Reader question: Dealing with a cluttery significant other

Reader Jennifer sends in this question:

I wonder if you can address what to do when one person in a relationship is content to be a clutterer, and the other person desires to be clutter-free. Obviously, I relate to this problem. I’d really like to get rid of a lot of the crap we never use (especially since we’re moving soon). However, my partner freaks at the suggestion of throwing stuff out, and I don’t want to dictate which Shiny New Gadgets he can and cannot buy. I’m really averse to preaching.

Jennifer, I feel your pain. I am in an otherwise blissful relationship with someone who is, shall we say, less neat than I am, and we’re moving in together soon. I’m very lucky because she is very understanding and accepting of my OCPD. That’s wonderful, but it does little to address the number of shoes in the apartment.

So what do we neat-freaks do? My first instinct is to nag, but that’s not very fair since it’s our obsession as much as anything else that causes the conflict. Your aversion to preaching is probably right because I don’t think you can ever command someone to stop being how they are. Something you learn in management 101 is that if you want someone to follow a course of action, you can’t just command them, you have to convince them that it’s the right course. You have to have “buy-in.” Otherwise you’ll just get lip service and resentment.

So how do you convince your partner that neat and minimal is the way to go? The same way you would convince them about anything else. Hopefully that’s lovingly and using reason. It also doesn’t hurt to explain why it’s in their best interest and how their quality of life will be improved.

Once you have buy-in, since you’re the neat one, you have to help your partner keep their commitment. Again you want to avoid nagging, so instead use the same tips and tricks you use to help yourself stay uncluttered. Maybe you can agree on what is a reasonable number of shoes to have and then commit to each other that for every new pair that’s bought, and old one has to go. Schedule joint purge days a couple times a year. Who knows, you might even make it fun.

Any other tips for dealing with a not-so-neat significant other? This is one dilemma about which I’d love to hear Dr. Ragan’s advice.

25 Comments for “Reader question: Dealing with a cluttery significant other”

  1. posted by Iris on

    There’s an old joke about an Army officer, whose wife had to deal with a relocation on her own after he’d already been stationed at the new post. At a party, he commented on how well she’d done, and she replied that it was fine, that it gave her a chance to get rid of a lot of old junk of his. He demanded to know what she had tossed, and she replied that if he would name something, she’d tell him if she’d tossed it. He couldn’t name a thing.

    You can try the same approach, only put the stuff in boxes in the basement with a date surreptitiously marked on the box. After a year, point out that nothing in the box had been touched or asked for in a year. If the clutteree still won’t let you toss it, wait another year, and do it anyway – it’s not likely they’ll ever miss it. I wouldn’t include family treasures or childhood report cards in this category, though.

  2. posted by dana on

    zones. zones. Zones, I say!

    If you have enough real estate to designate areas where each of you “rule” and then an area for common use that is kept decluttered in the interest of not being embarassed when company arrives, you can possibly let go of needing to control all aspects of a partner’s possessions. His/her office, closet, dressing area, whatever are not your problem… I repeat- NOT your problem. anything that strays beyond the designated zone is returned to such place promptly and the cluttermonkey can happily live in their horrible mess (out of your sight).

  3. posted by Ryan on

    I agree with Dana. I have a similar, less sensual problem with a roommate of mine. He’s untidy and I’m the neat freak. Basically we came to agreement to keep the common areas – living room, kitchen, music room – clean and do what the hell we want with our rooms.

    Walk in his room, its always trashed. Walk in mine, it’s like a museum.

    My parents do this also. My mom has her living room and bedroom while her husband has the garage and the computer room.

    Works out fine so long as your significant other’s space doesn’t attract roaches. I hate roaches.

  4. posted by James on

    I have to agree with Iris… take items that appear unused and store them away. After a year, you can point to those and ask if they can be put away. Don’t overdue it or they’ll mistrust and demand that you not try to help them.

    I don’t believe in people-based-zones, at least for married people. I can’t stand clutterr, it even shows up as a stress point on my Birkman. It doesn’t bother my wife as much. So it’s become apparent that I need to own a disproportionate portion of the cleaning duties. So I’ve begun to pass off some of my duties (like bill paying) to her.

    And since she loves me, she’s starting to show signs of hope in the clutter department. The cleaner I’m able to keep it, the easier it is for her to help keep the clutter down and she’s starting to realize the good feelings that come with the lack of clutter. Missing out on a chance to take her pension as a lump sum now instead starting to get payments 25 years from now also served as a little bit of a wake-up call.

