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How can I make my husband get organized?

I'm afraid my mate is becoming a hoarder-clutterer


Cary Tennis
November 8, 2011 6:00AM (UTC)

Hi Cary,

I'm fearful about the future. Not the future in general. But a specific future.

I'm worried that my husband is -- for want of a better phrase -- a pre-hoarder. I've seen the TV show with the maze-like houses of trash and the shrines to junk. And we are certainly not at that point. But what concerns me it that so many stories begin, "Well, they were always messy, but then at a point it just spiraled out of control."

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I'm afraid we may be at that early phase.

It's complicated by -- well, it's complicated by many things. See, I admit I myself am a slob. Which makes it worse because my high tolerance for disorder allows me to let some things slide. And, I also feel I have no moral high ground to stand on.

But, there are important differences between us. Although it's hard for me to throw things away, it isn't impossible, as it is for him (OK, not impossible, but excruciating). I also have a periodic purge cycle, usually tied to something like a move or  a new job. My partner doesn't have this. In fact, when we bought a place last year, I was hopeful that he'd see this as an opportunity. Instead we filled a lot of boxes with old CDs and magazines and carted them with us. He is also more acquisitive than I am. He loves a thrift-store spree or deciding we need something new for the house. Suggestions like, "Hey, how about when we bring in one thing, we get rid of something of equal value," are met with enthusiasm but no follow-through.

It's not a gender thing; we're both men.

I can see where much of this came from: He grew up in extreme poverty with a bat-shit crazy mother. But an explanation doesn't make it better for  me.  Understanding the roots doesn't quell the growing panic about the state of our basement and back room.

And, I know I'm contributory. I've done a lot of denial and avoidance over the years.

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But, there are days when I just want to flee.

I love him, but don't want to wake up five years from now in a hell of excessive things.

Dreaming of an Empty Room

Dear Dreaming of an Empty Room,

Just once I would like to respond to a letter by saying, Gee, that's odd, I have no idea what you're talking about, I've never had that problem.

No such luck.

For research purposes, I downloaded the "Are You Chronically Disorganized?"  questionnaire from the National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization and answered yes to 17 out of the 21 questions. Of my four "no" answers, at least one is probably just denial. No. 18 asks,  "Do you consider yourself a packrat?"

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I answered no, as I do not consider myself any kind of rat at all.

I also answered no to No. 8, "Do you feel every paper must be kept in sight or you'll never find it again?" No, I don't feel every paper should be kept in sight. I wish all the papers would disappear. I just don't know where to put them.

So it looks like I maybe have a problem with organization. Big surprise. So does your husband. And since you bought the house, his problems are now your problems.

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The NSGCD's "Clutter-Hoarding Scale" may show how your situation compares with others. At the very least, it's an interesting read. It defines the parameters and indicates some of the warning signs.

The NSGCD has other useful documents. For instance, for communicating with your husband, you might consider "Tips for Communicating With the Chronically Disorganized (FS-007)."  (To get it, you use the site's shopping cart, but there's no charge.)

Remodeling, illness, new space, new people, all these things can throw off your routine and make you more disorganized than usual. So the fact that you recently moved into a new house may be a factor.

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After learning more about your partner's behavior and thinking through what to do about it, you may decide to hire a professional organizer. Take a look at these guidelines from the National Associate of Professional Organizers.

And now for the part where I go over your letter again, looking for some deeper meaning and making philosophical observations.

I notice that in thinking about communicating with your husband about this, you say you have no moral high ground.

That's good. The last thing you want is moral high ground. You don't need high ground. You need common grounds. Your tendency to be a slob is no impediment. Rather, it is the common ground on which you can stand to work with your partner. It gives you a way to identify.

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He is not your enemy. He is your ally. He is the man with whom you want to stand shoulder to shoulder to solve, together, this mutual problem.


Cary Tennis

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