When I left my marriage of seven years, I took almost nothing with me. A few family heirlooms, my books, my clothes, my beloved Le Creuset Dutch oven and All-Clad stock pot. Mostly, I just wanted out and so I left the house and everything else inside it behind. I moved into my friend's guest bedroom with three suitcases to begin my new life, my way.
The wedding registry tradition is a relic from when couples moved straight out of their parents' homes into a marital one, and they really did need help building their lives as adults for the first time. Now, it remains in favor as a way to guide loved ones toward gifts an engaged pair actually wants. What isn't yet customary — but should be — is a divorce registry. Because, hear me out, that's when you really need help starting a home.
Everything a couple once shared must be divided up, even if one person doesn't leave most of their belongings with their ex, like I did. Even in the most equitable scenarios, that means one partner ends up owning only half the things they did before, and their favorite casserole dish or set of silverware will inevitably walk out the door. And what's preventing these registries from being the norm already? Nothing, it seems, other than run-of-the-mill stigma surrounding divorce.
For example, in my state of Massachusetts, I was required to take a custody class about co-parenting, the facilitator of which snidely observed that "some liberals" are now making divorce registries, as if requiring kitchen utensils in order to cook is part of a progressive agenda. And while every few years there are musings about the need for divorce registries from women who wished they'd had one, it seems that most stores and sites haven't yet gotten the memo.
Once I started looking for places to set up a registry, I was pretty limited to pretending I was having a wedding or baby — unless I went with Amazon (which I avoid because of its ties to ICE) or Target (which would limit me to one single store). Bed, Bath, and Beyond expands its offerings to include 'housewarming' as an occasion to register, which surely divorcing people could use, and Crate and Barrel offers the even more generic 'celebration.' The Knot, true to its name, sticks to the wedding theme, and while the many baby registry platforms weren't nuptial-related, they were full of items that would not be relevant for the stage of life I was in.
I decided to go with Zola. I liked that site best because you can collect items from all around the internet onto one registry, and the blue-and-teal color scheme made it easier to forget I was on a wedding-planning website. But it was still a wedding registry, which required naming a partner (I chose myself; my registry was for "Britni and Britni") and a wedding date (I picked the day I closed on my new condo: February 21, 2020).
But then I found actually registering harder than I'd anticipated. I struggled with feelings of guilt. What did I actually need? What would I feel comfortable asking people to buy for me? These feelings never came up when I registered for my wedding (and asked for gifts my partner and I wanted, like a VitaMix, because we'd already cohabited for years), probably because I knew people would be expecting us to. In this case, I was going against norms.
When it came time to distribute the registry, rather than email it around I posted it to social media, which felt less like I expected anyone to buy anything off it and more like I was giving them a choice to engage with the post. I felt awkward directing people to a website designed for people who are getting married, but I turned "Britni and Britni's Registry" into a joke — my way of deflecting some of the vulnerability I felt around asking for help getting a coffee maker and drinking glasses and a charcuterie board. This, by the way, horrified my mother (while she was proud to send my wedding registry to everyone she knows, as far as I know she sent my divorce registry to no one, though she did purchase something from it.)
I asked Zola whether they had any intention of expanding their registry-customization offerings to be more inclusive. "One of the key features of Zola is personalization," says Emily Forrest Skurnik, Zola's Director of Communications, but "I cannot say that I have seen a divorce registry." According to Skurnik, Zola's "focus is on supporting couples throughout the entire wedding life stage," from engagement through the wedding. That does not include divorce, even though 40% of marriages or more will end in divorce, making it a common part of the marriage experience.
But they may be missing out on a big market by ignoring the end of marriage to only focus on the beginning. The overwhelming response to my registry was from divorced friends, who kept saying, "I wish I had done this." Starting over after a divorce is a financial burden and one that disproportionately impacts women (or keeps them in unhappy marriages). Divorce registries can be one way to relieve that burden. That's what happened for 35-year-old editor Amelia Edelman when a friend suggested she make one after her husband left, leaving her suddenly a single parent and solo breadwinner.
"My ex had left me the house but taken so many useful random things (the sofa! the damn vacuum!) that I kept not having the time or money to re-buy for myself and my son in my new frantic life," says Edelman, who now works at Meredith, the company that publishes InStyle. Hers was a "super simple and nothing fancy" Target registry, full of "the most boring items like bath mats and sippy cups and the aforementioned vacuum." Edelman hadn't had a baby shower or wedding registry. "I just never felt a real need to ask people to buy me [things] — until I found myself divorced and solo parenting and paying alimony. Then, I was just like YES FRIENDS, PLEASE BUY ME A VACUUM."
“Let’s spend on our friends when they need us, shall we?”
When someone gets divorced, often their friends and social circles want to show up but aren't quite sure how. That's what happened for me; people reached out wanting to help, but I wasn't keen on asking for emotional support beyond my closest circle. A registry gave me something concrete to point to. It was a low-effort way for others to help me, requiring just a few clicks.
People I hadn't spoken to in years chipped in after seeing my registry posted on social media. "I know we lead very different lives, but I still stan the hell out of you," read the note that arrived with a Pyrex tupperware set. "It's so inspiring how much ass you continually kick." A rice cooker showed up its own little note: "Congrats! It's so great to see you truly happy!"
Because that's the other thing my registry allowed me to do: reclaim the narrative of my divorce on my own terms, just the way picking a certain towel or dish set allows an engaged couple to envision their future together. By choosing the items I wanted to fill my new home, I was deciding for myself exactly how my new life would begin to take shape. Divorce is so often spoken about with sad framing, as if a marriage failed, particularly among straight people. (When I shared my news with queer friends, they tended to say congrats, a much more fitting response for me, as I was leaving my marriage to live the queer life of my dreams.) My divorce has been liberating; making a gift registry implies that it is cause for celebration.
For some people, it literally is a time to celebrate (divorce parties are a thing, after all). Chinenye Nkemere, the 32-year-old co-founder of a non-profit, had two separate groups of friends fete her divorce: one after she left her husband of almost seven years, and another after their paperwork was signed a year later. Nkemere says the parties were "wonderful, heartfelt, and most importantly fun. "Even if the events surrounding the need for a registry aren't happy ones, the registry itself can be a bright spot." And what brings a little dose of brightness like a gift?
Edelman, who fittingly covers finance for Real Simple and other magazines, hopes to see registries of all kinds normalized. "I just want us to flip the script on when and how we spend money on our friends and family," she says. "Because American culture has normalized asking people to spend that kind of money on your wedding, but when you get divorced, or lose a job, or get sick, or miscarry, or have an abortion, or need to pay for your parents' cancer treatment, the culture goes quiet. And so do their bank accounts. Let's spend on our friends when they need us, shall we?" I wholeheartedly agree. Having my friends help me fill my home was a tangible way for me to know I was going to be OK. Every time I pull down a glass that someone bought for me, I'm reminded that my community will hold me during the times I need them most. My divorce registry gave me the ability to let them.
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