‘I know I’m the last person you want to talk to, but I still wanted to be the first to wish you a Merry Christmas xx’
It’s 6pm on Christmas Day. You’ve polished off a kilo of roast potatoes and guzzled a pint of Bailey’s, and now you’re under a blanket with your mum watching the Strictly Come Dancing festive special, bloated with a mild headache. You’re still nursing a gin and tonic though, because you want to and it’s Christmas, and Christmas is all about giving into your impulses, right? Like when that guy in Love Actually turns up on Keira Knightley’s doorstep to confess his undying love for her even though she’s married to his best friend.
You knock back the rest of your G&T and decide, in your state of carbohydrate-and-alcohol-fuelled delirium, to inject a little excitement and romance into the day’s proceedings. And so you find your ex’s number, play around with a few variations of “Merry Christmas, hope you’re well”, then sit back and hit send.
Or maybe not. Maybe you’re rummaging around the Quality Street box in search of the last Green Triangle when you see your phone light up. Your ex has texted to wish you a happy Christmas. It’s… nice? It’s good that you can be civil, right? And it’s Christmas – “goodwill to all men” and all that. But then you start to feel a bit ill when you realise the last text message you sent them was “if you don’t come and get your shit by friday i’m donating it oxfam”.
These situations are often confusing and anxiety-inducing – but they aren’t unusual. Back in 2017, dating website eHarmony found that one in ten singles are contacted by an ex-partner every year. They even coined a term to describe this trend where ex-partners come out of the woodwork during the festive season: Marleying (in reference to the ghostly return of Scrooge’s late business partner in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol).
21-year-old Loretta ended up getting back together with her ex-boyfriend a few Christmases ago. “On Christmas morning, before I checked my phone, I remember thinking ‘I really really hope he’s messaged me ‘happy Christmas’ and if he hasn’t I’m going to message him’,” she recalls. “I opened my phone and saw a message from him – ‘happy Christmas’ with a little heart. We ended up speaking all day.” By New Year’s Day, they were back together.
Danny*, 24, says he’s had several (less pleasant) Christmas encounters with his exes in the past. “I bumped into one of my exes a few years ago at a Christmas market. It was very awkward because the break up was quite messy,” he explains, adding that he’s apprehensive about potentially crossing paths with his most recent ex this year. “We could easily bump into each other anywhere,” he says. “It’s our first Christmas not together.”
It’s no surprise, really, that Christmas gets so many of us thinking about our past partners. “Last Christmas”, one of the best Christmas songs of all time, is a pining, four-minute ode to George Michael’s ex. So many festive films revolve around romance too, especially rekindled romance – “big city girlboss comes home for the holidays and reunites with her first love who never left their hometown” is a pretty well-worn Christmas film trope. “Christmas is romanticised in pop culture, like films and television shows. It's the time you spend with people you love. If you’re single, you crave that,” Danny says. “It’s a universal time for people to make up because it’s before the new year – you want to go into the new year in a good place and on a high,” Loretta adds.
“Life twinkles and sparkles this time of year, and there can be a romantic sheen that pushes people to reconnect” – Charlotte Fox Weber
It’s also prime time for loved-up couples to post selfies in matching Fairisle pyjama sets and engagement announcements are coming in thick and fast – which, naturally, can exacerbate any feelings of loneliness. Additionally, alcohol is pretty ubiquitous at Christmastime, which can often stir any repressed, dormant thoughts of your old flames – plus your grandma keeps asking about “that nice girl” who came to visit last year, which never helps. Gradually, the urge to cuddle someone while watching The Holiday overpowers the rational part of your brain which is screaming “he literally sent a dick pic to your flatmate!!!”.
“Life twinkles and sparkles this time of year, and there can be a romantic sheen that pushes people to reconnect,” explains psychotherapist Charlotte Fox Weber. “There’s a longing for closeness and companionship, and the end of the year begs for socialising and gathering. You can easily find yourself thinking about a past love, missing someone from the past, fantasising about the other choices you could have made or the tragicomedy of circumstances.”
“Nostalgia exaggerates and inflates the value of past relationships, and the fantasy of glory can push us to try to fix a relationship that fell apart, or save something that’s been taken away,” she continues. It’s certainly hard not to think of Christmases (and lovers) past when many of us stick to the same traditions and routines every December, throwing any recent life changes into acutely sharp relief. “Whether you love Christmas or you’re a Grinch, it’s a sentimental and associative time period,” Weber continues. “You might pine for the past – the freedom of a youthful infatuation you had, the unfinished story of a relationship that went wrong but could have gone another way. A sense of loss and time passing can creep in.”
i may be dumb but not dumb enough to text my ex merry christmas 🙄🙄🙄— gen ⍤ (@genmnz) December 25, 2021
Now, of course, it’s probably not wise to FaceTime your former lover after necking three Snowballs – but equally, it’s not true that reconnecting with an ex will always end with you spending the early hours of Boxing Day weeping on your bathroom floor. “It can also be a moment for courage, an opportunity to do something bold,” Weber says. Evidently, sometimes the bonhomie of Christmas can give you some much-needed perspective, or encourage you to enter into a dialogue with your ex-partner in good faith.
But on the other hand, for those of us who aren’t so well-adjusted, it’s more likely that reaching out to an ex will have a negative impact on your day – especially if they were actually pretty toxic. It’s worth asking yourself if you’re ready to message them: will you be OK if they don’t reply? Are you actually messaging in bad faith by expecting – or even provoking – an argument? And, more importantly – is there any point in messaging them? Do you really believe you can salvage a friendship from the ruins of your relationship?
“There’s an accelerated pressure to make life happen as the year comes to an end and Christmas can drive the plot forward,” Weber says. “The upside is that the festive season can reunite people and bring couples back together, and exes can rekindle connections, but it can also be full of fantasies. What we believe in and hope for might not be real.” So while you may both soon lapse back into that cosy sense of familiarity and rediscover your old rapport, if the conversation drags on into the new year it’s likely their irritating or toxic traits will soon bubble up to the surface again. As Danny puts it: “there’s a reason why you broke up and Christmas isn’t gonna fix that, is it?”
Although… whatever. Do what you want – the festive season is a lawless time. Embrace the chaos! Emotions are already running high, so why not throw a cat amongst the pigeons in the form of a badly-worded text to your ex? It’s Christmas after all. And if you can’t say it at Christmas, when can you, eh?