Alice O’Connell tells the tale of the inevitable Curse of the Returning Ex-Boyfriend – and why it’s an actual scientific thing. BE VIGILANT out there this week – your exes are coming for you!!
It was December 23 sometime in the mid 2010s and I was stressed.
I still had a present or two to buy, plus a whole other workday to get through – and by now it was already 7pm. Checking the time, I knew it was too late to make it across town to my friend’s annual Xmas afternoon drinks, which would likely already be winding down.
But, on the bright side, deadline was dusted, so I picked up my bag and headed for the side exit at work. Perhaps I could do some late-night shopping! Where would be the best place to get wrapping paper from? Would it be wrong to get a slice of Sal’s pizza for dinner for a second night in a row?
As I pushed open the door, still lost in thought, I immediately sensed that something was a little off in the outside world.
Then, in slow motion, I spotted the guy who I’d been in love with the year before, drinking a beer with a friend outside of the bar right next to my workplace, looking right at me. Now he was waving.
I did a mental calculation in my mind. HOW had I forgotten??? It was December 23. Prime time for a Boyfriends of Christmas Past haunting.
I went over (because I have masochistic tendencies), had two beers, then parted ways and headed back on course down to Queen St. But in true Boyfriends of Christmas Past style, I now felt weird and rattled and exhausted and just wanted to go to my apartment, shut the door and not have to deal with the world for the rest of the night.
I cut through a back alley and started doing a mental tally of everything that was in my cupboards and refrigerator that I could fashion into a meal. Did I still have that tin of tomatoes? And just how did I get struck by the curse for another year?
By now I was walking across the lobby of my apartment building, shaking my bag to hear if I could locate my keys. I said a little prayer to the key gods that I hadn’t left them on my desk. I stood by the entrance, frantically rummaging through everything, when suddenly there was a loud crash and thud against the windowpane right next to my face.
There, from out of the dark, sliding across the glass was the unmistakable face of an ex-boyfriend. A potentially 10-beers deep ex-boyfriend.
“MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!!” he half-sang, rapping his knuckles against the glass in case I somehow hadn’t spotted or heard him. “Puhleaaaase can I come in?? I really think we need to talk.”
And this, my friends, is a classic case of the curse of Boyfriends of Christmas Past.
It’s a haunting that occurs in the days leading up to Christmas Day, where old flames from your past will appear in weird coincidental ways, or in very overt ‘I-want-your-attention’ ways. Sometimes it will just appear as a subtle text, but it will always be in its most extreme cases the years where you are the most vulnerable, single and stressed.
For years, I thought that this might be an unusual curse that I had somehow jinxed upon myself that other people didn’t suffer from. BUT, it turns out a whole bunch of us have had this festive curse bestowed upon us.
At first, when I did a bit of research into this, it didn’t sound to curse-y to me – there seemed to be a lot of people travelling back to their small hometowns to spend Christmas with their families, where they inevitably would run into their old high school boyfriends who were also making the trek back home. I mean, that’s unfortunate, but it also makes a lot of sense that you’d run into each other when there’s only one supermarket, one bar and one set of lights to get stuck at.
Then, I discovered a whole piece of research had been done on the Curse of Boyfriends of Christmas Past.
In 2017 dating site eharmony surveyed 4,000 British adults and found so many of them had experiences similar to mine that they coined a (much snappier) term for it: ‘Marleying’.
It’s named after Jacob Marley, the ghost of Scrooge’s former business partner in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and they defined it as “when an ex gets back in touch over Christmas after a long period without contact.”
The study found that 11% of singles have been Marleyed – and 8% admitted to doing the deed themselves and contacting an ex out of the blue. They pinpointed Christmas Eve as peak Marleying day (but I feel compelled to warn you that in my experience December 23 is ALWAYS worse, so please, watch out tomorrow!).
Eharmony put the primary reason behind people’s urge to reach out, as loneliness. And it makes an awful lot of sense.
Emotions are heightened at this time of year – there are lots of functions and events to go to, lots of questions about your love life to answer, as well as queries about what you’re doing on Christmas Day, or for New Year’s Eve. Plus, we’re bombarded with messages that make us believe that we should be at our happiest during this time of year – especially if you’re prone to watching cheesy Netflix holiday movies where everyone gets the guy/girl by Christmas Eve.
The Washington Post has taken it a step further and named this time of year ‘Relationship Nostalgia Season’. It’s when your Instagram becomes full of lovey-dovey relationship posts and flashes of new engagement rings (yes, according to the Post we’re also in peak Engagement Season which began a few weeks ago and stretches through to Valentines Day).
Sexologist Logan Levkoff explained to the Post that “the holidays put us in this fantasy-like trance where we think everything is so blissful. If we’re not exactly thrilled with where we are romantically speaking at the moment, we go through these moments of feeling, ‘wow, that’s what I was missing.’”
Add in a glass of prosecco or three, and next thing you know you’ve sent an ex a Merry Christmas text message, asking how they are and what they’re up to.
It can also hit hard if it’s the first Christmas you’ve found yourself single – with years of festive traditions and memories to reflect back on. But it’s likely, in the haze of that Christmas glow, you’ve romanticised those moments, and now, the absence of the moments feels kind of gloomy in contrast.
Now, if any of these feelings are ringing a (Christmas) bell, and you’ve been debating a cheeky little text to an ex, now’s the time to take a cold hard look at the situation.
Step away from the Christmas tree lights, put down the G&T, turn off Mariah and look at the facts.
Why is it that you’re no longer with your ex? Is it likely that you could try to restart this whole thing, only to discover the reason why your relationship doesn’t work all over again? Would you be even thinking about them if it wasn’t Christmas? If you message them, what are you wanting to achieve? Are you trying to mend a bridge? Or are you just feeling a little lonely? Or a little drunk? Or have you just watched Love, Actually (in which case, immediately put down your phone and wait to see how you feel in the morning)?
Take a step back and really think it through before you hit send, or you decide that instead of going straight home tonight you’ll just wander past your ex’s house on the off-chance that they might be home, hoping you’ll drop by…
And for everyone else out there, it might pay to be a little cautious over the next few days as we hit prime Marleying time. Remember, it’s perfectly okay to leave your ex on seen at the moment and leave it until after Relationship Nostalgia Season to reflect on whether you want to engage with them.