After a breakup: Handling sentimental clutter

My friend and professional organizer D. Allison Lee sent me an amazing unitasker that I’ve been laughing about ever since: The Wedding Ring Coffin. It’s a burial coffin for your wedding ring if you get divorced.

Although this is an entertaining idea, it started me thinking about how objects like engagement rings, wedding bands, love letters, jewelry and sentimental trinkets can instantly turn into clutter after a breakup. What was once extremely valued can become worthless in a matter of minutes.

There are laws in each state that determine who is legally entitled to owning engagement and wedding rings when these contracts end, so always start by following the laws of your state regarding these items. If you turn out to be the owner of the engagement and/or wedding rings after a breakup, and the owner of the other sentimental gifts, you’ll have to decide what to do with these objects. You might want to keep them, sell them, donate them, trade them, give them back to the person who gave them to you, have the materials turned into another piece of jewelry, or even bury them.

I thought it might be interesting to start a conversation in the comments talking about what people have done with sentimental items after a breakup. People rarely talk about these objects, so a robust discussion could be really helpful for someone in this situation. Personally, after one college romance ended, I found that I really liked a necklace I’d been given and actually didn’t associate it with the guy who gave it to me. I still wear it because it really is a cool piece of jewelry. Another piece of jewelry, however, had a lot of emotions attached to it so I returned it to the store where the boyfriend had purchased it and traded it in for a new piece. Have you done anything creative with breakup items? Share your stories in the comments!

77 Comments for “After a breakup: Handling sentimental clutter”

  1. posted by Jazmin on

    I took a practical turn after my divorce in 1994. After a few years, I saved up, and had my jeweler find a matching diamond and used my former engagement ring diamond to complete my diamond stud earrings.(I always wanted a set.) At $1200 an ounce, I’m glad I saved some of the gold jewelry and sold it about 6 weeks ago to provide a loan for a family member in need.
    My ex-husband died suddenly a year after our divorce. I have kept a few items for our children; his engraved gold cufflinks for my son, his religious medal for my daughter. My relationship with him is separate from the fact he was their dad and I want them to remember him fondly when they wear these very personal items. When I see those items it also helps me remember it wasn’t all bad and I’ve forgiven him as well as myself.

  2. posted by Jen on

    I had a TON of stuff from my most recent ex boyfriend. We were together over 5 years, and he was very materialistic (so was I, at the time). Stuffed animals, knick knacks, art books…When I moved, I left the stuffed animals in a rubbermaid container. Some were cute and I really liked them, but after 6 months or so, the rest went to garage sale. The knick knacks, I unpacked them all and thought about each, but kept only a handful. The rest – garage sale.

    The best item from an ex is a ring I have. My high school sweetheart gave me a silver ring with a giant moonstone in it. I wouldn’t have picked it for myself, but loved it. When we broke up, I packed it away in my memory box. Probably 7 or 8 years later I found it again. By that time the memories no longer hurt, and it is now one of my absolute favorite pieces of jewelry.

  3. posted by Sally on

    Well, I haven’t seen here yet a breakup with another type of person–how about one’s mother-in-law? Sad to say, after over 30 years of marriage and a MIL who, I found out later and it all made sense, was assasinating my character behind my back, and with time increased subtle to blatant “put-downs” to my face (all I ever tried to do was please her!), I gradually got rid of most things she ever gave me. This includes household decor-items, costume jewelry, kitchen gadgets, all Christmas or birthday gifts she had to give me to “look decent”. I call it an exhorcism. Now a days I don’t see her at all as she is in assisted living and my husband finally understands. Too bad. I would have embraced this lady, since my own parents passed on years ago. I’m trying to forgive, but it’s hard–you keep getting triggers for bad memories.

  4. posted by Nicole on

    I love this topic! When my best friend got divorced we made a ceremony of getting rid of her wedding dress. We went to a local camping spot and burned the dress on a BBQ. It was very freeing for her and made her feel like that part of her life was done and she could move on. When her next relationship failed and a subsequent one for me…we both burned the pictures of our exs’ just as we had that dress…ala BBQ style! Now we have great memories to black out the not so great ones of our previous relationships.

