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  • Writer's pictureClaire Constable

Is Clutter Affecting your Relationship?



If so, you're not alone. Research has shown that clutter is one of the leading causes of household arguments.


Relationships with the people we love are wonderful things, but let's be honest, they are rarely ever easy, even at the best of times. Relationships surrounded by clutter are even more challenging.


It's easy to joke about the messy habits we all bring into our homes, but excess clutter can be a make or break issue in many relationships.


I think the pandemic over the past few years has highlighted this even more. Being forced to stay at home meant confronting our - and our partners - possessions. Some people used the lockdowns as an opportunity to declutter. In contrast, others found it too overwhelming, and instead, the irritation and emotional stress caused by cluttered surfaces and crammed cupboards were heightened.


Our physical environment significantly influences our emotions and subsequent behaviour with others.


Some clutter and disorganisation in our homes are perfectly normal, but when it takes over and adversely affects your day-to-day life, it can contribute to a stressful environment and strained relationships.


If you have and live with a significant other, you're likely to have encountered a time (or many times!) when 'stuff' has become an emotionally charged topic of conversation. Think about how many arguments centre around the 'stuff' in your home.


When we share a living space, we also share the results of someone else's habits. Relationships come with a lot of baggage - literally!


Clutter can create just as much conflict as some more talked about relationship issues such as money, sex or balance. But it is as common as any of those.


Honestly, I would say that nearly all couples have to some degree, a different idea of how much stuff to keep and how to create order in the home.


Couples can often learn to live with or find compromise with each others clutter. It's when the mess takes over that it becomes damaging to the relationship. Sometimes the stress and frustration caused by the clutter is apparent and out in the open. And at other times, it can be unspoken and seething under the surface. Either way, it's a drain on your energy and others in the home.




HOW CLUTTER AFFECTS RELATIONSHIPS



Understandably, maintaining a tidy home can be a struggle and a source of contention for many couples.


Sometimes clutter is simply a side effect of the stresses of life. When life gets a bit too much, or we just don't have time to put things in their designated home or regime or recycle unwanted items.


Trying to juggle and balance everything in your life is hard work. Demanding jobs, family life, social life, life admin, grocery shopping, as well as trying your best to care for your mental and physical wellbeing - and finding time to dedicate to your relationship.


Let's face it, after a long day, all you want to do is relax and unwind, so tidying up is often not top of the priority list. But when clutter gets on top of you, the stress and anxiety can affect how you and your partner react to each other—making you less patient and understanding and more prone to nit-picking and passive-aggressive behaviour.


Clutter puts a lot of stress on a home. If your home is constantly causing you or your partner stress, that ongoing stress is likely to affect every other part of your relationship.


Clutter discourages connection and quality time spent with each other. It prevents you from enjoying your home and each other - instead of spending time worrying or trying to get things sorted out.


It can create feelings of resentment, frustration, anger and guilt. Especially if there is a difference of opinion on the clutter levels and what is acceptable to both sides within the home.


It's very rare that couples enter a relationship and naturally be on exactly the same page when it comes to how they want to home to look, feel like and function. There isn't a one size fits all size of living. One person can be very tidy and overwhelmed by a messy living space, while the other is unfazed by - or even enjoys - the clutter. The conflict in clutter styles contributes to pressure on the relationship.


When you're not both in agreement with the amount and type of stuff in the home and how it should be managed or organised, it can reveal a fundamental difference in beliefs and emotional makeup. Clutter issues sometimes go very deep, and it's often not just about the items themselves, but they can reveal the different values each partner has.


For some, things everywhere can feel like a sign that one partner cares more about their possessions than the relationship; not caring about keeping the home tidy can feel like home and family life is not a priority. Work or leisure related clutter can feel like a way of diverting attention away from interacting with each other, or not feeling heard amongst the noise and distraction of the clutter.


In other relationships, both partners are in agreement with their vision for their home. They both want to declutter and get organised, but they can't find the time or energy to make it happen.


Other couples have a different predicament.




my partner won't declutter


If your definition of a clean and tidy home doesn't line up with your partners, it can pose a different set of challenges in a relationship.


I often see clients and their partners where one person is highly stressed by the 'mess' one their home, but the other person doesn't see a problem,


It can be very frustrating when your home feels like a mess, and it's not your mess.


Someone who is content to live in a disorganised way may not understand the impact it has on someone who wants to live in an organised home. From the other perspective, it can feel like nagging or controlling behaviour if you are content in your home with your possessions and someone else is telling you that you need them out.


It can feel like living at opposite ends of a bridge that neither side is willing to cross. Maintaining the balance and trying to meet in the middle can be challenging and draining.



SOME SIMPLE STEPS TO HELP YOU TACKLE CLUTTER IN A RELATIONSHIP


If your partner's stuff or untidy habits bother you, and not them - or vice versa. What can you do about it?


