Love doesn’t always last forever, and when it ends, you have to figure out how to get your stuff back.

Whether it’s a single beloved flannel left in your ex’s car or the shared contents of an entire apartment, most modern splits involve at least some level of inventory to be accounted for, divided, and claimed. Looking back on my own relationship history through the lens of stuff, it’s easy to recall a long line of items lost, exchanged, recovered, and relinquished littering the path from my earliest relationships to the present.

I had my first boyfriend when I was 15. Much of our banter and bullshit revolved around music, both in the sense that we were endlessly trying to one-up each other by casually name-dropping ever more obscure bands and also that most of our makeout sessions occurred in the back stairwell of our community theater building after Saturday orchestra practice. My attempts to impress him in the former sense led me to loan him much of my cherished, meticulously curated CD collection — quite possibly the deepest act of devotion I was capable of at that tender age.

When he dumped me the day after my sixteenth birthday, he still had a decent chunk of my collection in his possession. I asked repeatedly for him to return them, but he never did. Almost 10 years later, I reconnected with a high school friend who had happened to date the same guy a year or so before. She told me that he still had my CDs and — as a grown-ass man — had bragged to her about stealing them from my teenage self all those years ago.

Which brings me to my first piece of advice: Don’t be like that guy. Remember what you learned on day eight of kindergarten and return things that don’t belong to you. No matter how cozy the sweatshirt or useful the borrowed kitchen appliance, if it’s not yours, make a good faith effort to give it back.

Of course, figuring out the actual how of giving an ex’s stuff back and recovering your own can be a challenge.

My first adult relationship was with a man who turned out to be abusive. By the time it ended after a year and a half of dating, we each had accumulated a decent amount of one another’s stuff. I wanted back the things of mine he had, but I was also afraid of him.

I didn’t want to see him or look at his belongings, so I packed them up and mailed them to him and asked that he do the same for me. He didn’t — he wanted to use giving my shit back as an excuse to see me in person again.

This strategy — holding an ex’s stuff hostage as a means of getting them to agree to meet up — is manipulative, but common. No matter how much you’re hurting, it’s never okay to coerce someone into seeing you when they don’t want to. And if someone tries to use this tactic against you, know that it’s not okay and you’re not alone.

I stood my ground and eventually he agreed to return my things by leaving them with a mutual friend. Using a neutral third party for these sorts of exchanges can be a useful way to go about it, especially when there’s a risk of confrontation otherwise. People tend to behave themselves better when someone else is watching. If you don’t have a particular person who can facilitate the exchange, insisting that you and your ex meet in a public, visible place to make a handoff can have a similar effect.

Of course, for each of these fraught stories there are plenty of people who do it right. I once accidentally left a pair of underwear on a casual hookup’s floor and he sweetly persisted in his efforts to return them — freshly laundered, might I add — long past the end of our tryst.

There’s always potential for complications. What do you do when an item that was yours has, over time, become something they use or wear far more often? What about when you split the cost of something with your ex — who keeps it? Does the keeper have to buy the other party out, and if so, should the buyout cost account for depreciation? And what about the ex who takes off and never returns for their stuff — at what point can you reasonably toss it all in a Goodwill bin and call it done?

Each of these scenarios could easily be its own advice column, but in general it all comes down to a few general guidelines. One, you’ve got to communicate while setting your own boundaries and respecting your partner’s. Two, be specific. If there’s something you want back and your ex isn’t forthcoming, name it. Three, be prompt. Don’t wait too long to return things, and definitely don’t treat your ex’s place like a storage unit. Lastly, be as honest and considerate as possible, even if you’re angry about the circumstances of the split. It may not be as satisfying as tossing your ex’s shit all over the lawn in the short-term, but in the long term it’s almost always the best way to make a clean break with your dignity intact.


Kaylee Wolfe is a sexuality educator, advocate for survivors of sexual and relationship violence, clinic escort, and birth doula. She thinks you should get tested.

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