Do any of these items ring a bell for you? An old sweater that has long since lost your boyfriend’s signature scent. The box of mixed tapes circa 1995 that you can’t part with. Movie or sporting ticket stubs from past dates. Love letters stored away for decades.
If you’re like many Americans, chances are you’re hanging onto some relics of former relationships long after those relationships have ended. A recent survey SpareFoot conducted for National Moving Day found that more than one in four of us (27 percent) who are currently in a relationship have held onto an item from an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend that they don’t want their current significant other to know about.
And when it comes to millennials that number climbs to 44 percent.
Survey respondents admitted to keeping and storing some interesting items from past loves, that run the gamut from innocuous to salacious. Among the most unique: cologne, underwear, a lock of hair, nude photographs, love letters from elementary school, and even a bag of chips that someone was given by their crush.
Why is this? And what should we do about these items from former flames that have burned out?
Hanging On to Memories
On the surface, hanging onto items out of a sense of sentimentality is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, some experts believe it’s tied into a key part of human nature.
“I think that people hold onto things from their exes for the same reason that they hold onto their old teddy bear or the bracelet that they made in summer camp,” said Laura Ryan, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Austin, Texas.
“These items contain significance and memories that a person wants to hang onto and remember. It’s human nature to have memorabilia, whether it’s from our family, friends or exes, because these physical objects represent our personal history and the stories that weave our life story,” Ryan said.
Holding Out Hope?
Psychic medium and relationship expert Amira Celon says that occasionally these items indicate a longing on behalf of the person who is holding onto them.
“There is part of them that doesn’t want to let go of the relationship,” Celon said. “There is some hope that the ex will reappear and come back into their lives for good or repair the damage that has been done.”
Celon says this process can take years — in one case, a client of hers took care of an ex’s dog for over a year — months beyond the terms of their initial agreement — and he never came to claim the dog.
“When she finally was committed to another person, she was able to let the dog go to a new owner. The same goes for material possessions,” Celon said.
Fleeting Feelings of Millennials
Experts believe that millennials are so much more likely to hold onto relationship relics due to their age and the culture we live in.
“My best guess about millennials being more likely to hold on to keepsakes is perhaps because, in the digital age that we live in, very few memories are physical objects anymore and everything seems fleeting,” said Ryan. “In the past, people documented their lives with Polaroids, T-shirts, and memorabilia. Now it seems like most of our memories are on Facebook and Snapchat, and we lose that kind of ‘IRL’ connection to our experiences.”
Keeping Secrets Is No Fun
Though it’s mostly harmless to store these items away, if you are looking to declutter and simplify your life, or if it’s causing an issue in your current relationship, it might be time to think about getting rid of your relationship memorabilia.
Ryan says that though most items are pretty harmless, holding onto items that have emotional or sexual attachment can become problematic, such as an ex’s nightshirt that smells like him, or naked photos of exes.
And not telling your partner about them could also be a problem.
“I think keeping secrets like that is not the best thing for the relationship,” said Ryan. “If you want to keep an item from your past hidden from your current spouse or partner, I’m guessing it’s because it falls under the ‘emotional or sexual attachments category’ and you know that it will make your partner feel uncomfortable.”
Follow Your Emotions
Pay attention to how the items make you feel as you see them. Are you happy? Wistful? Sad? Hopeful? Let your emotions guide you in your decisions for how to deal with these items.
As a divorce coach and professional organizer, Pam Mirehouse said, “My feeling on the topic from both those perspectives is, let it go. Keep the memories, keep the lessons you learned, open up space in your home, heart and head to allow the new people and relationships in.”
Mirehouse said that letting go of an ex’s things is an important part of moving forward, as such items remind us not of good times, but areas where we are lacking.
“Ruminating on the break-up or what should have been is not a healthy practice. Releasing the items back into the universe frees us up emotionally and also gives us back a bit of physical space.”
Goodbye Past, Hello Future
In order to get rid of this “ex-cess baggage,” Ryan suggests creating physical distance between you and the items for a while, such as storing them in a basement, attic or other storage space.
“It would probably be best to move the item to a far away spot until you are ready to get rid of it,” Ryan said.
If it seems too emotional a project to just trash, donate or recycle your old relationship souvenirs, you might consider having a small ceremony to help you let go.
“Closure using ceremony like burning, burying or donating can be therapeutic,” Mirehouse said, “Holding on indicates being stuck.”
Getting rid of your last relationship’s clutter can help create free and clear space for whatever new things await you on the horizon.