As with most modern love stories, Anjali and Patrick met on Tinder. They’d been seeing each other for five months when Patrick abruptly broke it off at a north London bus stop. “He said ‘I should be falling in love with you, but I’m not,’ then muttered something about Catholic guilt before he got on the bus and went home,” Anjali, 32, explains. After four months of silence, she received a text on December 25: “Happy Christmas and all that, Anjali – I hope you have a really nice day!’”
With that, Anjali had been “Marleyed” – a harrowing dating trend in which someone is contacted by an ex using the festive period as a guise for sliding back into the DMs, like a horny Jacob Marley. And she’s not alone. According to research from eHarmony, one in ten singles every year will be contacted by an ex-partner/fling looking for their own Love Actually moment because "ChRiStMAs iS A TiME FoR SoMEoNE wITh LoVe iN ThEiR LiFe!"
Wrong! Christmas is a time for drinking too much, watching heteronormative tearjerkers and arguing with your family with a paper hat surgically attached to your skull. The last thing anyone needs during this vulnerable season is an ex popping up on the lock screen saying something maddeningly neutral like "hope you’re well", but that's what many of us will experience.
In 2016, Isobel*, 24, a graphic designer from London, ran into an old flame at her local pub over Christmas. Cosied up in a familiar place to escape the cold, conditions were ripe for summoning ancient spirits. After a few drinks, they quickly fell back into their old routine: getting pissed and having DMCs. By the next morning the Marley-ing had begun. She woke up to a text in which he was “half apologising and half hitting me up.” After five years of bad timing and missed chances, that coincidental meeting made Isobel seriously consider a relationship with him.
“Seeing him very much brought back all the old memories,” she says. “We had never really closed the door and there was a lot of unfinished business.”
Given that the majority of the country spends two (soon to be four) months a year watching Love Island, a show in which ten couples miraculously find true love in a matter of days, it’s understandable why Marleys may think getting back with an ex could be as simple as just dropping them a text. Plus, Christmas is an emotionally volatile time – all the unavoidable wholesomeness, affection and romance is infectious and comes with its own unique breed of FOMO that can lead to some truly terrible decisions. Suddenly, the need to snuggle under a TK Maxx blanket watching Call the Midwife with someone who refused to go down on you dwarfs your pride, and seems moderate compared to an eight-year-old running through Heathrow security.
Holly, 25, an account manager from south London, agrees that a desire for comfort is a common factor among those who decide to get back with their ex after being Marleyed. “You definitely do want to snuggle at Christmas, and it’s just easier to do it with someone you’ve done it with before,” she says.
Holly started hooking up with her ex, Jenny, after driving past her in her hometown when they were both back for Christmas. Moments later, she received a text: “Hey, I just saw you – hope all is well.”
“The text seemed casual and innocent, then we started texting and meeting up again,” Holly explains. “It felt nice because everyone else seemed to have someone or was just happy because it was Christmas.”
The seasonal jolliness is a Get Out Of Jail Free card of sorts, creating a perfect storm of loneliness and seeing affection absolutely fucking everywhere that can allow people to forget any bitterness surrounding past break-ups. The fact that they flirted with your housemates or left you stranded waiting for the 149 starts to pale in significance when you’ve had a bottle of Bucks Fizz for breakfast, your parents are engaging in PDA and you’ve just seen an Instagram story of him with his little niece wearing matching novelty jumpers.
“I just felt like Christmas time gave her a reason to not be stubborn and reach out to me,” said Robert Gabriel, 30, who got a text from his ex Natasha on Christmas day saying "I hope you got your favourite video game".
For Robert Gabriel, the text came as a "relief". He says he was “happy” that she reached out, and felt the text showed she still had feelings for him. “I think it’s ‘ingenious’ to take advantage of that time of the year,” he says. “You can’t hold grudges – the spirit of Christmas clears the air and opens the door to reaching out to people with love and wishing them the best. If you have a friendship or relationship that fell apart in the past, it’s a good time to reach out. You never know, it might reopen communication.”
However, a good snuggle can’t solve everything. That initial burst of surprise when they appear out of the blue can fade when you realise that there was a reason you broke up in the first place and decided not to bother for the other 11 months of the year. Things that were initially nostalgic or familiar soon become a very real reminder of why you may have ended things the first time around.
“It was such a clear thought process: Christmas is the time to spend with someone you love, I wonder what that person I was going out with is doing,” says Anjali. Given the nature of their break-up, she wasn’t tempted to go back. After two months she replied with a standard "hope you’re good" text – not warranting or expecting a reply. “Then he said something about Michael Bublé. What do you reply about Michael Bublé? The whole thing was so strange, but it was nice to know for a fleeting moment he regretted breaking up with me.”
For Holly and her ex, who did give it another go, old problems didn’t take long to resurface. “After a few meetings the arguments began again and I remember thinking: This is the only person I argue with, what am I doing? That’s where it ended, because we realised we were kind of strangers in each others lives.”
Now in a new relationship, Holly thinks whether or not you go back after a Marleying relates to your self-esteem and relationship status at the time. “If you can accept being happy and that you yourself are enough, you won’t get that need to reply. But we were both lonely and single and it was Christmas.”
“In my head I knew he wasn’t the one, but when I saw him he was still someone I knew I really liked so it was confusing,” Isobel agrees. Like Holly, she regretted giving into the Christmas feels and getting back with her ex. By the New Year they had ended things again – this time on bad terms. “It’s a very intense time of year emotionally, but by January 4th you have to come back to reality.”
"A dog is for life, not just for Christmas" was coined to stop people acting on a whim for something they’ll lose interest in once the novelty wears off. The same thinking should be applied when it comes to exes.
*Names have been changed.