Decluttering (Peacefully) With Your Spouse


Photo by kikfoto

A common question I hear is “What can I do about my spouse’s clutter?” Every relationship is unique, so I won’t even pretend to know what someone else should do regarding their spouse.

I can share what I learned from my husband Doug though.

Doug is not a sentimentalist, and he’s pretty tidy, but he’s a collector. He’s collected comic books, baseball cards, Star Wars toys, books, coins, rocks, and even vintage audio equipment. Whatever he does, he does well, so his collections are impressive…and extensive.

He’s gradually become less attached to those collections, but it’s been a slow process to find new places for them. While we work together on our stuff, we’ve settled on a few guiding tips.

  • Find an incentive. If you say to your husband, “Let’s clean out the garage. Awesome, right?” it really doesn’t sound that great. You need to find a positive reason to do the work. What do you want to do with the new space? What do you want to do with the money you make when you sell something?
  • Timing is everything. On Friday night after a long week of work, decluttering doesn’t sound like the best way to spend a weekend during football season. Still, maybe you can both find thirty minutes to work on it together. Set a timer, and then quit when time is up.
  • Focus on belongings that are neutral. Don’t ask why he still has his college intramural t-shirt. Start with something like cooking utensils or scrap lumber, the things that are less likely to hold sentimental attachment.
  • Break rule #5 and look for someone who really needs or wants your stuff. We listed audio equipment on Craigslist, and Doug started having second thoughts about letting it go. When he met the buyer and saw that this guy appreciated the speakers as much as Doug did, he was happy to see them go to a good home.
  • Be patient with each other’s stuff. When I see my little piles of stuff, I don’t see clutter — I see my works in progress, my mementos and souveniers, and my collections of inspiration. If Doug decluttered my stuff for me, I would be worried he would give or throw away something that mattered. He feels the same way. Even though our tendency is to want to clean out each other’s stuff, it’s better to spend more time focusing on our own.
Even after all that, it’s still just stuff, right? People always matter more.
About Rachel

I write about practical tips that will help you simplify at home. Connect with me on Pinterest and Twitter.

Comments

  1. This is a perfectly timed post for my home. I am on a belated New Year’s decluttering and organization kick. I have a pile of boxes in the middle of my living room full of both of our stuff. One thing that works well for us is when I want to declutter I put it all in one spot and ask him if there’s anything he’s opposed to giving away. He vetoes whatever he wants and then I find a space for the stuff that stays. I have found that he likes multiple choice questions i.e. does this stay or go?

    Shannon´s last blog post..Winter Minestrone

  2. So, I’m going to forward this to my hubby, and highlight #5. Lol. I’m a packrat. But I keep it in little pockets all over the house tidily–I’m not a slob.

    He, on the other hand, throws his minimal junk everywhere. Is there some kind of rule for that? I’m just thinking of building him his own little pocket in the corner of the bedroom.

  3. I love this perspective of treating everyone with respect on the issue of decluttering. I think every family struggles with this issue at some point – not just with a spouse but also with kids. I know the dynamic may be a bit different with kids, but it really is an emotional issue sometimes.

    I once read an article about people’s decluttering styles, and the one that stuck in my mind was “indiscriminate tosser.” That is what my husband is – but only for someone else’s stuff. I think, honestly, anyone is an indiscriminate tosser when they are dealing with another person’s stuff, at least to an extent, because you don’t have the same emotional attachment to it as the owner of the “stuff” does.

    Keeping that in mind, in my opinion, goes a long way towards treating others as you would be treated, which really is probably not only the golden rule, but the golden rule of dealing with someone else’s stuff.

    Taylor at Household Management 101´s last blog post..Grocery Shopping List 101

  4. Thank you for this. It is so tempting to just go in and throw things away when no one’s looking! Much marital discord is the result, though. :)

    I did a major bill and paper organization last weekend, but I asked about all R’s papers and out joint things before I threw anything out. Working on old t-shirts and mementos will be for another week. Luckily, neither of us are big collectors.

    liz´s last blog post..turning piles of paperwork into an organized system

  5. Great tips! I get asked this all the time as well. The only thing I might add is compromise. My husband and I have a deal, I leave his workshop alone and he lets me (and follows) my organizational systems in the rest of the house. Works for me!!

    Laura

    Org Junkie´s last blog post..My filing system makeover

  6. What a perfect thought for today. My husband is very patient when I let things slip on my end… I need to follow your tips and be patient when he gets behind. One thing we plan on doing is designing a desk that has closing doors so his space can be hidden. It’s in the living room.
    Katie

    Katie at makingthishome.com´s last blog post..The Joy of Cooking with a Two-Burner Stove

  7. Great advice. We are newly married and I learned this lesson the hard way!! I just thought he has not used it in a while, I can get rid of it.
    Nope!! It is best to ask!!!

  8. When my husband and I downsized from a 1300-sq. ft. apartment to one that was about 800 sq. ft., we gave away about a third of our belongings. We gathered all sorts of stuff together to give to a nonprofit in Atlanta that helps transition homeless people into apartments. Whenever I was struggling with whether to keep something, I would ask myself whether it was better for X (a mixer, a 6th, 7th, and 8th casserole pan, etc.) to sit on my shelf unused (or rarely used) or whether it was better for it to go to a family who didn’t have X and would use it. Knowing that my beloved but not entirely useful-to-me stuff wouldn’t go to waste and would even go to a family that might struggle to afford it otherwise made it much easier for me. There have been very few things I regret giving away, and none that I couldn’t replace in time.