The first and most important thing to understand is that a level of clutter is normal, whether it's just a blip due to life events, a busy schedule or a longer-term ability to manage stuff for whatever reason.


The second is that everyone is different. The fact is that not everyone in your home will feel the same way about the things in it. Remember, your partner may genuinely not notice the piles of clutter or not believe it to be a problem, so try not to get angry or frustrated if they don't tidy up of their own accord.



TALK ABOUT CLUTTER


Communication is an essential factor in any relationship.


If the clutter is more than just a ack of time, systems or habits and has become overwhelming - it's important to talk about how it's making you feel and address any underlying issues.


Most people start conversations about clutter by telling the other person that they need to change - which usually doesn't end well and is likely to result in an argument. Arguing, nagging, threatening and issuing ultimatums only makes people dig their heels in.


Clutter causes stress and subconsciously raises our defences. The key is to try and lower these defences when approaching chats about clutter.



Open-minded curiosity is always a good place to start. Talk openly and honestly to your partner. Discuss your expectations. Are you disappointed that your partner isn't living up to your expectations, but you never actually talked to each about what you both want from your home - and each other?


Calmly explain to the other person what the clutter means to you, the impact it's having and why you're finding it overwhelming.


Try to listen deeply to your partners needs too. Instead of thinking about how to respond and your agenda, listen to their feelings without judgement, blaming or criticism.


What do they want the home to look and feel like? Where would they like their possessions to live?


Discussing clutter can quickly bring to the surface feelings that have long been buried in a relationship. These discussions might be surprisingly revealing - you might discover that the mess reminds someone of the stress of living with parents who hoarded, or the pressure to be clean and tidy all the time triggers memories of being endlessly criticised as a child.


When I work with couples together, we have conversations about their individual goals and why they are reaching out for help. Clients have often said it has felt like couples therapy - even though I am definitley not a therapist!


Your conversations may start small. You don't have to go too deep to begin with - just starting to acknowledge that clutter causes stress and affects the relationship is all you need to do as that first step.



LOOKING beNEATH THE CLUTTER


Having an understanding that there may be more to it than just the physical stuff.


We all have our reasons for the material things we bring into and keep in our homes and lives, and for some, there is a much deeper meaning.


There are many reasons people struggle with clutter - past trauma or experiences, learnt and unlearnt behaviours, lack of time or routines, physical or mental illness include some of the reasons that could be a factor.


Psychological conditions such as ADHD or OCD also exacerbate cluttering behaviours.


When talking about clutter, it's important to listen and respect the other persons feelings. Don't deny what things mean to them. What may seem like rubbish to you could be precious to them, and dismissing that could be deeply harmful.


Clutter is often used as armour or a comfort blanket to protect from difficult emotions. Asking someone to declutter and start taking these down, means facing the difficult feelings that can come to the surface during the process. Putting off the decluttering is a way of avoiding these feelings.


If someone is hanging onto books, letting go of them to that person may mean giving up the hope of ever getting round to reading them. It may not always be about letting go of the physical objects, but the aspirations linked to them.


They may have suffered a traumatic event when they were younger, and these things bring them comfort. Or they may have grown up where their family could not afford much or were not allowed things for various reasons.


Sentimentally about items can also run deep. I have lots of clients who have lost loved ones and want to keep everything that reminds them of them, which causes tension with their partners.


If you're the one with lots of things or are happy to not be tidy, it's still all about understanding and recognising that your clutter could be causing someone you love stress, and try and meet in the middle so that you can both be comfortable.




UNDERSTANDING EACH OTHER'S NEEDS


Parting with personal possessions can be painful for some people, so it's important to tackle the decluttering (and any conversations about it) with respect, patience, compassion, and sometimes even a little humour.


People who find decluttering easy rarely have a deep personal attachment to the things they are happy to let go of.


When your partner asks you to do something time and time again, they are letting you know that it is something that is important to them. For example, if they are continuously reminding you to put your shoes away or hang your coat up, it means that every time they see them chucked on the floor or over a chair, it causes them discomfort, anxiety or stress to some degree. It is important to acknowledge this stress in your partner, even though you might not understand why it affects them in such a way.



FOCUS ON THE BENEFITS OF DECLUTTERING


Decluttering can be beneficial to your relationship on so many levels. As well as talking about how you're feeling at the moment, it's also good to talk about the benefits of decluttering and how it will improve your home and relationship. Focus on the positives and make them goals to work towards.


Once your home is organised and easier to maintain, it makes day to day life flow much easier and, by association, relieves pressure put on our relationships.


Most people don't fully realise how much clutter affects them and is holding them back. Clearing out the clutter and getting rid of the physical boundaries will create more time and space in which to enjoy being together.


Simplifying our space and creating good organisational systems will hopefully mean fewer arguments about stuff and more kind conversations. It will help to alleviate any anger, resentment or guilt associated with the clutter and open up a new kinder way of relating to each other.


