Guy seeks advice on helping reduce girlfriend's clutter
July 23, 2009 8:01 AM   Subscribe

My partner has a lot of physical clutter in her life. I have relatively less. We've been living together for almost a year, and it's slowly driving me insane. Please hope me have a productive discussion about this with her. Yes, this is going to be one of those relationshipfilter questions, and there's ...

I'm a guy, she's a girl. We're in our mid-20s. I went from sharing a large 2br apt with one roommate to the both of us living in her midsize 1br. This is due to her commuting situation -- she doesn't own a car or have a driver's license, so she has to live near her work. I can, and do, commute, so I was the one who moved. I'm not a big fan of clutter, and have relatively little in the way of possessions. I prefer to have clean, open, organized space in my home. I did know about her clutter going into the moving-in phase of the relationship, but I wasn't aware of what a negative reaction I'd have to living in it. We've both lived with roommates before, but this is the first time either of us has lived with a significant other.

Our apartment is filled with her possessions, many of which are packed in cardboard boxes. I won't list everything, but suffice it to say that there's about 6'x12' of space in our bedroom occupied by these items, most of which I've never seen her use. They're mostly toys from her childhood, clothes and other things her parents/siblings gave her which no longer fit/aren't used but have "sentimental value," and magazines and other papers, also from childhood. One whole closet is filled with boxes to hold the unboxed items, which she's saving for the next time she moves. On top of this, she has several boxes of documents that are potentially useful for her work (but I've never seen her reference), and a huge book collection (as in, a 20' wall of bookshelves). I don't really mind these, but it adds to the feeling of "too much stuff, too little space."

I've made an effort to de-clutter my own possessions to help with the overall situation, but the proportion of stuff I own relative to the proportion of stuff she owns is so small that there's not much impact I can have. Aside from my desk, a dresser, a small work table, and my clothes in the closet, there's not that much of my stuff here! I got rid of one tupperware bin of hobby supplies to achieve a 50% reduction in the number of my tupperware bins, but this is about a 5% reduction in the total number of similarly-sized containers in the apartment as a whole.

I've floated the idea of culling the lesser-used bits of both our stuff, or renting a small storage unit for the things we don't use day-to-day (I've even volunteered to pay for it), but she won't have it. I've also floated the idea of moving into a larger apartment in the same complex (rent is relatively low here, we both have decent-paying jobs, and we could each be paying less individually than we were paying before we moved in together, if more than we're paying now). She won't have this either because she's had too many previous roommates leave her in the lurch before, and is unwilling to take on a more expensive lease than she can pay alone (even though she's seen how I paid for the remainder of my lease after moving out of my old apartment, since I'd committed to doing so). She won't even consider scanning and archiving those documents which she no longer needs in physical form, even though her use-case for them is primarily making copies (which would be no lower-quality if printed or copied from a printout rather than the originals).

I feel very hesitant to push further than I have on this situation because, if we move to a larger home with room to store this stuff in the future (or, though I hope not, break up), I don't want to be the one responsible for having pressured her to throw out her mementos. At the same time, I want to be able to stretch out in my own home without tripping over the stuff!

There's some added baggage here because I feel like I'm the one doing most of the compromising -- I moved out of a comfortable apartment that was walking distance to my work, and exchanged it for a 90 minute car+train commute. I've suggested that we look into moving somewhere that is equidistant (time-wise, at least) from our respective places of work, but this is impossible because there's no convenient public transit route to her place of employment from anywhere that's any more convenient to my place of employment. She says that I should be okay with this, because it was originally my idea that we move in together, but she doesn't like the idea of me moving out again, either.

So, with that background, does anyone have success stories in dealing with a similar set of challenges (either in changing how I think about it, or in helping her understand why I want more physical space in our home, or both)? I love her, and I want to be with her, but I'm realizing that this feeling of having no space is getting close to deal-breaker status for me, and I want to find some way for us to resolve it.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (42 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I've floated the idea of culling the lesser-used bits of both our stuff, or renting a small storage unit for the things we don't use day-to-day (I've even volunteered to pay for it), but she won't have it. I've also floated the idea of moving into a larger apartment in the same complex (rent is relatively low here, we both have decent-paying jobs, and we could each be paying less individually than we were paying before we moved in together, if more than we're paying now). She won't have this either because she's had too many previous roommates leave her in the lurch before, and is unwilling to take on a more expensive lease than she can pay alone (even though she's seen how I paid for the remainder of my lease after moving out of my old apartment, since I'd committed to doing so). She won't even consider scanning and archiving those documents which she no longer needs in physical form, even though her use-case for them is primarily making copies (which would be no lower-quality if printed or copied from a printout rather than the originals).

As my mom would say, she sounds like a prize.

I think you might want to drop the whole issue of 'stuff' and discuss with her the issue of compromise, mainly that you're doing most of it. And that's not the sort of thing that gets better as time wears on, that's the sort of thing that gets cemented.

Relationships and negotiating space, figurative or literal, require compromise. If she wants to have relationships, she'll need to learn about that sooner or later.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 8:11 AM on July 23, 2009 [4 favorites]

It sounds like the issue is less the clutter itself (although I sympathise, because that would drive me batshit insane,) but the fact that it seems like she's not willing to compromise on anything. That's not a good situation to be in for the overall health of your relationship, not just your immediate living situation.

I think you need to figure out what your dealbreakers are, and tell her. And I'd recommend doing it soon, before you start resenting her to the point where it poisons your relationship.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:14 AM on July 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Look, living together is about compromise. She has to understand that or this whole thing - space issues and relationship included - is going nowhere.

