What Normal People gets right about those on-again-off-again loves you just can’t quit.

By Jessica Castillo
Updated May 15, 2020 @ 11:00 am
Advertisement
Hulu

I have known my ex for longer than I’ve known my best friend, longer than I’ve lived in my apartment, certainly longer than I’ve had my current hairstyle. We don’t talk all the time, but we follow each other on Instagram, and check in periodically, especially when one of us has divulged some big life change on the platform. We are, by all accounts, friends, though sometimes I overthink our bond and wonder why I keep in touch with him over any other exes.

He was the person I thought about as I watched Normal People, the TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel of the same name, which debuted on Hulu April 29. I was late to watching it but I quickly found myself engrossed in the on-and-off-again relationship between Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal), who each navigate school and life with the other as a buoy. The Irish teens begin a furtive sex-thing in high school, but the more popular Connell, whose mom cleans Marianne’s house, wants to keep their togetherness a secret (she is understandably crushed). As the series and their relationship progress, so does their power dynamic: Marianne blossoms in college, while Connell works two jobs and struggles to relate to their classmates. Their connection threads itself through other relationships, both romantic and platonic, and across vacations and study programs both at home and abroad.

Hulu

Normal People is as much about how they grow together as it is about how they grow up and navigate love in parallel. It is also, mostly, about how they just can’t quit one another. Whether this connection is maintained through campus run-ins or long emails sent across country lines, they never escape the other’s orbit. In 2013, Maureen O’Connor posited for The Cut that social media has made it easier to stay on-and-off with our exes, or at least keep the avenues of communication open in far more passive ways than ever before. Normal People examines that back-and-forth, and holds its focus on the way such circling can hurt both ourselves and the ones we love — and help heal a few wounds, if we’re willing to do the work.

As it turns out, keeping in touch with an ex is “so common,” according to psychotherapist Whitney Hawkins Goodman, who runs the therapy account @sitwithwhit on Instagram, “even with people who are married or have been in long-term, healthy relationships.” She says that often, reaching out to an ex is more reflective of our current emotional state than of how we left the relationship. There can be a number of reasons why someone might text a former partner, including loneliness, being reminded of that person, or wanting to “recreate the feeling they experienced in the relationship. I also find that especially right now, people are feeling really nostalgic and wanting to go back to a time where they felt more secure.”

A 2016 study led by the University of New Hampshire’s Lindsey Rodriguez published in the Journal of the International Association for Relationship Research surveyed 260 undergraduate students who were currently in relationships; 40% of respondents said they kept in touch with their most recent ex, and 90% of those people said they talked at least once every few months. The more serious their current relationship was, the less likely they were to reach out. Only 32% of respondents who identified as being “almost engaged” to their current partner communicated with an ex, and with good reason: A second study by the same researchers found that being in touch with a former flame, whether to maintain a friendship or out of a desire to retain a “backup” option, often correlated with people feeling less satisfied in their current relationship.

In Normal People, both Marianne and Connell establish other relationships, and their continued closeness creates understandable friction. Marianne’s boyfriend, Jamie (Fionn O'Shea), feels threatened when Connell makes a pit stop at Marianne’s Italian villa during a backpacking trip through Europe; his cruelty toward Marianne sends her right into Connell’s arms. And while Connell has a stable and loving relationship with a medical student named Helen (Aoife Hinds), his continued correspondence with Marianne slowly erodes the trust Helen has in him. This comes to a head in the book when Helen asks why he’s “so weird” around Marianne. “How I act with her is my normal personality,” he responds. “Maybe I’m just a weird person.”

Hulu

Like Marianne and Connell, I met my ex when I was in school. Because he knew the person I was over a decade ago, it’s easy for me to feel safe with him, especially when something else in my life is upside-down. I’m not alone, either: “I have one particular ex who is still a friend and I text them every time I feel like my world is changing,” Anna*, who lives in Brooklyn, told me. “We were together during a really tumultuous time: We both graduated from college and moved to New York together. So for both of us, I think, it’s nice to connect with someone who knows you deeply and knows what it means when certain things change.”

She has texted her ex during both good and bad moments, from layoffs to birthdays, and the ex recently sent her a care package to help her feel better in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. That people are reconnecting with past flames now may have something to do with diminished prospects, as Ashley Fetters pointed out at The Atlantic: Because health officials have advised people to not be within 6 feet of anyone, let alone a new Tinder date, those not in relationships or living with a partner might feel like connecting with an ex, even digitally, is one of the few options they have to fight loneliness.

