You know the scene: You've just been through a breakup or divorce. You walk into your house and the first thing you see are your ex's shoes by the door. Raise your eyes and there are the photos. Her toothbrush is next to the bathroom sink. His favorite beer is in the fridge.
If you're dealing with a fresh heartbreak, it can be tempting to leave traces of your ex around. For one thing, it sustains us in a state of denial, and denial feels safer than reality. The day we take her clothes out of the closet, we're admitting that it's over; it's a gesture heavy with the symbolism of an ending that we believe we cannot bear. The familiarity of these reminders is also comforting in an odd, backwards way. Mostly we know that we've lost him, but having a photo of him on the nightstand helps us feel as if we haven't lost him entirely, not yet.
But here's the thing: it's hard enough that non-material reminders of the ex are all around - in restaurants, mutual friends, TV shows. Navigating all of that is tricky enough without seeing her favorite cereal in the pantry every morning. If your broken heart could speak, it would be begging you to make it easier, to make a conscious decision to quit your ex.
The number one rule for quitting something, whether it be smoking, drinking, or eating Doritos, is to reduce temptation by getting rid of material triggers. If you were trying to quit smoking, your job would be a lot harder if you kept a pack of cigarettes around.
So how do I start?
Call a good friend. Having support while you de-ex your house is important. Avoid having your ex come to the house for her things. Have her send a friend, or drop her things off at one of her friend's houses.
What if my ex lived with me and removing his things is a job only he can do?
First, do not offer to help him pack. A common, confusing thought is that if we stick around when the ex comes to pack, maybe, just maybe, it will be a chance for reconciliation. This is unlikely, and the pain of sticking around to help will not be worth it. Go out with a friend and have that friend come home with you afterwards. Seeing the house de-exed can be a shock, and you'll appreciate the support as you take that in for the first time.
What about traces of the ex that belong to me?
If you can't bear to throw away photos or letters or other ex-related items that belong to you - that's okay. It is a good idea, though, to put them in a box and have a friend or family member store the box for you. Otherwise you might find yourself tipsy after a night out with friends, going through the box in a fit of nostalgia, and that could be a major setback.
The post-breakup cleanup is one of the hardest steps in the process of healing, but committing to it will usher you out of that tricky in-between space and into a space where you can focus on yourself and your future, without risking the mini-heartbreaks and setbacks related to stumbling upon reminders of your ex at every turn.
Mary Darling Montero is a therapist in private practice in Santa Monica, CA. She has ten years of experience providing counseling and therapy to children, adolescents, adults, couples, and families. Her specialties include life transitions, relationships, trauma, depression, and anxiety. She is certified to practice EMDR for trauma resolution.
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