There’s a small cardboard box collecting dust and spiders in my parents’ attic that’s full of mundane items: A photo in a frame, a stuffed souvenir hedgehog, a stolen black hoodie that used to hold a certain smell. In the summer before my senior year of college, I boxed it all up and punted it as far back into that attic as I could. I couldn't bear to throw it away, yet, but I sure as shit didn’t want it in my sight ever again.
That’s the common, perhaps even universal feeling of being torn between letting go and hanging on after a breakup. Storage company MakeSpace is marketing on this feeling with ExBox, which promises to “put anything that reminds you of your ex into cold storage before cuffing season arrives.”
MakeSpace’s regular service sends customers a box to fill with clutter, then picks it up to store in a facility. ExBox is the same idea, but with breakup-specific branding.
I went through the initial online consultation.
After picking your location, you’re prompted to answer a few questions about your failed relationship. The first is “On a scale of 1 to 10, just how awful was your ex?” with 1 being “barely knew their name” and 10 being “we were going to get married.” I stare at these questions for a beat much too long before choosing a number and hitting “next.”
Next, you’re asked to choose which items you have lying around from this ex, including rollover descriptions of each: Clothes (“ugh, they probably smell like your ex too”) a bed (“unspeakable things have happened here and it must go”), carpet (“the backdrop to every argument you’ve ever had”) and a fridge. If I wasn’t feeling some kind of way about my exes before this experiment, I am now. Also, who the hell is getting rid of a fridge because it reminds them of their ex? If your fridge is sending you into a spiral, at that point, maybe just move.
These default options are apparently a lot less wild than what customers are actually storing: Amory Wooden, Vice President of Brand at MakeSpace, told me in a email that one woman stored 20 high-end bicycles that she and her cycling-obsessed ex shared. Another stored a vintage barber set that she wasn’t ready to sell or toss. These people have enough value sitting in storage to pay off my student loans, but they can’t bring themselves to sell the items or let them go.
Wooden assured me that ExBox was designed with the best intentions: “Break-ups suck and no one wants to be reminded of them with the remains of things from a previous relationship,” Wooden said. “The physical reminder is upsetting and comforting all at the same time. ExBox helps people move on by removing a common roadblock to clear—stuff. We’re making it easy, and hopefully, a little fun, to shed that baggage.”
I asked Lindsey Brock, a North Carolina-based therapist who specializes in breakups, for her impressions on this storage system marketed for heartbreak. “My first thought when checking out the ex box is ‘this can't be real,’” she sad. “What happened to just burning our ex's shit?” Brock herself did this ceremonial burn in college, and sent me a photo of herself holding a s’mores-style stick with some of her ex’s belongings smoldering on it as proof. Iconic.
“Don't get me wrong, it is a really good idea to remove things from your home or from your life that remind you of your ex when you are trying to heal,” Brock said—after a breakup, your brain needs to adjust to losing a source of dopamine, the “feel good” hormone that’s released when we’re with someone we love. Suddenly, that source of dopamine is gone, and we feel like garbage. Reminiscing with their old t-shirt or photos helps you feel better for a moment, but it ultimately prolongs that withdrawal process.
So, in theory, sending something far out of sight and mind is a good step. But storing it indefinitely? Depends on the spirit with which you ship it off. “What I have found to be true for most of my clients is that the desire to hold on to their ex's stuff comes from the hope or feeling that they will get back together in the future,” Brock said. “So that might sound something like, ‘I can't get rid of his favorite shirt because what if we get back together? He'll want it then! He will be so glad I held onto it.’ To that, I say give the stuff back or get rid of it.” Or burn it on a stick, your call.
“It's true that some folks won't be ready to get rid of their ex's stuff. Too many memories, good and bad,” Brock said. “That's okay. To the person who has boxes and boxes of things that remind them of their ex, I'd encourage you to pair it down to one box, and to put it on a shelf out of sight and out of mind with the intention of making peace with it at a later date. Hopefully though, you'll stumble across that box years later and forget it ever existed.”
Which is what I’ve done with my own softening cardboard box I exiled to my parents’ attic. On a visit home recently, I stumbled across it, pulled the old things out, and thought about how much I’ve changed since I chucked them away. Over the years, the box has been less Tell-Tale Heart, more comforting shrine. I washed the hoodie and freed the hedgehog. The picture stayed in.
Although I’m suspicious of turning heartache into consumer capital, I kind of understand the draw of ExBox. But I still want to be the kind of person who torches things on a s’mores stick.