Ask Unclutterer: Help! My boyfriend moved in and now his stuff is everywhere!

Reader J submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

Boyfriend and I have been dating off and on for two decades and he moved in for good a few weeks ago. I’ve lived comfortably, and in fairly organized fashion, in 1000 square feet for years and years, and now his stuff is EVERYWHERE. I read over ALL of your articles on merging households, working with partners, gauging levels of clutter control, etc., but we both seem stuck in a tower of terrifying stacked boxes so completely overwhelming that even getting to the kitchen is problematic.

Due to outside demands–we both work full-time, and we both have families in need–we’ve only been able to give a couple of hours per day to this albatross of a project, and it devolved into him suggesting I just throw out a bunch of my stuff. I don’t want “his” and “mine” to dominate the conversation, but, honestly, where do we start? Clothing is everywhere, the closets are full, and he has four thousand CDs, five bass guitars, three computers … you get the idea.

Where would you start, short of calling A&E and volunteering to be on Hoarders? We just need a workable starting point and we both realize that Molly Maids can’t solve our organizational problems.

Thanks if you can answer this; if not, I’m calling in for outside reinforcements!!! Be well, and keep writing–I love this website.

For starters, thank you for loving this website. It’s really nice to hear.

From the way you describe it, I see three steps that will immediately help to reduce your stress:

  1. Have a date night. Between your home stress, your family stress, and your job stress, the two of you need a night of relaxation. Make a reservation at your favorite place, put on some fancy clothes, and go out on the town with each other. Don’t talk about the apartment or any of the things that are causing you frustration. Just breathe and be reminded of why you love each other and are joining your lives and your stuff.
  2. Call a professional organizer. The two of you are bright people who could work this out on your own — but you don’t need to. Hire an organizer to meet with you for a few hours on a Saturday morning to give you some suggestions for merging your stuff. Having an independent third party to give guidance is almost always a good idea, and organizers do this type of consulting all the time. If you were sick, you’d go to a doctor, so why not seek the help of a professional organizer when you could really use one? Check out the National Association of Professional Organizers or Angie’s List to find a well-respected professional organizer near you.
  3. Start with your biggest frustration. Walk through your apartment with your boyfriend, don’t have a conversation, just let your eyes get a real look at the situation. Once you’ve gone through every room, examined every cabinet, and inspected under the bed, sit down and talk with each other about what one thing bugged you the most. Was it that your clothes are no longer in the closet? Was it that you can’t sit down at the dining table? Was it the giant stack of boxes right by the front door? Let him voice his biggest frustration, too. Those two areas need to be handled first, before any other projects in the apartment. Work together to find a lasting solution, try to keep from yelling (touching each other in a caring way repeatedly on the arm or hand while you’re working can help keep your tone and volume in check), and commit to getting just those two areas in order. Once they’re in order, your stress level will greatly improve, making the remainder of the work in front of you more manageable.

Right now, you probably feel like he’s trying to cram his stuff into your apartment. He probably feels like you’re not making room for him in your apartment. It’s a tough situation, and that is why I think a night out to relax and remember why you’re moving in together is so important. Heck, take many nights out on the town to remember why you’re together if you have to! Your relationship and your feelings for each other are far more important than battles over CDs, clothes, and computers.

Thank you, J, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I have faith that you’ll get through this without any long-term repercussions.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

27 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Help! My boyfriend moved in and now his stuff is everywhere!”

  1. posted by Erica on

    Take everything out other then the absolute essentials (rent a place if you must) then slowly start to bring some back& get rid of the rest. Even if your bf doesn’t participate, you should. Most likely when he sees you take the lead he will follow. I did this with my dh and it worked well.Good luck.

  2. posted by Zach on

    It’s probably too late and a bit extreme, but when my wife and I started living together, we moved into a new place, before merging all our stuff. The main thing here is that no one is moving into the other’s space, no one feels like they “own” any of it. Then we made a lot of objective decisions about what to keep. 7 years later, as we are about to move again, we are doing this again!

    Neither of you may be ok with this either, but before we move again, we are recycling ALL of our CDs — they’re all stored in digital form on our computers now anyway. We figure there’s no need to have 2000 discs floating around the apartment when we haven’t touched them in 3 years. (We’re shipping everything off to http://cdrecyclingcenter.org/).