Renting a storage unit is NOT asking her to give up a single item, but does give you both more space. Honestly, if she's not willing to go down this road, I'd be very wary of a deep-seated hoarding issue that will potentially only get worse with time. I know that's a worst-case scenario but it's what I'd be worried about.

My approach would be to commit to yourself to being gentle, not raising your voice, and just asking questions. Then I'd sit down and have a talk with her. I'd ask non-emotive, exploratory questions that put the onus on her to work with you towards a solution. Things like:

-- If we don't make a regular effort to move things out of the house, what do you think will happen as time goes by and we accumulate more stuff?

-- How do you think we can make our space work equally well for both of us?

And if that failed, I'd lay it on the line: couples therapy, or no couple. Because if she won't even discuss scanning documents, then I really think there is a big fear or hoarding issue here that needs to be dealt with.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:16 AM on July 23, 2009 [6 favorites]

Just out of curiosity, do you have any idea why she has such a ninja death grip on this stuff? Did she have a stable family situation growing up? Is she close with family now? Insisting on keeping boxes of mementos and old toys and the like in her bedroom suggests to me more than simply wanting to have Polly Pocket close at hand.

That said, compromise is the name of the game, but you also need to recognize that you did volunteer to move in with her and take on the long commute, so it will drive a wedge between you if you continue to use it as a bargaining chip. Relationships are give and take, but they're not free market economies. No one wants to think that their partner is doing something loving for them simply because they expect to exchange it for equal consideration in the future. I guarantee you will lose these arguments if you say "But I moved for you!"
posted by telegraph at 8:18 AM on July 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I don't think you'll make much progress unless you can get her to at least somewhat buy into the idea that she needs to have less stuff. I know that can be hard for some people because they think "How could having all of this useful/sentimental/important possibly be bad?"

One thing that might be worth trying is to watch the show Clean Sweep with her. It shows different kinds of people who have too much stuff, forces them to get rid of most of it (which sometimes results in dramatic breakdowns), and then shows what their new nice uncluttered house looks like. I've known a few people who have gone through and de-cluttered based on seeing the show, so it might have the same effect on her.
posted by burnmp3s at 8:18 AM on July 23, 2009

Oh man, I feel for you. I could probably pack all my worldly possessions in a pickup truck and burn the rest without looking back, if I had to.

I hate to tell you, but these kinds of people don't change. It's hard-wired. My 70 year old stepdad is like this, despite years and years of my mother pressuring him to sell or give away stuff. My father in law is like this. My husband is not nearly as bad with keeping stuff, but definitely owns around 75% of the "stuff" in our house.

You need a room that is yours and yours alone. She is not allowed to put any of her possessions in it. This is the only way you will maintain your sanity. If she can't or won't give you that, this might be your dealbreaker. There is no way you will change her.
posted by desjardins at 8:18 AM on July 23, 2009 [4 favorites]

You need a room that is yours and yours alone.

By this I meant: get a bigger apartment so you can have your own room, or get your own apartment. Since you already said she's unwilling to get a larger place that she could not afford the rent by herself, it looks like option b. If it were me, I would not compromise on this. You've done enough.
posted by desjardins at 8:22 AM on July 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

This seriously sounds like a case of an unwinnable argument. She's not willing to change for you, and she's indicating that she has little to no regard for your happiness -- it's all about her, her, her. If she's unwilling to prioritize you over a stack of paper, what options are you left with?
posted by ellF at 8:26 AM on July 23, 2009 [5 favorites]

To find out if it really is her or not, suggest some ways to organize her stuff. If everything you come up with is shot down, and she offers no suggestion that you can both live with, then she is one of those that is never, ever going to change.

It starts with boxes of paper and stuff, then it goes to plastic bags full of stuff, then piles of random, disparate objects (think clothes, bills, food, remote control, together in one of many piles).

There is no escape other than leaving. It can stifle your own organizational efforts/ways, long term. If you stay, get a room of your own.
posted by rahnefan at 8:26 AM on July 23, 2009

There's some added baggage here because I feel like I'm the one doing most of the compromising

This is the point where you get to the root of your problem. The stuff is just a symptom - your partner's unwillingness to compromise is what's really going on here. Saying that she shouldn't need to compromise because it was your idea to move in together is just weasel words; relationships involve compromise, and she needs to be willing to make those compromises or this isn't going to go anywhere.

I think you need to sit down and have a solid conversation. You need to convey, politely but firmly, the following points:

--I feel like I've done all the compromising here
--I love you and I want to make this work
--But I can't do all the work - you have to meet me halfway

Hopefully she will agree to this in principle (if not, then that's a whole other issue). Then you can move on to:

--The stuff is a problem, and if we're going to be a committed couple then it's not just "my" problem, it's "our" problem
--The stuff is getting close to being a dealbreaker
--I'm willing to help you in whatever ways I can to make this easier for you (here's where you could bring up your suggestions again - storage unit, bigger place, etc)

You might also want to see if you can get at some of the reasoning behind why she's so reluctant to get rid of things. If she feels that strongly, there's probably something deeper at work.
posted by marginaliana at 8:27 AM on July 23, 2009 [5 favorites]

I've actually found myself in a bizarro version of this issue just recently. I have a fraction of my girlfriend's possessions (everything I currently own could fit into a 4-door sedan) and yet, somehow, she's gotten upset with me twice over my reluctance to part with a small tool set that used to live in a half-empty closet. She didn't want me to throw it out, only to move it somewhere else, preferably back to my parent's house (where I haven't kept things for years). Despite offering to move the tool set once the space in the closet was necessary or even putting the tool set out in the trunk of my car, she was still visibly upset and not very talkative for close to an hour.

