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As the COVID-19 pandemic stretches around the globe and and people hunker down in their homes, common threads emerge on social media: fear, anxiety, fatigue, loneliness, anger and—perhaps unexpectedly—a bewilderment at hearing from former flames.

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No matter whether they were awkward Tinder dates, one-night stands, or relationships that ended badly, if we’re feeling so terrible, why would we be reaching out to the last people we’d want to hear from?

In an article in Psychological Inquiry examining narcissim, Susan M. Andersen, Regina Miranda, and Tami Edwards explain that “the self is fundamentally interpersonal.” Despite the fact that we think of ourselves as unique and distinct, we often view and construct our sense of selves and well-being through the people we love and interact with. As the authors explain, “there are multiple aspects of the self, each linked to a particular significant other via the relationship with that significant other.”

This concept of self won’t surprise anyone who has different groups of friends with whom they can express different aspects of themselves. It also has important implications for behavior in an unprecedented crisis.

The effects of past relationships, theorize S. Adil Saribay and Andersen, may help explain your suddenly hyperactive social network.

“The need for satisfaction is fulfilled when one is able to express one’s perceptions, thoughts, and feelings and to develop one’s competencies, while still (and importantly) continuing to feel connected with important others,” they write. “In this way, the urge to feel bonded with others is crucial to one’s competencies. The need for security is fulfilled when one is able to feel safe and protected from real or symbolic threat.”

In the midst of a pandemic, real and symbolic threats are in ample supply.

The COVID-19 pandemic has done more than jeapordize our health, it has caused economic upheaval and a sudden, disorienting, and exhausting change in our personal lives. Many people have lost jobs, others are overwhelmed with work, others have shifted to having their career, personal, and family lives confined to limited physical (and mental) space, while constantly being bombarded by news of death tolls and infections.

Needless to say, it’s provoking a range of emotions, and we’re often cut off from the people we’re used to expressing them to, in the ways we’re used to expressing them. That’s a deeper loss than people may initially realize.

Saribay and Andersen highlight that human connection is a very basic human need: belonging, warmth, acceptance, and emotional responsiveness. Add that to the idea that the people we spend time with help us construct our sense of self, and it makes sense that in the midst of a globally isolating pandemic, people would reach out to anyone nearby (or, rather, in their contacts list).

Particularly if we’re single, or struggling in our relationships, any former sources of comfort or connection may be psychological cushions right now—however fleetingly it happened, or however long ago or badly it ended.

A strange, oddly heartwarming takeaway is that even limited connections endure. Hearing from your exes or past dates in the midst of a collective crisis may be bewildering (and awkward), but it also makes sense. Of course, if it took a pandemic for them to get in touch, you might want to factor that into any decisions about reigniting the flame after quarantine is over.


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Psychological Inquiry, Vol. 12, No. 4 (2001), pp. 197-202
Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
Psychological Inquiry, Vol. 18, No. 3 (2007), pp. 183-191
Taylor & Francis, Ltd.