Written by attorney Gretchen M Barker

NO BONFIRES: 10 steps to getting rid of your ex's stuff

Everyone who has had a heart-wrenching split from their mate knows of the urge to have a bonfire. Movies have touted its efficiency in purging emotional baggage. But deep down, we all also know that the tactic is wrong. Somewhere, deep down, we are motivated by anger, and destroying our partner’s belongs feels satisfying in its vengeful quality.

The little voice in the back of your head telling you not to trash your ex's stuff, is right. Setting fire to things that symbolize your ex lover is doing violence, while perhaps not as taboo as doing violence to the person, it is still a violent display of anger. At the outset, you envision living in a home free of their stuff, but deep down, a little devil inside is dancing with glee at the disappointment of your ex in finding out that the stuff has been trashed. A bonfire is the ultimate display of disrespect for the person you once shared a life with.

While some therapists encourage grand displays of anger, I believe this is misguided advice. I agree that it is good to expel the energy behind anger, but the harm that a bonfire does goes beyond a few missing photos and heirlooms. Domestic violence experts warn that destroying clothing or precious items belonging to another person is abusive. It’s a display of anger and destruction that gives a clear message, that the abuser is dangerous. This message, whether intended to do so or not, coerces compliance. The woman whose clothing is slashed will fear defying her mate. The man whose family heirlooms are destroyed will fear that the person who destroyed these things intends to alienate the children from his side of the family. The victims of distruction fear defying the destroyer, in a way that does not do justice. It only does more destruction. So, when people plan bonfires never wanting to believe that they are being violent, the opposite happens. They become the violent abuser. Ultimately, what they are doing is just as bad as the violent husband who has removed his wife’s clothing from the closet and slashed it, turning it into a message to her that he is dangerous and has control over things that are precious to her.

Finally, legally, if you are the guardian of stuff that belongs to someone else, you have to consider your legal duties to guard the stuff, sometimes your duty to take care of their stuff is higher than your duty to take care of your own stuff, and you do not want to find yourself accused of violating a court order, theft, criminal damage or otherwise illegally disposing of something that belongs to someone else.

If you are convinced of the wisdom of avoiding the bonfire solution, you need an alternative, acceptable, plan of action for getting rid of your ex’s junk. So, here’s the plan:

1) When you have separated and to not intend to reconcile, give your former partner a reasonable amount of time to get settled. “Reasonable", depends upon the circumstances. It is longer than a week, not as long as a decade.

2) Consult your lawyer to make sure you do not make deadlines that are not appropriate for your situation. Ask for help setting reasonable limits so that you will not have stuff taken from you and that you will be safe if there are issues of physical violence or distrust as part of this separation. The lawyer can help you decide whether you need to have friends standing by with you, if you need to pack the stuff and leave the home, if you can have police standing by (you may have to pay for this service from off duty police officers). There are many options, even if you do not have a lawyer, pay for an hour worth of their time to get some ideas on how to do this properly so that no one will ever accuse you of contempt of court or worse: a crime of taking or destroying someone else’s property. With guidelines from your lawyer on how you can protect yourself and your stuff while your ex is removing their stuff, move forward.

3) Let your former partner know that you want them to remove their property from your home. Give them a reasonable deadline. Offer opportunities to schedule the move-out.

4) Either give it all to them and give them enough time to pack it all, or give them enough time to sort through it all as well as time to pack it up. It is often an entire lifetime worth of stuff. Be reasonable.

5) This part of the split is harder on them than it is on you. For you, it is an imposition into your private space. For them, it is the logistical nightmare of moving their entire life without causing too much trouble to anotehr person. Do not complain that they do not have enough friends to help with the move, or that they do not have the strength or space in their truck to complete it in one trip. Those complaints are only intended to embarass them and hurt them, and make the whole task more difficult. Some people find it hard to impose on others for help in situations like this. Other people cannot afford the moving van needed to do the job properly. Do not be cruel about it. Remember how difficult it was to move when you were together and being cooperative with each other? This is worse for them, going it alone. So have a little sympathy. I know, I know, they hurt you and they deserve this pain. Still, you want to be the better person (by seeking out advice, you are trying to be the better person). So within your means and your former partner’s means, find a way to manage the logistics of removing their stuff from your house, without using it as an opportunity to hurt or embarrass them, or rack up unnecessary costs. This is the last time you have to cooperate with each other, try not to make it a nightmare that will cause everyone involved to feel justified in being upset with you. Yes, there are plenty of reasons for you to be upset with them, but do not allow your anger and upset show in this task. This is not the time or place for you to contemplate revenge.

6) For items you agree upon, offer to pack. It will save them time and save you time of being intruded upon. If you do pack for them, then do so carefully. Let it roll off your back if they decline your offer with some nasty comment that suggests you are incompetent. Wrap and pack the things as well or better than you would do for yourself. No letting it sit in moldy puddles of water in your shed after you have packed it and until they can schedule a pick-up.

7) For photos and memorabilia, sort out what you want and put the remainder in a box for the ex. Your ex gets that box outright and can take it home to sort through at leisure. Let the ex sort through the items you choose to keep. They will be sorting these items into two piles. Some they do not want and therefore automatically go to you without question. Others, they want. This is the pile of disputed items. For disputed photos and papers, get copies. If any disputed items can be copied, then do so and each of you keep a copy (digitalizes photo records make this task much easier than a decade or two ago!) Keep the remaining disputed items and come up with a way to distribute them later. Never, ever assume that it yours and use it or dispose of it until you have resolved the dispute.

8) If your former partner does not cooperate with your attempts to get them to remove their stuff, your lawyer can help in explaining what is reasonable as far as giving them notice and a deadline. Be reasonable. Make sure they receive your message that you will be getting rid of their stuff if they don’t pick it up. If you have a court order to give them stuff, and it’s still at your home, your lawyer will probably recommend going back to court to get an order that will set deadlines and procedures for managing the pick-up.

9) ONLY after you are certain that your partner has every item that they might want to get, assuring that you have not hidden things from them, that they have not forgotten some vital heirloom that they will only remember at Christmas, or their parent’s anniversary, etc., THEN you may dispose of the remainder of the items. Have a garage sale, toss them in the trash. If they are papers that contain identifying information, shredding and bonfires are acceptable. Be safe about however you handle their former property that they have chosen not to pick up or forgotten about. You do not want to be the source of a lifelong identity theft problem because you failed to take care of their copy of their birth certificate when you found it in your attic a decade after the divorce and they didn’t want to pick it up.

10) Throughout this, remember that you can only control your own behavior. You cannot control theirs. Do your best to remain in control of your emotions and be treat their property and them with respect. Do not call them names or demean them for having difficulty in organizing this task. Remember that it is a monumental task and they are in just as much pain as you are, more, maybe, for having had to make do without their stuff, since the separation. Remember that they are the ones moving and going through this part of the trouble, only half of the problem is over with for them, once they have removed the stuff from your home. They still have to figure out what to do with it, where to put it, how to unpack, etc., etc., after you are finished with the task. Be respectful. Even if they are cruel, mean, angry, remember that this is their behavior, and you do not have to respond in kind. Try not to cry or yell or have drama during the contact. There is time enough for you to fall apart when it’s over.

If you follow these steps and do not play games with them or do anything unreasonable in the course of setting deadlines and making this happen, you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you did the right thing and did not give into the temptation to hurt someone else, needlessly.

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