Skip to main content

Thaomy Lam, a 27-year-old Toronto communications manager, has been fielding texts from long lost dates and exes during the COVID-19 pandemic.Cole Burston/The Globe and Mail

It had been two years since Thaomy Lam heard from the man who ghosted her after three dates, this after they matched on the dating site Bumble.

On June 9, he reappeared out of nowhere: “Acclimated to this new lifestyle?” he texted, referring to Toronto’s continuing COVID-19 lockdowns. He then suggested a date on Zoom, the video-calling app.

Lam, a 27-year-old Toronto communications manager, wasn’t having it. “If this is a pandemic deep dive into girls you should have chased, I’m off the market,” she snapped back.

It was the third ex who’d contacted Lam since the global health crisis took hold in March. The first reached out through LinkedIn: “Hope you’re keeping safe and healthy,” his note read. The second messaged Lam through Instagram, saying she’d popped into his head. Lam had declined his marriage proposal last year. Now, she pointed out that she had a boyfriend, to which the ex replied that he, too, was dating someone. The exchange ended there.

As physical-distancing measures near Month 5, stories are emerging about people digging into their archives and reaching out to exes, seeking comfort, familiarity, attention or sex through unsettling times.

In March, researchers at the Kinsey Institute surveyed 3,400 people online for their study Sex and Relationships in the Time of COVID-19 and found 25 per cent of people had been contacted by an ex through the pandemic. Among the 18 per cent who initiated contact with an ex, motives varied widely. Some 78 per cent wanted to ensure their exes were healthy; 64 per cent hoped to see how their ex-partners were coping emotionally through quarantine. Another 29 per cent came calling because they were bored, 31 per cent because they felt lonely and 16 per cent because they were after a sexual encounter, with singles twice as likely to reach out as those in committed relationships. Nearly half of those making contact attempted to connect with multiple exes during the lockdowns.

“There is a familiarity there that is comforting for people in the face of uncertainty,” said Kristen Mark, who is part of the research team and affiliate faculty at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction at Indiana University.

She said exes who initiate contact because they’re lustful see this as easy gratification. “You already have a number for your ex. You’re not going onto an app and connecting with someone new,” said Mark, who grew up in Port Perry, Ont. “This meets certain needs for people in quarantine in a low-stakes way.”

Vancouver’s Mark Groves has not reached out to any of his exes through the pandemic.

“That’s not the role that we have in each other’s lives any more,” said Groves, a self-described “human connection specialist” who offers blunt relationship advice through his podcast, retreats and public speaking tours.

Groves said some people may be contacting exes out of genuine care. Mostly though, he’s skeptical: “Some guy from Bumble is reaching out with, ‘Just checking on you ‘cuz of COVID’? Come on. We all know what they’re really checking in on.”

Some exes are using the pandemic to “justify disrespecting a boundary,” Groves said, much like exes who text unexpectedly at Christmas. “A lot of these people aren’t apologizing” for past wrongs, Mr. Groves said. “They just don’t know how to sit in their own loneliness.”

Groves asked people contemplating getting in touch with an ex to closely consider their intentions – especially those who did the dumping, since this type of sudden contact can reignite hope for rejected ex-partners. “We often fail to consider the state of the person who’s receiving the message,” Groves said. He suggested people who get texts, calls or direct messages from long-lost exes treat this as practice to develop some personal boundaries.

For Toronto’s Lam, the parade of men texting and messaging her was an ego boost. Still, she saw it for what it was: exes sitting at home alone, seeking a quick intimate jolt. “The men that were swiping constantly want to feel needed,” Lam said.

For those who broke up just before the pandemic, the story is more complicated. In February, Amanda Battistuzzi and her ex-boyfriend ended their long-distance relationship of 2½ years after struggling to communicate.

After a tumultuous February and March, the two took the temperature down in April as the pandemic intensified. The anger drained out of their texts, and the two started checking in more frequently. Lately, the exes text five days a week and call weekly.

“The connection between him and me has been consistent, which is interesting and totally unexpected,” said Battistuzzi, a 27-year-old graduate student at the University of Ottawa. “Usually, you go for a clean break. If you run in the same circles, maybe you decide to be friends after the healing period. That period has kind of been skipped.”

Battistuzzi said the global crisis put things into perspective for her and her ex. Suddenly, she said, their loss was one in a sea of many bigger losses. “I don’t want to be forgetting about the reasons we broke up in the first place, but are those insignificant now in the grand scheme of things?” Battistuzzi said.

She has wondered what their breakup might have looked like in normal times. She’s also questioned the frequent check-in texts with her ex-boyfriend. “Is it authentic bonding, or is it the trauma of this pandemic, where you reach for whatever connections you had?”

Once quarantines let up, the exes plan to meet in person to find out what can be salvaged of their relationship beyond their smartphone screens.

“We’re both anxious about finding those answers,” Battistuzzi said.