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  • Writer's pictureMim Kempson

How to get over an ex during the coronavirus pandemic

Humour as a coping mechanism

I first drafted this piece as a self-deprecating satire, making light of my recent breakup. I then realised how unfair I was being on myself around the realities of breakups (in all honesty the global pandemic has made getting over my ex a billion times harder). Originally, my three piss-take tips on how to get over an ex during a global pandemic were:

  1. Move to the other side of the country and get the government to close its borders

  2. Download dating apps. Actually, delete them — you’re not allowed to meet new people because of physical distancing. Actually, download them again because now you’re in self isolation with limited other ways to meet people. Actually, forget all of that. Text your ex instead.

  3. With so many new boundaries introduced into our lives against our own will, throw out your old ones — free yourself up!

Although they’re stupidly sarcastic ideas, there was a fragment of truth in them. Moving city post-breakup can definitely help the process. Dating during Covid-19 times has definitely been confusing and restrictive. As for #3… I definitely do not advocate for betraying ourselves and our boundaries, or anyone else’s for that matter. What I sought to communicate was this: with the complexity of conditions we’re living in, we can end up overwhelmed. Things are uncertain and complicated. Panic, grief, confusion, stress, whatever you’re feeling, amidst all the chaos and cloudiness in our minds, we may lose sight of what’s important.

Confusing times make confusing breakups even more confusing

There’s been a lot of talk about how the global pandemic has forced us to pause; with everything stripped away we’re apparently set up to gain better clarity on life. Not necessarily. Everyone’s experience moving through this pandemic is different. The approach that helps one person may belittle the experience of another.

Personally, I’m not a fan of the “this is an opportunity to be more productive” narratives circulating. I could write a whole blog on how we’re being faced with new pressures: “oh you’re at home and have more time on your hands? Great, pick up that project you’d always meant to start! Great, knuckle down and work harder! Great, what an opportunity to sit and map out your life goals!” Another time.

Rather than realising what’s important to us, this period could also have the opposite effect.

In a desperate attempt to cling onto the familiar, we may sacrifice our own boundaries and values, because letting go of routine and everything that’s comfortable may mean confronting parts of ourselves that are too scary.

That’s what happened in my world.

Three months post-breakup: an update

In the beginning it was pretty easy committing to not texting my ex. Being on the other side of the country from her solved the issue of potentially running into each other. I’d flown from Melbourne to Perth for a two-week holiday and in February made the decision to stay indefinitely, living until further notice with the few possessions I’d packed for a quick trip.

A few weeks later, Western Australia closed their borders to minimise the spread of coronavirus. The state of the world sealed the deal. I couldn’t go back to Melbourne even for a visit.

Once we had resolved the paperwork around bills and our Melbourne apartment, there was polar silence. Until, weeks before the border closure I received the text: “hey, are you back in Melbourne yet?”. I replied “no”, undecided on whether to reveal that I’d cancelled my return flight to Melbourne… She texted me the same question another two times in the following few weeks, and finally I told her I wasn’t coming back.

I wondered whether this new reality where I was *never* returning to Melbourne might change things. Would it make it easier for her to move on knowing that I wasn’t one drunken text message away from a late night drink? Or, would it make it harder — would it cross her mind that this was her last chance of communication before I permanently set up my life elsewhere?

My head was caught up in wondering what she was wanting, all the while I hadn’t even asked myself, “what did I want?” It was very strange experiencing how the world’s collective fears around job losses, the economy collapsing, potential homelessness and future restrictions played into the experience of my breakup.

Some things you may experience when processing a breakup during a global pandemic:

  • The sense that you’re on a tight deadline in making big life decisions. With everything closing — shops, gyms, borders, countries, there’s this underlying pressure to make decisions quick before life-as-you-know-it changes exponentially overnight.

  • A strange sense of comradery. Virtually everyone on the planet is in the same position. To varying degrees, we’re all facing the potential of losing our incomes and security; having our health or our family’s compromised; experiencing the death of someone close to us; having their mental health worsen. I’ve been couch surfing since January, so with everyone on the planet suddenly feeling like everything in life is pretty precarious for them too, I felt some strange sense of comradeship, as if we’re all on the same team going through the same hardship of ongoing uncertainty.

  • Heightened loneliness. This one is obvious. With self isolation and physical distancing this is clearly not an unusual side effect.

  • More YOLO moments. With so many deaths reported daily, we’re reminded of our own mortality. We only live once. This may bring us to make recklessly brash decisions as we forget the fact that there WILL be a life post-Covid19. OR it may lead us to be refreshingly honest with ourselves and others when we realise “what’s the harm in telling someone how I really feel?”

Messy breakups: how a global pandemic makes them messier

In January, I had a plan on how to move on. I would go out more, meet new people, go on dates… Then physical distancing was introduced; then self isolation. What wonderful timing to be mourning the end of a long-term relationship.

They say that after a breakup we should embrace being single. We should reflect on the past, grow from our experiences and not jump into anything else too soon. I’m all for that. Except, I think a lot. I’m always in my head. I’m a writer and I’m also highly self-critical, so sitting alone contemplating life and relationships is pretty intense shit for me. That’s why I write. It helps.