I'm laid back and don't think any of this is worth the conflict, so now the tools live outside in my car.. but I'm still a bit lost as to how someone could get upset over such a seemingly insignificant detail. Ah well, I'm still learning!
posted by Raze2k at 8:31 AM on July 23, 2009

So many great answers already.

I think one tactic to take, you can get through the steps marginaliana outlined, is to say, "This is a problem for me. I'll help in whatever way I can. What are some solutions that are workable for you?" Right now, it sounds like you've been suggesting solutions to the problem that she's been shooting down. Ask that from now on, whenever she shoots down a solution she has to offer another in its place. That's really helped my spouse and I constructively work through compromises.

This is a really difficult conversation to have, and as someone who tends to horde stuff like your girlfriend, a conversation that my spouse and I will have to have soon. But if your GF isn't willing to discuss this at all then it's hard to see a way forward.
posted by muddgirl at 8:33 AM on July 23, 2009

It doesn't help that you moved into "her" space rather than both of you moving into a new to both of you space. It's tough moving into someone else's house, with all of their things, even when they have a normal amount of stuff. When you move into someone's space and they hold on to every single thing ever, it's unbearable.

Add to that your feelings about having to be the one that commutes (is there a physical problem why she is unable to get a drivers license?) and I'm amazed that you're so calm about it.
posted by crankylex at 8:42 AM on July 23, 2009

I can't help with the relationship issues, but I do think there's definitely more here than just "she refuses to give up her stuff".

On a more practical note however, I think you can work with the storage unit a little more. She needs control of her stuff, hence the desire to keep it close. If you could find a space thats easy for her to get to, given she doesn't drive, then I think that would be a huge help. It's no good to her to have her stuff in storage if getting to it is a huge hassle. Also, suggest she keep the key. Don't keep a copy for yourself -- if she's in 100% control of the contents, and doesn't have to worry about you going nutso on her stuff (not saying you would, but if you had a key, technically it's possible), the she might be okay with having it in storage. You can still pay for it, if you want, but it has to be cheap enough that she would be able to cover it if you were to disappear in the night.
posted by cgg at 8:45 AM on July 23, 2009

There's some added baggage here because I feel like I'm the one doing most of the compromising

Yeah, but it's baggage of yours.

Did she ask you to comprise? No. You knew how she was before you made the suggestion of moving in, yet you went ahead and did it anyway, not realizing what you were getting into. You've asked her to change and keep asking her to change and her answer has been consistent and the same, yet you refuse to see and that and insist on trying to change her.

Sure, you have your own needs for living space, but you're in her nest and she ain't moving, so you have to figure out how to stay sane in this situation of your own making. I'd suggest getting your own apartment again, but closer to her. That way you can hang out her pad as much as you like, but have a spot of your own for basic sanity.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:47 AM on July 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

Try not to make it about the stuff. Tell her you need space to be comfortable in the same way she needs stuff. Ask her for suggestions - what will she compromise on? It is difficult to have someone move into "your" space - perhaps particularly if she's attached to stuff, she also doesn't want to think about changing to accommodate you.

If she won't do that, and isn't ready to think about you sharing a flat that's bigger then perhaps you're just not really ready to live together, and you just have to go back to having separate places until you can agree what would constitute a home you could both live in.
posted by crocomancer at 8:47 AM on July 23, 2009

There have already been a lot of good points floated here. I sympathize with being driven crazy by all the clutter, and I see that as an issue in itself. It's also symbolic of her unwillingness to compromise, and probably symptomatic of some Other Issues. The fact that you've moved into her space, rather than both of you moving into "our space" makes it easier for her to remain stuck in her ways.

I suggest having a serious talk and being blunt with her about how much you don't like being surrounded by clutter, and how you feel like you've gotten the short end of the stick in the relationship. Avoid getting overly emotional. Lay out the options as you see them: she gets rid of most of her junk; she puts it in storage, the two of you move into a bigger apartment (I would propose that rather than you getting one room that's free of clutter, she gets one room that's full of clutter, since the rest of the space is shared). Living separately is also an option: I've heard of married couples that maintain separate but nearby residences. Ask her for whatever other options she can think of. The status quo is not an option.

Hash it out, agree to a plan, and begin pursuing it immediately.
posted by adamrice at 8:55 AM on July 23, 2009

You probably don't want to hear this, but I find it very highly unlikely that you are going to be able to change the way that she lives, unless she is willing to do some serious introspection regarding why she hordes things. You know that comfortable feeling that you get from having your life free of clutter? She gets that from being able to hold onto possessions that have sentimental value to her. And asking an individual to give something up that they are emotionally attached to in a deep way, when they can't see that it's psychologically unhealthy, is absolutely going to cause an emotional reaction rather than a desire for compromise. The issue is unlikely about an effective discussion on compromise, but for her to figure out deep down why she finds it hard to consider it at all.

I can relate to this somewhat because I'm you, and my wife sounds like your girlfriend, although not to the same degree. My wife likes to buy things which, in my opinion, we don't always have room for. Also, things in the household don't get put away as often as I'd like, and it creates clutter that spreads through the entire apartment. I feel boxed in a lot of times. The way that I've dealt with it is threefold:

1. I have my own space that is unassailable. It is my sanctuary, and my place to get away from everything, where it's free of other people's clutter. I will note that I'm not perfect in this area and tend to hold on to too many things as well, but really, it's an issue of degree between peoples' preferences, and whether there is a point that it crosses a line.