    Best of luck!
    -Z

  3. posted by Vikki on

    I’m getting rid of my CD cases. I have not gotten the courage to get rid of them completely yet. I had a massive computer failure a couple of years ago and I don’t completely trust my back ups. Granted I probably own a couple of hundred CDS not thousands.

  4. posted by Jay on

    After getting married, I moved into my wife’s apartment, which already had everything. My furniture was duplicative, and our apartment was very cluttered.

    A few months later, we moved into a new apartment and had to decide what to keep and what to throw away. We kept some of her furniture and some of mine. Moving into a new apartment reduced our clutter.

  5. posted by Katy on

    Oh, I feel for you! When I moved into my fiance’s house (now husband), he made room for my car in the garage and my clothes in the bedroom, but no room for my books. My books stayed in boxes for weeks until I cried. Not my proudest moment, but it got us motivated. It took a few weeks to pick out new book cases and rearrange his books to make room for mine.

    When I moved in, I picked one small area of the house each week to focus on — the entry way, the morning coffee area, … For the kitchen, I emptied *everything* into an adjoining room and spent two weeks sorting. Though it took a while, we have an uncluttered kitchen with everything we need.

  6. posted by Christine on

    If it is at all possible, give the man a room of his own. If you have a spare bedroom or office or what have you, give it up and move all of his stuff in there. Then you can begin bringing things out in an orderly fashion and finding homes for it all. You can each decide what to keep and what to get rid off over time, and you will be less likely to devolve into territory wars, however friendly they may be. If you can also have a room of your own and have the bedroom a shared space with very little personal stuff in it, all the better. But whether he has a lot or a little, it is really important that he has a space all of his own to feel at home.

    When my husband moved in, I gave him the spare room for his computer, his clothing, and everything else he owned, and we have been gradually integrating his things into the rest of the house as we can. That is still his room, and while it is atrociously messy, he appreciates having his own space and I appreciate not having to share my closet. He now has a bookcase of his own in the kitchen for all his crap, I mean stuff, that gets spread everywhere, so I have a way to clean up without disappearing his things, and I’ve resigned to the fact that our kitchen table is now is workspace.

    Oh, and the weather is right now for a garage sale! Sell all your duplicates and take each other out–maybe splurge on a night in a nice hotel to get away from the mess for a bit.

  7. posted by JustGail on

    On one hand, it’s great that you are putting a couple hours a day on this. On the other, if the efforts are unfocused, it can seem like nothing is being accomplished. I agree – pick 1 or 2 areas and focus on those, then the next one, etc. It’s something I must do not only for a task like this, but just for everyday chores. Sometimes I focus 1 task at a time (do all the dusting for example), other times I focus on getting one room cleaned before moving on.

  8. posted by bytheway on

    Been there. It feels like a power struggle with winners and losers no matter how nice you are to each other. My new husband and I finally took everything that was disputed and put it in a neutral spot. (For him, that meant my silverware and inherited dishes, a few framed art pieces, some furniture, etc. For me, his TWO old tvs, ancient sporting goods, a horrible couch, Cosby sweaters, etc. You get the idea.) The neutral spot was the basement, but somewhere where we didn’t have to look at it every day and have “flare ups.” Then, we gave ourselves 90 days to cool off and get over it. If we hadn’t needed the items the others placed down there in that time period, we agreed it could go.

    It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. We were both committed to the deal, though, and neither of us reneged. We are still married 12 years later, and can laugh about it…now.

  9. posted by Susan in FL on

    Holy cow! You’ve been dating for TWENTY YEARS and the amount of stuff he had amassed surprised you? I’m sure he expected you to give him half of the cupboard and closet space at “your” place when he moved in with you. Sounds to me like you were a bit reluctant to share your organized space. Computers can be stacked, guitars can be hung on the walls, there are floor to ceiling “bookcases” designed to hold CD’s that can be placed in hallways because they are no deeper than a CD. Get over yourself.

  10. posted by Leszek Cyfer on

    Ad #3 – Go around the house making photos, then sit before computer and watch the photos together.