    I have a multi-stage process. When I do a thorough cleaning, stuff goes where she can see and attend to it. It lives there for awhile and if it doesn’t move, then it goes in a laundry basket in the basement. It would be unfair to send it directly to that basket.

    Over time, she’s coming around. Once the child is a little older, both of them will be able to do more to help.

  5. posted by Truff on

    I’ve gotten my wife trained to be as obsessively clean and organized as I am. My next challenge is getting her to be as minimalist as me.

    She is neat and organized, but loves to cover every flat surface with picture frames, baubles and knicknacks.

  6. posted by Chris on

    My wife and I have the same issue, I’m an organization hound, and she’s laid back and relaxed.

    How does it balance out? We bump heads on occasion, but it’s such a balance between us it’s usually not an issue. Once I start to get over-crazy about organizing…she makes me more mellow and tells me to relax. When she can’t find something, I gently persuade and help her be a little more organized.

    However, her obsession with collecting napkins, while helpful…I often toss a good chunk of them without getting caught. 🙂

    It also helps to identify item that they can’t break up with (empty pill bottles was a battle). As it turns out, humane shelters often ask for empty bottles, so we were able to feed her need to keep them and give them away to some place that will use them.

  7. posted by Dr. Amie Ragan on


    The above link is for a post called Clutterers & Neat Freaks: Can They Co-Exist. The bottom line is respecting each others boundaries and knowing when to pick your battles.

  8. posted by Geoffrey on

    Sometimes it helps if the advice comes from someone other than you. For example, my wife saw Oprah the other day, and they had some decluttering expert. My wife was already on the path to freedom, but that simply accelerated the process. Also, the power of eBay. We both have allowances, and if we want more fun money, we can get it by selling our old stuff. For example, I have a bike fixation, but reality, and two small children, help me realize that I don’t need all those bikes anymore.

  9. posted by Kirsten on

    Because this became a rather explosive issue in our marriage, we hired a professional organizer who also is a licensed psychologist. Because our budget is also minimalist, we took one room (his office) and budgeted for eight hours of her time. She and my (otherwise wonderful) husband went in the room for two eight-hour sessions and the results have been worth every penny. They made a significant dent in the office AND they worked on the blocks that kept him from being able to let go (“If I throw this away I am throwing away the memory.”). That was about 16 months ago. He still uses the strategies for decluttering and organization. Even better, the heart changes have extended to other areas of his life as well. In short, it significantly reduced the potency of this topic in our marriage. I found the woman we hired on CraigsList Seattle.

  10. posted by Kirsten on

    Whoops! It was two FOUR-hour sessions!

  11. posted by Moxie the Maven on

    Whoa whoa whoa – can I really be the first person here to say “step off the shoes!!”??

    Clutter is one thing – but shoes are an incredibly vital part of a woman’s wardrobe. It’s unsurprising that most men do not relate to this, as they can often get by with one pair of sneakers, one pair of sandals, and dress shoes, but any gentleman preparing to cohabitate with a woman should also be prepared to respect her collection of shoes! Believe me, I am way into uncluttering most of my life, but I have many pairs of shoes that get worn once a year or less, and I would NEVER get rid of them. It’s just not the kind of thing where you can wear a different pair of shoes with that one gold and turquoise dress – sometimes you really need that one specific shoe for the one specific outfit.

    That said – ORGANIZE the shoes, not only for decluttering purposes, but to preserve their beauty. I am the proud owner of over 40 pairs of shoes, and they live neatly in over-the-door racks in my closet. I hate those as-seen-on-tv things, but I do recommend the over-the-door racks they carry at Bed Bath & Beyond for this.

    Get her to unclutter in other areas – pick your battles.

  12. posted by Jennifer on

    I agree, step away from the shoes. In fact, I don’t deal with any of my fiance’s stuff. We have clearly demarcated zones (his office should be condemned, and don’t get me started on the basement), but the problem is “clutter creep.” When he has no more room for stuff in his office, it appears on the bedroom floor.

    One compromise that happened by accident: our new bedroom is laid out so that I never, ever need to walk by his side of the bed. In fact I usually can’t even see whatever he has on the floor over there. Out of sight, out of mind for me.

    The problem that remains is his addiction to Shiny New Things that we absolutely don’t need. We have never-used juicers and breadmakers and computer doodads. He’s the breadwinner, so it’s his money to spend, but me, I’d rather take a trip than have another gadget.

