Divorce, the Disposition of the Relationship, and Everything


James H. McAlexander (1991) ,"Divorce, the Disposition of the Relationship, and Everything", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 43-48.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991     Pages 43-48


James H. McAlexander, Oregon State University

[The author wishes to thank Sheila Heidman, Scott D. Roberts and John W. Schouten for their assistance with this project.]

The disposition of possessions has been a neglected facet of consumer behavior. Yet, in some situations, the disposition of certain possessions can be more important, emotionally and symbolically, to consumers than their acquisition (Belk 1988; Belk, Wallendorf and Sherry 1989). One time that disposition may take on such a preeminent role for consumers is during times of transition (Young and Wallendorf 1989). In order to explore the relationship between the disposition of possessions and life transitions, this paper examines the disposition of possessions that accompanies divorce. This paper discusses two themes that address the disposition of marital possessions: "Disposition to Break Free", and "Disposition to Hold On." These themes have emerged from a qualitative study that more broadly examines divorce and its implications for consumer behavior.


During the course of our lives, we encounter a never-ending series of transitions. As we go through these transitional times, such as changing jobs, getting married, or moving to a new city, we leave the comfort of our known status, experience a period of disequilibrium, and begin to assimilate into a new status and make appropriate role adaptations (Glaser and Strauss 1971; Rosow 1976; Van Germep 1960). As recent research suggests, these times of transition can have profound implications for consumer behavior (Andreason 1984; McAlexander and Schouten 1989; Mehta and Belk 1991; Schouten 1991; Solomon 1983). For example, consumer behavior research has begun to explore how consumers modify their assortment of possessions to reflect changes in their self concept (Solomon 1983; Mehta and Belk 1991). Consumer behavior research also has explored the role possessions can play in easing or aggravating the stresses inherent to significant life transitions (McAlexander and Schouten 1989).

The Divorce Transition

There are few status transitions one can experience that are of greater personal consequence than divorce (cf. Berman and Turk 1981; Johnson 1988; Wallerstein and Kelly 1980). As the divorcing partners work out the dissolution of their marriage, the most important components of their life structure may change (Levinson 1978). For example, divorce necessitates the redefinition of one's most important relationships, including relationships with children, parents, friends, and professional colleagues (Bohannon 1970; Spanier and Casto 1979; Weingarten 1988).

Divorce is an interesting transition to study from the perspective of consumer behavior. In the midst of addressing important interpersonal problems, the divorcing partners must also accomplish other practical consumer oriented tasks, including the disposition of shared possessions. Possessions, including those that were meaningful to the couple, as well as those that were functionally necessary in running a household, must be divided and/or disposed of. While seemingly a trivial concern when compared to the interpersonal challenges facing the dissolving dyad (like redefining parent/child relationships), it would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of the disposition of marital possessions. Since possessions are integral to the definition of self, and the expression and performance of roles (Belk 1988; Solomon 1983), the disposition of them necessarily communicates important changes both to the consumer and to others (Young and Wallendorf 1989).


This paper reports the results of depth interviews with eighteen divorced informants. Interviews were conducted by the author and three colleagues who have had training and experience in qualitative research methods. The interviews were audio-taped, and the transcription of those tapes, supplemented with field notes prepared by the interviewers, comprise the data base that was used in this study.

Data collection and analysis were guided by the constant comparative method (Glaser and Strauss 1967), and techniques specified by Miles and Huberman (1984). This iterative process of data collection and analysis was supplemented by an extensive literature review. The literature offered a number of valuable insights and emphasized the importance of purposively sampling for diversity in variables such as family composition, length of marriage, the role played in initiating the divorce, gender, and socioeconomic status (Gerstel 1988; Kaslow and Schwartz 1987; Kitson, Babri and Roach 1985; Bloom and Clement 1984; Spanier and Casto 1979: Weiss 1975).


Data analysis yielded a number of themes that stressed the important role that the disposition of marital possessions plays in the divorce process. Two prominent themes that emerged in the analysis will be discussed in this paper: "Disposition to Break Free" and "Disposition to Hold on." The cases of two informants are presented in order to illustrate these themes.

Disposition to Break Free

Informants were able to use the disposition or possessions to help free themselves from their marital relationship. This was frequently a goal of informants who initiated the divorce. Initiators are those partners who claim responsibility for the divorce decision and who feel a sense of control over the process (Buehler 1987; Vaughan 1986). One way informants used disposition to help free themselves from their marital relationship was to accept a disproportionately small property settlement: keeping fewer possessions and assuming more financial obligations than their spouses. One informant, Ben Preston (pseudonym), illustrates this theme particularly well. Ben Preston (wm, 33) is a partner in a San Antonio law firm. His divorce in 1987 came after a ten year marriage. Ben had met his wife in high school and married her when he was nineteen and she was eighteen. He and his former spouse have two children: a girl, then five, and a boy, then two years old.