    I found that I see clutter easier on photos than live – I guess my brain filters out the stuff I don’t want to see but when I look at a photo this filter stops…

  11. posted by Babs on

    @Susan in FL. My thoughts exactly. Sounds like some control issues to me.

  12. posted by White on

    @Susan in FL. At what point did she say she was surprised by the amount of stuff he had amassed? And where did she indicate that she was reluctant to share her organized space? Was it the bit where she asked for help in devising a strategy to start assimilating his stuff into her space? Sounds to me like you and Babs need to get over making obnoxious comments.

  13. posted by laura m. on

    I took dvd movies and cd’s, also clothing, to retirement homes if appropriate, and some to a children’s group home depending on type of music/movies and the rest donated to thrift shop. Purging stuff is constant, I set aside one day a month to declutter. We don’t get magazines and are on a mail suppression list too. The situation mentioned is like inheriting stuff from an estate; selling, donating, paring it down. This too takes time.

  14. posted by klutzgrrl on

    I actually really like the ‘call a professional’ idea. A professional knows what works and what is rearranging deck chairs. He or she will be able to spot territorial issues like those mentioned by ‘White’ and will have emotional detachment to solve issues.

    Seriously, if you can find someone good, getting outside help could save you a lot of grief.

  15. posted by DairyStateMom on

    Erin’s suggestions are great, especially the “have a date” part. When I moved in to the house my husband had just bought (I’d seen it before he bought it, when we were beginning to date, but it was definitely his house), it was a huge jolt to move into space that wasn’t “mine” the way every other move in my adult life had been. Remembering why you want to live together in the first place helps a lot.

    I’d suggest one other thing: Decide if you need to agree on everything. Meaning: Do you both need to be there when every picture is hung? Or is it OK if one of you decides about certain things? He may not care about where anything winds up as long as he can see his guitars in the morning, or he may have strong opinions about where the dish towels should be hanging. But it’s surprising what the assumptions can be in this arena, even after years of seeing someone. So you need to talk about it and decide.

  16. posted by Elisa on

    Before you ditch all of your CDs in favor of digital copies, please check the law on Copyright in your country. Many people believe they can copy the CD they bought and then pass on or sell the original…unfortunately, that’s not always the case – if you keep the copy you could be unwittingly pirating music….

  17. posted by Bibliovore on

    I love all the suggestions so far, and I wish you two the best of luck.

    Purging stuff may well be necessary, but it could also help to get creative about storage/organizing solutions. The CDs, for instance (at least they’re not LPs!): With such a collection, he may feel strongly about keeping the cases and having them visible. Would it work to wall-mount shelving for them that’s high enough to not interfere with other things — perhaps a shelf above door height around as many walls as feasible/necessary, or sets of shelves above other furniture? If he doesn’t care about seeing the cases but doesn’t want to ditch them, could the disks be moved to sleeves so they take up less room, and the cases boxed compactly somewhere less accessible? Similarly, could hanging brackets for the base guitars be mounted on a wall, perhaps behind a door? Would a different shelf arrangement help the closets? If clothing is everywhere, is it time for each of you to purge anything you haven’t worn in a year, and maybe get a vacuum bag system so you can store your off-season clothes far more compactly? If all three computers (plus any of yours) need to be kept and running, could a KVM switch save space from redundant monitors and other peripherals? The same goes for whatever you have — can creative storage improve access or space?

    One other thought: People tend to be more tense and frustratable when hungry or tired. When you’re planning time to deal with this, you might try for right after meals rather than before (maybe make a date of it, even if it’s at home?), and not too late at night.

  18. posted by Susan in FL on

    @White. It was at the point where she said, “Boyfriend and I have been dating off and on for two decades and he moved in for good a few weeks ago. I’ve lived comfortably and in fairly organized fashion in 1,000 square feet for years and years and now his stuff is everywhere” Note that it is HIS stuff that is EVERYWHERE. Her stuff is still where it has been for years and years.

    Then she says, “. . . it devolved into him suggesting I just throw out a bunch of my stuff.” If it had been my organized apartment that Boyfriend was going to be moving into, I would have prepared for his arrival in advance by scouting his digs, estimating the space he would need for his stuff, and clearing out some of my stuff before he arrived. And since she did not prepare, I can’t help but infer that she was surprised that his stuff was everywhere.