  5. posted by p on

    Maybe it is how I was raised but jewelry, stuff animals, clothes- to me, they are all “stuff.” However, god help me but I cannot get rid of ANY photos. Whether they’re good or bad times, I can’t help but think of photos as representing a part of my life. I almost think of it as bad luck to get rid of any of them! I threw out all photos of me and my first long-term relationship (3 years) and sadly now have a dearth of photos from those years. Even to have them to look back on and see what I wore, how I wore my hair, how I friggin looked would be worth it. Yes, photos are clutter but I can’t help myself to keep them!

  6. posted by Larissa Cookson on

    I have a box full of old letters love notes and pictures of ex-boyfriends that I can’t seem to let go. The box is not in a very prominent location so I often forget about it but sometimes it’s fun to look through the box and reread letters and remember the memories since I only keep the ones that are associated with good times and memories.

  7. posted by Matt T on

    Interesting timing…I am going through a breakup now with my girlfriend of 6 years, with whom I’ve been living for the past 9 months. It will take another 10 days for her to be able to move out, so now things are awkward and terrible. I’m dreading what to do with all the things that remind me of her. Worst of all, the entire apartment reminds me of her. The lease expires at the end of August, so I will have 2.5 months of living by myself there.

    For some amount of time I will likely have solely sentimental items such as letters, pictures, gifts in a box and put that away somewhere. Once I give myself time to grieve and move on I can decide what to do. It’s hard to feel like things are completely done when I still see her all the time.

    Most fun fact: it’s a one bedroom, so I’m sleeping on the living room floor. At least we have 2 floors. And at least there isn’t anger or hatred, only sadness at our relationship that became more of a friendship.

    Sorry to whine, but being in the middle of it makes it hard to be objective about what people actually care to hear.

  8. posted by Vanessa H. on

    I have found that boxing up everything and sticking it in the attic gives me the time and emotional distance to later go through those items and get rid of them easily. I have kept one item from each relationship that had value; everything else goes.

  9. posted by Vanessa H. on

    I will also say that getting rid of things too soon, especially under pressure from someone else, always leads to regret. Do it at your own pace and you won’t regret anything!

  10. posted by pam on

    Married for 17 years and divorced. When I learned that he was getting re-married 6 months after our divorce was final, I decided to get rid of the wedding dress. A nice bottle of wine, a full moon, and to the song
    “Fairy Tales” by Anita Baker. The dress was cotton by Gunne Sax with lots of lace, floor length. It was a very therapeutic thing for me! I have never seen anything burn like this before or since. I had it on the clothes line on a hanger, and at the stroke of midnight on the day he was to be re-married I lit the match!! That dress caught the fire, fell off of the hanger to the ground, where the flames seemed to dance to the rhythm of Anita’s song (my song!) and I kid not… the flames slowed and sort of danced up and down with the tempo of the music and with the very final notes of the song, the flames…just went out with the very last note!! It could not have been a more perfect ending.

    I was all by myself and that was fine for me, but why not have a dinner party and share the moment with a friend or friends that need to fan the final flames of an ending and start a new beginning. You will want to include Anita’s song to your songlist.

    And don’t worry Be Happy!!

  11. posted by Sally J. (Practical Archivist) on

    I’m all for purging — even sentimental clutter. As a consulting archivist I spend a lot of time explaining that just because SOME of your photos are priceless, that doesn’t mean that every single one is priceless. Lose the dreck, treat the keepers right!

    My only caution is not to delete/toss in the height of anger. As Mletta learned the hard way, “It’s not the stuff that can hang you up. It’s the emotions. In the immediate years afterwards, I missed some of the stuff (we both were great gift-givers) and the letters. Years later, I still miss the letters.”

    P.S. There’s an artist in NYC who created a character called “Death Bear” for just this purpose. You make an arrangement for him to come to your place and pick up the sentimental items from your (now dead) relationship. He takes them away to his secret cave. Here’s an article about Death Bear from MSNBC ->

  12. posted by Wende on

    Great post! I still have a ring from my first boyfriend. I love it and it has good memories attached. Now if it only still fit…

    I gave an engagement ring back to my ex after we split and he symbolically threw it off a bridge, which he later admitted regretting. That ring had bad memories, so good riddance.

    When my parents split, Mom had to pawn her wedding set for money to live. For Christmas that year, she gave me two rings that she had worn every day, and I now wear them every day. I have Dad’s wedding band too, but he never wore it anyway.

    My husband, after his divorce from his first wife, gave his wedding band to one of his daughters who wears it on her thumb.

