How To Reclaim Your Space Post-Breakup or Just After a Big Life Change

published Feb 19, 2021
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living room by Flourish Spaces

Allow me to set the scene for you: The year is 2019, and Taylor Swift’s “Lover” album is on repeat in every bodega, restaurant, and in many apartments in New York City, including the East Village dwelling where I’m currently helping a friend piece together a whole new decor scheme. This friend is intelligent, witty, stylish, and supremely worthy of love but currently forgetting all those things about herself, due to a devastating breakup that left her and the apartment she once shared with her significant other in flux. Enter me — paint roller in one hand, a bottle of sauvignon blanc in the other — ready to help her reclaim the space as her own.

If there’s one thing many have learned this year, it’s just how incredibly interwoven a dwelling can be with wellbeing. When you’re experiencing any kind of life transition (good or bad) — whether that’s the end of a relationship, the loss of a job, the identity change new parenthood brings, or, you know, a worldwide pandemic — your surroundings can go a long way in making you feel like you again. It’s not always as easy as packing up and starting fresh after change either; sometimes you want to or have to stay put for whatever reason. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t have the power to make some tweaks that may ultimately make you happier.

Designer Stevie McFadden felt this transformative power first-hand when she experienced divorce and had to start her life — and home — over from scratch. “Friends gave me a beautiful guest house to stay in for six months, and I realized how important physical space was to not only recovering and healing but also to figuring out what kind of life I wanted to create for myself next,” she explains. “When I finally moved into my own place again, I began the process of creating a physical manifestation of that new life in my surroundings. It wasn’t just thrilling; it was hopeful.”

McFadden had already started her design company, Flourish Spaces, but suddenly she had a new purpose — helping others reclaim ownership over their homes and lives through design. “Often, there’s stuff going on in the physical space that’s either reinforcing or triggering a bad headspace and preventing you from moving on,” she says.

Sound like that sentiment might describe your place or just don’t know what to do with a new space after a major life change? First off, you’re not alone, and you don’t have to go about the process of decorating by yourself either. I’ve tapped McFadden for easy and actionable ways to reclaim your physical space ASAP; here’s what you can start doing today.

Rethink how you engage with your home

“When considering how you engage with your space, think of both the function and the feeling,” suggests McFadden. For starters, you may want to reframe how rooms in your home are used to make them feel new again. Perhaps there’s a spot that your former SO or roommate commandeered as a home office that gets the best light and would make for a great meditation space. Well, guess what? It’s all yours now, and there’s no rule that says a room’s former function has to be its future one. 

Beyond that, take stock of what personal items you’re currently surrounding yourself with. “There are artifacts in our lives that remind us of who we are, where we’ve been, who we want to be, and how we want to be seen…” says McFadden. “These things help instill a sense of belonging and connectedness that you may be missing in the current moment due to your circumstances.” Fill your home with objects of personal significance that you can look to when the going gets tough or you’re feeling down. 

Reframe your objects and decorative accessories

OK, but what happens if all of your beloved objects are tied to painful memories you’d much rather forget? They may not be destined for the trash if they still have personal significance to you. 

“Sometimes it’s not even about letting an item go but rather keeping it and reframing how the object has meaning,” says McFadden. “I had a friend who was an avid book lover along with her husband, and one of the things I always loved about their home together was that it was just chock full with books. She moved after a divorce she did not see coming and took their books with her. While she loved those books and they had their own meaning to her, they also brought up a lot of shared memories with her husband.”

McFadden realized one of the ways her friend could reclaim them as her own was to arrange them in a different way. Her friend’s husband had a very specific organization method and would never allow the books to be set up by spine color to create a rainbow effect. “We rearranged them in a way that she liked, and it totally changed how those objects felt for her,” says McFadden.

To channel that same feeling of reinvention, consider swapping the frame on a sentimental piece of art, reinventing your headboard with fresh upholstery fabric or paint, and even switching up the room a rug is in to put your personal stamp back on your beloved furnishings again. 

Design for future you

Maybe you’re not feeling your best right now — emotionally, physically, whatever — but know that someday soon you will, and consider designing or refreshing your space with that “you” in mind. “One thing I always ask my clients to think about is creating a future memory,” says McFadden. “So when you look back on your space in five or 10 years from now, what do you want to be able to say happened there? How did you feel in the space? Think of your home not only as a reflection of who you are but of who you might become.”

The best designers, McFadden says, aren’t just creating beautiful spaces for clients. Her goal is always to also help someone foster a new sense of belonging in their spaces.

Use transformation as a catalyst 

If you just get started reinvesting in yourself and your space, you’ll create momentum that’ll make it hard to stop, and honestly, only good can things can from taking action. “One of the key tenets of cognitive behavioral therapy is that you act differently to feel differently; motion drives motion, which drives emotion,” says McFadden. “That’s one of the things that’s so important about taking charge of your space, especially if you’re in a situation where you feel like you’ve had no control, like experiencing the loss of a loved one, a job, a place you’ve considered home, or whatever else.”

According to McFadden, the simple act of taking charge of your physical space is an act of agency. “That can really turn the tide from feeling helpless or hopeless to feeling empowered and ready to conquer,” says McFadden. The good news is you don’t have to reinvent your space overnight either. Start small with some of the above tips — and maybe investing in a few key new things if you can swing it — and you’ll be well on your way to creating a fresh space where you’ll flourish. You just have to get started.