2. I don't argue if my wife wants to have her space to do whatever she wants with, even if it's filled with clutter. However, I bargain for there to be public space that is free of this. I don't nag about whether she has too much stuff on her side of the closet, but I do (try to) insist that she not use the kitchen table, living room, and kitchen as part of the place where her things "spread" out.

3. I've determined that in the end, I love my wife enough that I'm willing to put up with some frustration in this area. However, I'm benefited by the fact that after awhile, she doesn't like the clutter either, and she purges her life of things a bit. She also has been willing to look at why she does this, and has also gotten much better in the years that we've been married. If this didn't happen, I wouldn't leave her. However, if I knew about it before committing to a relationship, it would likely have been a deal breaker.

You might also want to consider that moving into a larger department will not solve the problem, either. For some people who have emotional attachments to things and clutter, it simply means more space to fill up with stuff.

I hope you can resolve this! But again, it's going to be about figuring out why she is attached to things rather than having her see that you deserve better, and if this doesn't happen, there probably won't be change and she will simply see it as your preference over hers. If that's the case, you'll have to figure out if boundaries are going to create a system of compromise that you can live with.

Good luck.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:06 AM on July 23, 2009 [3 favorites]

You made a big leap of faith moving in with her. You might want to paint a more vivid picture of what you've risked and/or given up, because it sounds like maybe she doesn't see this.

In return, she should consider making a leap of faith and move to a larger apartment with you.

Also, I highly recommend building an elaborate cabinet system (maybe taking an entire wall of the largest room in the new place, 18" or 2' deep) for storing her stuff, so that it will be out from underfoot.

Other ideas:

--> save up, and be able to pay your half of the entire year's rent up front (or put it in escrow, or something).

--> Rent a storage space with the $$ you guys are saving, so that you can store her stuff there for a while. Probably you should have an exit-from-the-storage-space strategy in place first - it sounds like she's not going to want to take financial responsibility for it. Maybe your contribution to her rent could go towards this? That way, if you ever move out, she can just stop paying for the storage space and bring her stuff back.

--> Build some kind of modular/wood cabinet system in the current place. It sounds like you won't really be able to make much space, but building up instead of spreading boxes all over the floor might really help. Some nice, maybe stackable file cabinets might be good for some of the papers (check unfinished wood furniture stores, university surplus, yard sales, craigslist - the cheap ones at office supply stores are awful).

Build _up_, not across. Look for nooks & clever ways to store stuff.

It sounds like she's in kind of a stuff rut. If you can just encapsulate all that & get it out of the way so that she feels what it's like to live in a sane, tidy environment, maybe you can break the cycle.

Note - she'll *have* to agree to not bring any *more* stuff into the apartment; you need to at least maintain stuff equilibrium.

You could try suggesting a yard sale - she could get $$ for some of her stuff - but it sounds like she wouldn't be interested.

I do sympathize with her. I think people probably throw out more than they really need to; they just don't know how to store it so that it doesn't interfere with their lives and is also accessible / usable.

This is an issue that we tend to treat as not deserving much time and attention, but it's as major a project as moving house and does deserve as much attention - assuming she actually wants to deal with it.

good luck.
posted by amtho at 9:09 AM on July 23, 2009

I can perhaps add some insight from the other side. I live in one small room in a shared flat, and hope to move in with my SO in the near future when it's right for both of us. His job is to find work closer to me, mine is to get my living situation sorted. We went from a 40sq. ft. storage locker when I moved into the flat to none, and to begin with, the struggle to get rid of stuff was so hard that I feel embarrassed about how much of a strop I pulled then - *everything* was necessary. Now, I find myself going through things myself and culling, even if these aren't necessarily the same things or the same amount of things that my visiting boyfriend would like.

I had a mother who was obsessed with tidy - nothing stayed around for long without being put in a pile or in the bin, and things I owned would sometimes 'disappear' because she thought they were untidy (and I can remember almost all of these). The thing that drives me INSANE is when friends try to help and throw out things WITHOUT ASKING ME FIRST. I appreciate that it is a tiresome thing to have to discuss, but removing things which may be important (and interpretations of 'important' differ - yes, I do need to have two different colours of toy eyes even if you class them all as 'sewing things' and think there are too many of them anyway) feels disrespectful and confuses me later. The other obstacle is knowing how much I have spent on things and having to jettison them. We tried eBay for a while which was the only way I felt comfortable getting rid of things but disorganisation won.

The paradoxical thing is that I want a clean, easy living space, I want a wardrobe full of clean, coherent, cohesive items rather than 100 things that don't quite match/fit, but getting there means getting rid of stuff.
posted by mippy at 9:10 AM on July 23, 2009 [4 favorites]

You probably don't want to listen to me - after all, I have five coats, which are being hung onto as they are different colours, or don't fit but were expensive so goddamnit they might do one day...

