text messages, or if you’re sending them, a “you up?” text has an air of impulsivity that’s palpable.

Hamblin: Do you have a sense of how many of these reach-outs are genuinely motivated by concern for the other person? Do you think that’s happening a lot, or is it just weird stuff about mortality and sex?

Fetters: When I started reporting the story, I thought there was going to be a lot more shady, late-night drunk texting going on. And what I found was a lot of people who felt, for example, “I just really wanted to make sure that my ex-boyfriend’s grandma, who is immunocompromised, is okay.” Or: “I just thought this would be a good time to check in and give us something to be kind to each other about and get back on a good note together.”

It has given a lot of people cover to reach out to their exes that they maybe wouldn’t have known how to reach out to before.

Hamblin: What about crushes? They’re reaching out, right?

Fetters: Yeah, a lot of the same stuff applies here. The same reasons you would reach out to an ex during this time are sometimes the same reasons you would reach out to a crush to reveal your feelings to them.

One of the obvious things is that everyone’s bored, lonely, spending a lot more time with their own thoughts. And if you had some crush that you were spending a lot of time thinking about before, you’re probably thinking about them a lot more now.

Facebook, which owns Instagram as well as WhatsApp, wrote in a blog post late last month that it had seen a spike in user engagement over all its platforms and a 50 percent increase in direct messages between people.

Hamblin: What are people doing, asking to go for walks? You can’t go to a show or a restaurant or a bar. You could go for a distanced walk where you’re pretty far apart, but you’re walking together.

Fetters: Anecdotally, I have heard of people doing that, especially if they live in the same neighborhood or in neighborhoods that are a reasonable distance apart. They walk, meet at the same street corner, and then take a walk to a less crowded street and keep six feet of distance between them.

Hamblin: I can’t imagine a more awkward thing. People are getting desperate. There’s always Zoom, though, right? Or do people not want to conduct their business and their dating life in the same place?

Fetters: I think that’s a piece of it. And when I picture doing a date via Zoom, there’s so much I don’t know about the person on the other end. How do they walk? What is it like to be near them? How do they make me feel?

Wells: In addition to terror-management theory, you also wrote about the misattribution of arousal. Can you explain what that is?

Fetters: There’s a very famous study on this from the ’70s. They had men either cross a rickety, old, scary bridge or a really stable bridge. Then an attractive female researcher said to them, “Here’s a quick survey. Can you tell me what’s on your mind right now? You can call me next week if you want to know more about my studies.”

They found that there was much more sexual content in the recollections of the men who had crossed the scary bridge than the ones who had crossed the stable bridge. And those men were also more likely to call the researcher later and be flirtatious with her.

When I was reporting this story on why people are confessing their crushes right now, one thing that a researcher said to me is that maybe people are mistaking the terror of the world outside right now for really intense feelings for the person that they like.

Wells: All of this is taking place in the context of a strange moment for relationships and dating in general. People who are together are really together now. And people who are not with people are very alone. Can you put this in context?

Fetters: This is an unprecedented curveball for every romantic relationship. One thing I do see coming out of this is a lot of relationships, especially new ones or ones that were on the wane, will be broken by it. And some will be very quickly accelerated by it.

I anticipate that we’ll see a wave of coronavirus engagements or maybe even coronavirus cohabitations from people who were previously hesitant to make that kind of commitment, but who see during this time that they like it.

But you could also very easily discover the opposite: You de facto move in with someone and hate it, so you don’t continue the relationship. I think this will clarify and catalyze a lot of decisions for a lot of couples.

Wells: Did anyone give you guidance on why moments like these expose all of our nerve endings and cause us to be more open and honest?

Fetters: I think that plays into the terror-management theory. Now is the time to seek meaning and interrogate how you really feel about things. How do you really feel about the life that you’ve lived? That’s part of what gets us to this place of unprecedented honesty with each other.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.