“He’s your ex. Just call him your ex.”
If there were eight words I never expected my sister to say to me, these were them. Not because she said them necessarily, but because she called my ex what he was: an ex.
Let me start this off by saying that no, this person and I were never in a formal relationship. He made sure I knew we weren’t dating. But of course, we sort of still were; spending the night, grabbing breakfast the next morning, laying on rooftops, hanging out, texting all the time, meeting his friends…. he led me down the classic fuckboy path of "not-dating dating." But for something that was never a relationship, the heartbreak that came after it was over certainly made it feel like one.
When my sister told me to start calling him my ex, I listened. And I felt better, more free. Something had shifted. But I also felt a little unsure. Isn’t the word "ex" it supposed to mean something more than just a fling? Something significant to both parties? Considering all the effort I had to put into explaining months of my recent gaslighting non-dating dating scenario, was I allowed to use such a simple word to explain such a complicated situation?
But if I wasn't allowed to use the word "ex," then why did it help me get closure? Could it be that calling him an ex would help me X him out of my life?
According to Susan Winter, a relationship expert based in New York City, the answer is yes. “Even though you may not have been ‘official’ with each other, you both participated in a romantic connection. Honoring that fact allows you to own the experience. This is the first step to regaining control,” Winter tells me. “Accepting responsibility for an emotional and/or physical affair frees you from being a victim of circumstance.”
By calling my ex what he was, I was able to attach value to our relationship. By recognizing the significance he had to me, I was able to let go and move on. Instead of going over what happened again countless times, instead of being bitter, instead of thinking about what could have been but wasn’t, I was able to decide for myself what was, and then put it to rest.
“Whatever feelings you had were uniquely yours. Just because your relationship didn’t have a title (or your partner wouldn’t give you one) doesn’t mean your experience wasn’t valid,” Winter reminds me. “Closing the wound begins with coming to some conclusions. Articulating a reason for the ending of a relationship gives our mind the kind of peace it needs in order to move forward. Without a reason for a relationship ending, we’ll stay stuck in a loop of mental obsession.”
I think everyone understands the mental loop Winter talks about. As someone who makes their living writing, I know how disruptive these circular thought patterns can be—and how dangerous. I understand that words hold power; that they allow us to form and describe and create our reality. Yet, when it came to describing a situation that both brought so much light and so much darkness to my life, I was frozen. Before I called my ex what he was, it never felt like it officially ended. Coming to terms with the fact that we were in a relationship of some sort, albeit not a romantic one, helped me move on.
When I asked for other people’s testimonies on calling someone an “ex,” I got a myriad of responses, mostly in agreement with the fact that this term holds power. “I think there's this long history of men gaslighting women and not committing as a partner even though all the other trappings are there. It's exhausting and demoralizing to have to explain someone as ‘this person I sort of was with but we were never officially together’ when you're navigating heartbreak, because it makes you sound ‘crazy,' which is the exact purpose of gas-lighting,” says a woman named Sarah.
If you care about someone and you’re giving them your time, energy and attention, in some form or another you’re in a relationship. Friendships, acquaintances, and even romantic partners are all different form of relationships. And yes, fuckboys, flings, crushes, and hookups are all in the mix too.
The thing is, if it’s the latter, women and femmes especially are taught to both value and disconnect from relationships. On one hand, we see our worth placed in being in a committed relationship with someone. Yet, if we don’t have a title attached to our boo thing or are just in it for the sex, we’re excepted not to care, to get over the heartbreak or sadness or anger that comes with ending things. It’s in this dichotomy that the title of “ex” can help us move on from the person hurting us. Even if the relationship was rooted in sex, the title of “ex” can help us realize that this person, this relationship, is still significant. “People don't see it as valid if it's not an 'ex' sometimes, no matter how real the feelings were,” a woman named Marilyn points out.
By deciding for myself that the relationship I was in was significant enough to make my ex exactly that, I gave myself freedom to move on. I also gave myself the opportunity to recognize that the hurt and pain I experienced when things were over was valid; even if our relationship was never official.
By honoring the experience I'd had, by recognizing that I showed up and gave it a shot, and by placing value on myself by giving my ex that title, I was able to give myself the respect I always craved in the relationship. And that in itself is pretty healing.