What to do when one person abhors clutter and the other attracts it

I’m sure you’ve heard the adage “opposites attract.” In my experience with home organizing, I’ve found that opposites do attract more often than not. One person is usually a neatnik — thrilled by clear surfaces and closet organization. The other is a pack rat — inspired by the endless potential of stuff, glorious stuff! When these two extremes live together, sooner or later, conflicts arise. How can you make it work? Surprisingly, it has very little to do with the stuff itself and a lot to do with mindset.

The first trick is to realize that neatniks and pack rats are two completely different species, so to make living together harmonious, you need to think about habitats. A bird and a fish may be able to live comfortably in the same house, but not in the same container. Put the bird in the bowl and she’ll drown. Put the fish in the cage and she’ll asphxiate. To make it work, both parties must agree on a standard for common areas and carve out a place where one can sing and the other can swim.

Nine steps to create a co-habitable household:

  1. Agree to the acceptable uses for shared areas. For example, you might agree that the living room is to be used for watching TV, reading, and playing games.
  2. Remove anything that is not associated with those activities from the shared area. In the example of the living room, this would mean no craft supplies, dishes, laundry, or egg incubators.
  3. Create specific homes for everything that belongs in the shared room — a bookcase for books, a drawer for videos, a cabinet for games. Labeling makes it easier for visual people to remember what goes where.
  4. Return each item to its home after each use. If it doesn’t have a home, it can’t stay.
  5. Make a sign to hang at the entrance of the room:

    THIS ROOM IS FOR WATCHING TV, READING, AND PLAYING GAMES
    Anything not used for these purposes must stay away!

  6. Anyone breaking the rule can be fined. Use the money to hire a cleaner or go out to dinner.
  7. Set aside a few minutes each day to patrol the room. Use a hamper or basket to collect items that don’t belong. If something has a home elsewhere, put it back. If not, hold an “auction” to give household members a chance to bid on it. If they buy it, they have to find a home for it.
  8. Anything not bid on is going … going … gone! Same for anything that repeatedly ends up back in the basket. Take these items to a local charity and feel good about having fewer items to take care of.
  9. Find at least one place in the home for neatniks to live unfettered by clutter and one place for pack rats to stash their collections. Respect these separate spaces!

How to stay positive when the going gets tough:

No matter how successful you are at establishing shared and separate zones, you are still likely to run into differences of opinion about both. Before becoming combative over any stuff-related arguments, remember why you are together — love, money, you lost the key to the handcuffs, whatever. The point is, there is a reason you are living together. Remembering that reason may help you calm down when you are feeling frustrated. Try the practice of gratitude, in which you intentionally focus on the blessings in your life, no matter how small. This makes less room in your head and heart for the negative voices and can improve your patience and sense of well-being. When you are in a good place, you are less likely to say snarky things that will get the other person’s defenses up. Let me assure you, once the defenses are up, change is just not going to happen.

Lastly, consider the fact that objects are like ink blots. Rarely do two people see the same thing and what they do see depends largely on past experiences and perspective. The overflow of crafting supplies looks like crazy-making chaos to one person, but is a beautiful harmony of endless potential to another. The clear counter-tops that make one partner hum with contentment remind the other of a sterile hospital stay when no one came to visit. So you must be patient with each other. Say what you see and ask the other person to do the same. Try to see the space through each other’s eyes, and, please, keep your sense of humor. If you need an outside perspective, ask a neutral third party or hire a home organizer or other professional to be your mediator.

With large doses of patience and humor, you will be able to see the other’s sleek scales or resplendent plumage and recognize how truly glorious our differences make us.

It is important to note that if the health and safety of household members is compromised by behavior at either end of the spectrum, the above strategies are not enough. Please consult a professional with licensed credentials in these extreme circumstances.

14 Comments for “What to do when one person abhors clutter and the other attracts it”

  1. posted by April on

    The nine steps (well, the first eight, anyway) seem to favor the neat freak, as well as put stress on both parties. The neat freak will probably fall into patrol duty—”why can’t you follow the rules?!”—and the pack rat will be put on the defensive by constantly fighting their natural tendencies but getting punished (fines, their things lost to “auctions,” etc.) on the occasions they slip up.

    So, I’m not sure this is the most effective compromise. Though I do think number 9 (each have a haven the other can’t touch) is a good idea.

    PS: I say all of this as a person who errs on the side of neatness.

  2. posted by Leslie on

    As a fellow neatnik, I see huge problems with this strategy. The neatnik would quickly devolve into a clutter patrol officer and the messy one probably get defensive.

    I do, however, agree with having places where each individual can be him/herself without recrimination. And I’m also in agreement on mutual decisions regarding community areas. Perhaps splitting up the “patrol” duties by assigning days will help and any one person won’t have to feel responsible to do it all the time (aka the neatnik).

  3. posted by Celeste on

    Agree with both points above. Strongly.

  4. posted by Suzy on

    Speaking as someone who simplifies some parts of my life and, when it comes to books and tech, I’m a person who collects. And I often put my books where I need/use them, or where I can get them, see them, and read them. This can look like clutter to someone else. It works for me.

    Having said that: if someone were to make me “bid” or “buy” something that was mine, but was somewhere where someone else didn’t think it belonged, or gave away or threw away…. that would probably end the relationship. I’d be gone.

    There are boundaries and that would be one that could end the war, not by surrender, but by ending the standoff…. forever.

    And I’ve seen neat homes and places, but there is no logic to the places where things are kept. They are just put away and usually in a different place every time.

    Neither the neatnik nor the pack rat are perfect. There are good points to both lifestyles, but ultimatums, such as discarding the possessions that belong to another person, are not the answer. No Way. No How.

