Róisín Ingle: I sent a message to my ex. I blame the pandemic. And Normal People

One in five people – some single, some not – has ‘reached out’ to an ex during lockdown

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It’s years ago now, but I’ll always remember a happily married friend telling me she had googled a former boyfriend just to find out how he was doing.

They were texting back and forth now, she said. It was just friendly banter. That was all there was to it. I said nothing. The kind of nothing that says everything.

I thought of her and of my disapproving silence the other day when I found myself exchanging messages with an ex-boyfriend. Listen to me: “I found myself.” Right. As though it had just happened: no forethought, no planning, no signing up to the networking platform he was on just so I could get in touch with him.

Even worse, it was a platform I swore I’d never be part of because my head was wrecked from all the people emailing asking me to join.

(Sorry, popular networking platform, it’s not you. It’s very much me.)

A couple of things conspired to make me seek him out. The first was that I realised it was his birthday. I haven’t spoken to him in over 20 years, but during that time he would sometimes get in touch to wish me happiness when my big day came around. And I would do the same to him. Not every year, but it was a nice feeling when he remembered, and he always seemed pleased when I did.

Apart from that we did not communicate. I rarely thought of him or, I imagine, he of me. We never bumped into each other around town, not even once. It’s a small place, Dublin, but big enough in the ways you need it to be sometimes.

What happened was I realised it was his birthday and I hadn’t sent a mail to him for a couple of years, and there was a pandemic on, and I found myself wondering how he was coping and if he had kids now and had he lost his job or was he working from home. It wasn’t difficult to find him and a few minutes later we were messaging back and forth.

It was just friendly banter. That was all there was to it.

I don’t think it’s just me. In fact, at least one bit of new research suggests it’s definitely not. Later, while googling “are people getting in touch with their exes during the pandemic?”, I discovered a report by the Kinsey Institute looking into the ways this global crisis is affecting people’s “intimate” lives.

The word intimate always makes me feel a bit queasy, but I read on anyway. According to their research, about one in five people has been in touch with an ex. Or “reached out”, as it has become depressingly acceptable to say.

Most of these people were single themselves, but some, like me, were in relationships. So, although I might have been in a minority, at least I wasn’t alone.

And I do blame the pandemic, in a way. That apocalyptic feeling, the shifting sense of uncertainty, the knowledge that nothing will ever be the same again. There has been more loneliness, more grief, more boredom and much more time for life audits and soul searching. Time for looking back. Time for wondering.

In this context, “reaching out” to a former partner for a glimpse into their world did not seem like the maddest idea I’d ever had.

But, apart from the pandemic, there are several other places where I must lay blame. I blame Connell. I blame Marianne. I blame Lenny Abrahamson. But most of all I blame Sally Rooney.

I loved Normal People the novel, but it wasn’t until Normal People blessed my television screen that the rollercoaster, em, ride that is Marianne and Connell’s young relationship took on deeper significance.

From talking to friends, it’s clear that the intense, complex, glorious love story depicted in the TV series made a lot of us return, gingerly, gently, to our younger selves to examine and pore over the formative relationships that caused us so much joy and pain.

One person I spoke to described this Normal People-inspired nostalgia as a sort of “yearning”, a harking back to the romantic triumphs and disasters that punctuated our younger lives.

Did I let my Connell go? Should I really have said so long to my Marianne? These questions lingered long after the credits rolled on each exquisite episode.

In the end, my own back and forth was just banter.

(You can keep your disapproving silence. There’s nothing to see here).

My ex, who seemed not to have changed much, slagged me for my allergy to the networking platform’s messaging system and my preference for email, which he said, in terms of personal communication, was “so 1990s”.

And I, who also seemed not to have changed much, slagged him for being a corporate dude with a LinkedIn account.

And in the end I got what I wanted. The knowledge that someone who was once a big part of my life was safe and well in these messed-up times. Marriage. Kids. Friends. Work. There was comfort in knowing.

I told my partner about the messages. I figured if he was “linking in” with an ex-girlfriend I’d want to know about it. He smiled and said “how is he?”, and we talked about my past life, and the children overheard and were appalled that I’d ever kissed anybody except their father and insisted that I urgently change the subject.

The good thing about the networking platform is that it’s just as easy to sign out of it as it is to sign up. As soon as I had joined, the clamour of people in my email inbox wanting to “connect” grew even louder, and I got more allergic.

Sorry. I can’t connect right now. Email is so 1990s. And anyway, I already have enough connections.

I’ll take care of them.

roisin@irishtimes.com