Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Reader Question: One is Messy, One is Not

Photo by Tericee, found on Flickr; licensed under Creative Commons.

I follow your blog and I love to read it. I also help others with decluttering problems. One problem I am asked frequently is, how can I tidy when the person I live with is messy? I was looking in your archives and you don’t have any articles covering that subject. I’m wondering if you have any great tips you’d love to share in a future blog post?

Here's my advice on the subject - assuming we're talking about a normal amount of clutter, not a hoarding situation:

1. Show respect for the other person. Do not get rid of any of that person's things without permission. And both people might watch the language they use, avoiding phrases like "your junk."

2. See where both people are in agreement. Peter Walsh says, "Imagine the life you want to live" - and then imagine how you want to use the spaces in your home to support that vision. Are both people aligned?

3. Make sure both parties understand that there are different ways to be organized, and understand that one person's approach may not work for the other. I've seen someone who prefers that everything be put away in drawers try to enforce that style with her "need everything out where I can see it" spouse - and it just doesn't work. But you can have things out and still be organized - and tidy!

On a related note: Some people may be naturally less tidy, but you can make things easier on them by making it as simple as possible to be organized and tidy. For example, provide hooks for hanging up clothes, rather than just hangers. Provide an "in box" right where the person normally dumps the incoming mail, not where you'd ideally want to place it. Get off junk mail lists, so there's less mail to deal with.

And for files that both partners use, make sure the file titles make sense to both parties - so they can both easily put things away, and find them. I saw a shared home office where one person filed the home insurance under the name of the insurance company - which was not something the other person would have ever thought to look under. Filing it under Insurance - Home made things much easier!

4. Perhaps both partners can have areas which are entirely under their control (as long as that doesn't pose any health hazard) - and then agree on some ground rules for the common areas.

5. I don't like to sound self-serving, but it really can help to bring in a professional organizer. Having an informed neutral third party involved can make a big difference.

I've worked with couples where if Person 1 asks Person 2 if we can get rid of an item - find it a new home - Person 2 will almost always say no. But if I ask the same question - worded a bit differently, probably - about 50% of the time I'll get a yes.

And of course, an organizer can come up with all those different approaches mentioned above, too.

6. For more on this topic, head over to Unclutterer, where Erin Rooney Doland has some good posts:


MarySees said...

Great advice, Jeri!

Suggesting a professional is good! Hey, if we don't toot our own horns, who will? We all have to make a living!

I, personally, would love to hire a professional. I just can't afford it, and we live in the boonies! :)

My husband and I don't have this problem. We are both messy! LOL!

Claire Josefine said...

Great advice, Jeri (naturally!). It usually boils down to clear communication, kindness, remembering you're in this together, and finding solutions that support both of you -- all of which your suggestions incorporate.

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Recently I met a young man at an open house for the adult school where I teach an uncluttering workshop. He told me that he was currently casually dating two women and he was eager to see their homes because if either one was messy, the other one would be his choice to continue to date! He is adamant about having no clutter in his home.

I wonder if the divorce rate would go down if the pre-marriage discussions of seriously dating couples included the clutter issue in addition to whether or not they wanted to have kids!

The English Organizer said...

Great topic and I agree with Cynthia: it's well worth scouting out the other person's living style, early in a relationship!

JustGail said...

All good advice, Jeri. I'd also add to ask if it's the actual mess that's bothering you, or if it's the though of what others are thinking about it (and you).

I'm not saying to give up, but maybe the clutter isn't the real issue. And yes, clutter and household maintenance in general should be part of pre-marital counseling, not just "kids yes or no?".

JustGail said...

I forgot to add - about scouting out the clutter situation before things get too serious. It's amazing how much someone can hide during the inital stages of a relationship. Maybe an apartment full of clutter, not so much. But definitely expectations of who does what can be hidden for quite a while.

Jeri Dansky said...

Lots of interesting comments here - thank you all for sharing your insights and experiences.

RoseAG said...

My husband and I have different ideas about what's clutter and what isn't.

Neither of us is perfect. I'm prone to hanging onto too many things "just in case." He's prone to throwing EVERYTHING out, which is not always the optimal way of doing things.

Our lives improved considerably when we brought Marta, a housekeeper, into our lives. She comes regularly and before she comes we have to pick, collect dirty laundry and put clean laundry away.

We still have some areas of clutter but being on a regular schedule for getting things picked up enough so the vacuum can be run and the kitchen counters cleared off keeps things from getting too out of hand.

She does not cost more than thearpy, and un-like thearpy, we've got a clean house as the result! So remember that "professional" help is not just one-shot organizers.

Jeri Dansky said...

RoseAG, I agree that hiring a housecleaner can be money well spent. See my post on the book A Housekeeper is Cheaper Than a Divorce.

I've got ongoing clients who also have a housecleaner, and we help in different but complementary ways.

Cynthia Friedlob said...

I agree with you, Jeri, and RoseAG about the value of a housekeeper. Ours comes only once a month, but it's often enough to make sure we don't allow things to get out of control. Much, much cheaper than therapy!