A Reddit post by a woman who explained her mixed emotions at receiving an out-of-the-blue apology from her first boyfriend during lockdown prompted dozens of others to share details of their own experiences. The BBC spoke to a man who has sent two unexpected lockdown apologies – and to a woman who has received one.
Irina, 26, received a lockdown apology email from her first boyfriend
It was another Friday evening in lockdown, of staring at a computer screen, toggling between news sites and social media, when the email from James arrived.
Irina waited a beat, trying to recall the last time she had thought of her first boyfriend, before clicking it open.
“Irina, I know this is out of the blue and years too late,” it began, “but this is a message I need to send.”
She had been 16 and ready for a boyfriend when she met James. It seemed like a normal step a girl her age should take.
So much of her life hadn’t been typical.
Born in Moscow, Irina had come to the UK on a two-week student exchange and liked the education system here. At the age of 14 she told her parents she wanted to leave Russia and go to a British boarding school.
After initial hesitation, they gave in. Irina’s mother had been a railway conductor from a rural part of Russia when she fell in love with Irina’s father, a passenger on her train. She was 19, he was 30. Weeks later she packed her bags and knocked on his door, 1,000 miles away, informing him that they should now live together. How could they deny their daughter her own big adventure?
Arriving in England, Irina felt the culture shock immediately. Growing up in Moscow, Irina’s inner-city school had been, in her words, “hardcore”. There were fights in the toilets and open bullying. Here, she was amused by mandatory chapel visits and the invisible social hierarchies of an English school.
Irina found her way into the ecosystem and made friends. Over time, and after a giggly afternoon in a park, one boy in particular caught her eye.
James fitted the brief for a cool boyfriend. He was cute. He was funny. At 17, he was a year older than Irina. He was tall, too.
They texted over the next few weeks, and soon their relationship became official, though the cracks appeared right away.
“When you’re that age, status amongst friends is very important,” Irina says. “And it was very important for James to appear cool.”
In public there were jokes at Irina’s expense among their mutual friends. In private, James was frustrated if she appeared to be better than him at some things.
“If I was better than him at crosswords he would be insulted and say, ‘But you’re Russian, your English shouldn’t be as good as mine,'” Irina says. “And I would reassure him by saying, ‘It’s not, I’m just good at crosswords.'”
Eventually, two years later, Irina was told by mutual friends that James had confessed he’d cheated on her.
Irina ended the relationship abruptly, distancing herself as best she could, telling him she didn’t want contact.
She moved to a different city for university and a fresh start.
James texted sporadically over the next couple of years – always on her birthday, and to wish her happy new year. Eventually, after one exchange, Irina suggested to James that for them to successfully move on it would be better if they cut contact altogether.
James’ response was swift and icy. He wasn’t trying to get back together with Irina, he wrote. Then he told her to never message him again.
Irina stared at the message and responded, Lol.
That, she decided, would be the end of this chapter of her life.
Years passed and Irina moved again, settling into a tech job. Now at ease making friends, she found her rhythm in a new city.
When coronavirus hit, Irina’s work sent her a keyboard and a large monitor so she could work from home.
And then the email from James arrived.
In the 800-word-message, James explained that lockdown had forced him to assess his own past behaviour, and he felt he owed her an apology for his immaturity all those years ago.
He apologised about how he had behaved, saying that he felt mortified when he read the texts he had sent her.
And then he made a stunning confession. He had never actually cheated on Irina – that too had been a lie to impress their friends.
He went on to write that he had been volunteering to help vulnerable communities during lockdown and now was a time for true reflection and for people to be kinder to one another.
Transported back in time, with a mix of emotions she hadn’t felt in years, Irina went for a walk to clear her head.
When she got back, she decided to reply. She told him to be kind to himself and said that everyone has made mistakes, especially when they are young. And then she addressed his apology.
I don’t have a reaction to your apology. Perhaps I have forgiven you, perhaps I stopped caring. I hope it brings you closure to know I feel no ill feelings towards you.
She thought for a moment, wondering if this was a fair response.
“I think he was looking for redemption from me,” Irina says. “But it’s not really for me to give it to him. He’s the only one who can give it to himself – forgive himself.”
Irina sent the email and went back to her computer, her evening and her life.
Chris, 26, has sent apologies to two exes during lockdown
It was 10 days into lockdown when Chris texted Sarah.
The last time he’d seen her she was on the floor of her room, curled up in the foetal position, tears and hiccups breaking up her breathing. He left her that way. She wanted him to.
This was the end result of a long and emotional conversation, and the conclusion of their eight-month relationship.
He thought of her occasionally in the years that followed. They still followed each other on social media. But she had faded into memory, a college girlfriend. Now, seven years later, that image kept popping back into Chris’s mind: Sarah on the floor in tears.
Chris began lockdown on 10 March, the day the US National Emergency Commission advised restaurants and bars to close, and a presidential directive asked people to work from home where they could.
