Home and Loss

Renegotiating Meanings of Home in the Wake of Relationship Breakdown

How to Cite

Thompson, S. (2007). Home and Loss: Renegotiating Meanings of Home in the Wake of Relationship Breakdown. M/C Journal, 10(4). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2693
Vol. 10 No. 4 (2007): 'home'
Published 2007-08-01


Our home is the most intimate space we inhabit. It is the centre of daily existence – where our most significant relationships are nurtured – where we can impart a sense of self in both physical and psychological ways. To lose this place is overwhelming, the physical implications far-reaching and the psychological impact momentous. And yet, there is little research on what happens when home is lost as a consequence of relationship breakdown.

This paper provides an insight into how the meaning of home changes for those going through separation and divorce. Focusing on heterosexual couples, my research reveals that intense feelings of grief and loss are expressed as individuals in a relationship dispute reflect on different aspects of home which are destroyed as a consequence of their partnership collapse. Attitudes to the physical dwelling often reflect the changing nature of the relationship as it descends into crisis. There is a symbolic element as well, which is mirrored in the ways that the physical space is used to negotiate power imbalances, re-establish another life, maintain continuity for children, and as a bargaining tool to redress intense anger and frustration. A sense of empowerment eventually develops as the loss of the relationship is accepted and life adjustments made.

Home: A Place of Profound Symbolic and Physical Meaning

Home is the familiar, taken-for-granted world where most of us are nurtured, comforted and loved. Home is where we can dream and hope, relax and be ourselves, laugh and cry. For the majority, home is a safe and welcoming place, although positive associations are not universal as some experience home as a negative, threatening and unloving place. Home transcends the domestic physical structure, encompassing cultural, symbolic and psychological significance, as well as extending to the neighbourhood, city, region and nation. Home provides a sense of belonging in the world and is a refuge from the dangers and uncertainty of the environment at large. It is the centre of important human relationships and their accompanying domestic roles, rituals and routines. Home is where the bonds between partners, child and parent, brother and sister are reinforced, along with extended family members and close friends Home is a symbol of personal identity and worth, where the individual can exercise a degree of power and autonomy denied elsewhere. Significant life events, both sad and happy, learning experiences, and celebrations of varying type and magnitude, all occur at home. These are the bases for our memories of home and its importance to us, serving to imbue the notion with a sense of permanence and continuity over time. Home represents the interface between public and private worlds; a place where cultural and societal norms are symbolically juxtaposed with expressions of individuality.

There has been a range of research from “humanistic-literary” to “empirical-behavioural” perspectives showing that home has “complex, multiple but inter-related meanings” (Porteous and Smith 61). And while this intellectual endeavour covers a wide range of disciplines and perspectives (for good overviews see Blunt and Dowling; Mallett; Chapman and Hockey) research on the loss of home is more limited. Nevertheless, there are some notable exceptions. Recent work by Robinson on youth homelessness in Sydney illustrates that the loss of home affects the way in which it is desired and valued, and how its absence impacts on self identity and the grief process. Fried’s seminal and much older study also tells of intense grieving, similar to that associated with the death of a loved one, when residents were forcibly removed from their homes – places perceived as slums by the city planners. Analogous issues of sorrow are detailed by Porteous and Smith in their discussion of situations where individuals and entire communities have lost their homes. The emphasis in this moving text is on the power and lack of understanding displayed by those in authority. Power resides in the ability to destroy the home of others; disrespect is shown to those who are forced to relocate. There is no appreciation of the profound meanings of home which individuals, communities and nations hold. Similarly, Read presents a range of situations involving major disruptions to meanings of home. The impact on individuals as they struggle to deal with losing a house or neighbourhood through fire, flood, financial ruin or demolition for redevelopment, demonstrates the centrality of notions of home and the devastation that results when it is no longer. So too do the many moving personal stories of migrants who have left one nation to settle in another (Herne et al), as well as more academic explorations of the diaspora (Rapport and Dawson) and resettlement and migrant women home-making (Thompson).

Meanings of home are also disrupted, changed and lost when families and partnerships fall apart. Given the prevalence of relationship breakdown in our society, it is surprising that very little work has focussed on the changed meanings of home that follow. Cooper Marcus examined disruptions in bonding with the home for those who had to leave or were left following the end of a marriage or partnership. “The home may have been shared for many years; patterns of territory, privacy, and personalisation established; and memories of the past enshrined in objects, rooms, furniture, and plants” (222). Gram-Hanssen and Bech-Danielsen explore both the practical issues of dissolving a home, as well as the emotional responses of those involved. Anthony provides further illumination, recommending design solutions to help better manage housing for families affected by divorce. She concludes her paper by declaring that “…the housing experiences of women, men, and children of divorce deserve much further study” (15).