    I have kept pictures from good relationships in old photo albums and pitched all photos from bad relationships. Bad juju. But I didn’t pitch them for a few years. After a few years, if they still gave me the heebie jeebies, out they went.

    My mom recently passed away, and I took all the old family jewelry and left her current wedding set with my stepfather. Shhh, she never liked it and neither did I. Not her style at all, and I figured he would like to hang onto that memento for himself. Now I have a bunch of old jewelry that I need to have appraised and decide what to do with. You guys have given me some ideas to ponder!

  13. posted by Kris on

    As a grown child of divorce, I wish my mother had NOT burned all the wedding photos.

  14. posted by Tiffany on

    oh man…i was engaged to the guy i had been dating for 5 years and living with for two. he was doing the whole back and forth thing about me and marriage, and then i found out he was cheating, so i kicked him out. one of the comments he made about us breaking up was how entangles our lives were and how hard it was going to be to separate our stuff. that very night i went through everything in the house and put all of HIS stuff, and the stuff we had gotten together that had sentimental value (including jewelery, gifts, and the engagement ring) into a designated room in the house. when he moved out for good i made him take every little thing in that room….i figured he was the only screwing things up, he could deal with figuring out what to do with the stuff.

    simple, clean, effective. most of the pictures i’ve gotten rid of. i kept some because they were of amazing things that i have done, and he is now just some guy that happened to be there at the time.

    it really is about just letting go of all sentimental attachment to things.

  15. posted by Pam on

    I agree with several of the comments, don’t do anything too quickly, or in anger. I put the pictures away. Put them in a box in a closet along with anything else I wasn’t sure how to keep or get rid of. Then I dealt with them when I was ready, not when the anger or sadness was the driving force. I sold my rings early on…wish I had that decision back, when I look at the recent price of gold! Another thing that I’ve read, don’t have anything around that you wouldn’t want someone to have to go through after you die. That helped me to decide to shred the letters and cards. It was very freeing, and I didn’t want my children to wonder why I kept letters from the X. Pictures? They can decide on those I’ve decided, but letters, no. They are now in a landfill somewhere. I haven’t regretted that. I can appreciate one comment about not destroying letters, however, these letters weren’t of historical significance.

  16. posted by shelterrific » Blog Archive » blogwatch: where we’ve been clicking this week on

    [...] your ex gave you now that you are paramours no more? Unclutterer has got some great advice on handling sentimental clutter after a breakup. And yes, many commenters had fire-based ritualistic purging [...]

  17. posted by Jessica on

    A dear friend of mine had an engagement breakup that left her with homewares that had never been used and a debt to pay for them. While she has been working on passing them on and clearing up the issue, she also has had a very redemptive experience coming out of this situation. She started working part-time (in addition to her regular job) at William Sonoma, and over the course of her time there she has been able to start paying off the debt and also rack up on her most treasured items from the store using their discount. It really inspires me hearing this story because something tremendously good came out of this for her. She was able to get a sense of herself and enjoy those things she cherished while letting go of the negative memories.

  18. posted by Tiffany on

    My friends and I did an accessories swap a while ago- basically we all brought accessories that were in good condition but which we didn’t want anymore and went “shopping” in each other’s stuff. I got some of my favorite jewelry that way, and I also got rid of a bunch of ex-boyfriend jewelry that is now actually getting worn by people who want it.

  19. posted by Laetitia in Australia on

    I went out with someone for about 3 or so years while I was at uni. During that time he gave me a number of gift certificates from a few stores. I still have several items I bought with those certificates. I expect that I still have them because I chose them and they are items that are useful / something I’d had my eyes on for a while.

  20. posted by Gilrean on

    The engagement ring: I took out the one part I liked (sapphire) and had a nice silver modern ring made with it to match a ring given to me by a friend as a very special present.
    Most of the rest I got rid of. Sort of to cleanse myself from a bad relationship. Now have less than 10 items from those 6 years left and that is enough to remember the few good times

  21. posted by disconnect on

    My sister got engaged at Niagara Falls in a storybook proposal. Then, divorced several time periods later. After it was finalized, she moved back to upstate NY. A few months after that, she drove to a friend’s house in Chicago for a visit. It just so happened that said friend lived in the same city where my sister’s engagement ring had been purchased, so my sister stopped by the jeweler’s. He was only too happy to take back the 2 carat stone and give her a good amount of store credit, which she used to buy diamond earrings and a snazzy pendant. She loves the stuff and calls it her “freedom jewels”.