I have a lot of paper ephemera as I use it for various hobbies, and I much prefer having paper copies. I've tried to cut down on it by removing pages from magazines and filing them into display books, but the thought of scanning them in and having no paper copies is terrible - I can't access them to look through when I'm thinking of what to do, I might lose my backups and they would involve a lot of hassle to get replacements, and in the case of charts, printed copies are much much easier to work from. I don't know what your girlfriend does for hobbies, but some hobbies are linear (you start one project, finish it, begin the next) and some involve starting one thing, leaving it for a bit, doing something else, then going back to the first. Do you ever read more than one book at a time, or wear more than one pair of shoes each week just because you feel like the other pair? This is what hobbies are like for some people - it doesn't make sense to have one of everything at one time.
posted by mippy at 9:16 AM on July 23, 2009

I apologize, I am a lot like your girlfriend. I don't really know why, but it is very difficult for me to let go of anything -- including magazines, minor mementos....everything, really. Every cleaning session involves an agonizing process like the one 23skidoo describes -- going over each individual item and deciding what to do, slowly. I only have the stamina for it about once a year. I have no real idea why I am like this, and it drives my husband (who is a neat freak) absolutely insane. I do the best I can, but I continually acquire new "stuff," and am engaged in a constant battle against my clutter.

23skidoo definitely has the right read on it. And it is indeed extremely difficult for someone like your girlfriend or me to prioritize our junk. However, I will say that a storage unit is not an unfeasible option. If, like cgg very wisely suggests, you make sure that it will be easily accessible (even though she'll probably never access it). Perhaps get her to concede to putting a few of the *already packed* boxes in a storage unit and move from there. I would also definitely not try to do this all at once -- go after one "chunk" of the stuff at a time, with a fair bit of time between sorting sessions.

Another thing that has helped me (and may help your girlfriend), as far as paper clutter is concerned, is making notebooks in which I can paste my "sentimental" pieces of paper. This has the effect of reducing the piles/boxes of papers/ticketstubs/etc while allowing me to hold on to the physical artifacts. I recommend some big notebooks, gluesticks, and encouraging a few evenings where she sorts through papers & does some pasting while you're watching TV or whatever. I also periodically go through the magazines & tear out the articles or pictures I was keeping them for -- after that step (which clears a lot of the bulk), often a few months later I can usually take the next step of getting rid of those pages themselves. It's made a huge difference in terms of my anxiety about letting of the magazines. I do the same with clothes, and I definitely thinks the two-step sorting process helps break one's attachment to whatever the items are -- sort & separate, allow her to keep that stuff she's chosen, and she may ultimately be able to let go of those items more easily.

Ultimately, please try to recognize that her brain operates differently than yours does -- that there's something causing her to behave this way. She's not doing it to be difficult. I am sure she feels burdened by all of her junk, even as she clings to it. Many people don't really understand the mentality behind packratting, and get exasperated & aggressive in their attempts to deal with the clutter issue, assuming it's as easy for us to get rid of things as it is for them. It really isn't. It can be a painful, extraordinarily stressful process -- and the more you try to understand that feeling and aim to help and encourage your girlfriend do what she can in a loving, nurturing way, rather than backing her into a corner (which is only going to provoke a defensive emotional response, as SpacemanStix indicates), the easier it's going to be for both of you.
posted by tigerbelly at 9:17 AM on July 23, 2009 [4 favorites]

My wife and I have gradually found ourselves in the same situation, with metric fucktons of belongings (albeit not trinkets and mementos but furniture, household goods, etc). Fortunately we're on the same page -- we've grown to hate it. A clean house with important but spartan necessities looks so awesome, and I think that's part of the allure of the Ikea image. Coincident with a move last year, we've had our extras sitting in a 30 x 30 ft storage unit and we find ourselves NOT missing any of it. Therefore it's going to be much easier to comb through and start putting stuff in the dumpster or essentially giving it away.
I've floated the idea of culling the lesser-used bits of both our stuff, or renting a small storage unit for the things we don't use day-to-day (I've even volunteered to pay for it), but she won't have it.
This I find disturbing: that she's not willing to work with you. Instead of working toward a compromise, she is laying down the law on your shared space. This is no indictment on her personally nor a DTMFA reply, but you should take this as a serious warning flag because this problem is in your face every day and it is only going to get worse as the honeymoon period ends, and the longer you continue the relationship the harder it will be to extricate yourself from it. A relationship is not just about compromise but compatibility, and there is absolutely 100% no stigma about parting ways when you're single and in your 20s.
posted by crapmatic at 9:39 AM on July 23, 2009

She... basically sounds like me.

If you want a psych profile on why someone would keep masses of boxes of stuff they never look at (like me), I can say that in my case I had a pretty crappy childhood, had enough hostility directed at me that I never felt that the house I lived in was "home" and never had any personal space (not allowed to close doors, my things would get thrown out when I was at school, etc.). Thus (I have since worked out), I create my "home" out of my stuff and lug it around with me like a turtle's shell to create a space that is both a home to me and to have my treasure heap of stuff that no one can take away.

That said, because I took the time to work this out and because, like her, I have a partner who is patient but negatively impacted by my treasure heap, I am making efforts to minimize it. Every now and then I go through a box or bunch of boxes and usually, because it's been years since I looked in them, I can throw a lot of stuff out, or find a proper storage space for documents, or sell stuff, etc.

I still have a lot of stuff, but it's getting less and less. And I am putting an emphasis on not keeping things which don't have a place, i.e. if I can't work out an organizational system that has a place for the stuff in the box (and the system is not allowed to include "a box for x stuff"), then the stuff doesn't get to stay.

