It can feel beyond frustrating if your spouse doesn't want to declutter. You can try the following techniques to help them better understand the benefits of clearing away the things that don't get used.
by Susan McCarthy
I’ll probably never post pictures of my home as an example of what ‘organized’ looks like. And it comes down to my husband and I having very different definitions of organized. I prefer bare, open spaces while Mac thinks that's boring.
He feels that stuff gives guests interesting things to look at and talk about (and yes, his collections have prompted many conversations with visitors). So, is it useless to discuss decluttering with a spouse when you know (or are fairly certain) they have no interest in decluttering? No.
Decluttering when your spouse doesn’t want to sort through their stuff isn’t easy. And your efforts might not help them see the benefits of cleared spaces. But does that mean that you shouldn’t try to bring order to your home? No. Even if you and your significant other don’t share the same definition of “clutter,” you’ll still see benefits to the decluttering you do.
Avoid demanding that everyone “get rid of all their crap”
It can be easy to find your eye landing on your spouse’s stuff (and, if you have kids, their stuff too, whether they are two or twenty). Chances are you know you need to declutter your stuff as well, but you don’t want to be the only one doing the work, giving everyone else more space to put their stuff.
However, trying to kickstart the process with black-and-white demands will unlikely endear you to anyone you live with.
Instead, you can start by either having a conversation with your spouse about your vision for your home or starting to decluttering your stuff. You probably have a sense of your significant other’s attitude toward decluttering, so that can guide your next actions.
If you mention decluttering and one of the first things out of their mouth is, “don’t touch my stuff,” then start with your stuff. However, if you catch them complaining about losing items in the house or the inconvenience of all the stuff in a particular spot in the house, then you have an opening to discuss the benefits of decluttering.
Start with your stuff
Decluttering your stuff (clothing, books, accessories, shoes, grooming supplies, desk, craft supplies, etc.) is not only a sign of good faith (see, we’re in this together) but it helps you practice the decision-making process that’s part of decluttering.
Also, you’ll be able to share the benefits you’re experiencing (not losing items, less stress finding things to wear, the relief of clearing away half-finished projects). And if your spouse is concerned that decluttering means getting rid of everything, they’ll be able to see that by getting rid of less important things, they can actually highlight the things that bring them the most enjoyment.
Keep in mind that if you’re decluttering closets, drawers, or rooms that your spouse doesn’t go into, they might not notice any differences around the house. Don’t get frustrated! Enjoy the space that you’re creating for your life.
Work on communal items
After you declutter your possessions, you can move onto communal items – things in the kitchen, linen closet, cleaning supply cabinet, entertainment center, etc. When you declutter items that get used by the household, instead of simply boxing up items for donation, you can go through these items with your spouse.
They may see some of the items you want to get rid of as useful, giving you the opportunity to discuss how ‘useful’ isn’t the same as ‘used’.
When Mac was cleaning out his mother’s house, he grabbed the electric knife from her kitchen. For months it sat on our kitchen counter, near our knife block, but it was never used. I told him that I was moving it into a cabinet. Where it sat untouched (unless we needed to move it out of the way).
He never used it. After three years, I told him I was putting it in a box to donate it. He started to protest, but I pointed out that he hadn’t used it for three years and was likely to not suddenly start using it. However, I held onto it for another six months or so before I got rid of it.
In most cases, Mac doesn’t care what I declutter if he didn’t buy it. Nor does he tend to notice if something goes missing (although I do box up items for a while to see if he goes looking for something.)
By asking for your spouse’s opinion, you’re also introducing them to the decision-making aspect of decluttering. You’ll be able to emphasize that you aren’t getting rid of things that get used (a common misconception surrounding decluttering).
I know, you’re still doing the work, but your significant other will start to feel like part of the process. If watching you declutter your stuff hasn’t inspired them, then this may be their invitation to declutter.
When your spouse doesn't want to declutter
Back in 2018 I was awaiting surgery and I went through a bout of heavy-duty, anxiety-fueled house cleaning. At one point, I was sitting at the dining table, staring at a shelving unit crammed with knickknacks and I told Mac that I wished he’d declutter.
He looked at the pile of the day’s mail and newspapers at the end of the dining table and told me that he’d take care of it before the end of the day like he usually did.
He didn’t see his knickknacks as clutter. They were decoration. And he liked decorating the room with interesting stuff.
I think may eyes may have bugged out of my head because from my point of view, the excess number of tchotchkes were clutter. But Mac pointed out that it was his stuff and he wanted it.
So, while talking to your spouse might not go the way you’d like it to, it can help you see your significant other’s point of view.
Share your vision for your home
You can talk about your vision for your home when you first start decluttering or at any time during the process. At some point, you may even find your spouse curious as to why you're decluttering. This is a great opportunity to share why you find decluttering important.
Your vision for your home doesn’t have to be elaborate. Maybe you want to host formal and informal gatherings at your home, but you feel the house looks too messy. Maybe you’re finding it increasingly difficult to clean around the piles and groupings of stuff.
Explain how you’d like the house, or specific rooms, to look and function. Discuss why this is important to you. And be prepared to listen to your significant other’s reasons for why their stuff is important to them.
Sharing your visions for your home doesn’t mean that you’ll share the same vision. My husband likes stuff. He finds it interesting and inspiring and likes how it reflects his interests. I’d lean toward being minimalist, but that may be because my parents were hoarders and keeping everything used to seem like the normal thing to do. When I finally realized that decluttering reduced my stress and helped create space for the things that I did want in my life, I had an easier time letting go of stuff.
But Mac doesn’t share that experience or mindset. Early in our relationship, when he’d buy me gifts, he started to build collections since he noticed I had limited knickknacks! After a few conversations, we now share wish lists…which lean to the practical for both of us. Yes, I’m truly excited that he got me new slippers, cardstock for my crafting, and a new hummingbird feeder last Christmas.
By decluttering your stuff and the communal items in your house, you’ll come to be seen as the decluttering expert in your home. Your significant other may start decluttering on their own (always a thrill!) and they may take inspiration from you asking their opinion and ask you what you think about different items that they are considering letting go of.
Remember, offering support does not involve going through their stuff and decluttering for them! You wouldn’t like it if they did this with your stuff. And as I’ve learned, what I view as clutter another person sees as their possessions.
If you notice that your spouse is taking advantage of the cleared spaces to spread out their stuff, discuss defining certain spaces for this stuff, be it hobby items or paperwork. Plan together what spaces can be kept clutter-free and what areas don’t have to be neat. If things end up in the wrong place, move the item into the proper room.
Decluttering with a spouse who loves stuff
When I read articles by people who talk about beginning the decluttering process and then finding their significant other willingly joining them, I’ll admit it, I’m a bit envious. Would I like to see more clear, flat surfaces in my home? Yes! But I love Mac and respect that his stuff means something to him.
And for you, this might not work. Go back to discussing your vision for your home and why you think this is important. Be an inspiration by decluttering what you can and pointing out the benefits of having less clutter. Get them to help (or at least offer an opinion) when decluttering communal items. Define areas where they can have free-rein and areas where they need to rein in the clutter.
So, when you feel frustrated with your spouse and their stuff, remember, even professional organizers have spouses who love stuff.
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