Whether we want to admit it or not, most of us have that box. Slid under your bed or shoved in the farthest corners of your closet, a time capsule of lost love. There’s even a Museum of Broken Relationships in Los Angeles and Zagreb, Croatia, both entirely dedicated to collections of crowd-sourced contributions and stories of sorrow. At some point, we need to drag these bins from their hiding places, dust off the demons, and, well, move the hell on.
As a serial monogamist with back-to-back long-term relationships, I thought the post-breakup house clean would be routine. But my most recent union lasted four years, and after staying together through so much, I couldn’t escape the ghost of the ex haunting my halls. We met right before graduating college and got swept up, braving the scary new world of adulthood as a team. Following a year of long distance, he moved in with me in New York City. We didn’t have a bad-blood breakup or an earth-shattering end. Instead, our demise was a slow burn, hundreds of tiny cracks in the surface, the lava of love oozing out. As we grew up and apart, we realized the people we were as individuals didn’t fit with who we became as a couple.
Just a few hours after our tearful split, he walked into the living room and asked me out of the blue what I wanted to keep. He had a moving company on the phone and was fleeing across the country. Three days later, I came home to find the apartment quiet, half the closet dangling with empty hangers, his keys lying neatly on the counter, and one final heart-wrenching letter taped to the fridge.
In his rushed exit plan, he forgot a number of belongings I’d discover during the weeks to come. Some were small, like a petite diamond necklace he gave me as a birthday present; others were so big I constantly tripped over them — particularly a massage table that we laughed at as a failed Valentine’s Day surprise. A jumble of ordinary objects to anyone else (an unmatched sock, computer cords), every piece was a physical reminder of him, mixed in with the emotional baggage of photos and love notes. Four years together boiled down to a sad, lone plastic container.
Originally, I tossed it all into a breakup box in the attic of my brain. It wasn’t until months down the line, inspired by Marie Kondo, I mustered up the courage to sort through it. That sparked something, but I wouldn’t exactly call it joy. Yet, tidying up after the relationship, literally and mentally, changed my perspective on being grateful for what I kept, left, and said, “thank you, next” to.
“When we have clutter in our house, it’s blocking blessings, and as difficult as it is, you really need to unearth the nooks, crannies, and crevices of that relationship,” says dating expert and founder of LoveQuest Coaching Lisa Concepcion. “Marie Kondo’s entire idea is about how we attach emotion to objects, so it’s very cathartic… almost like you’re mourning the person you were in that past life.”
But Kondo’s process — referred to as the KonMari method — isn’t easy and may stir up a heavy reaction. “It’s jarring for people because it feels as if time stands still, and the bittersweet memories flash before their eyes,” Concepcion says. “It’s important to be with those emotions and not bury them. Allow the self-love to be kind, compassionate, and introspective.”
While everyone should go at their own pace to heal, Concepcion says it helps to gather the main items that are in your daily eyesight, so you don’t have constant reminders of your ex. She advises then waiting at least 90 days to tackle the hardest pile. Start with 15 minutes and gradually work your way up to an hour session. “The KonMari method leaves the sentimental stuff for last — you need the other decisive steps to determine what brings you joy.”
After she and her partner broke up, Kristin, 29, put purging at the top of her agenda. “Cleaning out the tokens of your relationship is healing. All I wanted to do was sneak into my room and dismantle six years of memories, removing the evidence we had been together.”
For others, it may at least seem better to have a bonfire. “I tore up the pictures, burned stuff, and threw away the journals and art that I had made,” Sheila, 41, says. “I actually wish that I had kept some of it. Now, I have no photos of myself in my 20s, and I am sad to have lost that writing.”
Although trashing remnants of your ex can be a goodbye ritual, clinical psychologist and couples counselor Megan Fleming suggests penning a letter to clear your thoughts and torching that instead. “You shouldn’t take action from a place of loss, anger, or resentment,” she says.
I never destroyed anything, but I did keep a diary on my phone to get the weight off my chest. (I even wrote poems when I was feeling really emo.) Journaling gave me a safe space to vent and reflect instead of spiraling into negativity and self-doubt.
It can also be therapeutic to donate or sell the belongings, and put them toward something positive. “Even when I was ‘over’ the breakup, I didn’t want his little love tokens around,” Kristin says. “Selling the higher-ticket articles (like sterling silver Tiffany & Co. jewelry) to people who would actually appreciate them just seemed like the right thing to do.”
But no shame if you can’t part with a few of the more nostalgic trinkets. “Sometimes there are special things that you want to save,” Fleming says. “Just because you’re keeping an item doesn’t mean that you’re keeping the relationship.”
“It’s a sense of security and a confirmation that the past did happen,” Concepcion adds. “When you touch a possession that brings back a time that you had together, you should think, If I felt it with him [or her], I can feel it again.”
It took me a while to find peace. Thanks to the help of family and friends (and often, a solid glass of red wine), I was able to let go of the pictures and gifts. I sold the massage table to an FDNY paramedic, so it’s saving lives instead of collecting dust. Almost a year later, I’ll still stumble upon a note he wrote. But now, I reread it with a smile. The whole process made me realize people come into our orbits for many different reasons, and it’s what they leave behind that matters the most. Not the physical things, but the pieces of themselves — the lessons, experiences, and affection — that shape us in the end.