Dear New Romantics,
You’re sitting in self-isolation, and you no longer know what day it is. You have very few people you can talk to — your roommates, who can’t leave the house either, don’t have anything new to say, and your parents’ FaceTime calls are becoming less and less eventful as family gossip comes to a halt. And you’ve already watched “Tiger King.” Twice.
With more unencumbered time, your brain has a bit more space to wander, and you become a little nostalgic. Remember Rebecca? You ask yourself. What ever happened to her? Your memory is hazy. You can’t remember how that fling ended — did it just fizzle out? — but you recall that she had been considering applying to nursing school. I wonder how she’s holding up?
You pick up your phone and start typing in her name. Ah-ha! Yes! “Rebecca Tinder” is still saved in your contacts.
“Hey girl,” you text. “This is Katie. I was just thinking of you. Shit is wild. How are you doing?”
A phenomenon is popping up, being expressed both in exasperated tweets from folks who would rather leave the past in the past and smirk emoji Instagram posts by people who feel flattered by the attention: Our exes are reaching out in quarantine.
Let’s start with this basic truth: Human beings are social animals, which means that connection and communication is part of our survival. Remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — a pyramid graph that builds from our foundational needs at the bottom to self-actualization at the top?
According to motivation theory, we’re driven to obtain and maintain needs in an order, based on survival.
After our physiological needs (food, water, and shelter) are met, we can have the motivation to look for our safety needs (security, employment, health, and other resources) to be taken care of. Next up? Love and belonging — like friendship, family, sex, and romance.
As COVID-19 spreads swiftly across the country and around the world, many people — especially those who are the most marginalized — are losing their sense of safety. As infection and death rates skyrocket — especially for black, senior, and disabled people — along with unemployment rates, disenfranchised groups find themselves with fewer resources and lessened security.
This could lead to two things: (1) people with more privilege being more likely to have the time, space, and security to reach out for love and belonging and (2) people with less privilege grasping for love and belonging to have their non-safety needs met. And depending on your level of entitlement versus community building in your outreach, you may be able to guess which category you fall into.
Of course, Maslow’s model is based in an individualist mindset, whereas we prioritize ourselves over our communities. Other cultures, like the Blackfoot Nation from whom Maslow plagiarized his pyramid, value collectivism, where community goals take precedence.
But either way, wherever you place the importance of long-term personal relationships, isolation is unsafe. Indeed, it’s traumatic. And this is true whether you’re being ostracized, imprisoned, or quarantined.
A pandemic is a crisis. And when people go through crises — which include anything from natural disasters to domestic violence, as well as public health threats — we can experience psychological trauma.
Essentially, this means that our nervous systems perceive extreme danger, and the stress associated with that exceeds our ability to cope, so some of our adaptive abilities shut down or are rewired in unhelpful ways.
And right now, collectively, we’re terrified. Of death, of uncertainty, of a turned-upside-down understanding of the world. But more than that, we’re traumatized.
In fact, research that explores the mental health experiences of COVID-19 survivors who were treated in isolated infectious hospitals in China, shows that over 96 percent of participants have “significant posttraumatic stress symptoms.”
And while we each respond to trauma, even that which we experience together, differently, the underlying theme for recovery is about reestablishing safety. One of the most common ways to do that? Not isolate.
So of course you might feel drawn to reach out to people you haven’t talked to in a while, including former love interests and hookups.
When our safety is threatened and we’re in mental distress, our need for connection is strong. Sending off a text to someone we used to have a powerful relationship with makes perfect sense.
Or are you focused on your own needs without regard to how that might affect someone else?
Before you pick up that phone, here are some questions to ask yourself to help determine whether or not that’s a kind thing to do.
What’s your motivation for reaching out?
What is the outcome that you’re hoping for? Maybe you want to check in, have a quick catch-up chat. Maybe something about this wild situation has you thinking of this person for a reason, and you want to let them know they’re on your mind. Maybe you’re looking for someone to flirt or sext with.
All of this is fine. But be upfront about your intentions, especially if this is someone you haven’t had contact with for a long time.
What’s the history of this relationship?
And remember not to ask that question solely from your point of view. What might their perspective be, too? Did you cause harm? If so, and if that harm was never addressed, it may be inappropriate to reach out to them.
At the very least, if you’re still compelled to reach out, you should open with an apology. Also ask yourself: Did they cause harm? Is this a relationship that’s safe for you to rekindle? Make sure that this reconnection would be kind for both of you.
Are you allowing space for rejection?
Remember: This person doesn’t owe you a response. No, not even in a global crisis. They might be too affected, overwhelmed, or anxious to respond to texts right now. They might not be interested in a relationship with you.
How can you make your openness for a non-response or an explicit rejection clear when you reach out?
Sometimes, a simple “no need to respond!” can go a long way in helping take off the pressure. But listen: If they’re not interested, they’re not interested. Don’t reach out again.
We’re living in unprecedented times, and many of us are craving comfort and safety — including that which can be obtained through familiarity. But a crisis isn’t an excuse to be a jerk and request someone entertain you with nudes while you never even ask about their day.
We need to take care of each other now more than ever — and that includes in how we communicate with our exes.
Melissa Fabello, PhD, is a social justice activist whose work focuses on body politics, beauty culture, and eating disorders. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.