Try to work out with her why she needs the stuff around, it could be a security buffer for her, as it is for me, in which case she will be very resistant to reducing it until she reaches a more secure inner space.
Try suggesting renting a bit of storage space for those items that she's holding onto in anticipation of space in a future larger home.
Feel free to memail me as a hoarder on the road to reduced hoarding, if you have any questions or if you think your gf might be more comfortable talking about this with a fellow hoarder.
posted by Billegible at 9:47 AM on July 23, 2009 [3 favorites]

My mother is a compulsive hoarder. She's not a packrat, because packrats are benign and sentimental; she actually has entire floors in her home that are unusable due to her things being jammed in every which way until critical mass is reached and the door is closed and no one goes in there anymore.

Your girlfriend is nowhere near this, and she may never be like this. But if she keeps bringing things in and never taking things out, eventually you will either come to accept using packed rubbermaid totes as structural pieces of furniture or you will leave.

If she's willing to talk about it and try to put into words why keeping all these things that are no longer useful comfort her, you might be able to get somewhere in the neighborhood of a compromise.

If she is unwilling to even discuss her need for her items, if she says these are my things and that's the end of the story, that is something that cannot be fixed without medication and serious behavioral therapy, if at all.

David Tolin at Hartford Hospital is doing a lot of work with hoarders, you might find the book he coauthored, Buried in Treasure, to be an interesting read.
posted by crankylex at 9:52 AM on July 23, 2009

Sorry, missed that you already floated storage. I was also very resistant to that in my full-on hoarding days.

As she is still very much in the headspace of needing these items as a physical security zone, you're not going to get her to reduce by more than a box or two, speaking from personal experience as the needy hoarder. She won't be able to start letting go of the stuff until she feels more secure about her space, and right now, with you as new roomie, she's going to be less secure about her space and thus perceive attempts to remove her security blanket as attacks. The comfort zone in which she could start letting go of stuff takes a long time if it happens at all.

The only approach I can recommend for you in the immediate future is to press for the larger apartment in which she could, as others have suggested, have a space that is totally her own. She could keep her stuff in there and have a personal security zone.
You have to make her understand that the alternative to this is you finding an apartment by yourself so you can also have your space.
posted by Billegible at 9:55 AM on July 23, 2009

It sounds to me like your girlfriend will not take any action until she feels that her clutter is actually creating a problem. I highly, highly recommend that you get Clear Your Clutter With Feng Shui by Karen Kingston for her to read. You can disregard the Feng Shui part if that's too wishy-washy for you/her - it's a very small part of the book, which itself is quite small and easy to read.

The book teaches you to view clutter in a totally different way - you start to realize the energy-draining effect all those possessions have on you, physically and mentally. You start to realize that by desperately holding on to things that don't really fit or work, you don't allow yourself to ever get anything better. That keeping that many things in your life make you feel stuck, and overwhelmed by the sheer amount of things that are demanding your subconscious attention. And you start to realize that there are appropriate steps to take to keep the sentiment of memorabilia without actually holding on to every single teddybear from childhood, for example. Really, I cannot recommend it enough. I read it years ago and it is one of those books that changed my life - and just about everyone I've recommended it to.
posted by widdershins at 9:56 AM on July 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

Were I in this position, I think I might try to educate myself, and then my partner, as to the dangers of and solutions for obsessive compulsive hoarding. Not saying your girlfriend necessarily has that, but she does sound like she might be in the early stages.

Here's a good article on obsessive compulsive hoarding.

And then there's this old FPP on an extreme case of OCD hoarding.
posted by orange swan at 10:11 AM on July 23, 2009

You might consider the possibility that your girlfriend has a certain stuff-to-room ratio that feels comfortable to her. This could mean that if you move to a bigger place, she'll acquire more stuff to reach that ratio and you'll be just as uncomfortable. For example, I had a friend who had a lot of stuff in his one-bedroom apartment. He bought a four-bedroom house, and soon it was also packed with stuff.
posted by PatoPata at 10:50 AM on July 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

Agreed with marginaliana and muddgirl. She probably won't listen to any of your suggestions on how to reduce her clutter, or any of the suggestions listed here on how to directly reduce her clutter either if you bring them up with her directly. It may feel more like an attack than a suggestion.

But if you say "I feel really frustrated that we don't have a lot of space here" and "I really like having a open, clean, organized space in my home, I need your help with setting a space like this up in our place with me," if she cares about you, she may find some suggestions of her own to reduce the clutter. They may end up being the exact same suggestions that pop up here, but the difference will be that she will now own those ideas since she was the one who suggested them.
posted by ajackson at 10:57 AM on July 23, 2009

"One whole closet is filled with boxes to hold the unboxed items"
This might be one place to get some room. I'm guessing boxes for things like computers/electronics/appliances, with molded foam inside so they can't be broken down.

After years as a box-saver (and apartment dweller), I finally figured out that:
-Boxes like use up a huge amount of precious space.
-Generic moving boxes and bubble wrap work just as well to move delicate items.
-Just about every retailer will take a return on a broken/defective item without the box if you have the receipt.
-Some items you're saving the box for (especially computers) will become obsolete before you move.

Right now, if I buy something in a big box, I unbox it, make sure it's working, file the receipt, and toss the box in the recycling bin.
posted by zombiedance at 11:20 AM on July 23, 2009

Like many people on hear my SO is also a 'packrat', I have found constant nagging and reminding to have achieved absolutely nothing. The most effective tools I have found have been to provide a mid range alternative between binning stuff and keeping stuff, this was finding uses for the stuff, such as recycling, donating, swapping, ebaying it etc. This won't get rid of the very sentimental stuff, but it may help thin out the non-essentials. I managed to convince her to dump clothes, bags, shoes and a variety of miscellaneous crap this way.

