Sharing space and dealing with moments of chaos

There are many wonderful things about living with others, but dealing with their clutter is most certainly not one of them. Living with my husband (and before that roommates) has always been a special challenge during times of emotional stress.

You see, when I’m sailing through life, everything finds its way back to its place quickly because I put everything away as soon as I use it. However, when I’m feeling chaotic, you can’t see the bedroom floor and nothing goes back where it belongs. I nest using clothes and papers.

When I lived alone, it did not bother me. When I was feeling this way, I would just wade through the clothes to find the bed, knowing that I would get out of the funk and get things cleaned up sooner or later.

Now that I live with my husband in a tiny apartment, I can’t let the chaos take over too much.

We’re both human, though, and the chaos does hit, sometimes at the same time but usually at different moments (meaning one wants to clean while the other is in a nesting mode).

Living with others offers a challenge to staying organized because if one person is feeling chaotic, their clutter encourages others to let their own organizing slack off: “If his stuff is all over the place, why should I clean up mine?”

Say you are in a chaotic moment and your spouse/partner starts ranting at you about the mess you are leaving around. What would you do? In my case, my inner teenager comes out and I want to make the mess even worse just to get back at the unfair authority-figure ranting.

Let’s say however, that you are more mature than I am, and recognize the ranting is not an attack on your intrinsic goodness. Instead, you use it to move yourself out of the chaos, dealing with the physical side first and letting the emotional clutter clear itself out. How wonderful, no?

But what happens if it’s your companion(s) that let the clutter take over? How do you deal with it?

Here are three Definitely Don’t and three Possibly Do actions.

Definitely Don’t:

  1. Don’t nag. It will just bring out the inner teenager and they might rebel and do things on purpose just to annoy you.
  2. Don’t get judgmental. People in a negative state don’t need negative reinforcement. Besides, it’s not like you have never had moments of clutter, hmmm???
  3. You can re-order the place yourself, but don’t do it with a “how great am I?” nor with a martyr attitude. Do it because you want to or not at all. A superiority complex will only cause more problems in the end.

Possibly Do:

  1. Live with the chaos and hope that the person will snap out of it soon. After all, you go through chaotic periods too, I’m sure.
  2. Suggest an order the house day and make it a big fun event. Put on music, dress up in housekeeper outfits (or at least tie funny colored scarves on your head) and do a re-ordering.
  3. Re-order the place on your own and hope that the calm space will bring calm to the other person/people.

Now it’s your turn. How do you deal with the clutter in the home caused by multiple people experiencing the ups and downs of life at different rates.


This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

30 Comments for “Sharing space and dealing with moments of chaos”

  1. posted by Matt R. @ on

    Great tips for helping your spouse, significant other, family, or roommates come in-line with your uncluttered lifestyle. That’s one of the hardest things about living with another person.

    I really like: “Re-order the place on your own and hope that the calm space will bring calm to the other person/people.”

    Leading by example is a good way to show others how nice a well organized house can be to live in.

  2. posted by Dumitru on

    Good tips for me, since starting this fall me & my parents moved to a house and live with another family(father and daughter) since it’s easier to pay the rent and so on. my problem is that they are a bunch of ****heads and never clean up after themselves. At least my room is always clean.

  3. posted by Fit Bottomed Girls on

    My husband is really bad about this, but I nag, nag, nag. I know I shouldn’t but I usually gently remind and then wait and then blow up. Not the best way, eh?

    Thanks for the tips!

  4. posted by Heidi on

    I will not re-order our house. Mostly because we just moved, and are still unpacking, and because my version of order is not my husband’s, and he’ll complain about not being able to find his stuff. 🙂

  5. posted by Tabitha (From Single to Married) on

    I just try to make it through the week (as the house gets progressively more cluttered) with the idea that during the weekend we will have a huge cleaning day. It usually works. 🙂

  6. posted by m on

    This is timely – our apartment is a total mess right now, because my partner and I unfortunately tend to go through the messy phase at the same time. Especially when it’s cold and dark outside all. the. time.

    Our plan is this: when we get home from work today, we’re going for a run first (unclutter the body and the mind a bit) and then we’re getting some take-out food and spending the rest of the evening tidying the place up together. If we make it an event (crank up the music, boogie around whilst washing dishes, etc) it gets done. And we do find that when the shared space is neat it’s so much more relaxing.

    I agree that nagging never, ever works!

  7. posted by Jacki Hollywood Brown on

    Oh, I could write an essay on this one – but I won’t!
    I think if you need to clear your partner’s stuff out of a space because partner is unable to (extra busy work week, broken arm etc) then you should put the stuff in a way that the other will be able to find it when needed.
    With my hubby working in different cities during the week the weekend makes chaos in the house. After he leaves Monday, I clear his clutter into neat piles in the rooms where they belong (paper in office, clothes in bedroom) that way when he has time he can put stuff back where it belongs.

  8. posted by M.R. on

    Someone please leave some good comments in this section. My roommate is a hurricane of stuff, crap, trash and papers.

