Are you what FlyLady calls a “Born Organized” person? Do decluttering and organizing come naturally to you, so that although stuff comes in, you swiftly find a place for it and move other stuff out so that your place always feels right to you?
Chances are you live with someone who isn’t like that. They say opposites attract and one of the most frequent questions I get asked is how to deal with living with someone who has stuff everywhere. Someone who clutters up the house and seems oblivious to the mess they create. A packrat, the term Don Aslett made ubiquitous.
Different comfort levels with the amount of things in a home can often become a lightening rod for heated arguments, with the so-called packrat on the defensive and the non-packrat exasperated and miserable as they feel the encroachment of more and more things they didn’t invite into their space.
Remember when you and your siblings had to share a room, and your side was super tidy and theirs looked like they’d just dumped everything on the floor? Sooner or later, you drew either a real line or an imaginary line, and defined which side was whose. You got to keep your side magazine-cover ready, your sister got to use the floor as her closet. You didn’t like it, but it was that or all out war.
Just as we all have different tastes and tolerances for such disparate things as how spicy we like our food, and which way the toilet roll should hang (backwards), when it comes to living with someone else, compromise and forgiveness are the order of the day for a happy home.
If I always insist that you season our food with just a smidgeon of salt and a faint sprinkle of pepper, and you insist that we buy tabasco sauce by the case, mealtimes are going to be miserable. But if I learn to tolerate a little more heat with my food, and you learn to tone it down a bit, we’ll both figure out what the happy medium is.
In the same way, if you’re living with someone who loves to bring more and more and more stuff into your shared space, it’s time to talk. Talk with the understanding that you both have different comfort levels for how much stuff a space should hold. The resulting compromise will most likely result in a grown-up version of drawing a line down the middle of your room.
The thing many Born Organized folks don’t always realize is that a magazine-ready room feels actively uncomfortable to a packrat. The space seems too empty, the feeling is of hospital corridor sterility. People who like to hold onto things also tend to believe they’ll forget about their stuff if they put it away. Putting papers in filing cabinets and clothes in drawers can mean out of sight is out of mind. The visual reminder of a pile of papers or a stack of t-shirts on the couch feels reassuring.
Their feelings are different than yours but just as valid. It’s important to understand they don’t hold onto clutter to spite you. They don’t secretly want a minimalist home but bring in all this extra stuff because it’s a passive-aggressive way of getting at you. In fact, they’re genuinely puzzled at the Spartan way you seem to want to live.
Compromise looks like this: I get to keep the dining room table clear, with nothing on it except briefly when we eat. You get to spread your stuff out all over the desk and leave it there. I get to throw my shoes all over my side of the closet, you get to line yours up in pairs on your side.
The key is to avoid mission creep on both sides. If I get to keep the dining room table clear, then I stay off the desk. I leave it alone and I don’t tidy it up “for you.” If I throw my shoes all over my side of the closet, they need to stay on my side, they don’t get to spill over onto your side.
You both draw the boundaries, and then both sides respect them. In real life this might look like this: you want the table clear. A pile of mail is set down “just for now” soon to be joined by a set of keys, the dog’s leash, and a pile of folded laundry on it’s way to the closet. Although it’s crystal clear to you that the mail goes in the mail sorting place, the dog leash belongs on the hook, and the laundry goes in the closet, that doesn’t become your problem to deal with. If you’re feeling put upon and irritated at having to “clean up after them”, put everything on their desk. Or take it to neutral space. A big laundry hamper you’ve both agreed is for”things to be put away”.
Not fair! They made the mess, they shouldn’t have done so, let them clear the table and put it away! I know, but what’s the goal here? It helps to understand that in the packrat’s eyes, this just isn’t a problem. They don’t mind the stuff on the table. You do. You can either get mad at them each and every time or you can acknowledge that you have different levels of tolerance for stuff on the dining room table. By insisting that you get the table clear at all times, you’re essentially saying that your way is the right way, that their comfort level for clutter is wrong. That may be how you feel, you may be technically correct, but it hardly leads to a happy home.
Talk about it with your significant packrat. Tell them how you feel. Listen to how they feel. Find ways to meet in the middle. If circumstances change and a lot of clutter suddenly comes into your space, remind each other of your agreement – how can we integrate all this stuff into our space? What will have to leave so we can maintain the level of stuff in our space that works for both of us?
Sometimes storage units are a solution. I do my best to ensure that every client I work with doesn’t have to spend money storing things that way, but if you’ve inherited a bunch of ugly furniture from your parents that your rational mind knows you’ll never use, but you simply can’t get rid of because it’s your parents’ furniture, then ageing it for a while in a storage unit can help you take the time you need to begin to see it as stuff rather than an extension of your parents. The key to this strategy is to have the bill mailed to you every single month. No putting it on automatic payment, you want an in-your-face reminder every month that you’re paying to put off a decision.
As the person whose tolerance for clutter is smaller, you’ll find more success in negotiating your shared space if you remember that decluttering isn’t routine and easy to your beloved packrat. Turning up the pressure will be counter-productive. If your packrat sees that it’s not going to be traumatic to deal with their stuff, they can calm down enough to give the process some considered thought and take small but regular steps. If that isn’t happening, it’s time to think about involving a therapist who can untangle the reasons the clutter needs to stay.
Remember, you’re sharing a space with this person because you love them. They love you. Let that underpin everything you both do and say as you work together to create a space that works for both of you. And if your packrat is a teenager, the solution is simple. Close their door and be thankful they’ve chosen this way to rebel.
For further perspectives on living with a packrat, check out my organizing colleague Seana Turner’s blog post When you don’t see eye to eye.