The paucity of research on what happens to meanings of home when a relationship breaks down was a key motivation for the current work – a qualitative study involving self-reflection of the experience of relationship loss; in-depth interviews with nine people (three men and six women from English speaking middle class backgrounds) who had experienced a major partnership breakdown; and focus group sessions and one in-depth interview with nine professional mediators (six women and three men) who work with separating couples. The mediators provided an informed overview of the way in which separating partners negotiate the loss of a shared home across the range of its physical and psychological meanings. Their reflections confirmed that the identified themes in the individual stories were typical of a range of experiences, feelings and actions they had encountered with different clients.

Relationship Breakdown and Meanings of Home: What the Research Revealed

The Symbolism of Home

The interview, focus group and reflective data all confirmed the centrality of home and its multi-dimensional meanings. Different physical and symbolic elements were uncovered, mirroring theoretical schemas in the literature. These meanings go far beyond a physical space and the objects therein. They represent different aspects of the individual’s sense of self, well-being and identity, as well as their roles and feelings of belonging in a family and the broader social and cultural setting.

Home was described as a place to be one’s self; where one can relax away from the rest of the world. Participants talked about home creating a sense of belonging and familiarity. This was achieved in many ways including physical renovation of the structure, working in the garden, enjoying the dwelling space and nurturing family relationships. As Helen said,

…the home and children go together… I created belonging by creating a space which was mine, which was always decorated in a very particular way which is mine, and which was my place of belonging for me and my kin… that’s my home – it’s just absolutely essential to me.

Home was described as an important physical place. This incorporated the dwelling as a structure and the special things that adorn it. Objects such as the marital bed, family photos, artifacts and pets were important symbols of home as a shared place. As the mediators pointed out, in the splitting up process, these often take on huge significance as a couple try to decide who has what. The division is typically the final acknowledgement that the relationship is over.

The interviewees told me that home extended beyond the dwelling into the wider neighbourhood. This encompassed networks of friendships, including relationships with local residents, business people and service providers, to the physical places frequented such as parks, shops and cafes. These neighbourhood connections were severed when the relationship broke down.

The data revealed home as a shared space where couples undertook daily tasks such as preparing meals together and doing the housework. There was pleasure in these routines which further reinforced home as a central aspect of the partnership, as Laura explained:

But for the most part it [my marriage relationship] was very amicable… easy going, and it really was a whole thing of self-expression. And the house was very much about self-expression. Even cooking. We both loved to cook, we’d have lots of dinner parties… things like that.

With the loss of the relationship the rhythm and comfort of everyday activities were shattered.

Sharing was also linked to the financial aspects of home, with the payment of a mortgage representing a combined effort in working towards ownership of the physical dwelling. While the end of a relationship usually spelt severe financial difficulty, if not disaster, it also meant the loss of that shared commitment to build a secure financial future together extending into old age.

The Deteriorating Relationship

A decline in the physical qualities of the dwelling often accompanied the demise of the inter-personal relationship. As the partnership descended into crisis, the centrality of home and its importance across both physical and symbolic elements were increasingly threatened. This shift in meaning impacted on the loss experienced and the subsequent translation into conflict and grief.

It [the house] was quite run down, but I think it kind of reflected our situation at the time which was fairly strained in terms of finances and lack of certainty about what was happening… tiny little damp house and no [friendship] network and no money and no stability, that’s how it felt. (Jill)

Not only did home begin to symbolise a battleground, it started to take on lost dreams and hopes. For Helen, it embodied a force that was greater than the relationship she had shared with her husband.

And that home became the symbol of our fight… a symbol of how closely glued we were together… And I think that’s why we had such enormous difficulty breaking up because the house actually held us together in some way … it was as though the house was a sort of a binding force of the relationship.

The home as the centre of family relationships and personal identity was threatened by the deteriorating relationship. For Jill this represented ending her dream that being a wife and mother were what she needed to define her identity and purpose in life.

