Monday, April 22, 2013

Letting Go of Stuff (and Feelings) Post-Divorce

What happens to possessions after divorce is not something that gets blogged about, it seems. Blog World seems to be full of shinily newly married couples (And bless them, truly. This isn't me being bitter.) and people excitedly boasting about thrift finds or getting rid of their starter sofa or sewing up new curtains. All those things are about the sense of newness and of possibility that our possessions make us feel. Even the blogging that goes on about reducing possessions is more about fresh starts and an improved quality of life. Divorce and stuff--- that's more about an end, the kind of end nobody wants to think about, and yet happens to so many.

Divorce is splitting apart a life, and the hard word itself sounds like the knife for doing so. It's an ugly thing. There's no getting around the emotions involved, only through them. Often, belongings from the marriage are along for that ride too.

I'm still dealing with those feelings three years later; and with the stuff, the possessions that were a part of my once-marriage.

It's so cliche it's the fodder for soap operas and celebrity news and neighborhood gossip-- the divorces where the estranged couple fight and scheme and wrestle for every last penny, every appliance, every inch of territory their lawyers can either conquer or cede.

It's true, though the reality is mostly less sordid and more complicated than the cliches. It is in no small part about the stuff-- the stuff we claimed as ours alone, the stuff we shared, the stuff we argued about when married, and the stuff we argued about as we were packing boxes for our strange and unfamiliar new lives, separate from one another.

Some of this emotional territory was surprisingly easy for me. I walked away from dishes I'd used every day of my 18 years of marriage, realizing I didn't really ever like them that much. Of course it was easy to walk away from his clutter. I clung to certain kitchen items like they were cherished pets, but didn't take any tools or lawn care equipment; in divorce we acted on the traditional roles that had also strained our marriage. We didn't fight about it, really, which is I think also typical of the relationship we had. Confrontation of any kind was always considered a bad thing, and that avoidance ended up costing us the entire marriage in the end.

Other items were more fraught. I sobbed while I divided the children's books--some for my household, some for his. It was fair, but heartbreaking. It was important to me to be the one to do it, and yet I resented being left with a task that felt like ripping my babies' childhood into pieces.

In the middle of all this sifting of household objects I somehow, against my will even, ended up with our bedroom furniture. It's a lovely three-piece set from the 1930s, walnut and mahogany, with a chest of drawers, a vanity dresser with mirror, and a four-poster bed. I always adored them.

I'm not sure why I accepted them. I came to the house we once shared and found the pieces unceremoniously stacked in the living room. At the time I was furious about everything. I wanted nothing more than to break up the furniture with my bare hands and set fire to it in the front yard. That wouldn't have gained me anything, except maybe an arson and malicious destruction of property charge. With every fiber of my being quaking I got them transferred, one piece at a time in my minivan, to the new house. And took them straight to the basement storage room. I could hardly bear to look at them.

I learned over time not to make certain decisions in the first waves of grief, fury and stress of my new life. I had children who were hurting and adjusting, a career that now had to support me waiting, and the responsibilities of owning an older home. Those were things that could not gather dust. The dressers could. So there they sat, in a darkened basement. Sometimes I drew my finger over their dirty tops, thinking how pretty they had once looked in the sunshine of our shared bedroom. And then I'd tromp upstairs to the dinner cooking on the stove, or the garden waiting for water, and work on forming this new life.

I thought over time that I could possibly make my peace with them; I thought I might regret getting rid of them. The hesitation was natural I thought, because they were also a symbol of better times. I remember finding the set in an antique shop downtown in our small village in Michigan. It was "under" the Christmas tree on a particularly crazy holiday morning. Our then two small boys squealed through the contents of their stockings while we navigated, laughing, around the dressers standing in the living room. He had surprised me with them. It was a lovely day.

I think that's why they stayed on for as long as they did. I still thought they were lovely. But every time I considered lugging them upstairs to my bedroom, I shook my head. I still wasn't ready to let them back into my everyday life. Would I ever be?

It's not true of everything left from our marriage. I have a set of 1920s dining room chairs that I am keeping, because they hold good memories of many, many family meals shared while our children were little. But the bedroom furniture was a physical representation of all that I had gained and lost in 18 years of my life with another person. Years I couldn't have back. Years I walked away from (because in the end it was I who decided to leave). They held memories not only of my former bedroom but also that inner, private existence, the one that no one but the couple knows, the one that had crumbled from within.

It took me years to realize, but now I know. I cannot keep them, cannot use them again. They are still, nevertheless, as lovely as I ever thought them.

Perhaps I risk sounding like I believe these pieces of furniture are animate objects with feelings; but it seems unfair to keep them around, banished to the basement and punished for being a reminder of past hurts. It was too much to pack into those drawers. They deserved a better life, just like I had decided that I did when I left my marriage. If I had the courage to do that for myself, I ought to have the courage to do it for the stuff that no longer belongs on my journey.

The dressers and the four-poster are now upstairs, in my dining room, awaiting delivery to a consignment shop. I don't worry so much about getting them sold, or for how much. I know they'll be a part of someone else's happy memories, and that's a better life for them. Instead of lurking in my basement as a reproach, I'll associate my memories of them with making peace, letting go, and looking forward. Considering where I started three years ago, I'll consider it progress.


  1. This is a beautifully written post about such a hard thing. I know our things are just things, but they are never only that. Especially house things, I think, get tangled up in our dreams and memories. For whatever it's worth, I'm sure you're making the right decision.

  2. This post is haunting me today. I came back to try to find a way to just email you privately, but I can't find one. That's OK. I just had to say: I really hear you about the shiny "reality" most blogs put forth. I get all the reasons why it's that way, but, yes--I wish more writers would get below the pretty surface more often. And the children's books. I got the same task and felt the same way. Somehow, that one got me more than just about any other. 5 years later, it still hurts to think of it.

    1. Shiny reality is a good term for it. It's all sparkling surfaces and happiness, all the time. I enjoy a lot of blogs like these as much as the next person. But I also think, "this is not my life" and I wonder how many other people feel that way too. My reality has a lot more swear words, dirty socks, and dirty dishes on the counter, not to mention the not-so-perfect relationships. While I don't mean to embrace ugliness either aesthetically or emotionally, I also don't like pretending all that stuff is never there.

  3. There are things I had to have in my divorce and years later I could not imagine why. Maybe it was spite or greediness. Maybe I thought I would care forever. Well, I don't. After fifteen years my then young kids and I have moved on and gotten rid of so much and gained so much happiness.

    1. Time gives you perspective, doesn't it? At least I hope so. Three years and counting for me, and I hope it gets better the more days that pass. I'm glad you've found peace for yourself and your family.