As stage one lockdown progressed to stage two and progressed to stage three, the sense of loneliness magnified. In a knee-jerk response, I made a new plan. These days we can only have social interactions over the phone and online, right? It’s virtually impossible to organically meet new people, right? I’m on the other side of the country from my ex anyway… She and I had such a strong connection and chemistry… So… why let that go to waste? We’re unable to build any new relationships during this time, so why not keep each other company until this all breezes over? Pretend things are all good between us. We can’t be in the same room, so that’ll make things suuuper simple. Logical, right?

Nope. It turns out that although a pandemic changes everything, it also changes nothing. Heartbreak remains the same. The new conditions do not miraculously make moving on any different. So, ignoring my gut, which was telling me to stick to the path of moving on, our communication started up again.

Knowing that my ex would be going through some really difficult times in her corporate job due to all the redundancies and stand downs taking place, I texted her to see if she was okay… One week later, we were texting each other multiple times a day and having hour-long phone calls as if we were old, amicable friends with phone benefits.

We hadn’t yet spoken about the breakup or our feelings. Most problematic of all, neither of us had clearly expressed our intentions behind communicating again… It was a very grey area, but unfortunately not 50 shades of it.

Our phone chats felt like the initial phases of dating. I told terrible jokes. She giggled at them like a kid with a crush. We pretended that we didn’t have a complicated past with irresolvable problems. We were living in a dream world. We were also living in what felt like a post-apocalyptic world. It was really hard juggling the two: learning to live in a world that transformed overnight every day WHILE maintaining the standard protocol of a breakup. Although, what even is ‘standard protocol’? It doesn’t exist, so let’s not beat ourselves up about it.

In order to respect someone you love while also respecting yourself, you may have to let them go

A week or two into re-communicating I started to realise that for a few light-hearted conversations in my day, the emotional costs were too high. After each phone call I found myself at square one in the grieving process. I was back to missing her, wishing things could be different, reflecting on our relationship with rose-coloured glasses, beating myself up for not having done more, twisting memories and blaming myself…

Our relationship had ended very abruptly without discussion. While I was always very ready and open to talk about my feelings and intentions behind my actions (and the mistakes I made), she wasn’t. I was often left in the dark, feeling forced to fill in the blanks — I made assumptions and misinterpretations — and as a result it brought out the worst in me. She lived by the romantic idea that when two people are in love they should be able to read each other’s minds. I believed that honest communication is one of the most important foundations of a relationship. We differed in a lot of ways.

She’s working on her own timeline and journey, and I want to respect that. If ever she chooses to open up to me, I would welcome that too. However, for now, I realised that respecting her preferred approach of never talking about the past meant that I was disrespecting myself. I value emotional transparency and accountability. I believe it’s important to practice telling the difference between when someone is posing us a problem VS the person is triggering us to remember a problem from our past. They’re completely different. Only once we’re able to discern between the two can we invite people we love in to support us. If we can’t tell the difference (or at least try to), we can end up blaming others (in this case, our partner) for our problems.

My dating life before my ex was a real shit show, and I always tried my best to communicate how that prior pain and conditioning influenced my responses to her. We just couldn’t meet on the same page. In my head I forgave her for not wanting to confront her past. I forgave her for not wanting to be vulnerable and to talk about her feelings. Fair enough, it’s a really fucking hard thing to do. However, being left in the dark had caused me so much hurt. Chatting with her on the phone as if none of that hurt had happened felt like a self-betrayal.

Finally, I decided to end the communication altogether. I wrote her a very straight-forward text saying that although our conversations and her company during this time had been lovely, we shouldn’t be using Covid-19 as an excuse to temporarily fill the pit of post-breakup loneliness exacerbated by a global crisis and the ongoing uncertainties and fears it perpetuated in the hope of humanity’s future here on this planet. Or something to that effect.

Sometimes, we only learn about our own boundaries after they’ve been crossed

It was through this relationship that I learnt about the boundaries I had needed to set many years ago when I first started dating.

But we can’t live life that way — wishing we knew more at the time. We do the best we can with the information we have in moment to moment.

Therefore, I’ve also learnt that, often, we don’t discover what boundaries need to be put in place until they’ve been crossed. It’s unfortunate, but the fact of the matter is, most of us aren’t taught them from a young age. Especially speaking as a woman.

Boundaries are not walls; they’re bolsters for building a foundation of deep and long-lasting love and connection.

Me, today

So, how am I going today? Different to yesterday; different from tomorrow. It’s honestly been so up and down I’m exhausted by the unpredictability. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next few months (none of us do about anything). I’m still confused. I still miss her. I still long for groundedness in a time of uncertainty and daydream of her being that solid rock for me. But that’s breakups. They’re not linear and clearcut. Different feelings arise as the process unfolds, but we don’t have to act on all of them. We don’t have to be with someone to love them. We don’t have to abandon our own values and boundaries to respect them. We don’t have to play an active role in someone’s life to show them compassion — we can do that from afar.

I’m still hurting. I’m still healing. I’m still navigating making decisions that support me in both the short-term and long-term (and stuffing up with it then trying again). It’s a sensitive time in the world. Let’s not be too ambitious with “working it all out” right now. There definitely isn’t a manual for how to get over an ex during a global pandemic, but I’ve left you with some ideas.

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