Cluttering is a Relationship Issue

Whether passive aggressive or accidental, cluttering can harm relationships

Posted Jul 13, 2016

There's no doubt that cluttering can be a form of passive aggressive behavior. When a person has difficulty expressing anger directly, they act out their anger by cluttering. Sometimes, though, cluttering is simply a response to the stress of life, when we simply don't have time to put things in their proper place or throw out unwanted items.

Either way, cluttering affects our relationships with others, especially our spouses or partners. Cluttering can be the root of disagreements and bickering or it can be an expression of a deeper source of simmering anger.

If cluttering is the main issue, then some simple steps like these can resolve the problem. 

1. Listen to your partner's feelings about the clutter you leave around the house. This means getting beyond your denial that your cluttering is a problem for the other person. 

2. Change your habits by getting organized, donating, recycling or throwing things away, and taking time to put your things in their proper place.

3. If you feel overwhelmed by work, get a housekeeper or personal assistant to help you with sorting through your belongings and either finding a place for them or getting rid of them.

4. Clear out space in your closets and cupboards so that each item you plan to keep has a place.

5. Designate some spaces (like your bedroom and bathroom) as off-limits to clutter.

6.  Set aside a regular weekly or biweekly time to clear up clutter.

7. Learn the Buddhist art of detachment. Do those old clothes or shoes that clutter your bedroom and/or your house really help your sense of well-being, or would a happier relationship bring you more peace and joy?

If cluttering is passive-aggressive acting out of deeper issues in the relationship, then these steps can be a Band aid but they won't solve the deeper problem. With one couple I saw for marriage counseling, cluttering was only the tip of the iceberg that was sinking their marriage.

Jim and Francine had been married for twenty-seven years when they came to see me. Their twin sons had left for college the year before and their daughter was in her last year of high school. Jim told me that the main problem for him was Francine's cluttering.

"You can't even walk through our bedroom," Jim said with frustration. "Her clothes and shoes have moved out of her closet and onto every surface of our bedroom." He was so upset by the creeping clutter that a few months ago he had moved into their son's bedroom. 

Jim was not a neat freak by any means, but he told me that the constant clutter at home made him unravel.

Francine's issue with Jim was that he spent so much time at work. "And when he's not at work, he's on his laptop or smartphone. We can't even go out to dinner without Jim reading his email or texting." Jim's bicycle club was also an issue for her. Jim spent so much time texting his cycling friends, Francine continued, that she even wondered if he was having an affair with one of them. Jim protested that he was not having an affair. He simply enjoyed keeping up his relationships with his cycling buddies. 

As I got to know Francine and Jim, I began to see a repetitive pattern to their martial unhappiness. The more Francine shopped for things she didn't need which inevitably led to clutter, the more time Jim spent away from home. Jim's spending time away, in turn, made Francine feel hurt and then angry. she took out her anger by shopping for things she didn't need and cluttering their house. 

Marriage counseling is a bit like peeling away the layers of an onion. As one layer gets peeled, a deeper layer shows itself. Francine really wanted their marriage to work. She got a housekeeper who came once a week. She asked a friend to help her sort through her things and decide what she wanted to keep and what she could part with. She got rid of old letters, children's report cards and certificates, books that she wouldn't need.

Francine changed her habits. Surprisingly, however, Jim didn't change his. He still spent long hours at work and with his cycling club. The root of their marriage problem was deeper.

Jim had started spending more time at work and with his cycling club because he felt that Francine had become closer to their sons and daughter than she was to him. As their children were growing up, Francine made more and more of the decisions about their education and activities, while Jim felt left out in the cold.

Years of simmering resentment spurred Jim to drift away from the marriage and toward his friendships at work and at the cycling club. Even when Francine changed and began to get control of her cluttering, Jim was too angry at her to change his own behavior. These deeper feelings had to be addressed before their marriage could improve.

With this couple, both partners were communicating by acting out anger. Francine cluttered to express her anger and Jim stayed away from home or spent time texting or emailing to express his own anger. Only when a couple can start expressing their feelings directly can their relationship begin to heal.

Copyright © Marilyn Wedge, PhD.

Marilyn Wedge is a marriage and family therapist with twenty-eight years of experience. She is the author of A Disease called Childhood: Why ADHD became an American Epidemic.