Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

Why Is My Ex Suddenly Back In My Life?

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’ve been reading your advice for a while now. I really appreciate how honest and direct you are with your advice while also showing compassion and celebrating the progress and work that people put into improving themselves. Although I don’t fit into your typical demographic, I thought I’d write because I think you give very sound advice.

I’m a middle-aged woman who has never married. I grew up seeing some pretty unhappy relationships, and as a result, I never placed romantic relationships at the top of my priorities. I have had several relationships throughout my life, somewhere I was in love, but I don’t think I’ve met the person who I wanted to spend my life with. To be honest, I’ve never put in a huge amount of energy and time to finding that person. I grew up in a conservative family and location where people place a huge value on marriage and family, so when I was a young adult, most of my friends and siblings were marrying in their 20s. Although I was seeing these relationships form all around me, I didn’t feel much pressure to follow that path (although I was briefly engaged when I was young). Instead, I placed education, career, and travel, at the top of my priorities. As a result, I traveled and lived abroad extensively for a number of years and also reached a place in my career that I had dreamed of and have found many opportunities to progress and find personal satisfaction in my career. I rarely feel lonely even though I have often gone years without a relationship. I’m an introvert, but my career is very much people-facing, so when I come home, I really love to have time alone. I don’t have much energy to meet new people who might be potential romantic partners. I have a great group of friends of over a decade who are a huge source of support, comfort, and fun socializing for me. I have a fairly close family who I spend a considerable amount of time with. So, loneliness is not much of an issue, although there are times I miss the physical affection and intimacy of a romantic relationship, and I also think about the benefits of the type of companionship a committed relationship brings.

Over the years, as I have ended various romantic relationships, most of my exes have either stayed in my life or have contacted me later to try to rekindle the romance. I’m not exactly sure why it is that I have rarely had a clean break from my exes, but I suspect it’s because I’m conflict-avoidant. In the relationships in which I have instigated the break up, I usually try to do in the softest, kindest way possible in that I take responsibility for things not working out and emphasize that I think they are a great person – not a lie, but also not the most direct approach. As a result, one ex stayed in my life for about a decade as a fairly close friend through multiple international moves, marriage, and children. Finally, he stopped contacting me probably because I was almost never the one to initiate any contact. Although he was a good friend, I also felt awkward about him being married as I had never met his wife and sometimes what we talked about seemed a quite personal. Another ex is related to a close friend, so it was difficult to never meet, but eventually I had to let go of the friendship because the level of contact and his efforts to rekindle things was not healthy for me. To be clear, although I have stayed friends or occasionally rekindled things with exes, I was never the instigator of these actions. I typically believe there is a good reason for a break-up, so getting back together is usually not a great idea. However, because I still had feelings for most of these men, there were many times when I found it difficult to say no, so I didn’t always follow my own advice.

So, my question relates to the most recent occurrence. About a year ago, an ex from 20 years ago contacted me completely out of the blue. I have had zero contact with this ex since we broke up 20 years ago. I was shocked to hear from him. He contacted me by text and we ended up talking on the phone for awhile. He suggested we get together sometime. I agreed (at the time, I didn’t feel like it was a concrete invitation – just something people say.) Well, a couple of days later he invited me to dinner. I was a little thrown off and also curious, so I agreed. We met for dinner. It was a bit awkward, but enjoyable to catch up because there’s quite a bit to talk about after 20 years. He told me he was separated (very newly). I didn’t expect anything to come from it except perhaps a casual friendship. We spoke on the phone and texted a bit after that meeting. He talked to me about the breakup of his relationship which seemed pretty messy. Then, a couple of weeks later he texted that he could not continue to stay in touch because of dealing with his separation, but promised to contact me when everything was over. I briefly responded that I understood, and that was the end of our contact. A couple of weeks later everyone went into lockdown due to the pandemic, so I really had no expectation of hearing from him again. I didn’t hear from him again until a couple of weeks ago – 1 year exactly from the last time we spoke. He just called to chat, I think. He gave me an update on his separation (still separated) and we talked about the pandemic and other updates. I think he vaguely said he’d call again, but no talk about meeting up.

Honestly, all of it is strange. Why contact an ex after 20 years? And why end that contact but call again after a year? I have zero idea what this guy is thinking. Of all of my exes, he’s probably the only one that I could have seen having a long-term, committed relationship with. When we broke up, it wasn’t my choice, but it was a situation beyond my control and to some extent his as well. I was pretty heartbroken about it. I always had a lot of respect for him, and he treated me very well. I’m not sure if we were in love, but I think I was very close to it with him. He’s possibly the only guy I’ve dated that my family really liked. While I don’t have any expectations of us getting into a romantic relationship, I think this contact has kind of messed with my emotions as I thought quite a bit about our time together and break up which I really hadn’t done in years.

