Help! My house is filled with light bulbs and cereal

My husband and I are drowning in clutter and debt, and I am at the end of my rope.

Published May 5, 2003 7:44PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I am married. I love this man, but. And that is the problem.

He seems to be stuck in a former intimate relationship. It's with a small town that is about an hour and a half away by car. Our kids from his first marriage are there, and the only way he ever sees them (they are teenagers and not very available) is to go there and beg them to spend time with him. He goes to soccer games, basketball games, athletic award events, high school graduations, class reunions, friend's houses, his sibling's homes for dinner. His parents both died in the last two years, and they lived in this little town, too. My husband wants to keep his parent's house, and that is where he is a lot of the time. In their house.

He is there at least two nights a week and every weekend, which means that he is not here. Here is where we live; it is a lovely home that I owned free and clear when we fell in love and got married. Here is where I am, because I do not want to follow him around in this small town during all my spare time. His family is wonderful, his friends are nice, the town is nice, but it is a three-hour drive round trip and our home is here. Or rather, my home is here. Now that he has his parents' house, he has his own home. He spends even more time in the little town now than he did before his parents died. At our house, I have housework, laundry, lawn, yardwork, cats, a dog (a recent acquisition because I am lonely), and so much stuff that the closets are bulging, but he is now usually at "his" house, doing yardwork, laundry, visiting his friends, seeing the kids, etc. He comes home (my house) to sleep (not always) and to cut the lawn. The days he does not go to the little town, he spends several hours after work at his friends' homes (male). When he is here, he doesn't spend time with me, but is instead on the phone with his friends or the kids. He says this is my fault because our house is a mess and he doesn't like to be here.

In the last seven years, I have purchased a new roof, two used cars, car repairs on said cars, a new well, a new septic system, a new furnace, new central air conditioning, new kitchen appliances, new carpet, new furniture, two computers, sheets, dishes, paid almost all the grocery bills, paid for the newspaper, trash, homeowner's insurance, my car insurance, my medical expenses, took out a $12,000 loan to put a new deck on the house, which I have $5,000 left on, paid an accountant to do our taxes and paid all the tax due, and put my daughter from my first marriage through college (I make less than $30,000 a year, and yes, I am a freaking miracle worker plus I seem to be spending money I had saved to retire on just to make ends meet).

My husband has not contributed to any of these expenses. Zippo. Nada. He won't go on vacations with me so I go alone about once a year. He talks about going to Hawaii someday but he obviously expects me to pay for it. He borrowed $1,000 from me to buy something and said he would pay me back in a month. That was three months ago. I don't think I will ever see it again.

My husband has paid for the phone bill (which is huge because of the long-distance calls to the little town) after I handed him the bill and said "this is yours" and sometimes he buys food. He pays for his and his kids' car insurance, his and his kids' out-of-pocket medical expenses, monthly child support, and has purchased lots of stuff that he can't really afford, like huge televisions, dvd players, Nintendo, power tools, big-ticket Christmas presents for the kids, etc. He spends a lot of time at home trying to sell things on eBay, but I think he buys things as often as he sells them. He has been very secretive about his finances so I have no idea what the real picture is, so I guess. His credit was ruined when we married and it has not healed. He apparently owes many tens of thousands of dollars (I am guessing here, and hoping it's not more) on credit accounts he says he no longer uses. He often doesn't make the minimum payment on them and we have creditors calling seven days a week. Sometimes they threaten to shut off the phone for nonpayment. The phone is in my name. He bounces checks and still buys things he can't afford to buy. The real picture is that he makes about $55,000 a year. Where the money goes I couldn't really tell you. I don't think he could, either.

In the last two years, I came down with an incurable progressive ear disorder that makes me tired and dizzy, and I am slowly going deaf. It has made my life very difficult. When it is bad, I come home from work, walk the dog, eat something standing up, then flop. I sit at the computer a lot. I read a lot. I still work full time (in the summer, I work six days a week much of the month to help pay for the college bills). Our (my) house is in a shocking state of clutter and filth. I keep trying to clean it up, but it is really difficult for me even when I feel well. I am one of those ADD people. His idea of helping me clean up is to shove every random thing in a box and stack it on top of many other such boxes. Thus the house is full of stacks of boxes that one opens to find within such motley assortments as single shoes, a new paint brush, lost tax documents, dirty tea mugs, a bag of cereal, a bathing suit from two years ago, socks with holes in them, and mummified oranges. It is horrifying to me and I am in despair.

Before we married, I had piles of things but I knew what was in each pile, pretty much. I had places where things were kept. But my husband doesn't keep things in places, he will put anything anywhere. I find light bulbs stored with cereal. He also rearranges things frequently, so I can never count on something being where I last saw it. Before I married him, I parked my car in the garage and things were fairly tidy and sometimes clean.

