Moving on after a divorce

15th January, 2005

Dear Economist,

Two years ago my wife and I divorced on fairly amicable terms and I now live alone (with the cat) in our former home. The problem is my ex-wife is still present in that her stamp is still on the house – decor, furniture etc. I get hopelessly emotional if I want to change anything and I simply don’t have her talent for making a home. How can I move on?
— Mr B, West Country

Dear Mr B,
You should have no trouble hiring a designer or securing advice from friends. Your problem lies elsewhere. Essentially, you are trapped in a situation of time inconsistency: you write suggesting that you would like to rid yourself of the furniture your ex-wife chose, but admit that you don’t have the spine to go through with it.

Governments suffer similarly. They promise low tax rates to encourage businesses to invest, but nobody believes they will be able to stick to the promise, so they get the worst of both worlds: low taxes and low investment. If some binding commitment could be made, everyone would be better off. The clever leader writers of the FT recently compared such commitments to Odysseus’s idea of tying himself to his ship’s mast to listen to the siren song in safety.

You, too, could commit yourself by going on holiday and instructing a trusted friend to sell the contents of the house while you are away. But I have my qualms about helping one side of your split personality. Sometimes you wish to wipe the slate clean; at other times you want to preserve your memories. What business has an economist choosing one of these emotions over another?

Perhaps you just need to forget your obsession with interior design. Your inspiration should come from Alexander, not Odysseus. Cut through the Gordian knot: get out and find yourself a girlfriend.

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