Illustration by Grace Wilson
From stalking to cheating to initiating financial ruin, all the people you've ever dated are nightmares.
I have always thought Wuthering Heights was underappreciated compared to the other works of entry-level Victorian literature. While Emily Brontë's sister Charlotte became more of a staple for her simpering female protagonist who inexplicably falls in love with a boring user and lives happily ever after, Wuthering Heights is actually fun to read.
What carries the book is that it features not one, but two, terrible exes. After sharing years of tender affection with her childhood friend and beloved, Heathcliff, Catherine Earnshaw becomes a duplicitous snob and rejects her true love because of his low social status, poor breeding, and unkempt manner; Heathcliff, in turn, becomes incensed and runs away. Catherine regrets dumping him so much that she becomes ill with one of those vague, 19th-century illnesses they were always getting; Heathcliff comes back and accepts advances from Catherine's sister to get revenge. Catherine gets another one of those illnesses, dies, and haunts him until he, too, dies. They are distillations of some of the most selfish, manipulative, and generally bad impulses that can come out of love, something that was once precious and beautiful. That is why Kate Bush wrote a song about them. It is also why, when I put out a call for people to tell me about their horrible exes, I received an overwhelming response.
"If by 'horrible ex' you mean [the] dude cheated on me through the whole relationship (both before and during the marriage); was addicted to prescription painkillers; got fired from multiple jobs for stealing and another for making up a fake sibling and then saying he had to miss work to go to said sibling's funeral; and eventually [left] me for a married woman, then yes, I have a horrible ex," one woman wrote me.
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"Horrible ex! An ex told me (six months into dating) that my vagina wasn't hospitable for sex because I was always tight and dry," another woman, Emma*, told me. "I suggested that he did not engage in enough foreplay. He responded that he thought my vagina 'hurt' him because I was not recovered from being sexually assaulted several years prior. He earlier told me he thought he wasn't sexually aroused by me because I was 'overweight' (knowing that I was recovering from various eating disorders). The best part: He was a gender studies minor in college."
"I have two horrible exes," yet another, Annelise, said, "one that left me in debt and got us sued over the apartment contract he wouldn't let me get out of (and then threatened to sue me as well), and another who writes me every few months, half of the time trying to be friends and saying he misses me and how I was the nicest girl he was ever with. The other half are really evil messages about how much of a failure I am at life and how much I should be ashamed of myself for who I am and what I do, using personal details he knows are sensitive to me to bring me down."
He used David Bowie dying as an excuse to reach out nearly a year later.
I set out to write this article as a kind of outline of all the different ways people can stomp on their months and years of intimacy. I quickly learned that, with exes, there are too many types of bad to contain them in one medium-length piece of writing. Add to this the surprise the scorned lover feels upon discovering her decent-looking marketing manager is actually a philandering menace who plays bass in a "doom disco" band—before, it had seemed good that he had hobbies—and the rancor some people feel for past relationships starts to make a lot of sense.
Still, I began to wonder why so many people had dated abominations they wanted to denounce in the press in the first place. I called Lisa Brateman, a psychotherapist and relationship expert based in New York City, to ask how a nice-enough-seeming boyfriend can turn into a raging pox on your Facebook photo albums. She said that while "sometimes people just go ballistic and you're not responsible for it," the problem is often that people don't know how to handle breaking up, at all.
"It's not like that person just changes," she told me. "When it's kind of going downhill, you know it already. People start changing their behaviors; they don't return phone calls as quickly, they don't pay somebody back. They don't let them in the loop, and the person being iced out feels it. Instead of [the first person] saying, 'You know what? This isn't really working,' they act it out and hope the other person will get the hint. But all it does is infuriate [the other person]."
Kate Bush in the video for "Wuthering Heights." Screengrab via Youtube
Sometimes, of course, the soon-to-be horrible ex starts exhibiting warning signs. Annelise, the woman whose ex eventually put her in debt over complications surrounding their disputed lease, says her friends could pinpoint a moment when his behavior started to shift. "I used to want to think that all people were good deep down and at least could be reasoned with," she said. "Wrong. Over the years, talking to friends who knew him and saw it from the outside, I feel more confident that a change happened sometime during the relationship. He started to cross some lines that nobody would have expected—not just with me, but with other people as well."
