It finally happened. On Wednesday, Britney Spears posted a video of herself dancing to a Justin Timberlake song, and he responded with a string of enthused, approving emojis.
This is the first public interaction we’ve seen them have since their very messy 2002 breakup, which spawned a legendary dance-off that may or may not have actually happened, revenge-themed music videos, and scores of heartbroken tweens. During this bizarre period of social distancing and self-isolation, the former couple finally, virtually, re-connected.
And they’re not alone.
Kassandra Heap, a psychologist working in Calgary, said a ton of the patients she works with — as well as many of her friends — have been tempted to get in touch with exes during the last few weeks, as the coronavirus pandemic rages on.
“It’s definitely a thing that’s happening,” she told HuffPost Canada. “I’ve been trying to work through it with a friend of mine who contacted me not too long ago, asking, ‘Why do I want to contact all of my exes?’”
Why it’s happening
First off, there’s the obvious and initial explanation, Heap said: boredom. We can’t go to bars, sports are cancelled, movie theatres are closed, and IRL hangouts with friends are postponed indefinitely. With more time and less stimulation, it’s natural that we might become so starved for excitement that we reconnect with people we’re normally too busy to even think about.
But there’s more to it than that, she said: there’s a sense of comfort from contacting someone familiar, even if the relationship we had with that person was terrible.
“We’re under an entirely new type of stress with an invisible enemy,” Heap explained. “Humans crave the familiar, especially during peak times of stress. When we’re stressed, we seek comfort as a coping strategy. And because we’re wired to be social, the way that we seek comfort is usually from other people.”
The role grief plays in all of this
Arian Guedes, another Calgary psychologist who specializes in co-depedency issues, said she sees the urge to get in touch with former partners as a function of unresolved grief.
“We never learned, in our culture, to grieve [breakups] in a healthy way,” she told HuffPost Canada. “A lot of people don’t see breakups as a grief and loss. Grief and loss generally is associated only with death.” For that reason, many people will distract themselves after a breakup, rather than feel the full spectrum of their emotions, she said. But those feelings can come back in unexpected ways.
“During a pandemic, people have time to revisit their past,” she said. And that often involves wanting to jump to the last stage of grief: finding meaning. This can mean getting in touch with someone from your past. But it’s hard to find meaning if you don’t first accept your vulnerability and let yourself grieve, she said.
It’s a normal instinct
Seeking comfort specifically from an ex is a natural impulse. “We have an attachment system that’s hardwired in us,” Heap said. “As infants, we relied on adult caregivers to meet our needs, especially when we were upset or in distress.”
We replicate that even as we grow up, she said, often with the people we’ve formed intimate relationships with.
“It makes sense to me that people are turning towards their exes during this time, because their attachment system is super fired up,” she said. “They’re not knowing how to cope, they’re not knowing how to deal with their needs. And they’re just looking for someone to comfort them. Someone familiar: a secure base, a safe haven.”
Seeking comfort and security from a former partner is all well and good for people who had amicable breakups and are still on good terms with their exes. But what about the people with terrible relationships and messy breakups? Why are some people feeling the need to contact their worst exes, the people who treated them badly or who they’re much better off without?
According to Heap, the part of our brains that wants that connection isn’t very good at telling the healthy relationships from the toxic ones.
“Our attachment system is not very discerning,” she said. “It’ll gravitate to whoever we’ve attached to, even if it isn’t the best relationship.”
Think hard about what you’d be getting out of it that you can’t get somewhere else
Before you make the decision to get in touch with someone from your past, think about the reasons you broke up in the first place. Were they controlling? Did you find it hard to control your worst impulses around them? Did you bring out the worst in each other?
“Typically, they’re exes for a reason,” Heap said.
Next, think about why you’re doing it. Weigh out the pros and cons, and consider some of the other ways you might get the validation you’re looking for.
If you’re looking for social connection, think about whether there’s someone else who can give it to you, Heap said. If you want to feel better about yourself, consider meditation or journaling. If you need to throw energy somewhere, consider a new hobby, or getting involved in aid efforts, or thinking about your career.
There are also a ton of temporary distractions that can act as coping mechanisms, she said, like Tik Tok, or Netflix, or reading a book, or perusing Instagram.
Ask yourself if you’re idealizing the past
It’s easy to look back on how happy you were at a different time in your life and attribute that happiness to the relationship you were in, Guedes said. She’s had many patients who felt like if they got back together with the person they dated ten years ago, they would become the person they were themselves 10 years ago.
“As we go deeper, I’ll ask, ‘What were you doing differently back then?’” she said. Often they’ll talk about a different lifestyle, one where they played more sports, or saw more of their friends. “But they have associated all of it to a person they were dating at a time.”
If you do decide to do it, try to understand why — but don’t be too hard on yourself
“There’s no rulebook on how to cope with what’s happening right now,” Heap said. “If you choose to reach out to an ex, then that’s what you’ve chosen to do. And I don’t think there needs to be a ton of shame or guilt about that. It’s serving a function.”
Thinking about the ways you cope with stress as black and white, like “healthy ways” and “unhealthy ways,” doesn’t really serve you.
“I don’t believe in using labels like healthy or unhealthy,” she said. “I’m really, really into workability. So: what is going to be helpful for me in the short term and the long term? I think it’s perfectly valid to use something in the short term that is helpful for you, that might not be helpful for you in the long term.”
But what is important is accepting and understanding that that’s what you’re doing, she said.
It will work “as long as you acknowledge and recognize that it’s just that that is maybe a more temporary thing that you’re using, and acknowledging that this is not going to become a pattern or habit for you.”
Given all that, do make the effort to be kind to yourself about what your coping mechanisms are.
“I think it’s important to take the judgment out of it and just see it for what it is, this is a coping mechanism. Maybe it’s going to help you in the short term. Maybe not. But take the judgment out of it and just be really compassionate and gentle with yourself.”
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