The Big Split

Source: Shutterstock: Mincemeat


If you or a loved one are facing the prospect of divorce, you will at some point need to contend with the fact that emotions and possessions are linked. Understanding this link can help you better navigate the oft-troubled waters of asset dispensation in divorce.

Grief and Identity

Anyone who has experienced or witnessed divorce knows that there is a grieving process involved. In fact, some research suggests that each stage of divorce (contemplation, execution, and post-divorce rebuilding) has its own losses associated, and so each stage of divorce may send a person through all the stages of grief, separately[1].

With the dissolution of the relationship comes the splitting of assets. Here again there is a grieving process. It is easy to understand the grief associated with losing a relationship, but fewer people are comfortable with the pain of parting with physical possessions. “It’s just stuff,” we tell ourselves, and then we add shame to grief by saying, “I shouldn’t be so attached.”  What most people do not understand about this part of divorce is that there is a strong psychological connection between our physical possessions and our sense of self. Losing physical assets that are an integral part of our identity can be just as painful as parting with hopes, dreams, and people[2].

Surely, our identity is made of much more than our material possessions, but we cannot escape the cognitive processes that our minds use to organize and understand the world. Psychologists who study identity describe our sense of self as comprising the three factors of having, doing, and being. In other words, the person we feel we are is made up of the things we have (possessions, relationships, accolades, etc.), the things we do (achievements, goals, purpose), and the things we are (roles, traits). If you can recognize that the object in question holds a story that is core to your sense of self, it may make more sense. In divorce, both parties are already making drastic changes to their identity by dissolving the marriage. If parting with material possessions further threatens an already-diminished self, many people will put up a powerful fight to avoid the added loss.

In addition to bolstering self-concept, material possessions can also contribute to wellbeing by helping maintain a sense of continuity and connection to the past. Art, gifts, and any other object can serve as a reminder of where you have been, how you have grown, and the people you love. When these items represent important parts of our past selves, they can be extremely difficult to part with.

Possessions and the transitioning self

In a life transition such as divorce, it is unsurprising that people go through stages of ambiguity about their identity. For initiators of divorce, this often begins long before the divorce process has begun, but for non-initiators, it may occur only when faced with the reality of the change, or some time thereafter. Other life changes such as marriage, having children, and even death have cultural and community rituals to mark the passage from one stage of life to the next. Rituals serve to ease the transition in identity that a life change brings, but divorce has no accompanying community or personal rituals, and so we are left to devise our own strategies to cope with the massive alteration in our lives. This is often reflected in our approach to material possessions during this time, and researchers have observed marked differences in the way that initiators and non-initiators use possessions to cope during divorce[3].

Initiators will often begin financial changes long before the divorce takes place. This may take benevolent forms such as helping their spouse to pursue career aspirations so that they will be able to support themselves when the break comes, or wilier ones like moving assets into business accounts in order to prevent access by the spouse during the split. Initiators may also be more likely to accept a smaller portion of shared assets due to their desire to break free from the old self.

Non-initiators may use possessions as a way to hold on to the relationship. Some keep items that remind them of the former spouse, or use items that are valuable to the other to create long-standing arguments that effectively prolong the relationship. In this case, possessions are used (either consciously or unconsciously) to impede the transition that divorce represents. Others may be inclined to hold on to particular assets not because they want to hold on to the relationship, but because they want to hold on to an aspect of themselves which the asset represents.

Recognizing the psychological motives for conflict in divorce

Some motivational theories teach that every action we choose is a strategy to meet an underlying need. These strategies may be productive or tragically counterproductive. For example, if I need food, there are many strategies I can choose from to get it. I can buy it, grow it, steal it, work for it, or use any other method I can devise. The need for food is fundamental and unchanging, but the strategies I use to meet that need can take many forms. This is true of our emotional, intellectual, and relationship needs as well as our physical needs[4]. In divorce, our fixation on certain assets may be serving a need to maintain identity, continuity, or self-esteem.

By staying focused on the deeper needs you are trying to meet, you can maneuver around obstacles, and be flexible when it is necessary. The theory here is simple: if a strategy for meeting a need creates conflict, then we try to devise a new strategy that meets that same need without creating the conflict.

Using the Needs & Strategies Concept to Facilitate Healthy Transitions

This approach to mediating conflict may sound simple on its face, but it takes focus and conscious practice to master. The technique is based on a communication style developed by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, and there are many books and practice groups available to help people grow in their abilities to use the skills involved. I will outline a simple (but not easy!) exercise for you here.

The goal of this technique is to clearly identify and differentiate between four things:

  1. The strategy or asset under consideration
  2. The story of what that strategy or asset represents to you
  3. The specific emotions that the strategy conjures
  4. The needs that the strategy meets or threatens

If you can fill out the following mad-libs type sentence for each strategy under consideration, you will be well on your way to resolving the conflict.


When I think about the strategy or asset I’m considering, I feel the emotions that come to the surface because to me, the strategy or asset represents my internalized story of the thing or action, and that meets/does not meet my need for the fundamental human needs involved.


When I think about selling the house, I feel sadness and anger because to me the house represents giving my kids what I never had, and that meets my needs for nurturing and to matter.

When I think about him taking the Mercedes, I feel disappointed and angry because to me the Mercedes represents success, sophistication, and status, and that meets my needs for achievement, self-expression, and to matter.

Even contentious strategies can be thought through in this way:

When I think about suing for alimony, I feel satisfaction because to me suing for alimony represents causing him pain such as I endured / standing up for my own needs for once, and that meets my needs for justice and to matter.

Did you notice that the need ‘to matter’ is in all of the examples above? I’ve done this intentionally so that you will always be on the lookout for this need. When we divorce, even if we are the initiator, we will eventually watch the other person go on without us, and we wonder, “Did I matter?” It is my belief that many of the financial arguments in divorce can be traced back to this need. When we question our personal value, objects of monetary value can serve as a proxy.

None of these strategies or feelings are right or wrong. This exercise is not about passing judgment, but rather gaining clarity. The power of clearly understanding ourselves is sometimes shocking. Once you have the strategies, representations, feelings, and needs written out then new questions can be asked, such as:

  1. Is this the only strategy for meeting this need?
  2. What other things in my life meet this need? Could pursuing more of that allow me to let go of this?
  3. Does this strategy for meeting the needs I’ve outlined here threaten any other needs I have now, or will have in the future?
  4. Is the story I’m telling myself here true? Could there be another way to interpret the meaning of the object or action?
  5. How might the new me (the person I am becoming through all of this) think about this strategy? Is there an opportunity to express my new identity here?


Nothing on earth will make a contentious divorce easy, but understanding the psychology of possessions can keep us from making it worse. If you can make the link between your needs, emotions, stories, and strategies, you will stand a better chance of making decisions that are both emotionally and financially sound.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s