In recounting the events that led to his divorce, Ben reported that the inevitability of his divorce became apparent to him as he was completing his law school education. As Ben was preparing to leave law school, and begin the transition into his new professional status, he confronted a dilemma commonly encountered by upwardly mobile people (Glaser and Strauss 1971): he found many elements of his existing life structure to be incompatible with his professional and personal aspirations. As he entered his new career, Ben sought to become the archetypal "Yuppie Lawyer". Among the elements of Ben's life structure that he felt would hinder his ability to accomplish professional and personal goals were his wife and children (from S.R. field notes):

She (his wife) was a "Yokel," he says, and when going to professional functions together "she would say things that would embarrass the hell out of me." He says he would think at those times, "God, how do I shut her up?" He says she just "didn't seem to have the skills to operate around" the kinds of people Ben needed to spend time with in his career...The kids were also a part of "the whole thing I was avoiding."

Similarly, Ben found himself surrounded by possessions from his marriage that were inconsistent with the creation of his desired status (from S.R. field notes):

He thinks that it is incredible that in ten years of marriage they did not acquire anything he considers valuable. Blaming his former spouse, he complains, "She bought all this shit." He characterizes her as having "KMart taste," that people like her really thrive on getting a "blue-light special at K-Mart," rather than buying things of lasting quality.

Confronted with a life structure that was seemingly incompatible with his new aspirations, Ben chose to disassociate himself from his current situation and reconfigure his life structure. In Ben's case, the disassociation from his former life necessitated divorcing his wife, accepting limited visitation with his children, leaving his church, and giving up most of the shared possessions from his marriage. The only possessions that he reported keeping were possessions that predated his marriage or were newly acquired and a part of his professional life: an old comic book collection from his youth, professional books, and old record albums. As described by Mehta and BeLk (1991), Ben "cleansed himself" of those things that constituted his former life.

While the disposition of possessions played a central part in Ben's departure from his former, now undesired, life structure, it also served an important function in easing his departure from his marriage: it eased the guilt he felt for leaving his wife and children. Even though divorce is common in our culture, divorce remains stigmatizing and frequently leaves divorcing partners with a sense of personal guilt (Gerstel 1987; Kaslow and Schwartz 1987; Berman and Turk 1981; Trafford 1982; Kessler 1975). One way that initiators can ease these feelings of guilt is by sacrificing possessions to their former spouses in the property division that accompanies the divorce (Wallerstein and Kelly 1980; Weiss 1975). That Ben's decision to relinquish his claim to most of the shared possessions from his marriage was an attempt to assuage his guilt was evident in the interview (S.R. field notes):

He felt sorry for her, like "she was sorta helpless and kinda stupid" about the process. He says that is why she got the good car. He was also concerned that she and the kids didn't "go back to 'Butcher Holler,"' so he tried to make sure she had the things that would prevent that.


Ben's desire, in his own words, was to "check out" of his former status, and to establish a new identity. One way that he accomplished this was by disposing of those things that comprised his former life structure: his wife, children, religion, and possessions. The disposition of possessions played at least two parts in assisting Ben's departure from his former life structure. First, by leaving most shared possessions with his wife, Ben was able to leave behind artifacts that tied him to a previous, undesired identity. The void left by purging his former household goods created an opportunity for him to acquire new possessions, possessions that helped establish a new, distinctively different identity. Second, by relinquishing ownership of these possessions to his former wife, he was able to ease his conscience, facilitating his psychic break from the marriage. By granting ownership of these possessions to his wife, he felt comfort in knowing that he was able to provide her and the children a reasonable standard of living.

Ben presents one way that disposition can be used to break free from the relationship. Informants reported other strategies that assisted them in severing ties with their former spouses. One strategy that informants adopted was to cooperatively divide possessions. Informants reported cooperatively dividing possessions by distributing them evenly according to their economic value, by dividing them according to some personal identification with a specific spouse, and by taking turns selecting items from the household inventory. The cooperative division of possessions seemed to ease the divorce transition for informants. Informants who used this disposition heuristic reported that they felt fairly treated and that they received an equitable settlement in the division of marital assets. - Another method that spouses used to break themselves free of their marital relationship was to use the disposition process as a tool for communication (Young and Wallendorf 1989). By intentionally damaging or discarding valued possessions, spouses were able to communicate the unequivocal termination of the relationship. Spouses who initiate this strategy convey to their former partners the fruitlessness of reconciliation attempts, and as a result are able to overcome some of their partners' resistance to the divorce.

