Social distancing is, well, isolating. Suddenly, we’ve all found ourselves with a lot more time alone with our brains and a lot more apprehensions about what’s going to happen to us and everyone we care about. And what about all those people we cared about but have no connection to anymore?
More than a few people have been tempted to reach out to their ex as social distancing measures have ramped up. More than a few have acted on that temptation.
That impulse might be coming from the right place, but, friends, it’s time to knock if off. Whether you broke up four days, four months, four years or fourteen years ago — if you hadn’t previously built a friendship with your ex, social distancing is not the time to start.
Why!?!? You might ask (just asking for a friend). Well, two years ago, Carolyn laid out a few key criteria for building a friendship with your ex, including: “Keep the first meeting chill.” In the era of isolation, precious little is “chill.” Even my cats don’t know what to do with the fact that I’m suddenly home all day, and every time I clean up a hairball I’m reminded that the grocery store is out of paper towels for who knows how long, I only have two rolls left and let’s not even talk about toilet paper. Everyone is stressed out and feelings are running high. It’s going to be near impossible, in these circumstances, to try to be “chill” as you reconnect with your ex. So don’t try.
Each time you start composing that message to your ex, confront the reality that you’re doing it for yourself and not out of consideration of your ex. What would you even say if they replied, “Well, no actually I am stuck at home for the foreseeable future with my parents,” people who you know to be homophobes and/or transphobes and/or abusers and/or whatever? What support, realistically, can you offer your ex — who you have not talked to as a friend since the breakup — right now?
That may be a little harsh, but the truth is the relationship is over. Everyone got at least a little bit hurt. You and your ex have either explicitly or implicitly set boundaries for after the breakup. The fact that you hadn’t rebuilt a friendship before now indicates that those boundaries are very much still necessary for at least one of you — which means they were necessary for both of you. Social distancing doesn’t change any of that. In fact, it might heighten the need for those boundaries, as the strain on everyone’s mental health increases.
And if you really, truly are concerned about your ex, try to think about it from their perspective. Maybe they’re happy to hear from you and appreciate your concern. Or maybe your message filled them with dread because they are still hurt or they still have feelings for you. Or maybe they’re caught somewhere in between all those things. Now you’ve just put them in a situation where they have to figure out how to navigate all those emotions and put together a civil, appropriate reply that also addresses their own needs. In a time when they might be more than a little lonely and are very probably apprehensive about their housing, their next bills, and their own friends and family.
If you haven’t been friends with your ex since you broke up, you simply can’t know what they’re going through and, importantly, how they’re thinking about the relationship you had together and how it all unraveled. Just because you’re ready to “check up on how they’re doing during social distancing” doesn’t mean they are, and a universally tense time is not a good time to test the waters. What will you do if they don’t respond? If they curse you out? If they tell you that you’ve always been the love of their life and ask again why you can’t just be together since the world is ending anyways? And what will you do if, as in the most likely case, they say something sufficiently ambiguous that your brain runs amok and thinks any or all of the above was what they implied in their response?
So, please don’t add to yours and your ex’s stress with a text / email / DM “hope you’re doing ok” on top of everything else. And definitely do not call them out of the blue.
Instead, I’d like to offer you an alternative. What if, every time you thought about texting your ex, you reached out to one of your friends or family (chosen or otherwise) instead?
Many of the people in your network are probably someone else’s ex who may also be struggling with the question of whether or not to check up on their ex. Imagine, if we all just expended our energies on the people we actually do have relationships with, then we can rest assured that someone is checking up on our ex because we are checking up on theirs. That means no one has to be burdened by well wishes from someone who broke their heart. This is also what community care looks like.
The reality is that right now, as we grapple with the challenges of indefinite social distancing, we are all better equipped to take care of the people we don’t have a messy emotional past with. We are all also better equipped to receive support from someone we currently have a friendship with, rather than someone we either didn’t want or didn’t figure out how to transition from partner to friend.
What’s more, instead of than spending our limited bandwidth on an ex — who we have no way of knowing how that seemingly benign message might affect them — we can reach out to the people in our lives who, for one reason or another, might not be anyone’s ex. They need just as much love, care and attention as everyone else right now.
So, friends, let’s make this promise together. Don’t check up on your ex; check up on someone else’s ex instead.