There's a scene in HGTV's new show "Unspouse My House" when the divorced homeowner, Michelle, a single mom of two, says to Orlando Soria, the designer there to make over her home, “you captured everything I wanted, you captured me.”
It's a poignant scene, because while that's the job of a designer after all, what goes unsaid is maybe the ex-husband didn't capture what she wanted, didn't capture her. At least judging by the frayed chair he insisted on wedging into the living room where it blocked anyone from perching at the breakfast bar. That armchair was certainly not part of Michelle's California coastal vibe, but her kids had memories of cuddling with their dad in it. (Her memories weren't as good, featuring the husband relaxing in it, drinking beer while she tried to cook dinner and take care of the kids.)
That's where Orlando comes in. Consider him part armchair therapist (literally in this case!) and part new BFF with an amazing sense of style here to see the newly single through a remake of their home, and by extension, their life. And his zinging humor (“I need a lot of praise,” he tells the homeowner in the first episode) and brutal, yet somehow lovable honesty (“I don't like looking at that,” he flatly tells another homeowner as they clean out her closet) seem to be just what the doctor ordered. Well, that and a fresh new kitchen or bedroom with a price tag in the tens of thousands.
At first glance the idea can seem a little trite. After all, “a coat of paint is not gonna resolve the grief that goes along with the end of a relationship,” Jo Anne Pedro-Carroll, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and author of "Putting Children First: Proven Parenting Strategies for Helping Children Thrive Through Divorce" told NBC News BETTER.
But think about what's happening during a home's makeover. “We have the physical tasks of changing the home [and that] coincides with the psychological tasks that adults face [with a break-up] and that's mourning the losses, reclaiming and caring for yourself, and taking charge and venturing forth again, creating that new life,” Dr. Carroll said. “And I think transforming your home can be part of that.” (She calls it divorce housekeeping, maybe not as catchy as HGTV's label!)
“Any breakup is really about managing the emotions of grief,” Dr. Carroll said. “There are those feelings of sadness, sometimes anger, certainly loss. It's symbolic of a dream people once had for how their relationship would go, and the loss of that dream.” Symbols, like that chair in Michelle's living room, can be “a trigger for deeper emotions,” she said. “Sometimes that can unleash a tsunami wave of grief that's unexpected that can hit you and knock you down.”
What you think about what you deserve in your home has a lot to do with what you think your own value is.
Being surrounded by a lot of clutter or reminders of painful memories can just keep triggering ongoing feelings of loss and anger and bitterness, Dr. Carroll said. So clearing out those things and starting fresh “can be one contributing factor in wellness and healing and being able to embrace a new life and creating a new normal, a very positive normal.”
But it's not just about starting fresh. It's fresh, beautiful … and you.
For homeowners on "Unspouse My House", this may be the first time, or at least the first time in a while, that they get to express their own style, maybe even discern what that is.
That's sort of how the show came to be, actually. After Orlando went through a breakup and had to move to his own place, “it was a rough time,” he said. “One thing that was getting my brain off the sadness was concentrating on the interior design.” Although he'd been doing design for 10 years, “I hadn't considered how emotionally powerful it can be to consider your space,” he said. The silver lining of a breakup “is you don't have to worry about anyone else's style. It's this lovely time you get to explore your own style.”
Orlando was sharing his experience of creating his own space to become a new person after the breakup through his blog and Instagram stories. With a talent for turning trauma into engaging content, and a pretty irresistible on-camera personality, he soon had producers calling. “I thought this might be how I pay it forward to other people going through breakups,” he said. HGTV snapped up the show and he was off.
Did he always have a hankering to be a therapist? Close enough.
“Designers are inherently therapists because it's our job to go into someone's home and figure out what they want and what will represent them,” Orlando said. “I consider it my job to imprint the personality of the homeowner on their home. That's a deeply psychological process to figure out who they are.”
And that process can be healing for the homeowner. “It is like a really great exercise in self care to take a minute and think 'who am I and what does that mean in terms of objects and furnishings I want in my home?'” Orlando said.
“It's an emotional journey for sure,” he said. “That was gratifying for me, facilitating almost like an expedited healing process.”
So how can people without an Orlando at their side or a $40,000 budget apply the same approach to moving on, post break-up? Despite what Dr. Carroll said about paint not being a cure-all, a new coat of paint does have mighty restorative powers with a low price tag, according to both the therapist and the designer. Especially if you bring a friend into the picture, said Dr. Carroll.
We may not all be able to hire Orlando, or a designer at all, but “This is where I think about the power of support,” Dr. Carroll said. “You don't have to go with the high priced decorator. Whenever we're going through a major life event, if it's a stressful one it's so helpful to have supportive people in your life who can come into your home and say 'huh, what if we just go out and look for paint.' [It] doesn't have to cost a lot, it's this supportive network, even if it's just one person you can count on.”
Orlando himself painted his new bedroom pink after his break-up. “I am a huge proponent of paint,” he said. “Twenty-five dollars can transform a room.” Other low-cost, and rental-friendly changes in his arsenal include new light fixtures, removable wallpaper, cabinet hardware or a faucet, even a new place setting.
And it's not just about buying something pretty. “What you think about what you deserve in your home has a lot to do with what you think your own value is,” he said.
“Going in and telling people, 'here is a beautiful space that is for you and you deserve it,' it affects them in ways that aren't just practical and visual.”
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