Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

SocietyFebruary 8, 2024

Help Me Hera: Men I haven’t seen in years keep crawling out of the woodwork

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Why now? What do they want? And how should I respond?

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Hi Hera, 

The weirdest thing has been happening to me over the last 12 months. Multiple times I have been contacted by men who I have not seen or talked to in years – some I worked with or hung out with in a city I used to live in in my early 20s. I’m single, in my early 30s and would really like to be partnered but finding dating really challenging.

Naturally, I think, these messages from men coming out of the woodwork then pique my interest, as even though we are tenuously connected, it does seem like a romantic way to meet someone rather than just insanely swiping. However, when I start to chat with these men and form a deeper connection, date, chat (one guy even came to my city from afar, on the pretence of a holiday he planned before we started chatting, even though he knew I lived here), once we have slept together they seem to disappear in a poof – one even ghosting me.

Am I an idiot for responding in the first place? Are these men just out for a quick lay or a place to stay? But then why all the emotional labour up front, and why not just say that? Am I really bad in bed?? Have they idolised me in some way?? Just the other day, another man messaged me out of the blue asking how I was and am I still single. Should I respond? What is going on here??!!

Yours truly,


A line of fluorescent green card suit symbols – hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades

Dear Confused,

Your question puts me in mind of the North American cicada. They spend 13 or 17 years burrowed underground, only to emerge en masse, at the beginning of summer. How do they know when the time is right? The current best guess is that they possess an internal, molecular clock which responds to clues gleaned from the surrounding trees and ambient soil temperature. But even the specialist entomologists don’t know for sure. 

It seems like you’re currently experiencing a rare environmental surplus. The Nile is flooding. Grass is returning to the Savannah. Why it’s happening now is anyone’s best guess. It could be that everyone’s long term relationships are simultaneously imploding. It could be a trend in flirting, prompted by the decline of dating apps. It could be that you’ve recently posted some powerful thirst traps. It could be something as ancient and mysterious as the temperature of the soil. Either way, it’s a flattering problem to have. 

I agree that reconnecting with someone from your past is generally preferable to swiping right. “Crawling out of the woodwork” sounds about as romantic as a borer infestation, but it’s basically just a synonym for biding one’s time, which is the entire premise of the English romance novel. It’s also extremely convenient, especially if you already know a little about each other. There’s nothing more flattering than the idea you’ve been on someone’s mind for over a decade, especially if the feeling is mutual. Not to mention the inherent narrative satisfaction of being able to revisit missed opportunities, and correct past mistakes.

I don’t know why you seem to be summoning so many ghosts. My best guess is that the relationships of people in your age bracket are undergoing a mass extinction event. Breakups seem to come in waves, and your early 30s are a particularly fatal time. So you might as well enjoy it while it lasts. Soon everyone you know will be simultaneously having children, and then a few years later, simultaneously developing rare neurological disorders. 

It’s tempting to look at these guys and wonder if they’re genuinely interested in a relationship, or are simply trying to cross a few names off their romantic bucket list. It’s even possible some of them are sending out targeted email campaigns to every single (and single) woman in their contacts, hoping someone will bite. But I’m tempted to take the generous view, and say most of these guys have always been interested in you, and for whatever reason, currently have the nerve and opportunity to act on it. 

As to why they’re not sticking around, that’s harder to say. I’m curious to know if these men from your past have a higher than usual incidence rate of dropping off the face of the planet after you’ve slept together? Are you getting similar results from Tinder? Is this a wider cultural trend, or is this problem exclusive to the woodwork dwellers? 

Maybe they’ve all come out of long relationships, and aren’t ready to settle down. Maybe some of them have spent the intervening years projecting their fantasies onto you, only to discover you don’t correspond to their carefully curated mental image. Maybe the chemistry just wasn’t right. Personally, I wouldn’t lose sleep over it. All dating is fraught, wherever you happen to meet people. In the future, I’d suggest meeting up as soon as possible, so you’re both grounded in the reality of the situation. Sometimes you just don’t know if there’s any real chemistry until you’re standing face to face. 

I’m a big advocate for crawling out of the woodwork. But that doesn’t mean you should just sit around, waiting for the next message to land. Why not take matters into your own hands? Think of all your romantic near-misses, long lost crushes, and people you met at exactly the wrong moment in your life. Are any of them single? Perhaps it’s time to graduate from woodwork crawler, to woodwork crawlee. After all, if you can’t beat them, you might as well join them. 

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