It’s easy to understand why the relationship timeline Rooney captures in Normal People feels so familiar. And though Hulu did not mean to drop the adaptation in the middle of a pandemic, the fact that so many people were already feeling vulnerable when they tuned in likely made its emotional potency that much stronger. Whether the viewer remembers themselves as the nerdy outcast being kept a secret, the popular kid sneaking around, or just someone in love with a person from whom they can’t disentangle, there’s a messiness that’s very relatable to the here and now. It’s all but factory-standard in our digitally connected lifestyle.

The Kinsey Institute is currently studying how the pandemic is affecting people’s sex lives. According to Dr. Justin Lehmiller, a research fellow, one in five respondents said they have reached out to an ex during quarantine, while one in four people said an ex had reached out to them. While he called those numbers “surprising,” he told me that was primarily because “we didn’t know what the baseline estimate would be. So it’s definitely worth exploring and trying to understand why people seem to be doing this at a higher rate right now.”

He posits that older people might reach out to navigate co-parenting or senior care, while young people might simply feel lonely — according to a 2019 survey by YouGov, millennials said they experienced the emotion more often than any other generation. In Normal People, Marianne and Connell’s reunions almost always end up in sex, to varying degrees of fraught embarrassment. During our discussion, Lehmiller pointed to a study which found having sex with an ex isn’t always the emotional disaster many people believe it will be. But he also noted the quarantine study found that most people’s motives behind reaching out now aren’t always sexual in nature: “The single most common reason across [current] relationship status was, they just wanted to check in on their ex and make sure they were doing alright, that they were healthy and safe during this very unusual time.”

I also wonder if our generation thinks about reaching out so much simply because we can: Where older generations relied on writing letters and looking people up in phone books, we have email, and text messages, and Instagram DMs. We are also getting married later than previous generations, if at all, and the cultural attitude toward dating has mercifully shifted away from the idyllic but lofty notion that high school sweethearts will be together forever. Now, you often have more time to find The One if that is something you want, which means a number of could-have-beens may be left in the wake of your pursuits. Add the ways in which digital connection can create a foundation for these relationships, and it makes sense that many of us are constantly weighing the pros and cons of getting back in touch with an Almost or a Maybe.

Both Lehmiller and Hawkins Goodman agree that social media can be a driving factor in why people reach out to their exes, given that pixelated feeds help us keep tabs on those people in passive ways. That digital proximity is replicated in Normal People when Marianne and Connell email each other between her study-abroad program in Sweden and his studies in Dublin. After an emotional meeting with a therapist, Connell Skypes Marianne as a comfort, and later falls asleep with his laptop monitor still on; he wakes up to find that she didn’t sever the connection overnight.

Being able to check in on your ex’s whereabouts — and perhaps finding out they are single, if becoming on-again is on your mind — also has its drawbacks. Hawkins Goodman warned that it’s easy for people to read such developments as “signs” that they should have reached out all along. “It can feel like you know more about them than you might,” she said. And there are some topics that are more difficult to navigate, even if you and the ex both believe you are friends. Asking about a new relationship can feel like a proverbial third rail. For me and my ex, reminiscing about what we once had is the weird exercise, and usually ends in me apologizing for something I did years ago and him telling me he can’t remember what I’m even talking about.

People often package moving on from somebody as a very neat thing, when getting over someone you cared about can be far from linear. “It’s not always that clean or neat, and it’s OK to want to have a certain type of relationship with someone,” even after the more romantic relationship ends, Hawkins Goodman said. But if you can get out of your own head enough to reflect on how you’ve evolved since the relationship ended, and hold space for the possibility that your ex might not feel the same way about reconnecting as you do, chances are good you’ll figure out whether reaching out makes sense for your specific situation. Sometimes, it’s worth noting, the impetus is simply centering your own need for closure or a fun “what if” above their need for healthy boundaries and space. Try to sort that out in a different way, if possible.

If staying in touch with my ex has taught me anything, it’s that we work far better as friends than we ever did during the years we were dating, and on-again after that. That doesn’t mean we failed on the relationship front. The way we support each other is different now, which makes sense: We are different people now than when we were together. We should be.

The characters in Normal People get there eventually, too, but not before years of wading through insecurities and a ton of inner work, which makes them better both to each other and to themselves. “I think they'll always remain in each other's lives but I love the fact that I don't know in what capacity,” Edgar-Jones told InStyle about Marianne and Connell. “They're still very much living and breathing, and that means I never have to say good bye to them.” Kind of like being a text message away.