You just suffered a bad breakup. After you’ve curated the sad Adele playlists, emptied out your tissue boxes, and dealt with the emotional and mental fallout, next comes one of the hardest parts of the tragic ordeal — you have to deal with getting your stuff back from your ex.
If you’ve had an amicable breakup, this step is fairly easy (even if it’s a little uncomfortable) — it’s typically a matter of simply reaching out to your ex and figuring out a day and time that works for both parties so you can grab your favourite sweater and vinyl collection, and anything else you want back (they can probably keep the used tube of toothpaste). But if you’ve had a bad breakup, things are a bit trickier.
“When it comes to retrieving items from an ex, the ease — or difficulty — of the situation often depends on the nature of the breakup,” says Dr. Carla Marie Manly, psychologist and author of Date Smart: Transform Your Relationships and Love Fearlessly. “If you have an acrimonious relationship with an ex, the retrieval of personal items can be far more complicated. In cases where the relationship is fractured, more diplomacy is often necessary.”
Of course, every breakup situation is different, and every connection is nuanced, but here are some techniques to help you navigate the situation.
Extend some kindness (and be a little vulnerable)
While kindness and vulnerability might be the last thing you want to express to your ex, Manly says it might be the best approach to getting your stuff back with as little aggravation as possible.
First, she suggests reaching out via your ex’s preferred mode of communication — phone, text, or email. Then, when communicating with your ex, she says it’s best to take a kind, respectful approach that is straightforward.
“It’s important to avoid any negative inflammatory comments. Let your ex know your needs, acknowledge that it’s a stressful or challenging situation, and ask for a few times and dates that would work best.”
Her sample script: “I feel sad that things are difficult between us right now, and it’s not my intention to cause you any further stress. I’d like to retrieve my personal items so that we can both move forward. Please let me know a few dates and times that work for your schedule. I want to do my best to honour your needs.”
Take the high road
Even if your ex responds with a negative comment, Manly recommends staying respectful and kind while navigating other options that would work best for both of you.
“If only a few small items are involved, sending the belongings by mail can be a good option. However, if larger items or many boxes are at issue, and if one or both parties don’t want access to the formerly shared home or residence, former partners can often agree to leaving items in a safe outdoor location (e.g., locked patio) for retrieval at a specific time.”
If both you and your ex have an aversion to physically interacting with one another, Manly says it’s important to retrieve items in a way that honours this need.
“If the situation is at all volatile, it can be best to enlist the aid of a neutral third party to retrieve the items — this might involve asking a mutual friend to pick up items or even hiring a moving company.” She adds that if you want to avoid a bigger blow up, “it’s wise to not involve a new partner in the retrieval of personal items.”
How to handle shared items
Depending on how serious and longterm your relationship was, there are probably shared items that need to be divided up, like furniture, appliances, and technology.
Ideally, Manly suggests former partners can create a spreadsheet that outlines the type and cost of the items purchased jointly and can then negotiate to keep or purchase the items that are most meaningful.
However, in a more intense breakup situation, Manly says retrieving or “splitting up” shared items can become a battle over financial loss or gain.
“In many relationships, the items are more symbolic than financial in nature. If the breakup was acrimonious, the physical items can become leverage; battles for power and control often ensue in these situations. In fact, anger or embittered ex partners will often withhold items from a former partner simply out of spite and resentment.”
That’s why Matthew Kreitzer, a Virginia-based divorce lawyer, recommends couples to be upfront and honest with each other during a break up when it comes to their shared assets.
“First and foremost, having an open conversation can save time and money in legal fees and court expenses down the road,” he says. “Unfortunately, most cases come about because of a lack of communication. It is awkward to have these talks, but you need to for your longterm financial safety.”
What if your ex won’t give back your stuff?
If you are unable to have a respectful and effective conversation with your ex about the division of your belongings or your ex refuses to give your stuff back, Kreitzer says you may find yourself in court.
“The court system is used to having to divide assets and mediate disputes among people who are no longer together,” he says. “However, this can result in expensive legal bills.”
According to Kreitzer, depending on the item in question, the court will need to have proof of ownership. For example, if it’s a vehicle, you’ll need a title and registration documents. If it’s your dog? Get vet bills and registration. Personal property? Get receipts and bills of sale.
If you don’t want to go through the hassle of legal fees (and who does?), Manly suggests using this script: “I realise that we have joined items to divide up. I’ve created a spreadsheet to help us work toward a fair resolution. If it sounds good to you, we can go back and forth on choosing items — one at a time — until all items are divvied up.”
Use a mediator if necessary
Sometimes speaking to your ex isn’t an option. If so, Manly suggests seeking the aid of a mutual friend or — if necessary — a mediator to help divide assets or act as the go-between when it comes to communication.
In some instances, particularly if the items feel insignificant, Manly says going through the hassle of retrieving your stuff from an ex might not be worth it in the end. In that case, “it would be wise to be prepared to walk away to save yourself further stress.”