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How to pack for a move without ruining your relationship

A 2015 study by British energy company E.ON UK suggested that people find moving more stressful than divorce.

. Globe staff/Adobe Stock

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One couple I know recalls their move from Puerto Rico to Washington, D.C., in the early 1970s with horror.

The morning the movers arrived, they were not prepared, to say the least, and threw things into boxes last minute, questioning what to take and what to leave behind, arguing the whole time. The situation was made more unpleasant by the hangovers they’d earned after inviting friends over the night before to finish off all of the liquor so they wouldn’t have to pack it — as any self-respecting 25-year-olds would.


Moving, experts say, is one of life’s most stressful events. A 2015 study by British energy company E.ON UK suggested that people find moving more stressful than divorce.

And if you’re in a relationship, you share the stress with someone you love.

Someone you might love, ahem, a little less during the moving process.

My family moved recently, and while ours was a happy event — just one town over to a bigger house and several miles closer to my husband’s new job — I wouldn’t say the weeks spent decluttering, packing, and budgeting for home improvements were hallmarked by our finest moments of marital harmony.

The paint job on our new house cost how much, my husband wanted to know as I sheepishly explained a few line items in our checking account. Meanwhile, I wondered whether he would really notice should I “accidentally’’ put the very heavy box of his Rolling Stone magazines — which I kept tripping over — into the recycling bin.

Moving can be specifically stressful for couples, said Somaia Mohamed, a psychologist who practices in the New Haven area. Besides all of the potential for fights over mundane stresses, like the ones my husband and I experienced, moves are often tied to other major life events, which couples must navigate in tandem.


A common reason for moving is that one half of the couple has gotten a new job, for example.

“Couples move to enhance one person’s career, and the other person feels like: Is this good for my career, or am I just tagging along?’’ Mohamed said. “The person who feels like they’ve been moved sometimes resents that and feels that the other partner should make up for it somehow. But the other person is wrapped up in their new situation.’’

Couples therapy isn’t something reserved for those with “bigger issues’’ and can help with the stress, she said.

Also, be nice to yourselves, Mohamed said, suggesting that couples who can afford it should order in food, take family and friends up on their offers to babysit, and get plenty of sleep to counteract the inherit anxiety of moving.

It’s important that both you and your partner feel supported, she said.

Mel Schwartz, a psychotherapist who practices in Westport, Conn., and Manhattan and authored the book “The Possibility Principle,’’ agreed: “A move brings up a lot of uncertainty,’’ Schwartz said. “Although we can plot it out and make plans, we can’t be sure how it’s all going to work out, how you’re going to feel in a new home, and what your children will think of a new school.’’


This simmering unpredictability can amp up the potential for disagreements. So checking in with each other during a move is key, especially when one partner is more comfortable with the change than the other, he said. “It’s important to be empathic and compassionate. So often we fall into trouble because of unasked questions. We need to validate one another’s feelings.’’

“Moving is one of the most stressful events,’’ said Sarah Buckwalter, founder of Organizing Boston, which specializes in home and office organization and moves. “I think it’s like anything with couples. Major decisions and division of responsibilities can be challenging because it requires an extra level of communication.’’

That being said, she strongly recommends both. Divvying up duties while keeping communication lines open with your partner can improve all aspects of a move.

She recommends starting with a detailed list, whether it’s homemade or provided by a professional (Organizing Boston gives clients a set of moving checklists). Individuals, couples, and families alike should lay out every step, from booking movers — as many months in advance as possible, especially in a busy city like Boston — to switching utilities to your new address.

Agreeing on a budget can be particularly important for couples, and she mentioned a few money-saving tips: moving in the middle of the week or in an off-season (winter vs. spring) will save money; you can often find needed supplies, like moving boxes, by asking around on social networks; and as for the actual cost on moving day, she suggests making it “easy on the movers’’ by color-coding and labeling boxes so the moving team knows where to put them, making the move less time-consuming and less costly.


As for the tough work of decluttering — which she strongly recommends doing in advance of a move — the anxiety associated with deciding what to keep and what to give up provides ample room for arguments, Buckwalter said. Angry that your spouse insists on keeping his large collection of concert T-shirts (or, in my case, copies of Rolling Stone)? Let it go, she suggested, and concentrate instead on your own personal belongings and the bigger picture.

“One of my tips when it comes to moving with couples and families is to deal with your own stuff and don’t try to direct the other person with theirs,’’ she said.

She also recommends a “use it or lose it’’ policy to clients, suggesting they use up their cleaning supplies, toiletries, food, and other items, not buying much in the few months prior to a move. “If there’s stuff you didn’t even touch, that’s a good indication you can get rid of it,’’ she said.

Rhea Becker, a professional organizer with Boston area-based The Clutter Queen, agrees that a divide-and-conquer attitude helps couples avoid moving-related spats; in fact, she usually insists on working with one person at a time when helping a couple organize or move. “Otherwise it can get into discussions that really slow down the process,’’ Becker said.

She recommends starting the decluttering/packing process two to three months out from the move, delegating tasks as they make sense to the couple or family.


“If one of you is a big cook, then perhaps that person would be designated to handle the kitchen, and if someone has a study, then they would be handling that room,’’ she said. And with two people in two different rooms, the work flows in double time.

To streamline the process further, she suggests having moving boxes in the room while working, “so as you are making decisions, you can pack things.’’ Pack the least-used items first, and make sure you’ve got necessities like the coffee maker and toothbrushes accessible for that first overnight in the new place. If your layout allows it, put all the moving boxes in one or two rooms, so you can continue living a normal life in the rest of the house or apartment until moving day.

Well, semi-normal, anyway. Because even the best-organized moves are disruptive, unpredictable and just not that much fun for couples. Or anyone.

But in addition to mastering the logistics, a change in attitude can help. When it comes to the sadness and anxiety that can headline a move, Schwartz advises adopting a philosophical viewpoint that seems overly simplistic, but he believes really works.

“Ask yourself, ‘What am I stressed about?’ And if it’s the uncertainty, we need to change our relationship with that,’’ he said.

In other words, whether the move is cross-country or just a few blocks away, try getting a new perspective.


Remember that change is difficult but also exciting.

“I think it’s about looking at it differently,’’ he continued. “We can see it as something new and have a sense of adventure about it.’’

Cara McDonough can be reached at [email protected]. Subscribe to the Globe’s free real estate newsletter — our weekly digest on buying, selling, and design — at Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @globehomes


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