My wife is a compulsive hoarder

Our house is unlivable, and I'm concerned for our son.

Published May 24, 2006 12:01PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My wife is a compulsive hoarder. We've been together for 15 years (married for seven of those years) and have a young son together. Our basement is filled, literally floor to ceiling, with her things, with very small walkways in between the piles. The living areas of our house are bordered, in every room, with piles and piles of everything imaginable (old mail, newspapers, documents from her work, disassembled desks, boxes of I don't know what). Our friends and neighbors have us to their homes and we can't reciprocate; our son can't have friends to our home. Only her family (and her parents are similarly afflicted) visits us. In short, I feel like a hostage to her compulsion.

The balance of power in our relationship shifted when, a few years back, I was laid off and sank into a depression. I had a difficult time finding work, and eventually went back to work as a temp (hard to swallow with an MBA). During that time, in every fight, my wife made me feel inadequate, constantly chiding my lack of earning power and reminding me of how cheated she felt by my professional situation. Our finances spun out of control. I handled both her anger and my life in general badly; I essentially retreated into a funk.

Three years ago, I managed on my own to pull myself out of that funk; I used connections I made temping to get a good job. With the help of my family and a credit-counseling service, we're regaining our financial footing (another year and we'll be debt-free). I've been reasserting myself in my relationship with my wife and with my son. I cook dinner every night and insist that we take that meal together as a family. I do all the grocery shopping and maintain our kitchen. I've been slowly trying to drag us all (including myself) into some semblance of normalcy so that my son has the environment he needs to grow and prosper. We share parenting, making disciplinary decisions jointly; we take turns at bed and story time. I've even become the family barber for my son and myself.

Further complicating the issue: our two families. My mother and father are compulsive neatniks. (I am not.) My wife's parents share her hoarding problem, to the point that they use their family house as a huge storage locker and rent an apartment in which to live. My family is pressuring us to resolve the hoarding issue, as they're concerned for us and our son. My mother has even made a couple of veiled threats about seeking custody of my son. My wife's parents whisper poison into her ear -- why are you letting them tell you what to do? -- and tell my wife that she doesn't really have a problem.

My wife has sought therapy for her hoarding and is taking antidepressants, but nothing has changed in the past year. She has now left her therapist, saying, "He's a man, and I feel like the two of you are ganging up on me."

I've suggested a family meeting, at which we would both agree to changes that the other wants and set a timetable to keep us both honest. I've suggested couples therapy. I've even threatened to call the child welfare authorities and the fire marshal in my area, as I think my home unsafe and unhealthy for my son. Nothing seems to work.

What do I do? I want to preserve my marriage, but my primary goal is a healthy and loving environment for my son. Right now, I am not sure any such environment can include my wife.

Harried Over Hoarding

Dear Harried,

The steps you have taken seem reasonable. There are many dimensions to hoarding and its effects on a family, but what is important now is that your wife continue to work to change her behavior. As many commentators note, this is a notoriously difficult behavior to change, but change can be accomplished.

There may be many reasons she quit therapy; the fact that she says she felt ganged up on indicates that she feared you and the therapist were going to make her get rid of her stuff. That is a common fear with hoarders. She may not yet be ready to start getting rid of her stuff. Don't frighten her or threaten her. That is an element frequently stressed in the literature on hoarders: You have to go slowly. Other things that seem clear is that this is a family problem. Also striking is that children of hoarders do indeed face a bewildering array of challenges as they try to grow up normally with a person who won't throw anything away.

I would say that your most important efforts lie in trying to keep your wife on the road to improvement and eventual recovery. One way to keep her on that road is to keep in mind the route by which she might be expected to improve.

The best model for change in this regard that I came across is the "five stages of change" outlined by J.O. Prochaska, C.C. DiClemente and J.C. Norcross in their 1992 article in American Psychologist, "In Search of How People Change: Applications to Addictive Behaviors."

Prochaska's transtheoretical model of behavior change may give you a sense of how your wife might work through her hoarding habit and eventually be free of it, or at least substantially improved. He outlines the five stages of change and also 10 ways, or processes, by which one can move through those stages of change.

It's a lot to take in, but the advantage of it is that it is very concrete and measurable. With something as difficult to change as hoarding, it may be particularly useful to have a course of therapy with measurable outcomes. When change is slow and frustrating, there will often be a temptation to quit -- as she has apparently done with her therapist. By keeping in mind a vision of improvement, and how concretely it will be achieved, I think you can keep motivating her to work on it. So I hope you and she can look for a new therapist who can outline a clear plan of therapy by which she can take measurable steps toward improvement and eventual freedom from this thing.

As the Children of Hoarders site makes clear, your parents' concerns about your son are realistic and justified. So while working to keep your wife in a program of behavioral change, you will also need to try to mitigate the effects on your son of living in a hoarder's household.

One way to do that might be to give him as much time as possible outside the home, at your parents' house. While your wife and her parents may sense this as a symbolic gesture of disapproval, I think it would be helpful for him to experience living normally as much as possible. Also, it may be helpful for you to spend some time with the Children of Hoarders site so you can imagine the kinds of stresses and contradictions your son may experience, and take steps to help him resolve them. You and he may find you are affected in similar ways by your wife's behavior, and, oddly enough, this may help you form a bond, an agreement by which you help each other and help her.

If you reach moments when you think you can't keep going, don't pass them off as weakness. Recognize that they are realistic indicators of just what a difficult job you have. If after several years your wife cannot improve, divorce may be your only option. But meanwhile I hope you will continue to take positive steps, and recognize that you are going to feel, at times, as if it would be easier and better to divorce your wife.

Right now, as far as your son is concerned, I think you are showing him something extremely valuable: that no matter how weird and difficult personal relationships become, people can still maintain their essential bonds and try to get better. You're showing him that one doesn't simply give up on other people. You're showing him courage, tenacity and love.

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