Sunday, September 10, 2006

Dismaying Story #50: Standards of Tidiness

Dear Andrew,

I'm a purger of things. I dislike clutter in all its forms and absolutely can't stand having knick-knacks and odds and ends littering my house. My husband on the other hand is a hoarder. He is constantly holding on to things "just in case" or for future use. This drives me batty. I have often told him that I don't mind if he keeps things so long as he doesn't come asking ME where they are at a later date. If he were willing to keep his stuff organized and neat I wouldn't complain but the mess of his "areas" (i.e. basement, garage, his desk) makes me want to pull my hair out in frustration. Any tips on how to get him to straighten it up?

Signed, Anti-Clutter Bug

Dear Anti-Clutter,

This is a common problem in many homes. The two of you have different standards for what you consider to be neat and tidy. You mention the mess in "his" areas, so I assume much of the house is kept to a higher standard of tidiness, one with which you are more satisfied. Yours is a typical scenario -- the person with the higher expectations makes sure most of the house is livable and the other spouse has their own domain where their rules hold sway. You don't consider this to be a complete solution, though.

Your view seems correct to you; cleaner is inherently better and messy drives you batty. The cost (i.e. your effort) involved with keeping things neat is well worth it to you. Likewise you'd rather replace an item once in a blue moon (another slight cost of your approach) rather than keep things "just in case."

You should realize, though, that his approach also has costs and benefits. He doesn't have to worry as much about whether he is throwing something out that he will need later. He gets his areas to the point where they are "clean enough" for him, and the extra effort involved in organizing further doesn't seem worthwhile. Balancing that off are the costs of knowing this bothers you, having to hunt for things and living with more clutter.

These two approaches both involve tradeoffs. You both balance the cost of the effort against the satisfaction you gain from a certain level of tidiness. The difference is where that balance point is for the two of you.

This is not that much different from other potential conflicts within a marriage. You want a soft bed, he prefers a concrete slab. You'd like to spend as you go, he'd rather save for a rainy day. Neither person is right or wrong; you simply have different preferences.

The keys to resolving such conflicts are communication, recognition and compromise. You have already made it clear to him what you want, so it sounds like you have a good start on the communication. Do you recognize, though, that his approach also has merits? I can almost hear you gritting your teeth while you read that, and I understand, I truly do, because I am like you; I clean by filling garbage bags. Still, if we are to be fair, we must recognize that not everyone will share our preferences. From the flip side, does he recognize how much of an irritant this issue is to you?

It sounds to me that the two of you have already worked out a compromise. Much of the house is your way and a few areas are his. You would prefer the compromise to be "everything should be my way." But is that really a middle ground?

You should realize that the "messes" in his area are not messes to him. This is his optimal level of cleanliness when balanced against the effort to go further. You do the same thing, just at a different level. When you stop cleaning, couldn't you go further, sanitize more deeply? While it is understandable that his "messes" irritate you, you are asking him to put up with the irritation of extra effort that seems excessive to him.

On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with asking your partner to help out around the house, to fix a problem for you. The key is to find a balance that works as well as possible for the two of you.

I have no way of knowing if you already have a good balance or if he should pitch in more. My point is you should consider other compromises besides simply getting him to adopt your standards fully. Can the two of you agree to work together and do a periodic purge of his areas? Could he limit his messes primarily to areas where he can close a door so you don't have to see them? If the basement is a large area in your home, could he agree to improve that one trouble spot somewhat?

Finally, the "how to" issue you asked about. You should have a calm discussion where you both lay all your issues on the table and then jointly decide on a solution. I suspect you could help him to feel cooperative by acknowledging that his position has merit, then follow that up by explaining why it still bothers you. Talk about how important this issue is to each of you, as that may influence where you end up. Discuss the relative merits of a number of options. When two people care about each other, this approach almost always results in a compromise that works.

All the best,


  1. Our home is like a clutter bugs nest! LOL! We keep everything. In preparation for the arrival for our child through adoption we decided to bin up all the clutter and put it in the shed. Ashamedly, because we didn't want our social worker to see it. Well, that was months ago and we never returned any of it back to the main house. So, I go in there and open bins and throw out the things that are useless. I don't donate for two reasons; 1) be/c I'll never go to Good Will and 2) if I think too much on the usefulness of it I'll never let it go. Just yesterday I did this, I went out there and emptied one bin entirely filling a yard bag. One bin out of 50 but it's progress. Good Luck!!~Fran

  2. Anti Clutter-Bug2:37 PM

    Ok I admit I totally thought of this in terms of right (me) and wrong (him). You're right. I never considered his side of the issue mostly because he likes that I keep the rest of the house clean and tidy and also because in my humble opinion his system doesn't even work that well for him or he wouldn't be asking me where the sanding paper is or if I've seen his exacto knife lately. It seems to me that it's not so much that he doesnt' care if it's clean (he actually does) but that he has other things he's rather spend his limited home time doing. I think it drives me crazy because I'm home 24/7 and so I have failed to acknowledge how precious the little time he does have at home is to him. Thanks for making me see that my way isn't the only way (much as I loathe to admit it) and for helping me realize that it's not a simple case of laziness on his part.

    Best, Anti-Clutter Bug :)

  3. I read this with interest because I lived with, and may return to, two clutter bugs - extremely so. One is to the point, you actually can't walk across her floor without being ankle deep in "stuff." The stuff is all over every surface even the bed, and the hallway, and the last time I was home had invaded the rest of the house.