Other times, it's not always clear that the person you'll dating will react badly to a breakup. Jamil was in a relationship with Carly for about four months when he realized he was hung up on another ex and called it off. Carly got angry. "She sent me a letter that was pleasant, but it also completely and utterly twisted my words, claiming she was really hurt because I never wanted to see her again," Jamil told me. "I never told her I never wanted to see her again. I texted her thanking her for the letter, clarifying a few things she'd said that were wrong—in hopes of making things better—and she exploded. Calling me condescending and patronizing and rude and arrogant and fucked up. She continued to kind of harass me over text for some time and claimed she could've loved me if I let her."
Carly got a new boyfriend two weeks later, but that kind of thing isn't enough to keep them out of your life; many exes have the audacity to try to "get back in touch" after a traumatic relationship reaches a bitter conclusion. As with Catherine Earnshaw, these attempts to reconnect—either to assuage guilt or because the ex can no longer stand to pine in silence—often take the form of a ghost. "After months of harassment from his prostitute/bipolar ex [during the relationship] and trying to make it work, [my ex-boyfriend] ghosted me and went back to the ex because she pays his bills," a woman named Leigh told me. "He used David Bowie dying as an excuse to reach out nearly a year later." After Emma—the woman whose boyfriend said her vagina was inhospitable—and her ex endured "two-and-a-half months of breakup talks" that culminated in him finally ending it, he "begged" her to take him back.
"He is my only former boyfriend that I refer to as an 'ex,' actually," she said. "I call the others 'my college boyfriend' or 'that guy I dated.'"
Read more: How Dating Came to Suck So Much
Some exes react to the guilt and emptiness of a breakup with a possessiveness more tactical than on-your-knees pleading. This can take a couple of forms; one is being furiously controlling. When Petra and her older girlfriend broke up, they elected to continue living together for the few months that remained on their lease. This was a mistake.
"I wasn't allowed to hang out with friends or people without her, even though we were broken up," Petra said. "She would go through my phone, Facebook, my camera. Eventually she punched me really hard in the face because I wouldn't kiss her."
After that, Petra moved to another city. Her ex followed her. "She showed up outside my building, found my former employer—who's a photographer—and made him sign his book for me and her. She would call me and email me horrible stuff for ages." The entire saga is recounted in "an awful novel [Petra's ex wrote] about how awful I am—about our relationship, I guess. Like a very one-sided journal." Petra didn't read it, but she saw "the interviews and a couple of drafts."
The dude got fired from multiple jobs for stealing and another for making up a fake sibling and then saying he had to miss work to go to said sibling's funeral.
Petra "totally" regrets this relationship; the ex "wasn't even hot," she says. But while the whole thing just sounds very awful, not regretting the relationship can end badly, too. Friendship with an ex from whom you've amicably split always sounds good, especially to a grieving saddo facing down the gaping hole the ex left in her schedule, but sometimes people take it too far. Malcolm says this is why he's the terrible ex—he maintains intensely intimate relationships with people he's no longer dating from the moment they end it.
"I insist pretty hard on being friends—like, text messages, late-night phone calls, hanging-out-every-week-still friends—immediately upon breaking up," he told me. "I don't think of this as horrible, but I've been assured by disinterested third parties that it is."
Throughout our conversation, Malcolm seemed at peace with this. The only time it has caused him a problem, he said, was recently, when his ex-wife refused to have coffee with him. "If you were ever important to me, you're still important to me," he said. "If she doesn't want to, I can't make her. But it will fuck me up." When I asked if new girlfriends were uncomfortable with his insistence on maintaining bizarrely close relationships with people he once loved and fucked, he said, "I mean, no one is VERY uncomfortable."
In other words, as Kate Bush signals in her evocation of Heathcliff and Catherine's post-breakup despair, sometimes the horrible ex is you:
You had a temper like my jealousy
Too hot, too greedy
How could you leave me
When I needed to possess you?
I hated you. I loved you, too.
Malcolm added that while such date-like activities as dinner, a movie, and cooking together are OK, he never drinks with his exes. That only means they "have to break up again."
*All names have been changed.
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