    (and yes, I am the Jennifer who wrote in)

  13. posted by Paula on


    The words “moving soon” in your post rang clanging bells with me. Since I have moved many times–always for husband’s job, etc.–I have become neater and neater in response.

    You’re likely to end up packing alone for your next move because clutterers are useless when it comes to hard work where their precious “stuff” is at risk. And who wouldn’t resent the solitary drudgery of packing two hundred boxes of stuff you never wanted, don’t like, and which is mostly in your way? None of us are that saintly.

    Another idle thought just struct me. You’re not, by any chance, moving to a larger, more expensive place primarily to have more room for the stuff, are you? Hmmm…

    In any case, make him help you pack, and don’t let him wiggle out of it! He needs to know the sweat equity price of that heavy load.

    After hours/days/weeks of wrapping, stuffing and stacking, the stuff will seem a lot less shiny.

  14. posted by Lisa S. on

    My spouse is not quite the declutterbug I am. We survive owing to a combination of mutual respect for each other’s preferences and canny strategy when it comes to picking our battles.

    While I may not understand how he’s okay with keeping TWO sets of measuring cups because the one plastic set with no labels is the one he bought as a young man and he likes them … I am okay with u keeping them because they’re important to him and he uses them. That’s the important distinction for me — does keeping something make him happy? Does he use it regularly? Then I keep my mitts off it.

    His five boxes of childhood detritus, on the other hand … that was when we sat down with the recycle bin, a “keep” basket (much smaller) and a bottle of wine, and went through that together. Measuring cups, yes. Five moving boxes, no.

  15. posted by jennifer on

    I was freaked out when this came up in my feed reader, because my name is Jennifer and I’m married to a clutterbug. Unfortunately it is a huge issue for my mental health and our marriage.
    Rationally he may understand “If you don’t use it in a year get rid of it” but not emotionally. All of the gentle encouragement in the world does nothing for him. IMO my husband’s issues go way deeper than sentimentality, and I wish someone like Kirsten’s organizer/psychologist could come and help him and us.
    I have no hope on this issue. I try to do what I can, but when the battle against clutter is constantly being lost you sort of give up, which sadly exacerbates my anxiety.

  16. posted by Jeri Dansky on

    Sometimes part of the problem is that the more organized, less cluttered person expects his/her partner to use the same approaches and tools that work for him/her. But different people have different needs – and there are lots of different ways to approach the organization/de-cluttering challenges.

    A good professional organizer would be able to help by suggesting alternatives – and having a third-party perspective can also be useful. You can find professional organizers at

  17. posted by mercurial scribe on

    My husband and I just moved and upon his hearing that I am the owner of EIGHT pairs of shoes, he immediately rang out “No more shoes!” Never mind 1/4 of our bedroom is piled half-way to the ceiling with boxes of hockey memorabilia. But if I say “No more hockey crap!”, he may consider a separation. I honestly don’t think he’s tossed one stick since he’s been in hockey (that’s 15 years now) and he’s working into coaching hockey professionally.

    I simply believe men and women have different ideas of what is clutter and what isn’t, at least in our house!

  18. posted by Mrs L on

    Jennifer, one solution to the clutter creep is to go round the house once a week with a laundry basket and pick up everything that’s out of place. If it has a place in the main part of the house, it gets put away neatly, but all of his clutter gets piled up in his room on whatever surface is available. Repeat every week (or more often, if necessary) and if the pain of having no space to move in his room becomes greater than the pleasure of acquiring stuff, he’ll deal with it.

    (And I know this is not a financial blog, but a couple should really work as a team on money matters. Unless you are keeping finances completely separate, you should get to have input in the family’s financial decisions.)

  19. posted by Rohit on

    Steve Pavlina’s got an interesting take on this. The solution to having your partner change, he contends, is first starting with yourself.

    Here’s the link:

    What do you think?

  20. posted by Denise on

    I’m fascinated that everyone is saying that being neat and being a declutterer are synonymous. My husband is very neat but also very averse to throwing things away, so he has tons of stuff put away properly. I, on the other hand am messy, but don’t like “clutter”. I throw all kinds of things away, use the library or sell read books on, etc. But the stuff I have tends to scatter everywhere. I’d have a better shot at neatness if my husband could part with some long-neglected items, and then I could actually have a space for my things in areas that it’s convenient to use them. I won’t move things out of the way to put something back properly, though, or store things out of sight or easy reach.