The week before, a typical day for him started at 5.30am. He’d work out with his colleagues at the army base in Missouri where he worked as an IT engineer, go home, shower, eat and go back to the base. He lived alone in an apartment nearby.
After finishing work he’d go home again and either go out with friends, or make dinner and hang out online until it was time for bed.
With lockdown came a lot of free time. At first he kept busy. But after 10 days of Zoom calls and YouTube workouts and the whole second season of Succession, his mind kept going back to that image of his first girlfriend.
He’d met Sarah when they were 18, at a military academy.
“It was an intense relationship,” Chris, now 26, says. “We spent all of our time together, all our plans were together and so was our identity.”
As teenagers at the start of their career with the US Army, they shared all their problems with each other. As the months went by, though, Sarah’s troubled relationship with her family began to consume her, according to Chris, and he felt ill-equipped to help.
When he finally told her all this, saying he didn’t think they could carry on, Sarah dissolved into tears on the floor. She was devastated. This was too abrupt an end to their relationship, she said.
They avoided each other for the rest of their time at the academy, sometimes awkwardly. Then they graduated and went their separate ways, and that’s how it stayed – until, on 19 March, Chris sent Sarah a text.
Sarah, I understand that it’s been a long time, but I really feel that the way that we ended things wasn’t right, and the way that I treated you at the end of our relationship was a disservice to you.
I know we’ve both had a lot of time apart from each other and I would really like to make that up to you. I really hope you’re doing well.
The response came almost immediately.
I’m doing great!
And the two began to exchange texts.
She brought him up to speed on her new teaching job, which she loved. And, she added excitedly, she had a much better relationship with her parents.
“She said for a while she couldn’t see me [because I was] someone who had caused her pain, but that was all over now,” Chris says. “She said she now realised that we weren’t right for each other.”
Emboldened by the warmth of their interaction, Chris decided to text a second ex. Well, ex may be a stretch.
“We were more friends with benefits,” he says. “We didn’t ever say we were exclusive.”
Lisa and Chris had matched on Tinder in 2016. They lived in different cities. She lived in Washington DC, where Chris had family.
The relationship was carried out mostly online.
“We chatted on almost every single social media app and then mostly by text,” says Chris.
In the beginning they had video chats but that gradually decreased. They saw each other every few months, hooking up when they were in the same place. Over the next couple of years that petered out too, eventually settling into an online friendship.
Then on New Year’s Eve 2018 Lisa and Chris found themselves in the same city and arranged to meet up to ring in the new year, along with a mutual friend. Lisa had a new boyfriend, Sam, by then. She’d told Chris about him, even sharing points of tension she felt in their relationship.
It was the first time Chris and he had met. The night began in a friendly enough tone but soon everyone was drunk.
And in the midst of a blurry conversation Chris brought up something Lisa had told him in confidence about her relationship with Sam. It was so personal that Chris knew as soon as he spoke that he had broken the trust between them. After an argument outside, Lisa, Sam and their friend left Chris to go to another venue. Lisa later texted Chris to say how angry she was that he had shared her confession with Sam.
It was the last time Chris saw Lisa.
So after his message to Sarah, Chris texted Lisa.
You were and are very important to me, and I’m sorry for everything that I did that night. I know that I crossed a bunch of lines and I wish I hadn’t. I hope you’re doing well and lockdown is OK.
Lisa’s reply came the next day.
She said she was well. Lockdown was going OK, and she and Sam were now married.
But it was clear that she didn’t wish to continue the conversation. She didn’t address or accept Chris’s apology.
Chris says that he hopes he would have apologised to both women in time, even if lockdown were not a factor.
“But maybe it would have been a drunk text in the middle of the night.”
He says he accepts that apologies may be seen by some as selfish, because they answer the sender’s needs, and not necessarily the recipient’s. But he says he wasn’t expecting either Sarah or Lisa to say anything that would make him feel better.
“I can’t say I wasn’t doing it in the hope that they would absolve me… I wasn’t expecting a reply from either. And if they hadn’t forgiven me it would have been fine by me too. I just wanted them to know that I wasn’t OK with some of my past behaviour.”
Why we apologise
Nastaran Tavakoli-Far is the co-host of The Gender Knot, a podcast that explores cultural issues. She’s hosted “loads and loads and loads” of shows on the psychology of an apology and what motivates someone to make one.
Lockdown, she says, adds another dimension.
“There’s the obvious reason why we are reflecting on our behaviour, we’ve all got a lot of time to think. A lot of the things we do to avoid reflection aren’t possible right now, like travelling, socialising, commuting.
“At the same time it’s an opportunity to become thoughtful about your relationships and ask all these big fundamental questions of the purpose in your life and what your legacy is.”
But apologies need to be thought through, she says.
“You should never give an apology to feel better. Making an apology is only the first step to making amends. You need to be ready for the person to respond in any way they need, and not at all if they want.
“While you have time to think about the bad things in the past, so does the person receiving the apology, and you may trigger an emotion in them that they don’t necessarily want right now.”
All names of those making and receiving apologies have been changed