    I believe I saw something similar on some TV shows about obessive/compulsive disorder and hoarding. It is not easy for a person who does't mind clutter to a point, but when it begins to flood the whole house it can be a problem for those who don't have the ocd problem. The spouse's clutter partialy results from a refusal to fix anything, instead he just throws it in the garage. This, with dozens of boxes of books and tapes (who has a tape player anymore) stacked up both in the garage and the house, both in boxes, bookcases overflowing into the floor, leaving me with NO space. I feel literally crowded out of my own home. It is not a topic of discussion. My attempts to clean stuff up are considered "abusive" which I reconize as a ploy to back me off, because when I clean and try to stack things in an orderly manner, it causes them extreme stress. I think the only solution is for me to build a mother/wife cottage on the back of the house. I worry that my grandson will think the uncontrolled messes are a normal way of life.

    I believe extreme messiness with disregard to how another person feels about it is a symptom of a psychological problem. One of the definers of addictions is that "Does the activity cause problems with your relationships?"

    So, sometimes I think this issue is a danger sign for an individual and those who live with the individual. If carried to an extreme, it is a significant problem.

  4. My ex-husband couldn't throw anything away - and I mean ANYTHING! Even a newspaper, an old train ticket, you name it.To me it was a sign of how out of control he was mentally - just in the same way that a very overweight person is not in control of their life. I'm not against people having their "treasures" that they don't want to part with - but it is possible to store them without it becoming a problem for anyone else who lives in the house. This same issue was the catalyst for the recent break up of a friend and her partner of some years - and once again it was a symptom of of the things that were out of control in the man's life.It's almost as though they hang on to all their "crap" because it is some thing that they CAN control, and not only that it gives them some leverage and creates a bit of drama as well.

  5. I could have written that letter! I throw everything away...on the other hand my hubby is what I call a 'junk collector'. Weve had some huge battles over this. I hate clutter and keep a nice, clean, clutter-free hubbys areas like the garage and half of the barn are a different story, I call it a health hazard!

  6. I have a loft in my house that I filled up with things that I may want to use someday.That was 14 years back.We never ever got to climb up and check on those item even once.'Out of sight' became 'out of mind'.We have a box cot full of unused utensils.Climbing up a loft was perhaps but opening a box which doubles up for a cot was equally difficult and we learned to manage with lesser utensils.I'm no great organiser but I don't like a cluttered house as well.My husband cannot bear to throw things away particularly if they belong to his parents.So our arrangement of 'hiding' things seem to work out.But I do believe that the less one hoards the happier he/she is.

  7. Doctor Andrew,
    As always a measured and balanced response (and thanks for your visit to my place; was it tidy enough for you? was it tidy enough for any visitor?). I have a different take on this, to an extent. I believe some of this is virtually unchangeable (and you do not say otherwise), and people could benefit from outside help. Really. I notice at work I tend to be somewhat more organized than home. But I don't file much. If I do, I'll never see it again. I make piles. At home (and work to a degree) I go one periodic cleaning binges. I get self-righteous. The critical thing for us is this: have your own area and be responsible for it in your own way. Common areas are different. But, heck (and I've blogged on this), I can't even keep the dining room table pristine and spotless. When I did, I was the Czar of Cleanliness. I could go on, but it's messy of me.

  8. No doubt! A HUGE problem in many a marriage!

    I once listened to a woman on tape describe an experiment a high school was holding. They provided looseleaf binders for each child and planned to use them as a tool to teach them to be organized. At the end of each week, they would be given "the test." This entailed shaking the binder to see if anything fell out. Many flunked at this point. For some reason, which eluded them completely, they couldn't make any headway with the kids. They called in this expert. She said, "Well first, let's decide, what's the point? What exactly are we trying to accomplish?" She went on to say that more likely they just want the kids to be organized enough to keep track of their own work. So the truer test would be to ask for a certain assignment and give them a time limit to find it. If they find it (regardless of how disorganized the binder appears) then they pass.

    To me, this sums up many a problem in seeing things as they really are. She suggested approaching disagreements this way. First ask, WHAT IS THE POINT? Once the goal is ascertained, perhaps we can look at solutions and whether or not we are just trying to make other like us or not.

    (Just a sidenote: My ex husband hated my clutter, but I always knew where everything was. It's just how I am.)

  9. I love this. This is my husband and myself to a "T." I'm the cleaner and the one who pitches stuff, he's the one who holds onto it and leaves "messes" around the house. However, his messes are contained to specific areas that I can easily hide or ignore. My favorite is the roll top desk in our foyer. He lets it get to the point where it's overflowing with bills and junk mail. If I can't stand it, all I have to do is shovel the mess into the desk and roll the top down. He doesn't lose anything and I don't have to put up with the mess. Problem solved.

  10. I don't know about everyone else, but I LOVE hearing about couples who are actually communicating effectively!

    Let's hear it for the positive side of things!

  11. Wow, Andrew, you write way too fast! I love your blog, though, and try to get here whenever I can!

    My husband and I sort of have this problem. He's a total slob and for the first few years of our marriage I spent way too much time trying to clean up after him. I finally reached a point that I quit trying and fell into a deep dark depression. I've gone in and out of that problem for years and have compounded it, myself, with my own hoarding problem. At the moment, in fact, I'm reading a book called The Messies Manual. I know I'll never be able to keep up with my husband's messes - I could literally follow him around cleaning and picking up - but this book has really lifted my spirits and given me hope that I can get my *own* clutter problem under enough control to bear the constant tidying of my husband's messes.

    Just thinking positive is the best thing I think any of us can do. You can't change a chaotic person or one who has some weird desire or need to hoard, but you can work with them in little ways and just concentrate on the ways you love them rather than the fact that you are, say, sick to death of tripping over books (his problem with me) or want to scream about the unrinsed dishes and rolled up socks on in the couch (my problem with him).