    She goes on to say,”I don’t want his and mine to dominate the conversation, but . . . he has four thousand CD’s, five bass guitars, three computers… you get the idea.” Again the emphasis on HIS stuff and no mention of hers. Yes, I got the idea that she wanted help in sorting out HIS stuff.

    And @White, my posting was no more obnoxious than yours.

  19. posted by Single Again on

    Wow is this story familiar, right down the cds and the bass guitars.

    My ex (note the ex part) and I moved in together after many years of dating. He was living (move after move after move which translated into purge after purge after purge) in an EXTREMELY small home and had become a minimalist of sorts by necessity. I was living in a larger place with tons of closets for 17 years. I’m also sentimental and was the keeper of the family china, photos, as well as a large book collection and mementos and have two businesses which generate (much to my chagrin) a lot of paper. All these things of mine, he viewed as junk – but 10 bass guitars and 3,000 cds and the same amount of vinyl albums were not apparently. I often heard, “why don’t you just get rid of that crap or you have too many pots and pans, why do you have so much crap (um, because I love to cook and for the past many years, you seem to love eating what I cook). We moved into a very large place, but it was a loft with no walls for storage units and no separate rooms. I knew that I was going to have to purge things. But, I was now the only one of us with the driving commute and really only had time on weekends which I wanted to spend doing things with the man I loved – which we did and had a blast doing. But, I also had some other serious things going on that were a bit of a time suck, so he would get frustrated and impatient and we would argue over “my crap”.

    I WAS purging lots of things and happily, just not as fast as he needed. This was one of the things he stated when he ended things: that I just had too much stuff and couldn’t make decisions about it fast enough. And you know what, other than buying and installing some shelving units for the closet, he lifted not a single finger to help me with it, either. I was in it alone being yelled at about the boxes.

    The moral of this story: If you LOVE him. Truly LOVE him, take a deep breath, do what Erin says and work TOGETHER to look at ALL your stuff, not just his. It’s not YOUR house any longer. It’s a HOME you are building together and his things (the things that you probably fell in love with him for – love of music etc) represent his essence. Embrace it and him and be PATIENT. Loving one another is way more important than anything else…

    PS> the irony is that while it did take me more time than I would have wanted and it remains an ongoing endeavor, I have gotten things purged and am very happy to be getting down to the things that truly matter to me.

  20. posted by katrina on

    I have to agree with Zach – part of the problem is that he’s moved into “J’s” place, rather than both of you moving into a new “the two of us” place. I suspect that J may also be a little set in her ways as all of can get as we get older.

    The space inside the home is now for both of you, so J you only have 500 square feet now.

    J please consider what it would be like for you to move into a new home with all your belongings. To trust someone and to move in with them is a leap of faith. But to a collector, until most of a beloved collection has a home, the collector may well feel like a visitor and not a part of the household.

    It’s all about emotional ownership of a place.

    For example. My husband collects SF and fantasy novels – he has over 25,000. We moved home 3 years ago, held a party to welcome everyone to our new home, etc, etc. But the first time he commented “this house feels like a home” was the day after his books were put into 18 floor to ceiling bookshelves (they’re crammed in 3 books deep).

    Practical ideas – mentally halve the size of each room and mentally rearrange your belongings in that room into that space. Now, mentally fit his belongings in the remaining space.

    If you had a guest bedroom, give it over to him as his place (as mentioned above) and let him arrange it how he wants.

    And just keep repeating the mantra “this is now longer my home, it’s our home” every time you feel tempted to snap about things that appear where you feel they don’t belong.

    … it will get easier, but it’ll take time for both of you to adapt

  21. posted by katrina on

    Oops, that was meant to read
    …And just keep repeating the mantra “this is now longer just my home, it’s our home”

  22. posted by JoDi on

    It seems to me that if *one* person has been living comfortably in 1000 sq ft of space, *two* will require more space to live comfortably or there needs to be a *significant* reduction in belongings by both parties.

