After my husband moved out, I didn’t want to stay in our four-bedroom townhouse in family-oriented Hoboken, New Jersey, but I couldn’t seem to move. I felt trapped, stuck in mud, unable to decide what neighborhood or apartment “fit” the newly single me.
This ambivalence and discomfort is pretty typical in divorce, whether you have to find a new place, or make your old home feel like yours, alone. Our marriages are based in our space. Marriage shoots roots through the floors, wraps tendrils around pillars, proclaims itself on the doorposts and on the gates. We use the term “home” interchangeably with “marriage,” as in, “How are things at home?” Or, “All’s good on the home front.”
Moving out, or even merely moving your ex's items out, is a physical manifestation of the fact that you are moving on.
When I finally relocated two years later, I was reduced to a mass of indecision, laced with longing, topped with regret—while shopping in Home Depot. The scale of it. The choices. My dog, who was with me, flopped down on the concrete floor in the middle of aisle 21. I sank down next to him, staring up at aisle upon aisle of pipe fittings and shower doors. The years of my marriage stared back at me under the glare of the fluorescent lights: the shelves we bought together for our first apartment in the city, the vetting of vanities and countertops for a house we built in the country, mirrors for the townhouse when we moved back to the metro area.
This is it, I realized, me, myself and my dog. My son, too of course, but no adult partner creating a homey home life with me.
While it can seem sad and overwhelming to create a home alone, it’s also a chance to choose new décor, a new abode or even a new city that better supports and reflects you.
“We often lose ourselves in our relationships. The process of creating our nests again can bring us back to ourselves, our values, our dreams, our journey, where we’re going and who we want to be,” says Karen Lehrman Bloch, author of The Inspired Home: Interiors of Deep Beauty.
“How you create your individual nest can help you figure out who you are again and who you want to pair with again. This is an opportunity, through the choices you make, to create something that will touch you and help you get back to yourself.”
Here are four ways to begin feeling at home in your space:
1. Purge the past, with moderation.
Reclaiming your home as your own involves purging some things—wedding albums, a couch you always hated, probably the bed you’ve slept in together for twenty years. Our objects carry associations with them that we feel.
“People just think function, not the emotional baggage of their furniture. They think, 'I need a coffee table,’ and don’t think, ‘This is the coffee table we bought on our honeymoon to Thailand,'” said Jodi Topitz, a designer-turned interior stylist whose company We2Me is dedicated to helping divorced people redecorate or move.
Topitz has a two-minute video on her site about “how to get your mojo back through color and design” that makes you want to move out just to take an uplifting shopping spree. In one scene, she tells a client, “You need to divorce the coffee table! We need to celebrate with a new piece of furniture that celebrates who you are and fits in your new space.”
But you also want to keep some things that speak to you and reinforce the parts of your past you want to actively remember. If you have to downsize, you might reuse old pieces in a new way, turn couch cushions into an ottoman, take four dining chairs rather than six, turn an end table into a microwave stand.
2. Do it fast.
Even if it’s a temporary rental, you can’t live with unpacked boxes for two years and expect to feel comfortable and safe at home. Spend the time and money to quickly get yourself set up and functional, ideally within a couple weeks. Hire painters to cover your walls in a shade you love. Buy the microwave and bath towels that will ease your daily life.
“Unbury yourself from the rubble of being uprooted and feeling like you failed in the marriage. You want to take hold of something concrete,” said Topitz.
Setting up a comfortable home quickly also helps re-instill a sense of security and stability for children, whose routines and even school may have changed due to divorce. Give them ownership of some part of their house.
A home fulfills many needs, notes Clare Cooper Marcus in her moving meditation on place, House As a Mirror of Self. It’s “a place of self-expression, a vessel of memories, a refuge from the outside world, a cocoon where we can feel nurtured and let down our guard.” Marcus advises giving children a sense of control over their bedrooms. Let them choose furniture, paint colors or drapes, hang up photos or pictures, and take responsibility for keeping it clean.
3. Bring in nature.
Even if you live in a city, you can open your windows, buy houseplants, and get a dog—or find someone else’s to pet—three things that can instantly nurture your spirit. Contact with nature and animals improves mood, lowers blood pressure and heart rate, even raises Serotonin levels, says Linda Nebbe, a retired professor from University of Northern Iowa, author of Nature as a Guide, and a wildlife rehabilitation volunteer and therapist. Even tending to a small garden can make your house feel like a haven.
“The whole caring, compassion, nurturing animals and plants—for someone who has gone through divorce, it can be life-changing.”
4. Connect with the home outside your house.
If you have to move, think about your home as extending beyond the walls of your house. "When you lose a home, it’s not only your house, it’s also your dry-cleaners, your neighbors, your coffee shop, your memories of your kids walking to kindergarten down the street,” said Topitz. Reclaiming a sense of permanency and home means connecting with the space and residents outside your front door. Join a community garden or gym, volunteer at the library of food bank or your child’s school.
Then, if you have to go to Home Depot, you can invite someone from your new community to go with you.
* This post originally appeared on Wendy Paris's website, wendyparis.com.
Wendy Paris is the author of Splitopia: Dispatches from Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well (Simon & Schuster/Atria, 2016). Splitopia and her work on divorce have been covered by The New York Times, Real Simple, The Washington Post, The New York Post, The Globe & Mail, Psychology Today, The Houston Chronicle, Salon.com, Parents.com, Family Law Quarterly, PsychCentral.com and radio and TV shows nationwide. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia University, and is an advocate for family law reform. She is divorced, and lives in Santa Monica, California, a few blocks from her former husband, with whom she has a warm co-parenting relationship.