After my husband moved out, I didn’t want to stay in our four-bedroom townhouse in 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 on 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—all while shopping in Home Depot. The scale of it. The choices. My dog, with me for moral support, flopped down on the concrete floor in aisle 21, panting. 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 feel more 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,” says 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 purge merely 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!”
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 coffee maker 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. 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.
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.” The more quickly you settle in, the faster your home can assume its supportive role.
Setting up a comfortable home 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. 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, and 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,” says 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, the 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.