We're living through a historic moment. Much of the world is confined to their homes in a collective effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, and an overwhelming sense of uncertainty has permeated our lives. Many of us are counteracting social distancing by staying connected to loved ones with apps like FaceTime, Zoom, and Houseparty, or more frequent phone calls. But what about if you've recently (or somewhat recently) ended a relationship? While you're focused on staying hyperconnected to the people you care about, should you consider texting your ex? During these unprecedented times, how do you approach extending care and concern for someone you are no longer romantically involved with, but still have compassion for as a fellow human being who is also going through this collective traumatic experience?
These are all questions I pondered recently while sitting in bed, phone in hand, staring at the screen and trying to decide whether I should reach out to my ex. We decided to go our separate ways nearly three months ago. While our breakup was tumultuous, we shared a deep love in our relationship. As I sat there feeling conflicted, I was genuinely curious to know if he was OK. I felt compelled to offer up some kindness in this time when many of us are feeling afraid of what the future will bring. I did not, however, want this to open a door. I didn't want my text to be misconstrued, or, worse, perceived as the first step in getting back together. Presumptuous, I know. But these are the things that run through your head at night when you've drafted 15 different text messages and deleted them all.
So, what do you do if you find yourself in the same situation? I honestly couldn't decide. What I know for sure is that I'm not alone with this feeling of uncertainty. I spoke with two licensed therapists for their takes on whether or not you should reach out to your ex during isolation, and, if so, what you should consider before you send a message. Here's what they said.
1. Consider the Nature of Your Relationship and How It Ended
Dr. Vanessa Kensing, a licensed clinical social worker and the owner of VK Psychotherapy, told POPSUGAR that you should consider a few things before you text, including whether the relationship was healthy and how it ended: "There are some more obvious reasons not to, for example, if the previous relationship was in any way abusive (e.g. emotionally). Otherwise, reaching out to someone you have loved in the past, who likely knows much about you and could hold some emotional space for you, could have some benefits."
2. Assess Your Intention and Expectation For Reaching Out
Kensing said you should start by asking yourself, "What is my intention?" "Before reaching out, I would assess intention, expectation, and your understanding of your former partner's capacities," she said. "This allows yourself to ask what you want to get out of this personally (whether it's to feel heard, to feel seen, to not feel so lonely, to share your fears, etc.). Then ask, 'What is my expectation about how the other person may respond?'"
She also warned that you should "be mindful of possible fantasy thinking." It's easy to romanticize how your previous partner will respond and feel disappointed if they don't respond in the way you imagined (or don't respond at all!). "If you do reach out and they don't respond, this may cause some anxiety and/or shame," Kensing said. "If this happens, reach out to a trusted friend to share your experience. Don't sit in discomfort by yourself!"
3. Consider Their Emotional Capacity
Kensing further suggested that you should "take a quick inventory of your former partner's ability to listen, offer comfort, and be emotionally present." If your partner wasn't a great communicator then, don't expect them to be now.
4. If You Do Reach Out, Set Boundaries and Listen to Your Instincts
"The reality is, we cannot predict or control how a conversation will go," Kensing said. "Therefore, being mindful during the conversation — checking in with your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations — will help you know if you're entering into territory that will open old wounds. I would also identify boundaries (e.g. not talking about the past, not flirting). Likewise, listen to your gut if it says it's time to get off of the phone or stop texting."
5. When in Doubt, Don't Press "Send"
If you've spent some time contemplating and you still have doubts about whether you should check in, psychologist Dr. D. Kim Singleton said you should put the phone down. "The person is an ex for a reason," she stressed to POPSUGAR. "Let sleeping dogs lie."
In the end, I decided not to text my ex. I worried about the wound that it would open up, not only for myself but for him, too. During a time when many of us are feeling lonely and afraid, the last thing I wanted to do was unearth painful memories, making this newfound isolation period even more unbearable.
Ironically, about two days later, my ex reached out to me. The message was kind, thoughtful, simple, and brief, without any emotional triggers that could risk throwing both of our mental health states into spirals. It read: "I'm not texting to engage, but just wanted you to know that I have been thinking of you and your family and I hope you are taking care of yourselves. We will all find a way through this."
I realized at that moment that a small act of compassion from someone you once deeply cared about could somehow make you feel more connected to humanity, even when human contact has been in short supply.