    I go through the house, gather his belongings and put them on his bedroom floor. (I understnd this wouldn’t work with a spouse, with whom you’d presumably share a bedroom). I then put all of his trash and dirty dishes on his dresser.

    No nagging, and less clutter. I know, I know passive aggressive. Please help me, Unclutterer Commenters!

  9. posted by Meg on

    I put all my partner’s stuff on his desk. It becomes a huge pile of papers and random things he has left out. The only things I will handle are shoes and clothes. Those have a home and I know where they go. He doesn’t seem to mind too much. At least he knows where to look for stuff. And he cleans it at some point.

    When I shared a dorm room, my roommate drove me nuts. Just because my portion of the desk is clean, does not mean you can put your crap all over it. I had a talk with her about how her clutter makes it hard for me, asked what I could do to help her contain it. I ended up giving her more closet space, which was fine with me.

  10. posted by apple on

    This goes perfectly with today’s “indexed” post:

    Did you coordinate? 🙂

  11. posted by Alex Fayle | Someday Syndrome on

    For when you want to re-order but don’t want to be accused of losing other people’s stuff, a good solution is a container of some sort for each person.

    When one person tidies up all the stuff that is out of place, the out-of-place stuff goes into the box and if they ask “Where’s my ____?” the answer is always: “Did you check your box?” It can avoid arguments, nagging and disagreements of what goes where.

    Remember, even if you are the organized one to have a box for you too or people will see the system as unfair and will do things to purposely mess it up.

    Hope that helps!

  12. posted by ns on

    I’m not sure I agree with this post. It seems to say either a) live with it and hope it magically improves or b) clean it yourself. Cleaning messes up yourself, or waiting in denial for the hope that things will improve, both lead to either resentment or unfair workload on one person’s part.

    My suggestion is that you sit down like adults and have a real conversation about it. Something like “this is not a way that I can live. Let’s talk about creating spaces and systems we can both live with.” Being open and honest can do wonders, and most importantly you must communicate to your partner that the current situation is unacceptable, and serious.

  13. posted by Karen on

    @ns I think that you have the best idea.

    I cleaned up my husband’s office because the dog couldn’t find a place to sleep on the floor with all his junk. And, well, I really love that dog.

  14. posted by Lisa on

    My husband and I live in a small two bedroom house with a 4 month old. My husband has a lot of music and dj equipment, and I have lots of art and sewing supplies, plus I work at home. We have a lot of stuff. We had cabinets built all along one side of the living room to contain stuff, but mostly it’s a constant battle to contain clutter. The key is to have a place for everything. We just bought a larger dresser this week for the baby. It’s amazing how much stuff a tiny baby needs. That has made my life 100% saner. My husband is neater than I am and is very good about doing his share of chores and putting his projects away. I’m the one who leaves half done projects out.
    We’re both sneaky. What works is if one or the other invites friends or family over on the weekend. Boy, does that motivate both of us to clean!!! Then there’s the reward of a party! The way I do it is by suggesting that I’m overwhelmed and would like to hire a cleaning service. That usually gets an extra floor cleaning out of him and he helps me put my stuff away.
    We both need to babyproof however.

  15. posted by Another Deb on

    My husband and I are both messies, but I am the one who tries to do some organizing. He has stressed a lot when I do too much rearranging. I try to make homes for items that are logical for him and often ask “If you were looking for this item, where would you tend to look?” Then I try to make a space for it in that location.

    A word of advice; never throw another person’s stuff away!

  16. posted by Michele on

    We try to keep common areas cleaned up, but both of us have one “bomb shelter” space in the house where we can muck it up to our hearts’ content. Mine is the office, his is the garage. These rooms are guaranteed nag-free, no matter how bad the mess.

  17. posted by Alex Fayle | Someday Syndrome on

    @Another Deb
    You are so right – never throw away another person’s stuff – even if you are certain it’s garbage.

    I agree with you completely for long-term clutter issues. This post is more about the moments of chaos when maintenance slips.

    For example, if my boyfriend is really stressed at work, he tends to get chaotic in the home. I don’t say anything. I just tidy it up. I know that when the stress goes away he’ll go back to keeping things organized and if I sat him down for a calm discussion when he’s stressed, my words would likely be heard by him as another stress being piled on an already bad week. Not something either of us needs.

  18. posted by Erika H on

    @ns – I don’t know…my husband and I don’t fight over housework anymore, and more of it gets done than before, since we had a talk and decided that if you want it clean, you clean it. If I lived alone I’d be doing the dishes everyday, so it’s not really any more work than before. It’s so nice not having to feel bitter or martyr-ish when you clean, and not to hear nagging on the flip side.

    We do the “box” for stuff thing, and it works great. If I’m in the mood to vacuum and his clutter is on the floor, I put it in his box. Then it’s not judging or nagging, he knows I wanted to vacuum and he can put his stuff away when he wants.

    I feel this treats both people like adults more than “you’re a grown up now, clean up!” conversations. You don’t *have* to live in a clean house, you choose to. Both people have that free choice.