He wants me to get rid of my stuff (I have lived here for 25 years) in order to make room for his stuff. He has 30 pairs of size 13 shoes, 40 pairs of pants, a million shirts, at least 10 jackets, rents a storage unit for at least $75 a month and it's completely full, plus the garage is full and he is now filling up his parents' house with stuff. He has large power tools, workshops, and the like. I have not really seen him use any of it; he just acquires it and rearranges it. There is a pile of shelving units that has sat under a tarp next to the house for five years. It looks like a pile of junk. Our whole house looks like a pile of junk.

If I try to open a discussion about these problems, he just goes on the offensive, says it's all my fault and gets pissy with me. At the moment he isn't speaking to me because I asked him where my drill and awl were and he got offended because I implied that he put them somewhere (which he did) and that was why I couldn't find them. Jesus, all I did was ask him where they were. It took me an hour to find them and use them for the purpose I needed them for.

I am sure he could list a litany of my sins and crimes, but it couldn't possibly compare with my list. Could it? I got him to counseling a couple of times where he blamed all of the above on me. Then he said he didn't feel a need to go to counseling anymore. I don't know if he thought he had clarified things for my therapist, or what. And guess who paid for the therapist?

Obviously, we are not doing well. Drifting apart doesn't begin to describe it. But I still love him. And I know he loves me. We are not really together, though. I am lonely. The dog helps. I was so happy when I got married. I thought I would never be lonely again. I don't want another failed marriage. This is really awful.

Another Day in Paradise

Dear Stranger in Paradise,

As I may have said to you when I first wrote back, after I read your letter I couldn't even walk. I felt heavy and weak, stupefied. So I can just imagine how you feel, with the light bulbs stored with the cereal and the 30 size 13 shoes. And all that stuff under the tarp in the yard. And the bills. And the kids.

I hardly know where to begin. But when you're buried alive, it doesn't matter that much where you begin. You just start digging.

Here is what you need to do. You need to assemble a team. You need a strong, courageous advocate who can help you assemble the team. The team should include a housecleaner, a hauler or hauling service, a lawyer and an accountant. Ideally, your advocate would be a social worker schooled in counseling, perhaps with some experience in obsessive-compulsive disorders, ADD, hoarder-clutterer behavior and that kind of thing. That would be ideal. But the person will also have to be motivated, and be on your side. The person should be a facilitator, that is, able to listen and communicate, able to give orders, able to solve problems. That's what you need. You need a team. And whatever it costs, I would make paying them your first priority, because this is about survival.

Then, after consulting the lawyer about any legal problems that may arise from cleaning the house with your husband's property in it, instruct the housecleaner and the hauler to bring order to your house. Then leave. Go to a motel or stay with a friend a few days until they're done cleaning your house. Have the social worker or the lawyer deal with your husband during this time.

Now, at some time, you are going to have to deal with your husband's reaction. He is a human being, he has rights, he has feelings, he is your husband, you love him, he is family. But you have to take action. He's not going to like it. But you and he, acting together, are never going to solve this problem. If you sat down with him and tried to talk it through, I feel certain you wouldn't get anything done. So you've got to act unilaterally, and he may well consider what you do to be out of bounds, to be an act of betrayal, to be theft or destruction of his property, to be illegal. That's why you need to go over it with the lawyer first. And that's why you will need help from your advocate about how to communicate with your husband. It's going to be messy and weird, but the alternative is to continue as you are. And, in fact, because I am only human, someone on your team may come up with another solution that I cannot see. I'm no oracle. All I'm saying is you have to start taking steps, one by one, and be ready to face the conflict that ensues.

After the house is cleaned and you can think straight and have an uncluttered place to sleep, sit down with your accountant and get an accurate statement of your finances. Have the social worker help you arrive at a clear diagnosis of your husband's psychological state, and do the same for yourself. Then sit down with your lawyer and your social worker/counselor and look at how a divorce would affect you. Does your husband contribute more to your well-being than he detracts? Would divorce create an unsupportable burden, perhaps causing one or both of you to get worse rather than better? It's possible that the way you're living is the way you have to live, and that you and your husband need each other in some way that no one but you and your husband can understand. But if you do stay together, someone else might have to control the money and clean the house. Someone else might have to do your estate planning or whatever.

That's why you need this whole team of professionals you can trust. There's a lot of work to be done, and each little job is going to be hard, and you're going to want to quit seeking an unfamiliar order and go back to the chaos that is familiar. Again, that's where you need your team.

That's the only thing I can imagine doing. Good luck. Let me know how it's going.

By Cary Tennis

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