    So the first thing you need to do is decide:
    1) whether you need to move to a larger space now that two of you will be lving together with at least twice as much stuff
    OR
    2) whether you are each willing to get rid of a significant amount of stuff so you can both live comfortably in the same amount of space that only one person had been living in previously.

    If your choice is #2, then your boyfriend is right, you are going to have to get rid of stuff too, a lot of stuff. I know these letters are not printed in full, but from what’s printed, it sounds like you want him to do most of the “getting rid of” and that will only breed resentment.

    I would pick a room and start going through boxes identifying things that are duplicates (i.e. blender, toaster) and deciding which one to keep (the newer one, better quality, etc.).

  23. posted by Anita on

    JoDi’s advice is bang on; there must be accommodation on BOTH sides. It sounds like J is still very much in a “this is MY apartment, YOU just live here” state of mind – it’s HER stuff that’s still where it belongs, and the place is organized according to HER needs. That just won’t work. If he’s a musician, of course he will value his instruments and his CDs and he will need space to be devoted to them. If you’ve never played an instrument and you’ve never had to store one, there won’t be a ready place for his bass guitars. You need to MAKE one (assuming you don’t expect him to give up his passion to live with you).

    Before the boyfriend and I moved in, we sat down and talked about how much space we would need, what we’re willing to give up and what we’re not. It became clear that all of our essential things won’t have room in either in our apartments at the time, so we looked for a new place that could accommodate both of us. The apartments were screened according to both of our needs – he needed room for his piano (digital, but still), which is a need I’d never had to deal with before. He didn’t need a desk, but I absolutely did, so we took that into consideration. The place we did get is fantastic, but the bedroom closet is quite small; we agreed to BOTH cull our wardrobes to make everything fit; I got rid of about half my clothes; he kept more of his because he had fewer to begin with, so he couldn’t afford to cut down as much as I could.

    It’s important to organize the space together and not make value judgements on each other’s stuff unless you are asked. It doesn’t matter how long YOU have lived there, this is no longer only YOUR apartment. You can’t just fit his stuff into your layout and your lifestyle, you need to clear the place out and start over, according to BOTH of your needs.

    Either get rid of some of your stuff to make room for him, or get a bigger place for both of your belongings.

  24. posted by Steve on

    I’m not sure if this has already been mentioned because I haven’t read all of the comments, but it is very important to ‘purpose’ each room.

    The purpose that each room has will need to change given that there are now two of you.

    Good luck.

  25. posted by timgray on

    Wow 1000 sq feet for two? that’s huge. You need him to get in on the purging things and you may need to purge even more unless he literally showed up with a 21 foot u-haul full of boxes.

    Both of you should be able to live in that huge of a space easily without clutter.

    What I would like to know, did you ever talk to him about his clutter before you guys made this decision? You had to know he was a clutter keeper before the move in.

  26. posted by Jen on

    While I would agree that 1000 sq ft sounds like plenty of space for two people, that depends on the people and if they are both set in their ways and/or have hobbies that require a lot of storage space, it may really be very tight with all their stuff. But I will second what some others have said, that it might be a good idea, if feasible, to move to a different home (ideally a bigger home but even a different home of the same size would not have the emotional issues that seem to be present here). That way it won’t seem like HE is encroaching on HER space. Also, as others have said, she will have to declutter some of her stuff just like he will. It’s about compromise if you’re going to share your living space.

    And I think that the professional organizer is a great idea if you can afford it – and a few hours with one should only run a couple hundred dollars. Just having an unbiased third party is a great asset – an unbiased person who says “your cd’s have to go” or “you have way too many shirts” and can help you pare them down is much better than two people who are emotionally attached to their stuff and have an interest in getting rid of the other person’s stuff.

  27. Avatar of

    posted by Tweetie on

    I agree, both parties need to work together so you can each live comfortably in the space and feel like it is truly home to BOTH of you. When the husband and I were newlyweds, he moved into my tiny apartment. I was quite unaccommodating at first with my closet space and computer/office area, and it took a bit of confrontation on his part for him to get me to see how selfish I was being. You can’t view the space strictly as your own anymore, as if he was just a temporary roommate. He needs at least 50% of the space to house his own things. Ideally, getting a new place together will resolve a lot of the tension, I think.

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