Ask Unclutterer: Identifying common uncluttering goals in a relationship

Reader Jay submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

My wife and I agree that our house is much, much too cluttered. I have been saying it for years, and now that we have two kids and about 5-kids’ worth of toys, she agrees with me.

The problem is that we don’t see eye-to-eye on how to accomplish our goal, to find our house livable. She thinks we have an appropriate amount of stuff, just that we have nowhere to put it. I think we have much too much stuff. Her solution is to put shelves around the house to store the things that are out. I have at least two problems with that. The first is that we have shelves. They are just already filled with stuff! … the second problem is if I add shelves, we will just acquire more stuff, and they will become like the shelves we have …

The clutter has gotten so bad that I hate coming home from work some days. The house never gets “straightened” and certainly never gets cleaned. (It’s not dirty, just only ever gets surface cleaned – swept, basically) … This can’t be an uncommon problem.

Jay, I think there are many readers who can sympathize with your situation. You are frustrated. The clutter is increasing your stress and anxiety levels, and it has left you feeling overwhelmed. I’ve been there and remember well how it feels. And, if what you say in your first paragraph is true, your wife empathizes with you. You might not yet see the same solution, but you definitely see the same problem — clutter!

Lucky for you both, you have a partner with which to battle the clutter. And I’m not sure how old your kids are, but you might also have two wonderful little helpers to join your team. Right now, you feel like it’s you against the clutter and you against the others in your home. It’s not. The humans are a team, and that team can be victorious against the clutter.

You should start by figuring out exactly what you want. Both of you can head to the library, grab a bunch of home, design, and architecture magazines, and flip through the pictures. With your cell phone or a digital camera, snap images of your favorite rooms. Don’t snap pictures of specific solutions, snap pictures of entire rooms you like. After 30 or 40 minutes, call it quits and head home.

Look at the pictures you both took. Talk about why you like the images. What caught your eye? How do the rooms make you feel? What is it about those spaces that you think could work for you? How much clutter is in the images? How much storage is in each room? Do either of you have images the other person likes, too?

Once you have identified common themes that work for both of you, take pictures of your current space and review them. Then, compare your current space to the images you both like that you found in the magazines. What is different? What changes could you make to your space to give it the feel of the images from the magazines?

You don’t need to remodel, move, or even buy a piece of furniture to move toward your common goal. Aim for recreating the sense of the images you like, not recreating the actual room. You need to have a common goal for how you want the space to be when you’re finished, so you will know how to get to that goal.

Uncluttering your home is going to be something you and your wife and kids tackle together. I recommend setting aside 30 minutes each night after dinner to work on a specific room. Play upbeat music while you work and have fun together. You’re getting rid of clutter — enjoy it! You won’t get rid of all the clutter in 30 minutes, but you’ll make a dent and the next night you can do more and the next night even more. Create piles for keeping and purging (throwing away, recycling, donating to charity, giving to a friend). Just remember, only keep the things that meet the vision of your ideal place. You might get rid of a little or you might get rid of a lot — it doesn’t matter, as long as it meets your goal.

Our site is full of articles about the actual logistics of uncluttering and organizing. Head to the search engine in the middle column and type in words for specific problems you encounter, and it’s likely we have written about that topic already. For a primer on these subjects:

Get a vision of where you want to go together, and you can get there together. If this method doesn’t work, I suggest bringing in a professional. A professional organizer can help you better define your common goals, and if a professional organizer doesn’t work your next step would be to go to some marriage counseling sessions to talk about your goals more in depth. Until you discover a common goal, though, you’re both going to continue to be frustrated by the clutter.

Thank you, Jay, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I hope I was was helpful to you and be sure to check the comments for even more great ideas from our readers.

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.

13 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Identifying common uncluttering goals in a relationship”

  1. posted by Sassy on

    I assume Jay has already gone through all of “his” stuff and let go of everything that his wife would classify as clutter? I have been complaining about clutter for years but it was not until I really got into going through “my” things (my clothes, books, craft supplies, things I purchased) that my husband got into it. We recently moved to a home that is 1/4 the size of our original one (kids have moved out, which helps) and we’re starting a new round of decluttering.

  2. posted by Rosalie Donlon on

    One mental trick that helps: pretend you’re moving and that you have a weight limit so you have to pare down. We moved every three or four years while my husband was in the Coast Guard, and that forced us to get rid of stuff. Now that he’s retired, we haven’t been as good about it.

    One other thing that’s helping us unclutter: our basement was flooded by Hurricane Sandy and we won’t have as much space to put things back. We also lost some items to flood waters. The repair project has us eliminating more and more stuff each week.

  3. posted by B on

    This is great advice, not just for uncluttering but for relationships in general. Kudos to you, Erin!

  4. posted by writing all the time on

    Quoting the OP, “She thinks we have an appropriate amount of stuff, just that we have nowhere to put it. I think we have much too much stuff.”

    I believe that this is a basic issue that should be addressed directly. The process that Erin suggests is a good one, but you may find that your spouse doesn’t see ‘too much stuff’, she sees ‘things I value’.

