How Housecleaning Helped Me Through a Devastating Breakup
Forget the advice you've heard about how to move on after a breakup—it's cleaning to the rescue with a mental-health boost when you need it most
When I arrived home on the mid-December day after my boyfriend of four years moved out, the only noticeable sign of his absence was that the house looked slightly cleaner. I was still desperately trying to figure out how to move on after a breakup, but he, it seemed, had no problem letting go.
I came in through the back door because my 6-year-old son and I were carrying our Christmas tree, and I was greeted by the sight of my ex’s house key neatly placed on the kitchen counter. No note. No sign that any of this was a struggle.
He hadn’t brought much furniture or other belongings with him, so there was nothing glaringly missing: no bare spot on the floor where a rug had been or picture-shaped gap in the decorations on the mantel. (I would, however, later discover that he had, inexplicably, ignored the cardboard packing boxes I’d set out for him and instead cleaned me out of every single plastic bag in the house.)
Maybe the kitchen was a little cleaner than usual, or maybe it just felt that way without him filling the space. Because he was gone, leaving my life a mess and my house the same.
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Comfort in the chaos
In the year and a half we lived together, my boyfriend had accumulated a lot of junk. There were always racks of uniform samples from his sales job. I constantly stumbled on stacks of papers haphazardly scattered about—even after I spent a few hours filing them neatly into hanging folders to surprise him.
He somehow always had loose change rattling around, and it’d fall out of his pockets or wallet. I could track where he’d been by the piles of coins that accumulated under his desk or the sofa. I found this endearing and would scoop up the change and add it to a large glass mason jar with the idea that one day his pocket change would fuel a vacation for us. He had left the jar too.
My ex’s perpetual inability to keep things neat and organized was largely due to his ADHD. He also had a tendency to misplace things—more than one pair of sunglasses were swept into the ocean when he forgot to take them off, and most mornings he had at least one false start leaving for work, then returning a few minutes later because of something he’d forgotten, like his keys.
The swirling chaos of his brain naturally spilled out into his living environment, and this should have frustrated someone like me, who organizes spice drawers for fun. But it didn’t, especially once I realized that it wasn’t laziness, inattention or weaponized incompetence on his part. Besides, he faithfully cleaned both bathrooms, my least favorite job.
So we never fought about household chores, or anything really. Moving in together was a dream, and I gladly overlooked the beard trimmings in the bathroom sink for the absolute joy of seeing his face across the kitchen table each morning as I drank my coffee. When we were still unpacking, I gladly abandoned organizing toiletries on a closet shelf to follow him to the bedroom, where our mattress was still lying bare on the carpet. Cleaning could always wait.
One day in the summer of 2020, I was in our bedroom with a basket of freshly folded laundry. Normally, I just piled his boxers and socks on top of his dresser so he could put them away himself, but that day I decided to put them in the drawers for him. I wasn’t expecting to find scores of empty liquor bottles and cans, or countless small glass vials of something whose name I had to google.
I sank onto the bed holding one of the glass bottles while my mind connected the dots: the lock he had installed on our bedroom door so he could work from home without interruptions … his more-erratic-than-usual behavior … his mother, an alcoholic. Then I got a big black garbage bag and cleaned out the dresser. It was more than halfway full by the time I was done.
When my ex got home from work, I led him upstairs and showed him the bag. He looked like a deer in the headlights. For about eight weeks afterward, he refused to have so much as a beer with dinner, but I suspect this had more to do with convincing himself he could stop anytime than making strides toward any real change.
I didn’t look in the dresser again. I knew that this was one mess I couldn’t clean up for him, and he wasn’t ready or willing to do it himself. Eventually, I gave him an ultimatum. And that’s when he packed up everything he owned in plastic bags and left.
A clean sweep
One of the tried-and-true pieces of advice about how to move on after a breakup is to do a clean sweep. Find everything that reminds you of your ex and toss it—or at least pack it away and put it in storage. After crying nonstop for a few weeks, that’s what I did. I Marie Kondo‘d the hell out of the place.
I started in the bedroom, scrubbing baseboards, deep-cleaning the carpet (and cursing him as I scrubbed the sticky red stain below the spot where his desk had stood) and wiping down windows and wood furniture. I went through every drawer and purged anything he had ever given me, save a box of photos and mementos that was banished to the attic. I rearranged the furniture so I could sleep again at night. Eventually, I even got rid of the mattress, watching from the front window with relief as it was hauled into the garbage truck.
I moved on to the bathroom, pausing while scrubbing mildew from the shower curtain to have a screaming, hysterical breakdown. Cleaning, I discovered, is good therapy, maybe the best kind for the newly single looking for how to move on after a breakup. There is a physicality to it that helps get out aggression like no session at the gym ever can, and you get the kind of instant gratification few other things in life provide. This is probably one of the reasons cleaning videos on TikTok are so popular.
Cleaning for a calmer mind
I didn’t know it at the time, but there’s scientific support for the therapeutic benefits of cleaning. Researchers have discovered that it may help people gain a sense of control over their environment. And boy, did I need some of that.
Nothing in my life had made me feel as helpless as the failure of a relationship I’d given my all to. I had been an excellent, loving partner, and our life together had been so happy and fun, the kind of life anyone would want. But hey, if I can’t have that back, at least I can have a sparkling clean showerhead.
Studies have also found that occupying your mind with a repetitive activity like cleaning can be calming and that women with messy homes have measurably higher levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. It makes sense; I’ve never been able to focus in a messy room. I can’t even watch an episode of Hoarders without my anxiety rising.
The messiness of heartbreak
I barely remember anything about the first few months after he left other than crying and cleaning, cleaning and crying. I thought that once I’d cleaned the entire house top to bottom I would have purged every trace of him as neatly as he had purged us from his life. But more than two years later, I still stumble across remnants.
Last summer, I cleaned the garage out for my son’s 8th birthday party (a DIY escape room) and broke down when I found some things my ex had left behind. This year, I thought I’d tackle the basement and found a pair of his old gym shorts inside a tent we’d set up in the backyard during the pandemic. I threw them in the trash but fell into a depression for several weeks afterward.
There is nothing neat and tidy about grief, especially the kind that comes with losing someone you love to addiction. Well-meaning people will give you all kinds of advice about how to move on after a breakup, and while most of it is true, almost none of it feels helpful at the time. You can scrub every stain from the rugs and wipe away every fingerprint they left on your furniture, but you can never erase what they touched in your life, in your heart.
A new beginning
I wish our relationship had not had such a messy ending, but today, my home and life are much less chaotic. I put down rugs, bought a desk, added plants and hung my son’s school art projects and photo collages of the two of us on the walls. I enjoy the extra closet space, and I clean regularly, even the bathrooms.
Some days it’s hard to believe anyone else ever lived here. Some days I still miss seeing beard clippings in the sink. Most days, I take a lot of peace of mind from living in a clean home. It feels like a fresh start.