    I’m also kind of bothered by the self-righteous tones in dealing with spouses. Let’s say as part of my de-cluttering, I went for the “uniform” way of dressing, as discussed earlier, whittled things down to basics– I can tell you my husband would hate that. But if it would be OK for me to go through the house when he’s away, take the things I deemed clutter, and get rid of them, store, them, throw them on his desk, etc., wouldn’t it be OK for him to get rid of all my basic clothes and replace them with stuff he liked sometime when I wasn’t home? Of course it would — it’s the same thing.

  21. posted by Babs on

    I have the best fiance ever. He recently helped me organize one of our shared closet where we had been tossing stuff like crazy without regard for organization and it was driving me crazy (new apartment). He went through his belongings, decided what needed to go, what needed to stay, and allowed me to arrange the closet in a neat way.

    He gives me space for my constant need to have things in their place, and I’ve lightened up on his laid back manner about clutter.

  22. posted by Cliff on

    Denise: I like the distinction between (a) clutter (as in, not keeping things in their place) and (b) acquisitiveness (as in, having too many things). The two are obviously related, since if you really own very few things (beat b) then it’s hard not to have them in their place (beat a), and if you own too many things (losing b) then you’re unlikely to have room for them (losing a). BUT … the two come from different human “instincts” or “problems.” One is an inability or disinclination to get rid of stuff, the other is a refusal to take responsibility FOR the storage of the stuff that you choose to keep. Sure, we can tackle A while tackling B, but one good trick for an acquisitive person, when dealing with a non-acquisitive partner, is to learn to STORE his or her acquisitions away from sight and mind of the non-acquisitive one. Knowing where things are, and having a place for everything, is the trick. You don’t have to get RID of it, if you’re SHELVING it so nicely that the partner doesn’t mind it and it doesn’t interfere.

  23. posted by Christine on

    My BF and I left our lives to move to Italy, which required us to get rid of a lot, A LOT, of stuff. We were able to get rid of most of it, but we still had an enormous pile of stuff that we knew we would never use, but which we hated parting with. So, we decided to take each object, stand over it, and have a moment of recollection. We told stories about the object, and then we released it (to the trash, or the donation pile, or to the yard sale pile). it really worked.

  24. posted by Dan on

    My wife and I take turns at being neat. We refer to these spurts as ‘having a flat place crisis’. But over time it’s become apparent that I have a greater need to have a neat environment and while she has been understanding, she isn’t always aware of why it is important. So what does this mean in relation to helping get a partner to be neater? This: Talk about _why_ you need a certain amount of neatness or to get rid of things.

    People react to satisfy demands. People act to satisfy requests. Telling a person why to act is a request.

    For me it was explaining that too much disorder in my environment translates to disorder in my thinking. Disorder in my thinking eventually translates negatively to my emotional state. It’s not that I see a pile of misc. papers and I am suddenly depressed. It’s more like ‘There’s so much to clean I can’t decide where to start, so why bother?’. Eventually the anxiety of not acting on the problem adds up. And when someone cares about your feelings they want to act on your behalf, all you are doing is showing them how.

  25. posted by Ms. Piles on

    All very interesting. I would like to note that it’s possible your significant other would appreciate your help and advice. I am a gaint mess a lot of the time, and it’s not because I think that’s an awesome way to be! In fact, I sometimes lament the fact that my boyfriend ISN’T… well, I couldn’t exist with a true neat freak, but I sometimes wish the disorganization of our place bothered him more. He is laid back and acquisitive. I have a minimalist aesthetic, I merely lack a certain kind of skillset and training. I long for things to be neater, and for everything to be easily retrievable and in optimum condition. For surfaces to be clear, save for the book you just set down a minute ago. If I were dating someone who offered me helpful tips on accomplishing this, I would be ecstatic! Especially if it meant greater peace of mind for him as well. I would rather learn to be tidy than make my partner uncomfortable and resentful. So I say, the advice above is great and all, but don’t assume he has no interest in changing. Have you asked how HE feels about this? You might be surprised. Then again, you might not, but it IS a good place to start. He may be less attached to his clutter than you think, and he might not understand how he ends up with it as well as you do. Gently raise the issue without attacking him and see what he says about it. That will let you know whether he is going to declutter, or if, instead, the two of you are going to devise some kind of compromise (drawing lines of demarcation and the rest). Good luck!

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