How to Overcome Resistance, Save your Relationship and Keep Clutter Under Control
When people make a commitment to share a residence, their respective positions on clutter often go uninvestigated. Yet, one of the greatest sources of marital, family and roommate discord can be attributed to conflict around neatness, order and what to do about junk. In cases where romantic entanglements lead to co-habitation, lovers, temporarily blinded by passion and novelty, can excuse or overlook qualities in the other person with which they may not be entirely comfortable. Or, when friends decide to share a place, they may focus on financial arrangements, space considerations or location. Nevertheless, nowhere does incompatibility rear its ugly head more ferociously than around issues of storage and disposal of excess belongings? With newly constructed apartments getting smaller, the situation threatens to become even more challenging. Even the most smitten of newlyweds or the oldest of friends can be transformed into bitter adversaries when prized possessions become objects of contention.
Love may conquer all, but clutter may spell its undoing. As professional organizers, we run into situations that practically render us marriage counselors as well as de-clutterers. Many a call has come from true-to-life desperate housewife driven to the brink of exhaustion from battling a husband who is unable to part with his boyhood collections of action figures, record albums and 4 decades worth of magazines. Mothers, at the end of their ropes, contact us in hope of finding prescriptions for dealing with their teenagers’ bedrooms. The room’s resident son or daughter is generally oblivious to the room’s condition or the mother’s despair. Then there is the individual who unilaterally decides to work from home, adding the accoutrements of a home-based business to an already impossibly crowded space, pushing everyone else’s limits of tolerance. What about the distraught husband who has been unsuccessful in his attempts to prevent his wife from taking everything from a 3500 square foot home with a basement and try to squeeze into a downsized 2 bedroom condo? The circumstances may be different, but the problem is the same. How can you live with another person who is so tied to his or her possessions that it threatens the fabric of the relationship?
So, what can you do when the people you with whom you choose to share your living space refuse to share your viewpoints and practices in the domestic arena? Short of threats, ultimatums or moving out, there are solutions to preserve your sanity.
One Step at a Time
Arlene is a woman in her mid-forties living with a husband and 4 children ages 18 to 23. They are a happy, successful, on the go family with five cars, an RV, a home gymnasium and enough sporting equipment to outfit several teams. Like a number of their compatriots in the “sandwich generation” they recently inherited 2 bedroom condo’s worth of furniture and household goods. And like many busy and active people, maintaining order was not a primary focus. Thus, the house resembled a warehouse more than it did a home. Hallways were impassable. Rooms were indistinguishable from each other as to purpose and function. In a word, with the exception of the upstairs living room and kitchen, it was a mess. Then, a sleeping giant awoke.
Arlene decided it was time. Her goal was to remove excess furniture and boxes to make an office, upgrade her décor by replacing worn furniture with some of the pieces they had inherited and optimize the existing storage areas which included a basement store room, a closet under the stairs and a garage. Once accomplished, her intent was to shift her focus to the other family members, leading by example.
Armed with boxes, rubber gloves, giant garbage bags, she set out to strike a fatal blow to what amounted to 15 years of neglect. Each room was approached systematically. All items were sorted and categorized. Charities were contacted for pick-up and items worth selling were sent to consignment. Garbage was sub-divided between re-cycling and trash. Her remaining possessions were classified into archived and active status and were assigned homes based on those criteria. Suddenly, she could see her floor and her office emerged.
By remaining incredibly focused, Arlene achieved amazing results in a short period of time. Her kids’ bedrooms were another story. No one embraces change. She needed to overcome resistance, inertia and convince them that their old methods of making do, no longer worked for her brood. Fortunately, the family dynamic was based on mutual respect and open communication. Nevertheless, she was dealing with adult children and needed to be sensitive to crossing boundaries. But it was Arlene’s sheer will and determination that brought them into line.
Each sibling was assigned his or her own storage areas for sports equipment, shoes and memorabilia that did not fit comfortably in their small bedrooms. Dressers were introduced to replace open shelving for clothing. Each family member was instructed to cull though boxes lying around in other rooms that contained their respective possessions. Using the identical methods employed by their mother, they evaluated the contents, piece by piece, and determined destinations for them- keep, store, or purge. The intent was to convert the bedrooms into unique spaces that reflected their personalities but would be easy to maintain.
Compliance with Arlene’s wishes was somewhat uneven. The girls were more cooperative than their brothers, and therefore served as valuable allies in the cause. Each daughter took on a brother as a special project. Each of the children was supplied with a large, clear plastic container. This was for storing special mementos and photos that did not need to be displayed, but were being saved for posterity. Other items and furniture were moved into the storage areas that could be drawn upon when they were starting up their own households. As a reward, closets were outfitted with extra hanging space and shelving in their rooms, allowing them to improve the storage of their clothing, books and media.
Arlene’s husband was the final frontier in her crusade to make room to live well in their household. His tolerance for clutter and chaos was considerably higher than Arlene’s especially since her epiphany and clean-up activities. To really make this work, she needed to bring everyone literally on board. Particularly bothersome was his penchant for saving all kinds of nostalgic knickknacks and travel souvenirs, all of which required regular dusting and cleaning on her part. Another problem was that she and her mate shared a closet and a bureau in the master bedroom. There was a good deal of finger pointing around whose responsibility it was to maintain the tidiness of this woefully inadequate clothes cupboard.
We advised Arlene to start small and pick her battles. If she constantly nagged him to clean up or divest himself of collectables, he generally turned a deaf ear on her pleadings. Her husband had strong attachments to many of the items, so tossing them out and hoping he would not notice would not be a good strategy for preserving the relationship.
Arlene decided that the real issue that divided them was an absence of a definition of personal space. As one of the older children was planning to move out in a few weeks, she was able to get him to compromise by moving his clothing into the newly liberated spare bedroom. She now had adequate space to store her belongings, as did he. She decided the knick-knacks could be addressed at a future time, when it would seem less contentious. It provided the model for a clear-cut definition of personal space, responsibilities for maintenance and a degree of privacy.
Making a shift of this magnitude requires eternal vigilance. New stuff is bound to come in all of the time. Families need to have a strategy for incorporating new interests and hobbies and their corresponding possessions into the home, so periodic reviews need to become part of the routine.
by Susan Borax
Co-author of Good Riddance: Showing Clutter the Door.
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