Not to be harsh, but I would consider compulsive hoarding grounds for DTMFA - because it gets worse with age from what I have seen, however, it doesn't sound like its that bad.
posted by munchbunch at 11:23 AM on July 23, 2009

Someone asked me this privately and I thought I would share as it made me think rather more about my use of the term "hoarder", and in particular as it applies to this case.

Q. "How can you tell if someone's a nascent hoarder, a packrat, or just a slob?"

My A.:
Tricky, and the lines can be quite blurry. I'm not a professional (lots of books and stuff on the internet about this stuff also), but in my opinion as a guilty party:

1. hoarders collect lots and lots of the same thing (more than one thing, but always lots of each type). It's usually pretty organized or at least, you know, stacked.

2. packrats collect lots of different stuff that "might come in handy". may or may not be organized, but they'll have a reason for every bit of it.

3. slobs have stuff all over the place. not organized, not everything has a story.

She (and I) are more packrats by that definition. Still means you might live in a place crammed to the rafters with stuff, but less likelihood of dying under a collapsed wall of stacked newspapers in thirty years.
posted by Billegible at 11:44 AM on July 23, 2009

another person with a packrat for a partner here. I agree that a bigger place will not solve the problem; she'll acquire more stuff to fill the space.

Some of this is just people's personality, and some of it is definitely a response to childhood/security issues; for my wife, a lot of it was about losing a lot of her childhood possessions when she was a kid. The good news is she's gotten much better about saving random things and creating endless piles. It took some patience on my part, though, and it helped to understand what was driving this for her and what made it hard for her to change.
Just saying 'we need to clean up all this clutter!' didn't work; as others have noted, it's too overwhelming. It seemed like too big of a job for her, and so she couldn't get started. More manageable is 'let's clean off the dining room table' or 'let's deal with that pile in the living room' and take it one piece at a time.

The book Rightsizing Your Life helped for us, as it had some concrete suggestions about ways to reduce the amount of stuff in your life.
posted by chbrooks at 12:36 PM on July 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Another (recovering) packrat here. My husband has very little stuff, and I have a lot by comparison. I have to disagree with some of the advice you've gotten here. First of all, there's usually a difference between mere packrats (in the casual use of the term) and actual hoarders, and not all packrats are going to become hoarders in their elder years. Since there's a significant mental illness component to hoarding that is probably not (by what I can glean from your question) present in your SO's case, I would argue that line of discussion isn't really useful here. I know that if my SO had ever come at me with OMGCOMPULSIVEHOARDING the conversation would have ended right there, because hello there is a difference between saving keepsakes from my high school graduation (me) and saving empty McDonalds cups because we might need them someday (not me).

Hell no to a bigger place. The stuff, it expands to fill all available space. It wasn't until we decided to move to a much smaller place (looking for a better commute) that I really saw the light on the whole decluttering thing. I threw out / recycled / donated tons of stuff, and we're now living reasonably comfortably in a tiny house.

Still, I have a few rubbermaid bins of "keepsakes" in the basement, and I fight my packrat impulses constantly, by imposing strict rules on myself. For books, clothes, shoes, kitchen implements, etc., if I buy something new, something has to go. One in, one out. Sometimes, when I'm feeling that an area is really cluttered, I'll look at a group of shelves or a stack of boxes of whatever, and set a completely arbitrary goal -- e.g. "I want to reduce that stack of keepsake bins by half." It forces me to prioritize everything in those bins mercilessly, because the contents must now fit in half the space or be thrown out. Those mental games work for me, because every single thing that leaves the house helps us live more comfortably in our tiny house (which we love). So yeah, I am proof that garden-variety packrats can change, if they want to.

However, if she doesn't want to change, or even compromise, then none of the above will help, and you have larger problems than lebensraum. If you're living together, then that's supposed to be a home for both of you. If she is unwilling to entertain the most basic compromises (e.g. a storage unit) in order for you to BOTH feel like the Place Formerly Known as Hers is now an actual shared home, then you're pretty much just a tenant. That's not a healthy relationship. And, if you stick with this relationship expecting her to eventually change after she has made it clear that she has no intention of doing so, and spend months or years or whatever just being resentful of her clutter, then that's on you. I'm not saying DTMFA, but I am saying that you owe it to yourself (and to her) NOT to be That Guy. If she doesn't come around soon, then you have to get happy with the clutter, or get out.
posted by somanyamys at 12:40 PM on July 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh man, I feel for you. I could probably pack all my worldly possessions in a pickup truck and burn the rest without looking back, if I had to.

I hate to tell you, but these kinds of people don't change. It's hard-wired. My 70 year old stepdad is like this, despite years and years of my mother pressuring him to sell or give away stuff. My father in law is like this. My husband is not nearly as bad with keeping stuff, but definitely owns around 75% of the "stuff" in our house.

You need a room that is yours and yours alone. She is not allowed to put any of her possessions in it. This is the only way you will maintain your sanity. If she can't or won't give you that, this might be your dealbreaker. There is no way you will change her.

This is good advice from desjardins, but I respectfully disagree that people don't change. I used to be like this person, but I did change my ways successfully with Getting Things Done by David Allen. That being said, it took every fibre of my being to do it and I wanted to do it.

If she's resistant to the change, it'll be much harder to convince her to go along with this. Having your own set out space is a great idea.
posted by fantasticninety at 1:00 PM on July 23, 2009

Hi, my nane is Epsilon-minus semi moron and I'm a recovering packrat who hates clutter so I fell your(and her)pain.