    The astute reader will have noticed that I said nothing about the jeweler’s purchasing the setting. Also, a working knowledge of geography will reveal that Niagara Falls is somewhere between upstate NY and Chicago.

    Yup. Bye bye, ring.

  22. posted by disconnect on

    My own story is a little different. I had a rough time in high school – untreated bipolar disorder, megalomania, psychological scarring from many years of being bullied and abused and not being taught how to defend myself (or even that it was okay for me to do so) – so when it was all over, I took my yearbooks and put them on a shelf in my closet. There they sat, as I moved out of the house, moved around a bit, and got my life back together. When my parents moved a few years later, I went back to help, and wound up with the last three boxes of my stuff. The yearbooks promptly took up residence in my cellar, and there they sat for another five years.

    One day, I heard part of a radio programme on survivors of abuse, and as I listened, it gradually dawned on me that this was my relationship with my high school years: I was traumatized by everything that had happened, and I was allowing the memory of a horrible past to still my hand from disposing of the yearbooks, and their presence was reinforcing all the bad memories, and there was just no way out. So that night, I went into the basement and sat seiza for an hour. I opened the books for the first time since h.s. graduation, looked at every page, and continually repeated the mantra, “Thank you for this.” Through shame and rage, and the occasional laugh, I accepted it and moved on.

    When I was done, the sting was gone. I put them in the trash, and that was it.

    I thought about what my own kids would say (even though at the time I had none). But even now that I have kids, I have zero regrets for what I did. Sure, it would be great for them to have mementos of who Dad was, and they’re within their rights to be pissed at what I did. BUT, those things had no place in my life, just as my sister’s engagement ring served more utility to her at the bottom of Niagara Falls than it would have in $20 of store credit. I wish that I could have been strong enough to have kept my yearbooks and still been the person I am today, but I’m not that strong. I’m a good person and a GREAT father, and I wouldn’t trade anything I have today for those yearbooks back in my basement.

  23. posted by Maggie Rose on

    It took several years before I was able to get rid of my first relationship’s STUFF. It was a very emotional and rollercoaster high school relationship. We broke up on not-happy terms, but luckily a few years of cooling off and meeting someone else in college did me well. I was able to get rid of most of the paper clutter (just kept a few cards and only the photos that I look good in!) and I kept the jewelry for now, though I don’t wear it. We have become friends again somewhat, and I do have many fond memories of him (and in hindsight, much of the drama makes soooo much more sense now that he’s out of the closet). Other shorter relationships I tossed without thought but just stuck the keeper stuff with other high school memory items and will likely weed again much later.

  24. posted by Julie S in VA on

    My best friend got dressed up in her wedding dress and tossed her wedding band into the Tidal Basin (in DC) following her divorce. We got cake and champagne and made a whole event out of it.

  25. posted by Quatrefoil on

    I had a ring given to me by a boyfriend in a relationship that broke up very painfully. I held on to it until I had the chance to go to the sea and then I threw it into open water. If someone ever finds it, the sea will have cleansed it of any bad feelings associated with it.

  26. posted by Elizabeth on

    Oy! Went through a terrible break up a few years ago. Was engaged, didnt know what to do with the ring. Things did not end well. I threw out everything-photos, letters, EVERYTHING. I was tempted to throw the ring in the ocean, since like the last poster, I heard it cleanses bad mojo. But I put it on the railroad tracks instead and let the train do my dirty work for me

  27. posted by Caroline on

    I kept all my mementos for a long time – I kept thinking I might want to read the letters again. But when I finally did, I didn’t care anymore. I also had more photos than I needed, so I mailed some to those people who were in them, but kept my favorites. I’m glad I waited awhile because I’m happy to have a few things now, but I don’t need everything.

    Really, the thought that I could die suddenly and people would find all that stuff was the biggest reason for finally going through it and tossing. The second reason was to let go of stuff that was taking up space but serving no real purpose.

    In fact, I still use a lot of the practical gifts I received. The sentimental stuff I got was letters and cards and art, but I don’t even think about some of the stuff I use everyday (like my alarm clock).

    It’s tempting to go all Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind when something ends, but if you have a lot of good memories from that relationship you’ll probably eventually regret it.

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