There’s a new type of dating show in town. Forget Take Me Out and First Dates – we’ve had enough of mercilessly shoving total strangers together, covering our eyes at cringey dinners for two, and shrieking through the screen at badly matched blind dates. Instead, these new programmes bring up an all too familiar conundrum for singles. Are our exes really exes for a reason?
Back with the Ex goes in all guns blazing, moving former flings separated for up to 20 years into each other’s homes. Eating with my Ex gives its past paramours an easier get-out, reuniting them for just one meal and throwing some awkward questions into the mix. Big blow-outs and tears in various British high street restaurant chains ensue. It’s enough to have you asking for the bill.
Like any good dating show devotee, I was hooked on both series from the opening credits. The drama! The backstories! The bit when lovely Lauren revealed that evil Erik gave her $10,000 to try to convince her to get a boob job! I rooted for the couples whom time and distance had torn apart, and rolled my eyes at those who had enjoyed little more than a month-long shagathon before staging a drunken break-up in a seedy nightclub. These couples were real, with a genuine joint past and often a whole life together that had taken place long before the cameras started rolling. There was something immensely powerful about that.
Inevitably these shows also caused my mind to meander over details of my past relationships. Which of my exes would I want to grill over a Gourmet Burger Kitchen milkshake for two? Would I succumb to the charms of a lapsed cuffing season sweetheart if we were whisked away on a romantic safari, or would I be packing my bags faster than you can say "No, you were the worst at texting back!"?
Although it would realistically take more than a dating show to convince me to reunite with any of my exes, it seems that I’m not alone in dwelling on my dating history. One survey showed that almost half of online daters have had a partner beg for them back after a break-up. What is it about our bygone baes that keeps us coming back for more?
"Relationship endings generate really fundamental questions about ourselves, what it is about ourselves that is rejectable, that can’t love or that cannot be loved," says psychotherapist Denise Dunne. "The fantasy of reuniting with an ex is that we will have access to the answers or, even better, we can undo the questions by making ourselves loved again."
The rise of social media means these questions can stay at the forefront of our mind long after a break-up. Perhaps you’ve stayed Facebook friends with a former flame or maybe you need to do a spot of furtive Instagram stalking to find out what your past romantic prospects are up to. Either way, our exes are always just a click away and it can be difficult to move on if your digital paths are constantly crossing.
"Social media can without doubt make working through a break-up much harder," says Dunne. "In the offline world [seeing what an ex is up to is a] logistically more difficult if not dubious pursuit, but in the online world of acceptable cyberstalking, it can be really tempting, seemingly harmless, and maybe even at times unavoidable to have a look at their pictures."
If the lure of bae’s beach snaps wasn’t enough, then there’s an even more compelling reason to send a sneaky late-night "WYD?" text.
"The current dating landscape has so many options," says relationship and technology expert Michelle Drouin. "You can swipe through hundreds of potential dating partners in minutes. But having too many options can be overwhelming, and people also may have doubts about the authenticity of the strangers they meet online. With an ex, you know what you are going to get. It's familiar territory, and you don't have to fear that the person showing up to meet you is entirely different than their online profile."
With a rising number of singletons feeling burnt out by modern dating, the familiar rhythms of a past relationship may have a shiny new appeal. And it’s hardly surprising – one study into dating app Hinge found that 81% of users had never found a long-term relationship on an app, 54% of users felt lonely after a swiping session, and only one in 500 swipes led to phone numbers being exchanged. That’s a lot of time engaging in the same old Tinder small talk for very little return.
"The back and forth messages about the same subjects – 'Hey, how are things?' or 'Tell me where you see yourself in five years' – may feel like a never-ending merry-go-round of small talk and superficiality," explains Drouin. "Sometimes, people want to feel safe, cared for, and engaged in deeper conversations. Exes provide that kind of stability. You know them – you can skip the small talk and slide right back into a comfortable place of intimacy."
"In our consulting rooms, clients complain that quite quickly online dates can feel like the same conversation on repeat, and they can get bored and frustrated by the lack of chemistry," agrees Dunne. "Together with our natural propensity to idealise a former relationship when we are feeling lonely, you can see how it’s possible that the online dating experience and our desire for intimate attachment might steer us back to seeking the arms of an ex."
When the exes of Back With the Ex and Eating With My Ex sit down to confront their past, there is almost always an undeniable authenticity and connection. In a world where real intimacy is increasingly hard to come by, it seems that seeing this on screen has viewers hooked.
So if you’ve had one soulless swipe session too many, and the idea of exes reuniting has you reaching for the remote, then just one question remains: Should you ever get back with an ex?
"Sometimes people break up over silly issues, and sometimes time heals wounds," says Drouin. "However, if you really believe in the reasons you split, and you know that this person is not really the one for you, don't be tempted by the easy intimacy. Get back out there, and find someone you don't ever want to break up with."