Working through your feelings as you declutter can open the door to deeper levels of emotional intimacy and connection. Not only will you enjoy a home with less clutter, but hopefully you will gain a more positive and meaningful relationship too. It may seem a little scary at first, but if you value the relationship and are willing to open up to each other as you declutter, you'll discover a whole host of benefits of living with less clutter.


Furthermore, the decluttering process opens up the door for a couple to be more conscious in many other areas of their life; new opportunities arise and life changes.



WORK ON A DECLUTTERING PLAN TOGETHER


Together, identify the clutter hotspots that cause the most stress in your home. It could be the entryway where everyone dumps their stuff when they come in or the bedroom (an important space for relationships as visual clutter heightens stress and reduces intimacy).


You've hopefully talked about why there needs to change and what you would like that change to be, so set some attainable goals that you can work on together. Start small to begin with.


Determine what you both can live with and what you can live without.

Can you reach a clutter compromise? It goes back to thinking about how living a certain way can be uncomfortable for someone else. If you share a space but have different views on how it should look and feel, there will have to be compromise on both sides.


That compromise might be that your partner can keep things that have taken over the home, but they must be kept in a particular area. Even if you still consider it a mess, it's important that each person feels a sense of ownership and belonging in their home.


Establish rules for clutter-free areas. Everyone has the right to live in a clean and functional space, so differentiate between personal and shared spaces or storage areas. For example, a dedicated space in the living room, but communal, calm areas such as the bedroom, must remain clutter-free.


If you're the tidy one in a relationship, you have to let your partner have some control. Throwing out their stuff without their permission or creating organisation systems that only work for you will make them feel like they have no power over their own living space, causing them stress. Working on a plan together will help to empower them to make changes instead of you doing it for them.


Like any other relationship issue, you have to work at it, talk and meet at a place where you both feel comfortable.



CREATE SIMPLE ORGANISATION SYSTEMS


When looking to create systems in your home, take a step back and think about the natural behaviours that happen in a space.


For example; If your partner frustrates you by dumping their shoes by the door when they come in, creating a new shoe storage system that involves asking them to put their shoes on a shelf, in a cupboard, in another room most probably won't get followed straight away - especially if it's been a long term habit.. Instead, start by creating a simpler system (such as an allocated shoe basket as close as possible to the front door) that works with their behaviours instead of trying to change them completely.


I am not saying that we should just let others do what they want, leaving us to tidy everything up, but it's more frustrating trying to completely change behaviours overnight. Our brains are powerful. and our habits are hard to break.


I often find couples have different ideas of where an item 'belongs'. Tensions rise when items cannot be located, or there is no clear home to put an item away. The results are cluttered surfaces, overstuffed drawers and repeated purchases of the same 'lost' items. By creating specific homes for everything, everyone will know where to find things and where to put them away.


One of my favourite systems is a container or basket for each person for items that have not been put away or do not currently have a designated home. Perhaps create a daily or weekly ritual for each household member to check their baskets and put things away. Over time you may realise that certain items always collect here, and you've identified a need for a new storage system.


Turn the tidying routines and rituals themselves into an opportunity to reconnect. You can catch up on your day whilst you put away the dishes or get the kids involved in folding the family laundry.



INSPIRE BY EXAMPLE


One way to introduce the practice of decluttering and show the benefits to a partner who may be a bit hesitant is to 'visibly' focus on your own decluttering first.


Work on the things and areas that you have control over, regardless of how resistant your partner is to doing it too. Sort through your own possessions purely for your own benefit - and ignore anything that belongs to them.


You may think that you are clutter-free, but there will always be areas that you can work on.


Watch decluttering programmes and read books when your partner is around and indirectly share posts about the benefits of decluttering; hopefully, they will see and have their own realisations and are more likely to act. Sometimes attempting to explain the benefits to a partner can make them feel like you are trying to manipulate them into change and make them dig their heels in even more.


There's a lovely phenomenon called the 'Clutter Clearing Ripple'. Many people find that doing their own decluttering without saying anything to anyone often inspires a partner, relative or closer friend to start clearing their own clutter.



IF YOU'Re STILL STRUGGLING, GET HELP


If clutter is heavily impacting your relationship, and you've tried all the tips above, it might be beneficial to get some outside help.


It could be a Professional Organiser or a couples therapist - or both. A professional can help you to find a compromise, or at the very least, help to mediate and learn respect for each other's needs.


Honestly, I would say that nearly all couples have to some degree, a different idea of how to create order and how much stuff to keep. Professional Organisers regularly have to deal with these types of issues.

A Professional Organiser can't make people get rid of anything, but it often easier for someone with lots of clutter to listen to a non-judgemental professional than someone they live with.



Don't give up. Focus on the small changes you can make together, or own your own to begin with and a way forward for you both will open up.




What 'things' cause the most arguments in your home?




















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