Disposition to Hold On

Sometimes a spouse does not seek a divorce, but would rather cling to their partner and repair the marriage. Informants were able to use the disposition process to help hold on to a partner and maintain some form of relationship. One way informants accomplished this goal was to retain control of key possessions as the partners disposed of marital assets. Rose Hillary (pseudonym) presents an interesting example of this strategy as she attempts to hold on to her marital relationship. Rose (wf, 42) is a homemaker, and undergraduate accounting student. Her divorce in 1988 came after a twenty year marriage. She and her former spouse have one child, a boy, who was thirteen years old when they divorced.

Rose's divorce was, in her own words, one of those "unshocking surprises." Her marriage had been deteriorating for the last ten years. The divorce, however, was not her idea. As a devout Catholic, Rose believes that she should have "stuck it out." Moreover, while her marriage may have had problems, Rose found the life structure that accompanied her marriage to be comfortable and secure. As a homemaker, she enjoyed being immersed in the challenges of raising her son and her many community activities.

In some ways, it appeared in the interviews, Rose does not consider herself divorced. For example, she has chosen not to date. Instead of establishing new intimate relationships through dating, Rose finds satisfaction in the good relationship she maintains with her former spouse. To encourage this relationship, she allows her ex-husband to approach her for support and advice with even the most intimate details of his life, including details of relationships with new girlfriends. She thinks that his willingness to confide in her is due to her understanding of him: "I know him better than just about anybody else." Likewise, she seeks his advice when she has problems or makes important decisions. For example, he played a significant role in both her decision to enter school and the selection of her major.

Rose's tactics during the disposition of marital possessions further indicate a desire to maintain a close relationship with her former spouse. For example, when the couple were dividing up their possessions, Rose willingly accepted possession of the "battered" family mini-van, and allowed her husband to keep the Camaro IROC-Z. Her acquiescence to this settlement appears in pan to reflect her acknowledgement that the Camaro is an important part of her ex-husband's extended self concept (Belk 1988).

Interviewer: You are sort of attached to the Camaro, you talk about it as though you still like the car. It' s really recognizable as something you identify with. Rose: Oh, yeah. It is a part of him because black is the color of a car if he has the choice. it's just him. He wants a Corvette but he can't afford it yet. It's just the kind of car he's always wanted, he likes fast cars. But the significance is it's hi n. (Rose transcript)

Another motive for her willingness to allow him to keep the Camaro is that its distinctive appearance makes it possible for her to monitor his life through his car:

Rose: The way I found out he had a girlfriend was that he had to go on a business trip and I just casually asked him if he was going to leave his car at the airport. And he said, "well part of the time." Where is it going to be the rest of the time? "Well, somebody is going to pick it up." Do you have a girlfriend? He said, "yes." It's a good thing he told me because I know his license number and if I had seen her driving it I probably would have called the cops. (Rose transcript)

By allowing her ex-husband to have the car, she is able to both literally and symbolically (as part of his extended self concept) watch over him by watching out for his car.

Another way she maintains a relationship with her former spouse is that she allows her home to be a repository for her former husband's possessions. Rather than insisting that her exhusband remove his possessions from her home, she keeps some of his furniture, clothes, and other items. Storing these possessions serves several purposes for Rose. First, by keeping some of her husband's possessions she is able to evoke memories and feelings that link Rose to her past and to her husband (Belk 1989; Csikszentmihaly and Rochberg-Halton 1981). However, Rose's selection of possessions to keep transcends the reflective qualities that they may possess. Her willingness to keep her husband's furniture, his work clothes and tools, and his broken calculator, is motivated by the unique properties that each of these possessions have that support her efforts to maintain connections with her former spouse.

When Rose's husband left her, he left most of the furniture for her. He subsequently purchased new furniture for his separate apartment. Recently, he has begun to cohabitate with a new girlfriend. As they melded their furnishings, they found that much of the newly acquired furniture was not needed. As a result, he took the furniture to Rose's house, where she now uses some of the pieces and stores others. Rose's acceptance of this warehousing role does not appear to be motivated solely by her generosity towards her spouse. When asked what possessions she would take with her when she makes an impending move from her large house to a smaller place, she offered insight into her "generosity":

Rose: I'd like to take the couch that he bought because it's a hide-a-bed. He doesn't seem to care a whole lot, other than he said his girlfriend wants the couch he bought. She is a little bit of a fly in the ointment. She has major major hang ups with our relationship. (Rose transcript)

Apparently, by keeping the couch and other furnishings, Rose feels she is able to have some impact upon her former husband's new relationship.