I don’t know how to respond to him. Do I ask him not to contact me any more? Do I initiate more contact? Invite him to get together? Do I just let him take the lead and see where it goes? Should I ask him why he’s contacted me after all these years and then again after a year of hearing nothing? Because his separation is pretty new and he’s not divorced, I would not consider a romantic relationship at this point if that were even a possibility for him. I’m not sure about a friendship. I might be open to that, but it’s not much of a friendship if we only speak once a year. My typical response would just be to let him take the lead a see what happens, but in the past, this was my MO, and it was not a great choice. I feel like I need to make a definite decision. Stay in touch and take some initiative about what that looks like, and at the very least, talk about why he decided to contact me in the first place. Or completely end contact and ask him not to call again.

I would very much appreciate any insight into why he might have contacted me after all these years, and what I should do next.

Thank you.

Mixed-Up Exes

DEAR MIXED-UP EXES: So before I get into the meat of your question MUE, I want to point something out: while it’s true that your ex is usually your ex for a reason, that doesn’t mean that every break up has to be the end of contact forever, or that circumstances can’t change. While most of the time, going back to one’s ex is more about nostalgia or the comfort of the known, rather than a legitimate change in circumstance, sometimes it really is the case that things are different now and what broke you up before may no longer be in effect.

Also: if you do prefer to have a clean break… well, sometimes you have to be willing to be the one to enforce it. That doesn’t mean you need a confrontation, so much as a willingness to lay down a boundary. Occasionally that means blocking and muting, so that they don’t have access to you except when you want to allow them to have it.

Now with that out of the way, let’s talk about the experience you’ve been having with your ex from 20 years ago. I think it’s pretty clear why he reached out after 20 years: he’s newly separated. That’s a fairly common trigger for folks — frequently, but not exclusively men — to reach out to an ex. Sometimes it’s a matter of wanting the comfort of the familiar, especially when the golden haze of nostalgia has filed down any rough ages, polished the early days when everything was wine and roses and faded memories of the bad parts. Other times, it can be a matter of wanting to connect with someone from their past as they try to figure out who they are now. They may want a (presumably) sympathetic ear to discuss things… and if that happens to lead towards sex, too, well, hey, bonus! And other times, it can be the realization that they miss their ex and just want to see what’s up.

Similarly, I think it’s fairly clear why he went radio silent for a year after you met up: it’s a combination of a messy break up and, y’know, a global pandemic. Without details of just how messy that break up was, it’s impossible to go into specifics, but it’s entirely possible — likely, even — that his being in contact with an ex or anyone that could be seen as a potential new partner was making an ugly break up even uglier. If, for example, there were issues around cheating or alienation of affection, being seen with someone else could be used against him, especially if he was going through divorce proceedings rather than just a break up.

But even if being in contact with you didn’t mean that there were legal issues, an ugly break up is emotionally draining. He may well have been having to pull back from a lot of things in order to deal with all of the headaches, heart breaks and logistical nightmares of ending a long-term relationship. Not having the emotional bandwidth to renew a friendship is entirely understandable under the circumstances. And then the lockdown happened and honestly, that has been even more traumatic. Even for folks who were in fairly secure circumstances, this has been a year-plus of continuous low-grade trauma. A lot of folks have had much less room or energy to deal with much outside of getting through each day as best they could. Hell, I can’t count the number of people I know personally who haven’t been able to do so much as read, never mind try to stay in contact with folks outside their immediate vicinity.

Now that the vaccine is here, eligibility is opening up and we can see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, people are starting to have hope again. They’re starting to feel like they’re returning to something approximating normal. That makes it that much easier to reach out again and try to reinitiate contact.

What do you do from here? Well… that all depends on you, really. What do you want from this, if anything? Do you want to see if there’s a potential for friendship? Are you even remotely interested in the possibility of starting a new relationship with him? Or is it more that you feel as though you should continue staying in contact with him? You can take time to decide; there really isn’t a rush. He was out of contact for 20 years and then another year afterwards; a couple days or weeks while you sort out your feelings isn’t going to be the make-or-break moment. And if he can’t stand you taking your time after he took all of his… well, then that tells you what you needed to know about him, doesn’t it?

And on a similar note: just because you’re not in constant contact doesn’t mean that you aren’t friends. Some friends go for long stretches of time without talking; that’s just their thing. Sometimes they’re the kind of friends who can pick up like nothing happened; other times, it’s not a deep friendship, but still a friendship. But considering everything, I don’t think you’re likely to run into year-long stretches without talking. The break up and COVID are pretty damn understandable extenuating circumstances.

But hey, even if you decide you’re open to seeing where things may go — platonically or not — you’re not locked into that decision. You can decide that, as it turns out, this is a bigger bundle of NOPE than you previously thought and go back to having no contact if that’s what you want. This isn’t The Defiant Ones; you’re not latched together once you decide to see about possibly being friends again.

So give yourself a little time, decide what you want and then this time, resolve to take the reins instead of letting someone else do it for you. Be willing to focus on what you want from this relationship — if anything — and advocate for your own interests and needs.

Good luck.

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