When couples split, few parts of the process are more painful, or can be more contentious, than the division of property. “When couples break up,” says Phil Rainer, LCSW-R, Clinical Director of Capital EAP’s counseling division, “depending upon the length and depth of the relationship, they may have to effectively divide their universe. This can include everything from the silverware to friends…and even places.”
While there are numerous guides to dividing property for people going through a divorce –writer Hannah Wahlig suggests making an inventory of household goods by category- and even services to help people make sure that the division is equitable.
Still, there is a lot about the “breaking-up landscape” that remains fuzzy. For example, while the courts have found that things of value such as frequent flyer miles and country club memberships can be justly considered in a division of property settlement, no court can tell a couple how to divide up friends or favorite places.
While it is obvious that most people are more focused on who gets the house and questions of joint parenting, some of these other disputes over who gets what friends, or who gets to go to what restaurant, often become metaphors for power. This restaurant or that bar becomes a symbol, and another thing that a separating couple can fight over in their individual efforts to exert control.
That control, Rainer suggests, can come in two forms. The first is a manifestation of territoriality, as in This is mine and you can’t have it. But the other side of the coin, Rainer notes, can be an effort to simply avoid one more loss. “Loss is a major part of a broken relationship,” Rainer says. “You have obviously lost your partner, lover, and friend. You may lose the place you considered to be home. In some communities, you may lose stature; or it may be that all your friends are couples, and now you wonder how you’ll fit in.”
On both conscious and unconscious levels, people try to mitigate this loss however they can. One way is to keep things so the other person can’t have them….the car, the boat, the country club. But people also try to hold onto things so they don’t lose one more thing. If the house, the car, and the boat are all gone, a person might think, At least I want to still be able to go to Luigi’s, my favorite restaurant, where I’ve always been comfortable. I don’t want to lose that too. And so places a couple went together could become bones of contention in the end of a relationship. There are stories of people dividing cities, neighborhood, or even an entire island.
All of this can be further complicated by both age and location. “Younger people,” says Darienne DeSalvo, LCSW-R, one of Capital EAP’s counselors, “tend to be more social, they go out more; so places –bars, dance clubs, the whole nightlife scene- tend to be more important to them.” When a break up happens to a younger couple, in other words, the hot bar, or the place where all their friends hang out can become an issue: who get to go there? Neither wants to give up the place; but neither wants to go there and see the other person…especially if he or she is with someone else. But for older folks, Rainer adds, “the problem is that they’re more set in their ways, they’re less adaptable. Where a younger person might find another bar or pizza joint, an older person may have difficulty letting go of a place he or she traditionally enjoyed.”
Finally, Rainer adds, the size of your community makes a difference. If you’re talking about a large city like New York or Boston, there are plenty of other places someone can go. But if you’re in a small city or a small town, you often can’t escape. This “nowhere else to go” situation, where there is only one diner, one bookstore, is only made worse, DeSalvo adds, because people generally don’t work this out is a systematic way.
But not everyone wants to hold on to a favorite place. Many people going through the end of a relationship want to escape reminders of their ex. They don’t want to go to “that special spot,” whether it’s a park, a restaurant, or even a vacation spot, because it will only dredge up memories they’d rather not have. They often also fear that going there with someone new might prompt people who were accustomed to seeing them there with the ex to ask questions. They’d rather avoid all that.
This can be especially difficult when the “place” has a meaning or a role in the life of one or both of the individuals involved. Churches and temples, for example, can be a serious issue because there is also the spiritual element to be considered. In those cases it comes down to how important the specific place is to the individuals involved. When the situation is unavoidable, sometimes the only thing to do is to simply sit on the other side of the church, focus on why they’re there, and just ignore the fact that the other person is sitting on the other side of the room.
While both Rainer and DeSalvo agree that over time, most people tend to change their patterns, so that a “favorite spot” is eventually replaced with a new “favorite” or a place a new group of friends may favor, DeSalvo also adds that having a third party to help negotiate these issues can often help couples reach an agreement or compromise one or both of them is less likely to resent. With a counselor there, saying “Can we talk about this?” it is often easier for a couple to make these kinds of decisions.
If your relationship is experiencing difficulties, or if you are already in the process of ending a relationship and are finding it difficult to let go of the sense that you are battling your ex, we urge you to contact Capital EAP, and make an appointment with one of our trained counselors. We’re here to help.