Among the possessions that Rose stores are her former spouse's work clothes and tools. Keeping these articles serves Rose in two ways. First, their presence in her home dictates that her husband must visit the house in order to use these tools and clothes. Second, Rose has visions of refinishing the den, and seems to think that ha exhusband will accomplish this task. By keeping these possessions she facilitates this goal, and maintains some hope that he will make the desired modifications to the house.

Another possession Rose has kept is a calculator that was a gift that she had given to her husband. Early in the interview, when asked to describe gifts that she had given ha spouse, she reminisced:

Rose: he only had one quarter of college when we got married so he went through the rest after we got married. I was squirreling away five dollars a paycheck towards a stereo and then he needed the calculator so I gave him the money so he could buy his calculator. That's when they were a lot of money. But I didn't have the whole price, and the look on his face when I handed him the money was...(long pause). But you know the calculator doesn't work anymore and I don't know how much significance he still attaches to it.. Interviewer: It's still around though? Rose: It's still in the desk. But he would never throw it away. But you see, he's not the kind that you would know what he thinks about you. (Rose transcript)

The non-functioning calculator is kept separate from other household possessions, hidden away in the desk, apparently taking on qualities of sacredness (Belk, Wallendorf and Sherry 1989). Further evidence that some of her ex-husband's possessions have assumed sacred status is suggested by her unwillingness to move one of her husband's shirts from her son's closet: the place it has occupied since he left.


Rose would prefer not to be divorced. As a result, she adopts strategies that help her to preserve her former identity and to maintain traditional spousal roles. Through selectively parting with some possessions and assenting to keep others, Rose was able to use the disposition process to aid in accomplishing this goal. By giving up the "nice car," Rose is able to continue to watch over her husband and continue to drive the "family car". By keeping her husband's tools and work clothes, she facilitates her ex-spouse's visits and accommodates performance of his traditional role as household handy-man. By keeping some of his newly acquired possessions (like the couch), Rose is able to maintain some control over her former spouse's relationships. Clearly, Rose was able to use the disposition process as an integral part of her quest to resist the divorce; to this point, she has not made the psychic break (Bohannon 1970) from her marriage.

Rose presents one way that disposition can be used to hold on to the relationship. Another strategy used by our informants to help them maintain a relationship with their former spouses can be best described as "chattel as battlefield." By quarreling over possessions, spouses are able to keep their marital relationship alive (Weiss 1979). The possessions that informants fought over were not always financially or psychically valuable. But, by fighting over these possessions, spouses were able to prolong relationships with their partners and delay the divorce transition.


This study emphasizes the important role that the disposition of possessions plays in the lives of consumers. As suggested by others (cf. Wallendorf and Young 1989; Mick 1986), the disposition of possessions has powerful symbolic properties and can convey very important meanings to consumers. By studying the division of marital assets that accompanies divorce, this study illustrates how disposition can be used to assist in the termination of existing life structures, and facilitate or impede difficult life transitions.

The two cases presented in this report provide contrasting examples of the integral role that the disposition of possessions can play in the negotiation of major life transitions. Both Ben and Rose dispose of some of their marital assets, but they do so for very different reasons. Ben uses disposition to liberate himself from his former life, and Rose uses disposition to bind herself to her former life. The possessions Ben chooses to keep either predate his marriage, or are strictly related to his career. The possessions Rose chooses to keep are designed to perpetuate her former life structure. For Ben, his former life structure represented an array of undesired constraints. Now that he is divorced, Ben feels a sense of independence that he never felt when he was married. For Rose, her former life structure represented a comfortable, secure environment, and her divorce has shaken her sense of identity. Rose continues to cling to her former life. Clearly, for these informants the disposition of marital possessions represented much more than the economic division of assets. The ordinary act of disposing of marital possessions can have very different and important meanings for consumers.

Much of the extant literature in the area of disposition has as its focus issues related to how consumers dispose of products and how the disposition of products relates to subsequent purchases (cf. Jacoby, Berning and Dietvorst 1977). While these are certainly important concerns, future research also should more fully explore the subjective importance of disposition to consumers. Insufficient attention has been paid to this significant facet of consumer behavior. Future research needs to better explore the symbolic, emotional, and behavioral consequences of disposition in the lives of consumers.


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James H. McAlexander, Oregon State University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18 | 1991

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