The bed, the books, the Chagall poster, the photo albums and the empty bookshelf pile up, making one reluctant to move. The box that used to serve as a bedside table and the notes we saved from college courses are left behind. People average four moves in a lifetime, although the numbers have increased since the 2008 financial crisis and then again with start of the coronavirus pandemic. With each change of address, it is not uncommon to wonder: will this be the last move, what will the neighbors be like, who will live in the previous home, and how long will it take to adapt?
Moving can be welcome or obligatory, depending on the reason for the change of address: starting a new life as a couple, the birth of a child, a divorce, an economic crisis, a climatic disaster, moving from one city or country to another, and so on. Moving can also be related to one’s personality style. Psychologists Markus Jokela and Liisa Keltikangas-Järvinen of the University of Helsinki conducted a 2008 study in which they found that some people are more open to the experience and less fearful of moving than others. While some people enjoy living as nomads, others long for stability. These differences are likely related to how people interpret the act of acquiring a property and the importance of settling down in a permanent place.
This is normal. In A House for Mr. Biswas, V.S. Naipaul wrote that searching for a home symbolizes the human obsession with finding a place to belong in the world. Sometimes, that decision prioritizes the emotional part, as when looking for a place in a specific part of a city; other times, more practical concerns take precedence, such as finding an apartment in a building with an elevator. But it is logical to expect that one’s new home will become a place of secure attachment, much like the sensation that defines a happy childhood. As Gaston Bachelard says in The Poetics of Space: “The house is one of the greatest powers of integration for the thoughts, memories and dreams of mankind… Without it, man would be a dispersed being. It maintains him through the storms of the heavens and through those of life. It is body and soul. It is the human being’s first world.”
Moving resembles the grieving process. Any change of location means saying goodbye to material objects, a neighborhood, relationships and the experiences associated with that inhabited space, which, with the passage of time, will become memories. Leaving a place that we consider safe provokes emotions like sadness, fear, anxiety and uncertainty that stem from a sensation of loss. But that’s not always the case. For example, leaving a cruel home in which violence has occurred can be a relief.
In addition to the emotional burden of moving, the process often causes physical exhaustion. Tasks such as deciding what to take, packing boxes, cleaning and exchanging documents require effort and patience. The change in routines, habits and the lack of time during the moving period trigger feelings of vulnerability because people feel like they’re in no man’s land. If the moving process is done as a family or as a couple, each person has a different opinion, which can increase feelings of discomfort.
Certain strategies can make the moving process more bearable. Organizing the tasks to allow for enough time to accomplish everything that needs to be done helps. It is important to create closure and bid farewell to all that is left behind; having a dinner or writing or mentally reviewing the most significant moments in the home one is leaving serve to honor the stage of life that is coming to an end. If there are children involved in the move, they should be included in the process; explain to them why you are moving, where you are going and how it is all going to be accomplished.
Once the move has been made, one has to normalize the small discomforts at the beginning of life in a new home, such as the mess or the feeling of being a stranger in a new environment. At moments of weakness, tiredness or doubt following the move, one can connect to the feeling of enormous effort and the hours of work and sacrifice that one has put into the change. One must also evaluate the positive aspects that the new home will afford, for example, a reduction in monthly expenses, a better neighborhood or the possibility of setting new goals such as recycling or improving culinary skills. One can also take the opportunity to fantasize about new things and celebrate them.
The new home’s interior design will be done according to needs, budget and lifestyle. Families and more social people attach greater importance to spaces that revolve around sharing time with others. Others choose to prioritize the spaces in which they can be more independent, as Virginia Woolf advocated in A Room of One’s Own. In short, enjoy the adventure of turning your new house into a new home.
Patricia Fernández Martín is a clinical psychologist at the Ramón y Cajal Hospital in Madrid, Spain.
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