Bin it? Box it? Burn it? Return it? Should you ditch your exes stuff?

How items left behind from exes after a break up can lead to rumination, resilience, self-discovery and a renewed sense of identity through identity reconstruction.

For the first time since my girlfriend and I had broken up, I had a girl coming over. I instantly became aware of everything in my room and house that could bring up awkward questions.

Number one of potential problems was hanging on the back of my bedroom door. My Ex is an artist and I love her work. I have three of her pieces hung up around my house, the most significant is an illustration of a tiger; signed at the bottom with “I love you”.

I remember looking at it like a puppy that mum had just told me I couldn’t keep. I vented to my friends. They gave me advice ranging from “Don’t worry about it!” to “Just get rid of everything”.
But then each one of them began to share stories of their own involving left behind items. Why are people so stuck on this?
It comes up consistently in popular media; From Heathcliff and the locket in Wuthering Heights to Ross pulling on his “Frankie Say relax” t-shirt to prove to Rachel he still wears it. I went searching for more stories and called in a professional to help us understand the psychology at play. I spoke to Professor Robin Goodwin of the University of Warwick. He’s conducted research on interpersonal relationships, including breakup experiences.

He’ll be our expert witness as we explore this topic.

Bella Mackie’s breakup with her long-term boyfriend was explosive. “Things were kind of coming to an end already. We hadn’t made plans together while Uni was ending, but I was having a party to celebrate the end of the semester.”
“He got ridiculously drunk, like, messy drunk.” She told me, like a judge who was about to deliver a verdict before slamming their gavel very hard.

“I found him upstairs with one of my old school friends… he had his head in between her legs.”

“The last thing he ever bought me was a silver tiffany necklace.” She continued. “Such an expensive gift and I really liked it, but after what happened I never wore it again.

“I wanted to sell it, but it felt wrong to get that much money from something that was just given to me.”
She told me how she kept the necklace for over a year and half. In its box, gathering dust until she met her current boyfriend. Only then did she sell it. For £220.

“What did you do with the money?!” I asked her. We were laughing now. “I took us out for dinner!”
Dr Goodwin says: “Getting rid of items from past relationships can be key in breaking a cycle of Rumination.”
Rumination is the cycle of repeatedly dwelling on negative thoughts or emotions.

“Following a breakup, individuals might ruminate by fixating on memories of the relationship, analysing what went wrong, or obsessing over the ex-partner’s actions.”
This can happen unconsciously, without us even knowing. But when we break that cycle, the benefits usually become clear.
Ellie Taylor’s boyfriend broke up with her after he decided to work abroad for a year. “We said we’d stay friends, and we did keep in some contact for a bit, but it just kind of fizzled out.
“After a few months he started posting pictures of him with another girl and it really upset me.”

“I knew he would come back eventually, maybe I just assumed we’d get back together.”
“I had a few things of his that he’d left behind; just little things, but there was this black Nike hoodie that lived at mine since our first week together. I always wore it before bed.”

He messaged Ellie after he returned home, telling her he wanted to come by and drop off some things of hers and collect his things. He asked for the hoodie specifically.
“I thought it was so petty asking me for it, he hadn’t touched it for 3 years.”
Ellie took control. Instead of him coming to her house, she told him that she would come to him. She dressed for battle.
“I had my hair done; I picked an outfit. I really wanted him to feel bad.”
She gave the hoodie back to him; unwashed and sprayed with her perfume.
“If he gave it to his new girlfriend… I thought maybe she’d know, and not enjoy it like I Ellie’s story is an example of Resilience. Which is someone’s ability to adapt and bounce back from adversity.
Dr Goodwin Says: “In breakups it encompasses coping mechanisms, social support, and personal growth that enable individuals to navigate the emotional challenges of the breakup and eventually thrive.”

One thing almost all breakups have in common is the initiation of a sizable life change for those involved.
When you get seriously involved with someone, you sign up for the possibility of a major emotional, physical or social upheaval on the day you decide you can’t stand the sight of them.

Other than heartbreak, schedule changes and the whole never-having-to-see-their-terrible-friends-again, there is a less obvious change that happens within a person following an emotional breakup. Psychologists call it “Identity reconstruction”.
Now, this might sound traumatic and terrifying in the same way “facial reconstruction” does, but it’s actually something most people do every day; and can be as mundane and inevitable as “playing card tower reconstruction”.
It’s the process by which we redefine our values and held beliefs in the face of stimulus.

Like how a big hill in the rain might redefine you as someone never-ever cycling to work again, or how a terrible breakup might reshape your identity to someone who absolutely will not date anyone who’s name begins with J.
“People are far more susceptible to significant Identity Reconstruction post-breakup because so much of our identity is tied to relationships with others.” Dr Goodwin said.
“When a relationship ends, individuals may experience a loss of identity tied to their role as a partner. They may struggle to reconcile their sense of self without that relationship.”
“It’s why Britney shaved her head and my dad bought that Porsche!” I stopped myself from saying.
But maybe I was onto something:
“Items are absolutely a way in which people define themselves,” Dr Goodwin continued. “It’s most commonly seen in the case of bereavements. People will have a clear-out; not only of their lost loved one’s things, but also of their own.”

I reached out to the artist of my tiger picture and asked her how she felt knowing that I still treasured it. She told me she would have been really upset if I had gotten rid of the art.

“It would be like cursing me or something!” She said. “When I gave them to you, I was worried you only said you liked them because we were together.”
I never knew she felt that way. Then it clicked for me.
The artwork being left behind helped me to reconstruct my identity from someone that was in a romantic relationship, into someone that could simply be a fan. For most people the process of Identity reconstruction is automatic. An unconscious system that ticks away behind the scenes as we go through our lives.
But when we give our attention to them, these hold a certain power and potential. It might be evidence of an inability to move on, leading to Rumination. For others it’s a paving stone toward Resilience.
But each one of those items is a piece of building material for the reconstruction of identity.
It might be a piece that doesn’t fit into your structure anymore, waiting to be replaced like for Bella.

It could be a loose brick. Reserved for hurling through the window of someone else’s building. Intended for destruction, like for Ellie.
For me, the tiger picture still hangs on my door. Anytime someone asks me about it, I tell them. It’s a weightbearing brick in the foundations I reconstructed.

Expert insight – Professor Robin Goodwin

Professor Goodwin is the Head of the Department of Psychology at the University of Warwick. Professor Goodwin has written extensively on interpersonal relationships, break ups and PTSD.

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