    Erin’s process might bring you closer together in your ideas of how much is enough. It might not. You might want to think about couples counseling, with someone who has experience in these situations.

    Something I didn’t see addressed in the process described is acquisition. Are more items being brought in in a continual stream? If toys, household goods, clothing, etc, are constantly being acquired, that is also an issue to address/bring up with a counselor.

  5. posted by Xarcady on

    I also wouldn’t rule out that you might need different storage furniture. Not necessarily more storage furniture, but different types of storage.

    If you’ve got storage space, but things do not go back into it once they have been taken out, you need to examine why. Is it that people are just plain lazy? Or is it that the storage is not in a good location (you should store things where they are used), or too hard to handle (little kids might not be able to open closets or toy chests or reach high shelves), or just too dang difficult to fit something back onto already crowded shelves?

    Shelves work great for some things. Bins or baskets on shelves work better for others. Drawers work better for yet other stuff. Sometimes what you need is a closet system that takes good advantage of your available space.

    Don’t ignore visual clutter, either. In my house, there are cabinets and drawers, but not a lot of open shelving except for books. The visual clutter of having things out on open shelving doesn’t work for me (except for the books, I’ve no idea why). So I have lots of closed storage.

    Once you’ve decluttered, then look at the best way to store what’s left. You want it to be just as easy to put something away as it was to take it out. The kids should be able to put most of their toys away by themselves. That might mean investing in some new storage furniture, to make the house run more smoothly.

  6. posted by mad_scientist on

    > The original poster wrote: “She thinks we have an appropriate amount of stuff, just that we have nowhere to put it. I think we have much too much stuff.”

    I agree with “writing all the time” that this is a fundamental disagreement. It needs to be addressed first and foremost.

    Everything else is just window dressing until the couple reach an agreement.

    I agree again with “writing all the time” about continued acquisition of more stuff. If this is not brought under control, the same thing will keep happening, no matter how many things are discarded or boxed up this once.

  7. posted by Erin Doland on

    @mad_scientist and @writingallthetime — In my experience working with couples, if both people are stressed out about their clutter (as Jay said they were in the first paragraph), they’re both ready to “see” a new future for themselves. Until they have concrete examples they can show each other, they can’t communicate their visions of the future well because they might not even have a picture in their mind of what they really want. As I stated in the post, if they can’t find a common ground once they “see” their goals, that is when to bring in a professional organizer or marriage counselor. Often times, both people in a relationship have a same vision, but they aren’t doing the best job describing it with words. Pictures help significantly to get the conversation moving in a positive direction. It’s hard to yell at each other with pictures or in libraries, which I’ve also learned from experience.

  8. posted by formlady on

    Like others, I think the issue here is a disconnect on what the real issue is between Jay and his wife. Jay sees to much stuff with and answer being get rid of stuff. His wife see the right amount of stuff and she just needs to ‘organize’ the stuff.

    Having worked with my own mother (who had the same viewpoint as Jay’s wife), I can say from personal experience that it isn’t going to be easy to change her view. And it is going to take a long time.

    One thing that I have found to be somewhat effective, is what I call the ‘come on, really, how many of those do you need??!!’ approach. For example, my mother had an overstuffed linen closet, with all kinds of mismatched sheet. She had twin sheets when she had no twin bed in the house. Unmatched pillow cases that were 30 years old. Every time I came to visit her, it was a real chore to sort through that linen closet to find sheets for my air mattress. Finally one day, I said, “Really, there are only two people, with two queen beds in this house, do you really need to save wrong sized mismatched sheets??!! Then I pointed out that getting rid of those extra old sheets would give her an additional two shelves in that closet she could store something else in there.

    It was like a mini lightbulb went off in her head. We pulled out all the sheet, sorted though, she still kept more sets of sheets than I thought she needed. Seven sets total, three for one bed, three for the other and one set of guests. And even with keeping those sheets, we took five paper grocery bags of linens to goodwill.

    And I have used this approach, again in other areas, with some success. But … I can say that the only reason it works is that the other person has to WANT the change, if they don’t it just becomes a battle between the two of you. I would suggest that you compromise, put up some shelves, less than half of what she wants, agree to store some things, but point out that you only have X amount of storage space. Are items 1, 2 and 3, really that important? Do they deserve to be in that space?

    Another trick I use is the ‘icky face’, as my husband calls it. My mother is famous for saying, we need to save this 10 year old out of date ugly old brass lamp since your sister/brother/grandkids might need it. I will say … ok and make the ‘icky’ face, even picking up and holding the thing away from me like it is nasty (which it is). This then prompts of the discussion of what is wrong with the thing she wants to save. I can then usually point out that no one would want that lamp. Sometimes she calls my sister, who then say no way does she want that lamp. At that point she will put the lamp in the goodwill pile.

    My last trick is the ‘I sort of like the item and can use it’ plea. This is only going to work if you have an outsider helping to clean your clutter, someone who can take the offending item with them. My mom will have items that she will probably never use, but won’t part with to goodwill, but if I express and interest she will give it to me. I then donate it to goodwill.