As amtho suggested, work with her on a better storage solution.
before my big purge, the only way I could deal with all was to either have things out on display on bookshelves or hidden away in boxes under the bed or in a closet.
So here's my suggestions
*Bookshelves for her toys and sentimental items. If these things mean so much to her, she should enjoy seeing the out and not packed away. I loved having all my "collectibles" and chotchkies out to look at, it was very comforting.
*for the paper items: The aforementioned filing cabinets Also magazine holders, nice document boxes , three ring binders with the papers in plastic sleeves that fit in said binder,(these can all go on bookshelves, be stacked alng the floor against a wall) an artists portfolio type thing.
*Clothes..boxes, empty suitcases? I don't know, I held on to old clothes but they all fit in the closet or dresser. There are instructions on turning old shirts into pillow cases, purses, shopping bags on DIY sites.

Everything that won't go on bookshelves or slide under the bed,get those bed raiser things) anything that you will see everyday, find nice storage containers. Even the plastic ones are nicer than cardboard. If you have an IKEA near you they are great for this sort of thing.
Maybe if she sees that you are willing to work with her(as she sees it, I know you're willing to work with her already, but I think that she's hurt because she believes that you don't understand her attachment to these things, which I'm sure you don't...most people who aren't this way can't, there's nothing wrong with that) And also, if you offer to pay what man/woman/child/cat/dog would turn down a funded trip to IKEA?

You'll probably need to clear out the moving box storage closet so hopefully she'll be willing to work with you on this one. She'll toss these boxes(and yes I kept empty boxes too..both electronic boxes and cardboard "This box will be perfect when I sell X item on ebay!!")in exchange for the IKEA/Target/whathaveyou buying spree.

Hopefully, all this will help her shed some stuff as she's going through everything to decide where to put it, also once it's all out, she'll see how excessive it all is. That's always what helped me each time I did a purge. Yes, I've purged and rebuilt many times, but I have it under control (for)now.

and if she's not willing to work on you with any of this, doesn't want it out of the boxes, won't even transfer everything to nicer boxes, then I don't know what to tell you. Definitely not DTMFA but there should be a suggestion towards couple counseling/solo therapy for her. Good luck, I know how maddening all this can be.

posted by Epsilon-minus semi moron at 3:16 PM on July 23, 2009

Not sure this can help, but you and she might want to look into the work of Randy Frost
posted by IndigoJones at 5:15 PM on July 23, 2009

You know it might just be about her subconsciously asserting her identity during this new situation. You don't say how long you've been together but this might not be about a long term hoarding problem at all. You say neither of you have lived with an SO before? Well it's totally different to living on your own, or with roommates, the boundaries between who you are as individuals get really blurred and it can be very disconcerting - adjustment periods vary dramatically. I remember being a bit overwhelmed with by my first live-in SO's stuff, not because of the volume but because it was so different from mine - and I couldn't shut the door on it. Proposing yet more change on top of the change she's already dealing with could be the reason she's sticking her heels in right now.

I'd say try telling her that you are glad you moved in together but you're surprised and a bit bewildered by how affected you feel by her stuff, ask her how important it is to her, DO NOT get all logical about it - trotting out space ratio and percentages might just make her feel more alarmed at the differences between you and make her close down further. Try finding out if she thinks she is a hoarder, or whether it might change when you move again. Reassure her that you're just trying to find a way to be together long-term, she might not yet have really come to terms with this relationship as a full-on commitment.

In any event. It's likely that the stuff isn't going anywhere for the time being, but if you can chill out about this for a while longer she might relax enough to jettison stuff of her own accord. Best of luck to you both.
posted by freya_lamb at 5:18 PM on July 23, 2009

This doesn't really address all the issues, but it's just a thought I've had as someone who likes to keep sentimental crap but really has no room for it - and your GF probably would just disregard entirely, but....

taking digital pictures of sentimental items that don't really have a use anymore (then chucking) is kind of helpful so you can keep the memory but get rid of the item itself. This works for some folks, apparently.

I feel your pain - but don't get a bigger place! Stuff EXPANDS.
posted by tristeza at 6:46 PM on July 23, 2009

Changing her behavior will require the intervention of a therapist -- this is a psychological issue. If she isn't willing to go there, then you will have to decide to either (a) accept these living conditions and live with it or (b) consider moving on. I am married to someone like this. When we first met I tried to rationalize the condition of his apartment by thinking it was just because he was a bachelor. Now, after 15 years of marriage, I'm the one who has to get rid of my possessions so we aren't smothering in stuff. His mother is a hoarder, the kind they do documentaries about. I think it is a learned behavior and I don't expect him to change. He gets very defensive when I bring it up. I worry that our kids will be like this when they grow up.
posted by momzilla at 7:34 AM on July 25, 2009

You really can't change other people much, and in a relationship, it can be a bad idea to try. I think you really need a 2 br apt. You need to be able to have a say in how you live, and so does she. You need 1 room to call your own, to keep clutter-free. It can be any room in the apt., but you have to have it. She needs 1 room to display and store her sentimental stuff.

Boxes stored intact are, indeed, a big waste of space. Recycle the foam inserts; you'll never get them to fit again. Slice open the bottom of the box and flatten it. You can store 30 boxes in the space formerly used by 1. They remain perfectly sturdy.
posted by theora55 at 9:06 AM on July 27, 2009

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