    Sally Parrott Ashbrook´s last blog post..Step Two in the Year of Self-Care: Commit to Weekly Grocery Planning

  9. Brilliant post… I usually let the chaos build up and then have a grand tossing out, unfortunately that is not my husbands style – his level of mess tolerance is much higher than mine… we have both learnt to chill a bit… I can barely breathe in a clutter and he doesn’t notice it!!! Now I have an “on its way out” area near the front door and he knows that if anything is there he can either find a permanent spot for it or if it lingers I will just donate it along… I try and do a little bit of decluttering all the time rather than build it up to a huge chuck out – it eases the “departure” pain!

    se7en´s last blog post..How to feed Se7en

  10. I think in decluttering a balance has to be found. There is no way that I could ask my husband to part with a baseball card collection that he started when he was 8 years old. As far as my children’s toys are concerned they get to decide what goes to another child or home. I have set rules for gift givers….like no more stuffed animals (we have a lot of them)…no baby dolls (my girls don’t like them).

    SoBella Creations´s last blog post..Candice N Katies Art

  11. All these are so true! I find if I start cleaning and organizing, my husband is much more likely to jump in as well. It’s almost contagious. I noticed it once, and now I can count on the fact that he’ll start picking up his stuff when I pick up mine.

    Joy (from Just Plain Joy)´s last blog post..Ten Places I Love to Visit

  12. I threw away a ripped and torn shirt of my husband’s once and he had a fit. I learned from that experience. I never get rid of any of his stuff unless he tells me he wants it gone.

    Geri´s last blog post..Cold Sore Treatment

  13. May I add one thing? Please don’t ever throw away any of your spous’s belongings unless they’ve ok’d it.

    My husband threw away a bedframe I’d had in storage for ten years. He just saw it as clutter. He didn’t know the story behind it: How my father had collected scrap wire for months to buy it for me when I was a little girl. How I’d hoped to give it to one of our daughters one day. How it was a connection between me and my father, who had passed away.

    I swear, I nearly divorced my husband over that bed.

  14. Oh goodness, Holly. Yes, don’t declutter someone else’s stuff is definitely rule #4!

    • maribel says:

      I feel like this should be rule #1. I don’t think someone else should be touching someone else’s belongings. It could have a special meaning for one person, but not the one doing the throwing away.

  15. Needed this advice badly. I live in a tiny studio apartment with my husband, so you can imagine the pain we go through. My husband is a computer junkie. There are computer parts everywhere! (Also, we have two desktops and three laptops!)

    We recently decided to start decluttering. We are hardly getting anywhere.

  16. What do you do when YOU own the house and your partner wants to keep everything? He has an old clothes dryer in the garage now for ten years, just because it’s his. It’s gas and was too expensive to install. Plus now he’s preparing for the “worst” in the economy and is bulk buying canned goods, freeze dried and MRE’s. I’m trying to be patient, but he has filled up my garage and a whole storage shed outback before starting in on the house. I find myself getting rid of stuff and he won’t. It’s so difficult when you’re not married and we are not kids. Help please!

  17. One thing that works great for my husband and me is for me to just grab something and ask him on the fly “do you want to keep this or can I toss it?” It works better for us than trying to schedule time to do a whole session of decluttering.

  18. One idea I came up with some time ago is to have a “Trade Day Among Friends and Neighbors.” Basically, it’s a yard sale, but no money changes hands. You just exchange “stuff.” What has no value to you may have value to someone else, and the reverse is also true. Everyone taking part has to agree to terms, including date and time, ultimately set by the host/hostess after talking to participants.

    Share generously. One little seedling may not be the best thing to offer for a piece of furniture, so maybe offer to share a larger plant. People can also participate who have no “stuff” to share, but they can trade their baked goods, hand made crafts, or plants.

    Enjoy!

    maria

  19. maribel says:

    I was not home three times (two times working and the other visiting a friend) My spouse decided to throw stuff away, but everything he was throwing away was stuff I had kept for personal reasons. Was I right to get mad or should I brush it off. I am really getting tired of this. It is making me feel like I should never leave him alone at home. I feel uncomfortable going to work wondering what he is throwing out. Please tell me what to do. I really feel like I need my own room and I need to lock it up so he cant get to it.

    • My husband’s clutter is to the point that I want a divorce. He allows his mail to pile up and when I explode, he stores it in boxes and bins – in the attic, bedroom, basement and garage. He has unopened boxes/products that he ordered. He accepts anything that is given to him, including children toys and clothing even though we have no grandchildren. He says he’s going to give them away but he never does.

      I had a dumpster twice. If I didn’t control the clutter it would be just as extreme as you see on TV. But I’m retired now and I would like to have a space that I can consider my sanctuary.

      He tries to get rid of stuff but he has to go through every piece of paper (scribbled notes, clippings, multiple copies of news articles); and he gets frustrated when he doesn’t make a dent; or he clears a space but it’s quickly cluttered again.

      Can this marriage be saved?

  20. Couldn’t have come at a better time this article. I’m trying to encourage my spouse to declutter. More the shear number of clothes and jewerly that takes up space. And she keeps bying more!!!!

  21. LOL your husband and my husband could be one in the same. mine is currently collecting comic books, before that it was magic cards etc the magic cards are gone now but the comics are huge!
    of course my clothes collection needs to be downsized too…