  19. posted by Jen C on

    Erica H:

    I think this is the best suggestion out of some really good ideas. I love the mind set adjustment you lay out. Very helpful.

  20. posted by Karen on

    I have learned in the past nine years to NEVER move my husband’s stuff. He has the habit of dropping his wallet, phone, keys on the kitchen table sometimes, or leaving one of those items in our son’s room…if I try to put them where I think they should be, or where I would have put them, he is lost. And angry, and rightfully so.

    We respect each other’s areas. It’s understood that the the kitchen, living room, et cetera are common areas and we all (kids included) work to keep those tidy. However, my husband’s half of the desk is often cluttered, but I leave it alone. Because that’s his area, and if I move stuff around he won’t know where the bills are, or other things, and can you imagine how irritating that is? Likewise, i don’t do his laundry, and he doesn’t do mine; those are separate. I don’t clean up his nightstand area, and he doesn’t complain about the mountain of clean laundry i may or may have not sorted through that day and which rests on the big table in our bedroom.

    I have found that in time, the other person will take care of their own stuff, unless they’re a horrible slob. If *I* keep my stuff tidy, that’s a subconscious signal to the other person–“hey, i need to tidy my stuff so i know where everything is.”

    So basically, if you mind your own business and own clutter, the other person will probably take care of theirs.

  21. posted by cv on

    Sometimes having a formal system in place makes things easier. My fiancee and I usually alternate weeks when it comes to doing dishes, but she’s a student and this is finals, so I’m on dish duty for three or four weeks in a row. After finals are over things will go back to normal.

    One thing that really makes this work is that all the usually unstated stuff becomes explicit. I think that the fact that we’ve made a clear arrangement makes her more appreciative, since she realizes I’m taking on the extra work. It also keeps me from resenting it and feeling like she’s just slacking off because there’s a time limit on it.

    I think that being appreciated by the busy messy person makes it all much easier. It’s hard not to feel like a martyr, but it makes a world of difference if the busy person comes home and says “Thanks for cleaning – the house looks great” or whatever. It might be worth it to sit the partner down before (not during) a stressful time and say, “I’m happy to support you through this period, but it makes me feel a lot better when you recognize that I’m doing extra work.”

  22. posted by Erika on

    If I lived alone I’d be doing the dishes everyday, so it’s not really any more work than before.

    Two people make more mess than one.

  23. posted by Hippolyta on

    I’m a big fan of each person having their own space as much as possible. It’s true it doesn’t work to put your spouse’s stuff on the bedroom floor, but (for example) my husband and I have separate desks, and I often pile his clutter on his desk and he gets to it in his time. He does the same with my clutter. M.R., I don’t think your solution is passive-aggressive at all, but merely sensible. But when I’m having a frustrating day already and find my clutter piled on my desk for me and I can’t get to my computer before I deal with it, I do have to bite back the urge to complain. Arrgh! This stuff is in my way! Wait… this was reasonable. It’s my stuff, I should deal with it.

  24. posted by Nicole on

    I am much “better” at recognizing other people’s clutter, especially my husband’s, than my own. Oops.

  25. posted by Ellipses… « Pigtails Flying on

    […] imagine how delighted I was to find the Unclutterer blog. If you live in an apartment, his rules on how to stay sane in tight quarters are only slightly unrealistic… Congrats to my associate DHS who ran the Dallas White Rock […]

  26. posted by Samantha on

    What if we have a roommate who is messy all of the time (and I mean disgusting messy….there are possibly diseases in her messes) and the last time I tried to clean up her things she got really angry at me?

  27. posted by Claycat on

    I am glad to find this! It led me to Alex’s site, which I need. I have problems with clutter, but they are a result of my basic problem, procrastination.

  28. posted by WilliamB on

    I love Alex’s ideas and outlook but it presumes that your other is a usually tidy person who’s going through an untidy period. It doesn’t seem to be directed to roommates who have permanently different comfort levels. Drat – I live with someone with a permanently different level.

    Also? the box idea only works if your other empties the box occasionally. Otherwise it overfills and the problem reoccurs.

    There’s a theory floating around that reinforcement of the positive and ignoring the negative will work in the long run. One of the articles I read, for example, the woman fully ignored her husband when he was ranting about misplacing his keys, gave him a slightly blank stare when he kvetched at her, and thanked him when he promptly did regular household tasks. It worked. I’m going to try it. Addendum: she eventually told him her strategy and he started using it on her! I love it.

  29. posted by Eadie on

    That’s so true re: what you say about moments of chaos. I study part-time and work part-time and live with a flatmate. My moments of chaos is when study is on. I just don’t have the mental capacity and physical energy to be as organised as I’d like. But once exams are over, I have this extra mental space and physical energy, I get stuck into it!

  30. posted by Pam on

    My radical situation is a divided house. The lower level (three rooms and bath) is my husband’s level, and his chaos stays down there. The main level is mine. I love having my own bedroom that is my space. Not very romantic, but my husband has Parkinson’s disease. We only moved about a month ago to this arrangement, but so far I am very happy with it.

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