it's complicated

Does My Ex Deserve a Second Chance, or Is It Just Nostalgia?

Photo-Illustration: J.V. Aranda

Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to

“Can you talk?”

I had been in the middle of checking email on my phone when my ex’s name — let’s call him Mark — popped up across the top of my screen, jolting me. I stared at it for several minutes, not even sure if it was real.

My hand shaking, I wrote, then revised, then deleted a whole bonkers-sounding paragraph, then wrote and deleted everything again. Finally, I settled on a casual “Sure, I have ten-ish minutes.” Then I hit send, and waited, and tried to resist the urge to lose myself in the storm of thoughts that had already begun to brew.

My mind has a habit of pulling moments apart, the best ones along with the bad ones. Piece by piece, I break them down, obsessively reconstructing what we might have said or done differently, until, for a second, the whole thing becomes almost unrecognizable. After my breakup with Mark — a particularly painful one — I did it so often that it seemed impossible that he couldn’t somehow feel the strength of my thoughts. I was sure, in those moments, that he’d reach out.

But he didn’t. He waited. And waited. And when he finally texted me out of the blue, it had been so long that his reappearance felt like a shock to my entire body.

* * *

I don’t often feel an instantaneous spark with someone, but the day I met Mark was one of those rare moments: I was literally hurrying out the door, late to an appointment across town, when a friend introduced us. When we shook hands, I forgot about my hurry; I could focus on was his firm grip and his smile. When I bumped into him on the street a week later, I was almost convinced I’d willed us into crossing paths. I was once again in a rush, but this time I stayed, appointment be damned.

Quickly, Mark became part of my daily routine: The first and last text of the day, the one who stayed up with me while I worked on my laptop late into the night, the one who woke me up with coffee in the mornings. For the first few months, it was bliss. But as the months rolled by, something gnawed at me: He balked whenever I tried to discuss anything remotely related to our future. We both traveled a significant amount for work, so I understood some of his hesitation to make far-out plans. But we were both in our mid-30s, and so I assumed he’d at least be willing to communicate what he thought he wanted for himself.

He wasn’t. “Is this for your blog?” he’d tease whenever I tried to get serious. And for a while, I went with it — things were fun, and good, and maybe it was fine to just not talk about what might come. But underneath, I knew that it wasn’t. So after a ten-day solo work trip with plenty of time to think, I made a decision: I didn’t want to ignore the fact that I wanted more. If I didn’t speak up, we could easily keep going like this for months or years; if we weren’t on the same page, maybe the best thing for both of us would be to break up.

It was a rough breakup — he argued, he pleaded — but in the end, it was a mature one. I wasn’t angry, I told him; I was just tired of pretending I was okay with the way things were. We even kept in loose touch for a bit. But over time, the urge to text or email when something reminded me of him eased. Eventually, I met and began dating someone new, and a whole year passed without a word between us. Until the call.

* * *

The possibility of reconnecting with a past flame has always been fraught. My very first serious relationship, in my 20s, was emotionally abusive; for years, the lingering effects of it propelled me toward scorched-earth sensibilities when it came to dealing with my exes. Once you were out of my life, you were out forever. This was new for me.

We ran through the awkward “How are you, what’s new,” and then he got to the reason for his call.

“I know I wasn’t good at communicating when you needed me to be,” he said. And then, more important: “I’m sorry.” I stood in silence as he apologized for all the things that had bothered me, everything I felt he hadn’t quite understood when things ended. He was learning to be better about expressing himself, he said, even when it might be hard.

I told him I appreciated the apology and that I was glad that we could talk like this now. And then we hung up, and almost immediately, an internal voice shrieked at me: Remember all the good stuff. As usual, my mind went to work pulling it all apart. The night we met. The day he asked me out. The way he would smile at me when I’d say, “Tell me things.” Working quietly side by side on our laptops in bed with the occasional side glance. The memories came fast, landing in dull heavy thuds to my chest. Time had softened their edges, but I could still feel the weight of them.

Tentatively, we began talking again, which didn’t help any. And as we started to move toward semi-regular contact, I found myself once again trying to puzzle out an uncertain future: Were we going to try being together again? It felt like a constant tug-of-war in my brain: On one side, the conviction that the memories of what made us good should stay as memories, leaving a happy thing unspoiled; on the other, the nagging suspicion that it might be worth the risk of vulnerability that accompanies trying again.

But our history, it turned out, repeated itself: Once again, after enough time in limbo, I got the clarity I needed: Maybe my problem was that I refused to see past the “either/or” — when really, Mark and I didn’t have to be all or nothing. My nostalgia wasn’t a sign that he and I should get back together. Neither was his newfound ability to start a tough, honest conversation. But maybe both were signs that we could now be friends.

We’ll see. This time, I’m trying not to think about it too hard. I’m going to try to not apart all the time I spend with him, and to live in them instead.

Does My Ex Deserve a Second Chance, or Is It Just Nostalgia?