The coat rack where your partner’s favorite hoodie hung out. Their obnoxiously oversized coffee maker. The sheets, the towels, the wedding china, the sock drawer, the wedding pictures. From the everyday and mundane to the heart-wrenchingly sentimental, post-divorce homes can feel anything but.
In fact, at least one partner is typically headed somewhere new during a divorce, and a study looking at the first year post-divorce shows it’s often the woman in heterosexual relationships. They add that mothers tend to have more moves than fathers if they are in a shared custody arrangement, and that parents often move near their previous joint home. Finally, housing conditions don’t necessarily deteriorate, but women are typically disadvantaged in that aspect and might have a lower quality of living afterward.
“The former marital home can be flooded with a mixed bag of memories ranging from distant, joyous occasions to more recent traumatic (and, sometimes, violent) incidents,” says Jolee Vacchi, divorce lawyer and founder of Foundations Family Law. “These recollections lurk around every nook, cranny, and corner of the home, and some people can feel trapped or smothered by the constant reminders of their ex-spouse.”
Here’s why staying put in the home you built together is so hard, along with some expert advice to help you determine if it’s reason enough to move.
Reminders are everywhere.
It can be hard to heal if you wake up and see your ex’s favorite items daily. It’s a reality that New York-based mom Olivia Howell — creator of Fresh Starts Registry, a registry for people beginning again in various life transitions — knows well.
“When you look around after your husband takes his stuff — his clothes, his musical instruments, his artwork, his home office — you’re left with the things he either picked on the registry [with you] or the things he touched every day,” she says. “It’s the towels, the sheets, the dishes, the utensils… the physical touch of stuff.”
Whether it means moving or donating stuff that no longer serves your emotional healing, it’s sometimes a must to get a change of scenery.
“Yes, it’s obvious that it’s hard to heal in this space, but it’s so much more than that. It goes deeper than just the space.”
There might be some major remodeling to do — another burden.
If there are suddenly empty rooms, you might face some big remodeling projects, such as converting your ex’s office into a child’s playroom or their den into a reading space.
“I transformed his studio into a playroom for the kids,” she says, revealing she added a TV, new paint, rugs, colorful decor, and more. “I really tried to transform the space. I saged a lot!”
Vacchi has seen some recently divorced people make this fun, though. “If a party can’t move from the former marital home, then it can be helpful to do some minor cosmetic changes to freshen up the decorating and overall vibe of the home. Add some flair that embodies your individual aesthetic,” she says. She shares some examples from clients she’s worked with:
- Did your ex-partner insist on a paint color in the living room that you thought was hideous? Paint over it with your preferred color.
- Rearrange furniture (or even swap entire rooms).
- Put up new curtains, update photos in picture frames, bring in new indoor plants, wall hangings, or throw blankets.
“These small and inexpensive changes can refresh a familiar space where new happy memories will be made.” She adds that you can look to routines if physical changes are too much to deal with. “Did the intact family eat breakfast together at the kitchen table? Shake things up and try eating al fresco (when the weather cooperates) or in the den with music playing. A change in scenery and habit brings a new perspective.”
If moving is the hard part, maybe parents don’t have to — at least for now.
For others, it’s the moving itself that’s difficult. In this case, Smolarski recommends considering a trending concept for parents after divorce called “birdnesting,” which means the parents alternate houses based on the custody schedule, not the kids. “They commit to a consistent custody schedule and make sure to not be in the house when it’s the other co-parent’s time,” she says. She shares an example of it working (for a time) for a couple she worked with:
One family in transition made living in the same house work by each being the co-parent “on duty” on alternating days. They set up separate spaces for each co-parent within the house and agreed to be in the house as little as possible when it was not their parenting time. They had family dinners together twice a week. This arrangement worked for them for about a year before it became clear they weren’t moving forward in their lives, and tension was increasing. The kids, who knew their parents were divorcing, also started to ask questions about when Dad was going to find a new house.
Accordingly, Smolarski has a word of warning: Beware of additional questions or issues revolving around whose house it really is.
Clarify your vision.
Finally, Kara Francis, divorce coach and mediator, says to get clear on your vision. What does this new space or next space look and feel like?
“You may find that you really want to stay in the house, or that you really don’t want to stay in the house. Your goals should guide your actions in the divorce process. If you’ve envisioned your future and it doesn’t include the house, don’t try to negotiate for the house on the mere principle of the matter,” she says. “Set yourself up for success in your post-divorce life as much as possible before and during the case, not just afterward.”