I was very unhappy. I’d got these two babies, I’d got what I thought was quite a catch husband, who was doing very well… but yet somehow I felt very unhappy and insecure, very insecure, and I realised that the whole role I had carved out for myself wasn’t going to do it.

The End of the Relationship: Disruption, Explosion, Grief and Loss

While the relationship can be in crisis for many months, eventually there is a point where any hope of reconciliation disappears. For some separating couples this phase was heralded by a defining, shattering and shocking moment when it was clear that their relationship was over. Both physical and emotional violence were reported by my interviewees, including these comments from Helen.

And so my parting from the home was actually very explosive. In fact it was the first time he ever hit me, and it was in the hitting of me that I left home…

And while the final stage was not always dramatic or violent, there was a realisation that this was the end of the dream – the end of home. A deep sadness resulted, as evident in Greg’s story:

I was there in the house by myself and I can remember the house was empty, all the furniture had been shifted out…I actually shed a few tears as I left the house because…the strongest feeling I had was that this was a house that had such a potential for me. It had such a potential for a good loving relationship and I just felt that it did represent, leaving then, represented the kind of the dashing of the hope that I had in that relationship.

In some cases the end of the relationship was accompanied by feelings of guilt for shattering the home. In other cases, the home became a battleground as the partners fought over who was going to move out.

…if they’re separated under the one roof and nobody’s moved out, but certainly in one person’s mind the marriage is over, and sometimes in both… there’s a big tussle about who’s going to move out and nobody wants to go… (Mediator)

The loss of home could also bring with it a fear of never having another, as well as a rude awakening that the lost home was taken for granted. Cathy spoke of this terror.

I became so obsessed with the notion that I’d never have a home again, and I remember thinking how could I have taken so much for granted?

The end of a relationship was accompanied by a growing realisation of impending loss – the loss of familiar and well-loved surroundings. This encompassed the local neighbourhood, the dwelling space and the daily routine of married life.

I can remember feeling, [and] knowing the relationship was coming to an end, and knowing that we were going to be selling the house and we were going to be splitting…, feeling quite sad walking down the street the last few times… realising I wouldn’t be doing this much longer. I was very conscious of the fact that I was… going up and down those railway station escalators for the last few times, and going down the street for the last few times, and suddenly…[I felt]… an impending sense of loss because I liked the neighbourhood… There was also a loss in the sense of not having a physical space which I kind of wanted to live in… [I] don’t like living in small units or rented rooms… I just prefer what I see as a proper house… so downsizing [my accommodation] just kind of makes the whole emotional situation worse …there was [also] a lack of domesticity, and the kind of sharing of meals and so on that does…make you feel some sort of warmth… (Greg)

Transitions: Developing New Meanings of Home

Once there was an acknowledgment – whether a defining moment or a gradual process – that the relationship was over, a transitional phase dawned when new meanings of home began to emerge. Of the people I interviewed, some stayed on in the once shared dwelling, and others moved out to occupy a new space. Both actions required physical and psychological adjustments which took time and energy, as well as a determination to adapt. Organising parenting arrangements, dividing possessions and tentative steps towards the establishment of another life characterised this phase. While individual stories revealed a variety of transitional approaches, there were unifying themes across the data. The transition could start by moving into a new space, which as one mediator explained, might not feel like home at all.

…[one partner has] left and often left with very little, maybe just a suitcase of clothes, and so their sense of home is still the marital home or the family home, but they’re camping at a unit somewhere, or mother’s spare room or a relative’s backyard or garage or something… They’re truly homeless.

For others, while setting up a new space was initially very hard and alien, with effort and time, it could take on a home-like quality, as Helen found.

I did take things from the house. I took all the things I’d hidden in cupboards that were not used or second-hand… things that weren’t used everyday or on display or anything… things I’d take like if you were going camping… I wasn’t at home… it was awful…[but gradually]… I put things around… to make it homely for me and I would spend hours doing it, Just hours… paintings on the wall are important, and a stereo system and music was important. My books were important…and photographs became very important.

Changes in tenure could also bring about profound feelings of loss. This was Keith’s experience:

Well I’m renting now which is a bit difficult after having your own home… you feel a bit stifled in the fact that you can’t decorate it, and you can’t do things, or you can’t fix things… now I’m in a place which is drab and the colours are horrible and I don’t particularly like it and it’s awful.

