A few months ago, at a show, my best friend’s then-girlfriend shouted over the music and into my ear that her ex was there. I assured her I had mapped all the exits and we could be out of there in 10 seconds, but she just laughed. Don’t worry, she said, he’s the big one but not the only one.
Everyone I know has a Big Ex, and they seem to be in a whole different category from the other partners in our lives. They’re someone from our past who, no matter how many people we’ve dated afterwards, leaves an inexplicably permanent mark.
Most of them seem to defy the hard and fast rules of attachment, just like mine—we dated for less than a season of Please Like Me but the break-up kneecapped me for months. At the time, I lived by Sex and the City’s Charlotte York’s rule: “It takes half the total time you went out with someone to get over them,” or the even more cliché “time heals all wounds.” I waited out my heartbreak, expecting it to expire like yogurt forgotten at the back of the fridge.
But Big Exes defy rules, because there are no universal timelines, according to Dr. Amir Levine, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and recent co-author of Attached. Ending shorter relationships can be even more painful than ending years-long partnerships because “when you sever the relationship at its peak, it's probably one of the most painful things that can happen,” Levine told VICE.
Dr. Matthew Johnson agrees that Charlotte had it wrong, even though longer relationships mean your lives might become increasingly interconnected. “Some very passionate, short romances stick with people because they only experienced the highs of love with that person … and they never had to navigate the stickier parts of life that are necessary to achieve lasting love,” said Johnson, who studies intimate relationship development at the University of Alberta.
Relationship length may not be synonymous with its meaning, but timing is key, according to Levine—and especially so when you’re young. “We've had so many experiences and so many new experiences together,” said Rohina, 23, who met her Big Ex on her first day of university orientation in a new country and dated him on and off for five years. Robert, 25, and his Big Ex “guided each other throughout this entire change of going to university.”
First heartbreaks have an especially good chance at making it into the Big Ex Hall of Fame. “Once you've broken up with someone, you know that it’s going to be very painful, and you've been through it and you know you’re going to get over it,” said Levine. “But when you're going through it for the first time, you have no frame of reference.”
Jane says his Big Ex came at a meaningful time not just because he was young, but because he was in an intense high school relationship while navigating his sexuality, gender identity and his and his partner’s mental illness. “[The relationship] happened when I was more vulnerable than I’ll probably ever be again,” said Jane, 23, who is non-binary and whose parents were not supportive of the relationship. “I’ve also come to see this as a piece in the bigger puzzle of LGBTQ+ kids falling into unhealthy relationships because they don’t have community support.”
Sarah Crosby created and hosted Recalculating, a Canadian podcast on life’s various transitions borne out of her own big break-up, in 2018 and found the theme of vulnerability came up again and again. “I think that people carried a lot more shame about breakups,” Crosby said of the people she interviewed on the show, who often lamented about being too vulnerable or not vulnerable enough in the moment. “I just really got the sense that most people didn't feel like it was okay to grieve anything other than death.”
A sense of shame, according to Johnson and Levine, is part of why putting heartbreak on a timeline can be so dangerous. “What often happens is that not only is the person suffering because they're going through the breakup, now they're also suffering because they feel they're not doing it fast enough or there's something wrong with them,” said Levine. “There's a very powerful biology at work here [so] when we can ‘move on’ is already decided for us.”
The trials these relationships put someone through stand the test of time. Denise, 62, has been with her husband for decades but a man she dated in university still stands out because the reasons she ended it led to a major personal transformation. “I began to realize that there was a lot of abuse in his family,” she said, which was the reason she turned down his marriage proposal. “Ten years later, I realized it was because there was abuse in my family and I had buried it deeply. And it began to unroll what later became a major, major healing piece in my life that changed me completely.”
Denise credits this experience with her hesitation to begin dating her now-husband, and Levine stressed that vulnerability can be both a source of suffering and a part of the healing process. “[My Big Ex] was the first person that made me feel safe with men again and like I could trust people again,” said Caitlin, 25, who had been in traumatic and abusive relationships before. She and her Big Ex dated for six months, and she said, “in the long term, it made me hold people to a higher standard.” These nuggets of introspection ebbed into each conversation, something Crosby thinks the younger generation is particularly good at, for better or for worse. Robyn, 33, feels she “was never able to love as freely or as easily” than with her Big Ex, whom she met at summer camp at age 14 and dated long-distance for five years. “I think he’ll always be a reminder of maybe the purity and possibility in young love,” she said.
These Big Exes aren’t just people—they are the cities we move to, the offices made to feel suffocating, the mirrors through which we come to know ourselves. “I think, more than anything, you're grieving the person who you were when you were with that person,” said Crosby.
Rohina thinks in a sense, these exes are ingrained in us. “It’s like when you put your thumb into the sand or a clay mold,” she said. “How deep does that go? How much does that shape your sculpture?”