When Mike arrived home from a business trip, frustration overtook him as he tried to park his car in the garage. A bunch of boxes were in the way that his wife, Cyndi, had rearranged while he was gone. He stared at all the clutter and was taken aback by all the stuff she collected. Cyndi had bags full of printed t-shirts from various clubs, containers full of old magazines, and boxes of trophies from the kids – who were now grown and out of the house. As their marriage progressed, Cyndi accumulated piles of stuff that wound up stacked on their countertops and heaped on the floor around the house. Boxes were also piled high in their attic and storage room. Mike began to wonder if they would end up like the couples on the “Hoarders” TV show. The thought gave him the creeps.
What to Say:
Mike: Honey, I love you, but I’m not loving all the stuff that’s piling up in our house. I know you like to keep old papers and collect dishes, but it’s getting to be way too much for me.
Cyndi: I know…I know…I just need to get more organized. Give me a little more time. I haven’t been able to sort out all the things we inherited after my mom died.
Mike: I understand that your mom passing away has been hard for you. But, it’s been ten years since she died. When are you going to let some of these things go?
Cyndi: I do get rid of some things, but I just feel very sentimental about my old things. Keeping those items around helps me feel close to the people and events in my past.
Mike: I’m all for positive memories. But, I’m not willing to live in a house that has rooms we can’t use anymore because of all the boxes crammed in there. Also, you have things piled around our bedroom floor and that sure kills the romance. May I try again to help you sort through things?
Cyndi: No, you remember that turned into a fiasco the last time!
Mike: Well, I’m at the end of my rope. I need you to agree to a timeline for de-cluttering our house, or I’m going to find some expert help. This situation is hurting you as much as me. Your stuff has become a bigger issue than the two of us can deal with alone.
Why This Works:
Mike opens the door for change by naming the problem. This can be scary, since their last attempt to clean up was a “fiasco.” If Mike’s personality tends to avoid conflict, it might seem easier for him to keep ignoring the clutter. However, that is not healthy for either person. If Cyndi’s desire to hoard things has become established, she will need an expert to help her deal with the grief and anxiety that may be fueling her pack-rat tendencies.
What Doesn’t Work:
Do not attempt to remove items that a person has hoarded without their consent. If those items brought a sense of security, then they can feel like you pulled the rug out from underneath them. In order to create genuine change, it’s best to let the person remove their stuff under their own free will or by seeking outside help.
Try This Activity:
In many situations, people may not have an extreme case of hoarding. Maybe your spouse just tends to hold on to more things than you would like. Address the issue by sitting down together with separate pieces of paper and take these steps:
- List out each of your own areas of clutter and whether or not you are willing to get rid of some things in each area.
- Swap lists and add your own observations about your spouse’s areas that could use a good purging.
- Talk through the specific steps that you’re willing to take to make all areas of your home useful and functional.
- Give yourself bonus points if you clear out items and donate them to charity.
If your spouse can’t get rid of stuff or avoids taking action, call an expert on Anxiety, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), or “hoarding.” Many people who can’t get rid of things also have symptoms of OCD. For example, they may stockpile things like rubber bands and newspapers. They may re-use aluminum foil to within an inch of its life. They may have one or more irritating habits such as picking at things, checking and rechecking, compulsively washing their hands or touching objects. A professional counselor can help them get freedom from the habits they dislike but can’t seem to break free of on their own.