What goes around (usually) comes back around, and that includes exes. Nine years after our breakup, my ex still watches my Instagram stories, presumably just to show he’s lurking. This might not sound like any big deal, but he doesn’t even follow me — he creeps. After observing this pattern for some time, I messaged him to ask why he doesn’t just follow me already. He told me he would, but his new girlfriend would flip out if she knew he was following me. At this point, I blocked his number and social-media accounts and told him to kindly (and not so kindly) leave me alone. 

Exes tend to rear their sometimes-ugly heads, but their contact isn’t always unwarranted or over something irrelevant. But no matter why someone from your past reaches out, being mentally and emotionally prepared for these situations can help you to avoid being thrown for a loop or reacting irrationally.

1. They found out you’re dating someone new.

Maybe your ex stumbled upon an Instagram post that suggests you’ve moved on, or they received an awkward call from a friend who filled them in on the news. Either way, they know you’re in another relationship, and they want to hear it for themselves. 

“My ex already knew I was dating someone because it was a friend of his,” says Christina, 26. “One day, he approached me and asked questions about my family, my career, and how things were going with my [new] boyfriend, and displayed this overly happy-for-me attitude.” The next day, her ex asked if she wanted to get back together. She declined. 

“That’s not a request that your ex is entitled to make,” says life coach Mona Green. They can put their cards on the table and leave the ball in your court, but “going that extra step shows a lack of respect for your choices and current relationship.” 

Corey, 29, confesses he reaches out to exes for no good reason at all when he finds out they’re newly taken. “I may be a sadist who just needs to keep the reins on partners in that way,” he says. “Oftentimes, they’ll have moved on [so] I see if I can get them to do something to demonstrate that I have more of them emotionally than their current partner.” 

Don’t be surprised if your ex suddenly contacts you and admits that they screwed up.

“It’s easy to get caught up in the trap of the ego, want to be the one who moved on first, and hurt your former partner, particularly if they hurt you,” says Green. “That said, it’s wise to remember in these instances that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. Nobody wins when we weaponize our pain.” If an ex asks whether you’ve started seeing someone, a simple “yes” or “no” along with the request to respect your new relationship could be enough to provide them with the confirmation they’re seeking.

2. They started dating someone new.

By letting you know that they’ve moved on, your ex is communicating that your relationship is totally over. “If you’re holding on to hope for a reconciliation, they’re saying that it’s time to let go and move on,” Green says. Whether you like it or not, take this as a clear form of closure. Avoid interrogating them about their new partner or regularly visiting their Instagram to find out who this new S.O. is. “What they go on to do with their life is none of your business and can turn into a source of unnecessary anguish for you,” Green adds. “If it feels appropriate, thank them for letting you know and leave it at that.”

3. Someone is ill or has passed away. 

If you’ve recently undergone something major, like a serious illness or surgery, an ex may naturally pop in to make sure that you’re OK. “In this case, it could be a genuine concern, or it could just be an excuse to engage you,” says relationship counselor David Bennett. Either way, he suggests thanking them for their concern, letting them know you’re doing fine, and not responding after that.

The situation is a little different if they’re reaching out after someone close to them died or has become seriously ill. If you dated for a while, you probably grew to care about their friends and loved ones. “When it comes to life-changing events like death, illness, and [other] tragedies — all moments that force us to rethink our priorities and leave pettiness behind — it’s not uncommon to look for support in those who already know what or who we’re talking about. It makes us feel seen and understood,” says Green. In the name of empathy, she suggests being the bigger person and showing respect. “Remember that your ex is human and they’re likely hurting,” she adds. “Express your condolences, and proceed in whatever way feels natural without violating your own boundaries or need for space.”

4. They miss you and want you back.

“Every single ex I’ve had has come crawling back missing me, and I’ve denied every single one,” says Dakota, 27. How she goes about this depends on how much time has passed and why they broke up. “I’ve been really mean after a fresh breakup where he cheated. When an ex came back two years after we broke up, I nicely said ‘no, thanks, I’ve moved on from that part of my life.’ They just feel like the past, so I never felt any type of desire to be with them again.”

“It’s easy to want to be the one who moved on first, and hurt your former partner, particularly if they hurt you.”

Time apart increases self-awareness and can make the heart grow fonder. So don’t be surprised if your ex suddenly contacts you and admits that they screwed up during your relationship and/or regret that things didn’t work out. “It isn’t uncommon for us to want to atone for our bad behavior or apologize for having hurt someone who, at one point, meant a lot to us and likely still does,” says Green. If you feel the effort on your ex’s part is genuine, understand that this is a chance for you to practice grace and forgiveness. “There’s no need to perpetuate more hurt, particularly when another person is acknowledging they were wrong,” she adds. If their message doesn’t feel genuine or if you don’t want to reply just yet, remember that you don’t have to respond until you’re ready (or ever). 

If you’re on the fence about getting back together, Green asks you to consider these questions: Am I missing them because I’m in pain and lonely, or do I miss them for who they are and what they brought to the relationship? Why did we break up in the first place? Have those issues been resolved, or will it be possible to resolve them now? These answers will guide you on the best way to proceed.

5. They weren’t sober.

Have you ever drank five too many beers and thought it’d be a good idea to drunk text your ex? Welcome to the club. “Sometimes mind-altering substances can lead to spontaneous contact from exes,” says Bennett. 

“I saw pictures of [my ex] at a party we went to every year with all our old friends while I was very nostalgic and drunk,” says Mae, 24. “I called him, but he was with the new girl he was dating.” Mae’s ex called her back the next day and asked if she would leave her boyfriend for him if he left his girlfriend for her, but she rejected his offer. “He was angry for me ever reaching out and stirring up those feelings.”

“If you know your ex is drunk or high, I would leave them on ‘read,’” says Bennett. “Any engagement could be forgotten or regretted later.” He recommends continuing not to respond, even once everyone’s sober. “They may not remember [reaching out], and if they do, they may not even bother replying since they aren’t in the state of confidence they were in when they texted you,” he says. “They’ll have their walls back up. Engaging them is just asking for heartbreak.”

Regardless of why your ex reaches out, rest assured that you don’t need to reply. Often it’s smarter to ignore them and continue moving on. After all, they are your ex, so you don’t owe them anything anymore, especially if it comes at the sake of protecting your boundaries and overall wellbeing.

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