The experience of remaining in the home once one’s partner leaves is different to being the one to leave the formerly shared space. However, similar adaptation strategies were required as can be seen from Barbara’s experience:

…so, I rearranged the lounge room and I rearranged the bedroom…I probably did that fairly promptly actually, so that I wasn’t walking back into the same mental images all the time…I’m now beginning to have that sense of wanting to put my mark on it, so I’ve started some painting and doing things…

Laura talked about how she initially felt scared living on her own, despite occupying familiar surroundings, but this gradually changed as she altered the once shared physical space. Sally spoke about reclaiming the physical space on her own and through these deliberative actions, empowering herself as a single person. Those with dependent children struggled in different ways during this transition period. Individual needs to either move or reclaim the existing space were often subjugated to the requirements of their off-spring – where it might be best for them to live and with whom they should principally reside.

I think the biggest issue is where the children are going to be. So whoever wants the children also wants the family home. And that’s where the pull and tug starts… it’s a big desire not to disrupt the children and to keep a smooth life for them. (Mediator)

Finally, there was a sense of moving along. Meanings of home changed as the strength of the emotional attachment weakened and those involved began to see that another life was possible. The old meanings of home had to be confronted and prized apart, just as the connections between the partners were painstakingly severed, one by one. Sally likened this time consuming and arduous process to laboriously unpicking the threads of a tightly woven cloth.

Empowerment: Meanings of Home to Mirror a New Life

…I’ve realized too that I’m the person I am today because of that experience. (Sally)

The stories of participants in this research ended with hope for the future. Perhaps this reflects my interviewees’ determination to build a new life following the loss of their relationship, most having the personal resources to work through their loss, grief and conflict. This is not however, always the case. Divorce can lead to long lasting feelings of failure, disappointment and a sense that one has “an inability to love or care…” (Ambrose 87). However, “with acceptance of the separation many come to see the break-up as having been beneficial and report feeling they have an improved quality of life” (88). This positive stance is mirrored in my mediator focus group data and other literature (for example, Cooper Marcus 222-238). Out of the painful loss of home emerges a re-evaluation of one’s priorities and a revitalized sense of self, as illustrated by Barbara’s words below.

That’s come out of the separation, suddenly going, ‘Oh, hang on, I can do what I want to do, when I want to do it’. It’s quite nice really… I’ve decided [to] start pursuing a few of the things I always wanted to do, so I’m using a bit of the space [in the house] to study… I’m doing a lot of stuff that nurtures me and my interest and my space…

Feelings of liberation were entwined with meanings of home as spaces were decorated afresh, and in some cases, a true home founded for the first time.

[since the end of the relationship]… I actually see my space differently, I want less around me, I’ve been really clearing out things, throwing things out, clearing cupboards… kind of feung shui-ing every corner and just really keeping it clear and clean… I’ve painted the whole house. It was like it needed a fresh coat of something over it… (Laura)

Empowerment embodied lessons learnt and in some cases, a more cautious redefining of home. Barbara put it this way:

I’m really scared of losing what I’ve now got [my home on my own] and that sense of independence… maybe I will not go into a relationship because I don’t want to put that at risk.

Finally, meanings of home took on different dimensions that reflected the new life and hope it engendered.

…it’s very interesting to me to be in a house now that is a very solid, square, double brick house… [I feel] that it’s much more representative of who I am now… the solidness is very much me… I feel as though I inhabit my home more now… I have much more sense of peace around my home now than I did then in the previous house… it’s the space where I feel extremely comfortable… a space to meditate on… I’m home – I can now be myself… (Helen)

I don’t know whether… [my meaning of home] is actually a physical structure any more…Now it’s come more into … surrounding myself with things that I love, like you know bits and pieces that you can take, your photographs and your pet… it’s really much more about being happy I think, and being happy in a space with somebody that you love, rather than living in a box like a prison, with somebody that you really despise (Keith)


… the physical moving out from my own home was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my entire life. (Jane)

The trauma of divorce is a crisis that occurs in many of our lives, and one which often triggers a profound dislocation in person-dwelling relations. (Cooper Marcus 222)

This paper has presented insights into the ways in which multi-dimensional meanings of home change when an intimate familial relationship breaks down. The nature and degree of the impacts vary from one individual to another, as do the ways in which the identifiable stages of relationship breakdown play out in different partnership situations. Nevertheless, this research revealed a transformative journey – from the devastation of the initial loss to an eventual redefining of home across its symbolic, psychological and physical constructs.

Author Biography

Susan Thompson