Living through a situation of collective trauma has a lot to answer for. Best-selling author Nicola Rayner finds out what we're really yearning for
“Hi, Aniston.” “Hi, Pitt.” “How are you doing?” “Good, honey. How are you doing?” Back in the giddy days of September those fourteen words exchanged by Jen and Brad at the virtual table reading of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, were enough to set the internet ON FIRE for days (and that’s before we even get to Morgan Freeman narrating a sex scene…). Why is it so hard for us all to let go of Brad and Jen? Is it that their reunion would represent the righting of an old wrong? Or a way of turning the clock back to our former selves? And ‘why am I dreaming about my ex?’ wailed thousands of us.
Putting aside the alluring prospect of a reconciliation between Hollywood’s golden couple, the last seven months have seen many of us get back in touch with former partners. According to surveys by eharmony and the Kinsey Institute, one in five people heard from exes during lockdown. The sizzling portrayal of first love in Normal People in April only added fuel to the fire. Google searches for “Why am I dreaming about my ex?” shot up 2,450 per cent.
“It’s a bit like trauma bonding,” explains love coach and relationship counsellor Cate Mackenzie . “We’re in a situation of collective trauma, which can stir up sentiment and lead us to long for the past, so it makes sense that this is becoming more of a mass phenomenon and that so many people are reaching out to someone from their past.”
Why am I dreaming about my ex? The back story
Finishing my second novel, You and Me, in lockdown, I’ve thought a lot about ex-boyfriends and past loves in the last six months. The story follows Fran, a lonely woman in her thirties, who’s still infatuated with Charles, the golden boy from school. After a fatal accident throws them together, Fran is convinced that Charles – who is happily married – will finally see the light and realise she is “the one”.
Some characters you have to work hard to develop, chiselling away at them, but Fran arrived in my imagination clear and fully formed, as if I already knew her. She was inspired by an anecdote I’d heard from a friend, but also my own intense infatuations in adolescence and my early twenties. Like most of us, I’ve had a relationship or two I’ve found difficult to let go of and have, perhaps, held on to for years longer than I should.
“With hoarders, they say it’s about grief,” says Mackenzie. “You can have emotional hoarding too. When we hold on to our exes for too long, there’s often a fear: if I let go, what will there be? It goes back to our relationship with our caregivers, our parents – there’s something about winning them over. It’s magical thinking: ‘If I get that person, it will all be fine.’ The truth is: it’s ourselves we have to get.”
Her words strike a chord. In You and Me, Fran’s obsession is fuelled by her loneliness – she’s lost her mother and is estranged from her sister. In writing Fran, I drew upon my own formative experience of losing my father at 11 and the way I launched myself into passionate crushes, over the subsequent decade, that usually ended in tears.
Are you projecting your soul on to others?
“It’s about looking for that love again and that sense of belonging,” says Mackenzie. “What happens is we project our own soulful qualities on to other people. Jung called it the anima and the animus. He said that if you’re fantasising and imagining whole reams around someone you can’t have, then you should write down all the qualities you think they have and start to own them in yourself. What you’ve done is just projected your soul on to the other.”
Are there times when reaching out to an ex can be a good thing? “I think, like anything, it’s not binary,” says Mackenzie. “We all have a deep need to belong. It’s about adulting, facing our shadow. We all get that chance – though we don’t all take it – are we going to adult, be present, and take responsibility for our lives and where we are? When we hark back to the past, there’s usually something that’s not being faced.
“If we don’t attend to the wounded part of us, it’ll come out. For example, with someone I know who looked up all her exes on Facebook during lockdown, there was part of her not feeling good: she didn’t have a job and she felt stuck in her marriage with the domestic life and children. Through reconnecting with old boyfriends – only quite mildly through Facebook – she realised it wasn’t about them; she needed to find more for herself and start to work again.”
Keeping healthy boundaries
As for Brad and Jen, I wonder if our longing for them to get back together is partly our own nostalgia for the late 1990s and early 2000s, when we were younger. “It’s grief again, isn’t it?” says Mackenzie. “You’re right – for many of us that was our blooming time. That’s why so many people loved Normal People too.”
And if you just can’t resist reconnecting with your ex? Healthy boundaries are essential. “Affairs with exes can be very complicated and difficult. Initially, limit the time you spend with them to around an hour and half,” Mackenzie says. “Limit, limit, limit, limit. And, as Oprah used to say, have lunch with your ex. Don’t have dinner.”
You and Me, Nicola Rayner’s new psychological thriller (Avon Books), is out now in paperback, ebook and audiobook