    The lesson for me in dealing with my mother was that my relationship was more important than the clutter. I can’t make her want to get rid of it, but I can in a funny and humorous way try to change her viewpoint so that she at least makes an attempt to get rid of some of it. And it has worked to some extent, but it has been a long and slow process.

  9. posted by cathleen on

    I grew up in a house that was the opposite of clutter. We used to joke that my mother had the Goodwill pick-up on speed dial.

    We’d bring home some artwork or craft and after 24-48 hours it would be gone!
    So I tend to like to collect things at antique stores and flea markets but I don’t like visual clutter so I have what I call a “prop room” where I put things out of sight and then rotate them (vases, artwork, lamps, etc.) I copied it form Martha Stewart haha

    We have two attics and a basement so I need to be careful not to expand just because there is space because our house is old and smallish. But shelves in those spaces mean I don’t have to “live with” all of our belongings at once.

  10. posted by Mike Hathaway on

    I have dealt with the we just need more storage issue. Often the current storage is full of things that are not used and the house is cluttered with things that you do use. There are a few solutions. Start going through your current storage and dumping that which you do not use. There are all sorts of methods for decluttering, I like the book “Its all to much”

    My wife gets more motivated when I am decluttering my stuff, but if you have already done that alone then there is a problem.

    Another method is to “paint a room” It has to be almost emptied, A room can be painted in a couple hours. The prep and dump takes all day.

    You mentioned kids. First of all are you done? If so then if they are past it dump it. And you have to stop saving things for someone else. Kids can be very good at decluttering give them the keep, donate, and trash pile and start going through stuff.

    Finally if it is causing you stress, and or her counseling should considered or done.

  11. posted by M.Good on

    I rarely comment, but this question reminds me very much of what the TV show “Consumed” was about. The episode videos can be watched online, and when our family is talking about making changes in the house because we’re noticing something isn’t working (usually when it’s time to let go of toys) it’s a good catalyst.

    I’d recommend the The Swedberg-Debys. In this one, their emotions are at the forefront, as well as storage “solutions” and toy management. In every episode, they talk about the stress of having too much stuff – but this family in particular has towers of mismatched shelves, so it may resonate with yours. They also talk about actually cleaning in this episode, and why it was hard to before the clear-out. The show presents a vision of what’s desirable, and they talk about living in the room – not just surviving – and keeping a family feel. It sets goals, it shows how to achieve them.

    The show in general is also big on including children in the decision making, and talking with everyone about the process of making decisions about what to keep and what to let go of. It really highlights how it feels to be in the space before, during and after the work. As a mother whose responsibility the management of these things fall to, I’ll say it can be emotionally exhausting to make the decisions, or to engage the kid in them and deal with the fallout. One of the best things to point out after watching an episode with my daughter is how much more physical space she’ll have to play – but also, what matters most to her: How easy it will be to clean up if she has fewer things.

    I’d suggest watching a few episodes as a neutral way of pointing out “I feel that way too!”; to find a vocabulary (I like “psychic space” from this episode)to get your points across; to find visual references; and to help find common ground in your family.

    Best wishes – we’re currently dealing with closing down my FIL’s house, and seeing the detritus of forty years in a house – the junk drawers and closets and crawl spaces – has me craving a clean (not just surface clean) and bright and peaceful space at home.

  12. posted by kath on

    That letter could have been written by my husband when my kids were young. Both of us hated the clutter, but we both also defined our clutter differently. My husband considered anything that wasn’t his to be clutter and needed to be eliminated. I took his definition and his approach to dealing with it as a personal attack and dug my heels in. It took a long time to work things out, but we did. I took over a space in the basement for all of my sewing and craft materials, and we put up shelves for the kids toys. My husband got the garage and the rest of the basement (he runs a business from our home). We also began a broken toy purge on a regular basis, where anything with broken or missing pieces was tossed. More importantly, we started putting a dollar limit on birthdays and Christmas, which reduced the number of gifts we bought our kids, we asked the grandparents to buy savings bonds instead of a bunch of toys, and we found that as the kids got older they didn’t want as many toys so we could gradually downsize to a manageable level. The clutter hasn’t gone away, in fact it has evolved over the years, from toys when the kids were small, to furniture and household items that we’re now inheriting from relatives who are downsizing or passing away. It never ends, but you learn to adjust.
    Maybe this problem is not entirely his wife’s fault. Maybe it’s the way he approaches her about it. It’s one thing to be an equal partner wanting to find a solution and it’s another thing to be a tyrant who won’t accept anything but his way. He needs to take a look at himself and how he’s approaching this. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar…

  13. posted by Jules on

    I am the one in our house that hates clutter and loves organization and my husband is on board for the most part – but sometimes thinks I go to the extreme. Our solution is that I can organize away (his term for my constant need to get rid of junk) anything in the common spaces but he gets to keep a junk box (large shoe box) with stuff he will get around to going through someday. Anything of his that I don’t know what to do with goes in that box. Works pretty well for us, but we’re lucky in that we are starting at a point of minimal stuff. It’s always easier to maintain than it is to make a bold change.

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