  5. posted by Sini on

    There seems to be a suggestion in this that a packrat is the same thing as a messy person, which I don’t think is automatically the case.

    However if you have a neat vs messy thing going on, I would be more inclined to promote something like a once a week cleanup where things get cleared away (even if it’s not bothering the messy person yet) and the rest of the week in general if it bothers the neat person too much they can tidy up. Although if there is something that specifically is driving the tidy person crazy that could be a specific thing the messier person also tries to stick to.

  6. posted by bearing on

    Agreed with the other two, even though I hate clutter. This article could have been titled “More rules that a neatnik can use to beat a messy person about the head.” It’s not a compromise….

    … unless, perhaps, the area that is being kept for the neatnik is on the small side, so that it is easy to patrol.

  7. posted by Debbie M on

    Better to just do a lot of talking so you can figure out good compromises. For example, people shouldn’t have to put things away every time they get up in the middle of a project, but they don’t need to leave it out once it’s clear that they’re on an extended break. Or maybe once a week. Or maybe when there’s company.

    Sometimes the person who cares more should do more, but if that means the other person is always doing everything, that’s no good. Try to agree on a reasonable schedule that’s a compromise between every time someone sees anything out of place and every time you move.

    And talk about all the feelings. For example: “Having all this stuff out makes me feel stressed.” “When you put my stuff “away,” I don’t know where it is anymore.” “I’m afraid to open the freezer, and I never buy frozen foods anymore.” “I should be allowed to brush my teeth even if you just cleaned the mirror.” “I don’t want to renovate to make more space because taxes and A/C costs will be higher forever.” “I like to have a lot of things. I have a lot of hobbies, and I like to have spares.” There are often things you can do that help you both feel better.

    Also, better to reward appreciated changes than to punish. Ugh. Any way you can find to make it easier for the other person to do what you want is going to be way more fun than making it harder for them to do what you don’t want.

  8. posted by Tabitha on

    This sounds like how one would relate to a child. if my partner treated me like this I would be furious.

  9. posted by Lauren on

    Yeah…not a chance. The main way my husband won me over to his side (he’s the natural unclutterer) was to help me see how great it feels to be less cluttered. That’s the ONLY thing that changed my ways. I had to want it myself.

  10. posted by Sarahjane on

    So we list purposes of every room and are forbidden from doing anything not previously agreed upon in those rooms?

    THIS ROOM IS FOR WATCHING TV, READING, AND PLAYING GAMES
    Anything not used for these purposes must stay away!

    So, talking on the phone? Knitting while watching a movie? Listening to music? Discussing current events? Playing with children? Futzing with an Ipad? Or wait, does that count as a game? Is there a delineation of what each category of activity consists of? Could you imagine living like that if it doesn’t come naturally? Everything you do, every activity you engage in IN YOUR OWN HOME would be under scrutiny and open to being disallowed by your partner/ warden.

    I’m as neat a neatnik as they come but this list is ridiculous. It’s patronizing, controlling and demeaning. Making signs for each room? Fining a grown adult? Auctioning off someone’s stuff? Having to agree on the purpose of every space in the house in advance? No, this is not good for either party in a relationship.

    Item number 3, 4 and 9 are fine. Those should be enough as long as both parties are willing to respect each other and compromise in order to maintain a harmonious home.

  11. posted by Sarahjane on

    So we list purposes of every room and are forbidden from doing anything not previously agreed upon in those rooms?

    THIS ROOM IS FOR WATCHING TV, READING, AND PLAYING GAMES
    Anything not used for these purposes must stay away!

    So, talking on the phone? Knitting while watching a movie? Listening to music? Discussing current events? Playing with children? Futzing with an Ipad? Or wait, does that count as a game? Is there a delineation of what each category of activity consists of? Could you imagine living like that if it doesn’t come naturally? Everything you do, every activity you engage in IN YOUR OWN HOME would be under scrutiny and open to being disallowed by your partner/ warden.

    I’m as neat a neatnik as they come but this list is ridiculous. It’s patronizing, controlling and demeaning. Making signs for each room? Fining a grown adult? Auctioning off someone’s stuff? Having to agree on the purpose of every space in the house in advance? No, this is not good for either party in a relationship.

    Item number 3, 4 and 9 are fine. Those should be enough as long as both parties are willing to respect each other and compromise in order to maintain a harmonious home.

  12. posted by writing all the time on

    I like the second part, about practicing gratitude and talking about the feelings inspired by the stuff. I’d start with that, rather than mapping out the functions and placement of every item.

    And getting another adult to agree to be ‘fined’ for every item that is out of place? Not gonna happen. As with the other responses, putting up signs, etc seems insulting. Work on the feelings, get some mutual respect going, THEN look at the physical environment. I’m pretty neat and tidy, and I wouldn’t want to live with someone who demanded that there be a sign on every room reminding me not to leave a tea cup in there.

  13. posted by Nora on

    I really appreciate the insight. I think this will be a good way to start a dialogue about a very delicate topic. Thank you.

  14. posted by Paula on

    This article offer a lot of good advice, especially towards the end:

    “Lastly, consider the fact that objects are like ink blots. Rarely do two people see the same thing and what they do see depends largely on past experiences and perspective. The overflow of crafting supplies looks like crazy-making chaos to one person, but is a beautiful harmony of endless potential to another. The clear counter-tops that make one partner hum with contentment remind the other of a sterile hospital stay when no one came to visit. So you must be patient with each other. Say what you see and ask the other person to do the same. Try to see the space through each other’s eyes, and, please, keep your sense of humor.”

    Yes, humor! Thank you for the reminder :-)

Comments are closed.