TORONTO — Despite Emmy Harrison’s first relationship ending with her being chased by a brick-wielding lover, she is on good terms with all of her exes.
“They cheated on me a lot,” Harrison* said of that first relationship, which unfolded during high school. She thinks her significant other’s abuse may have been a result of substance-abuse issues.
At the time, Harrison believed loving someone was a choice, and once you decided to love that person, you couldn’t turn away, even if the relationship wasn’t healthy.
“And so, I always forgive and forget,” she told HuffPost Canada. After being chased with a brick, however, Harrison realized you can forgive someone without forgetting the hurt they’ve caused.
‘It reminds me not to demonize them’
She went on to date a girl. Harrison’s Catholic affiliation caused strain between them, and eventually led her partner to believe that Harrison would abandon her. Harrison said it led to the breakdown of the relationship.
In her most recent relationship, her partner didn’t understand how to help Harrison when she was experiencing panic and anxiety. “She told me I was being selfish.” So, the relationship ended.
Still, Harrison has held onto a flower and white teddy bear from all three relationships. It’s not the flowers or stuffed animals that matter to her, but they’re the reminders that each of her exes are still human. “It kind of reminds me that there’s still just a person,” she said. “It reminds me not to demonize them.”
The flowers and teddy bears sit on a shelf or atop her bed.
In the back of Alexandra’s closet, there is a pink safe she was given as a child. It is filled with pictures, letters, and jewelry from her first love. They dated for a year and a half during high school, but both have since moved on.
Alexandra* has a new boyfriend, who she suspects is the one. They’ve been dating for the past four years. She is moving out of her childhood home, and he is moving from England, so they can move into a North Vancouver apartment together.
In preparation for the move, she’s found herself asking what she should do with the safe. “Someone took the time out of their day, out of their life, to write down their feelings for you, and to just kind of throw them out feels really harsh,” she told HuffPost Canada. “You’re kind of holding on to the knowledge that someone loves you like that.”
But, does she awkwardly leave them in her parents’ house? Does she bring them into her new relationship?
Alexandra thinks she’ll part with most of the safe’s contents, but an interlocked heart necklace may be too much say goodbye to. She wore it everyday for a large portion of that relationship. “I slept in it,” she said, laughing.
Alexandra isn’t sure how she would feel if her partner brought items from his past into their new home, however. It would depend on the item. “I feel like if he’s bringing anything that [an ex] gave him, it’s probably functional. Like a guitar pick because he’s a musician, [he would] probably bring something like that.”
“That’s a conversation [I] should probably have with him.”.
In her VICE article about the Big Ex, Moira Wyton, defines said Big Ex as the one who kneecaps you far past the relationship’s expiration date. It doesn’t have to be a long relationship. But, it’s that person you just can’t move past. The person who haunts you. Or, the place.
“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,” Wyton wrote.
Often, we accumulate mementos of these significant loves, tangible reminders of what once was. But, there comes a point where these items feel out of place, and take up space on a shelf. How do you throw away something that once meant so much? How do you throw away a relationship?
The Museum of Broken Relationships bridges that gap by creating a space dedicated to grieving these relationships and items, without having to house them oneself.
It takes the stuffed elephants, digital cameras and camo T-shirts from the back of our closets and puts them on display. The exhibit also showcases a wall where visitors can add their own stories.
The pop-up museum is featured as a part of the Brave festival at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto, and will run until Sept. 8. The collection originated in Zagreb, Croatia, and each item on display is accompanied by a blurb or anecdote about the relationship.
Nicole McCance, a Toronto based psychologist, believes there are a few reasons people hold onto items post breakup. For some, it’s denial. “They are telling themselves that this is just another argument and they will make amends.
For others, it’s the uncertainty that comes with the initial ”Will we or won’t we get back together?” stage. And, we are all a bit nostalgic, “so it gives us a closeness to that person,” said McCance.
“We’re not only grieving that person, we’re also grieving the future that we thought we would have, and that’s a big deal,” she said.
Sometimes, it’s about the loss of your own identity. “I think, more than anything, you’re grieving the person who you were when you were with that person,” said Sarah Crosby in Wyton’s article. Crosby is the founder and host of ”Recalculating,” a Canadian podcast about moving on after life’s biggest endings. She said she felt like those who spoke on her podcast didn’t feel like they could grieve anything outside of death.
While most of the items in the exhibit look ordinary, the accompanying anecdotes are anything but. The notes are written with a painstaking honesty that only harrowing grief brings.
It finally feels like the end to a lot of these relationships.
No item in the exhibit showcases that more clearly than an oxidized key. “You talked to me of love and presented me with small gifts every day; this is just one of them. The key to my heart. You turned my head; you just did not want to sleep with me. I realized how much you loved me only after you died from AIDS,” says the donor’s statement.
For another: “Most gay relationships are like digital cameras. They get obsolete too quickly,” says the statement beside a small early 2000s digital camera. His significant other was an antique camera specialist. After the donor accepted a move from London, UK, to Singapore, the relationship ended.
A few years later, he returned to the English countryside with the digital camera that he had been given from his former partner. The memories of the camera’s origin became too much, and he left the camera behind when he returned to Singapore. Two years later, that fateful camera was mailed back to him from his ex.
Emily Piirtoniemi, the port gallery lieutenant and resident artist, told HuffPost Canada that thousands of visitors have already passed through, which far surpasses the average attendance.
What makes this exhibit special is “the human connection,” Piirtoniemi said.
Laura McLeod,Harbourfront Centre’s director of cultural engagement, echoed similar sentiments. Visitors may not have had the exact same experiences, but they understand some level of grief.
“There is a sense of pain in all of these [items],” said McLeod.
“We had a young woman take her time going through the exhibit for about an hour, hour and a half. She had her phone on FaceTime, because her elderly mother wanted to see it, and so, she held the phone up to each piece and let her mother read it,” said McLeod.
“Often, you go into an art gallery or museum and people aren’t reading the descriptions, but here they’re reading it because those are actually as important as the artifacts, if not more important than the artifact,” she added.
‘Out of sight, out of mind’
There’s no right way to grieve a relationship, but McCance notes that there is some truth to “out of sight, out of mind.” She urges people to let go of items as soon as possible, but understands how difficult that may be.
When asked what she would give up, McLeod told HuffPost that she doesn’t think she owns anything with enough pain attached.
But, if pressed, it would be her grandmother’s “magic toaster,” which she loved as a child. The toast would rise up from the slots, instead of just popping out. Her grandmother has since passed away.
For now, the toaster sits in a tub of memories, tucked away in her basement.
*Names have been changed at the subjects’ request to protect the privacy of their exes.