Definite symptoms of a hoarder?
May 5, 2010 7:19 AM   Subscribe

Is my wife on the way to becoming a hoarder...or is she already there?

There have been previous AMF and MF posts on hoarding, but I simply can't tell if my wife is there yet. I know you are not a psychologist...blahblahblah...but advice is appreciated.


My wife has two cabinets filled with old Architectural Digests and other similar mags (she's been doing interior design on and off for years) I suggested it was time to get rid of some of them to make room. She was very angry at even the idea. She says she might return to them for inspiration. Truth be told she hasn't opened that cabinet in years except to add a new issue to the pile.

She has saved every piece of correspondence of the greeting card type from everyone she has ever known. When prompted to get rid of a 10-year-old holiday card from [insert relative's name here], she said she plans on making a big scrapbook someday and some of these cards would fit nicely in the book.

She's generally untidy. She doesn't throw hardly any mail away, but at the same time she generally has it strewn across large surfaces of the kitchen counters, almost as if it is pseudo-organized or that she needs to see it all at once. I once needed the clear to counters to treat the surface with a sealant, so I threw all of her stuff into a rubbermaid bin and let her know about it. She was very angry, first because she thought something might have been thrown away, but later because she thought she wouldn't be able to find anything.

I know...I know..typical hoarding symptoms already...but here's the kicker:

When we have company, she'll furiously "clean up", stuffing stacks of clutter into already overstuffed drawers. It's not infrequent that I find unopened mail (never bills) amidst all this stuff crammed in the drawers. The house will look so tidy that even some of my friends have commented to me that it must be nice being married to someone so neat and tidy.

She frequently laments at the mess around the house and in the garage, but not from the standpoint of needing to get rid of anything. It's more to talk about how we need to spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars to have cabinetry built or storage solutions designed to neatly accomodate all the stuff.

So my question is this...does a hoarder progress through stages? Is my wife on that path? I thought hoarders didn't notice or care about messes and would never tidy up to hide such an appearance to others. or might they? Or might something else be going on here?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (55 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
You've just described me, my family, my parents, my siblings, and most of my friends. I don't think she's a hoarder, just displaying some of the sillier effects of consumerism.

I am not a psychologist!
posted by miyabo at 7:23 AM on May 5, 2010

Wikipedia has a good page on this:

Compulsive hoarding
posted by teedee2000 at 7:26 AM on May 5, 2010

My mom's been behaving like this for basically my entire life. The clutter drives me a little bit crazy when I visit, but she's a functional, happy, and successful adult, so I figure it's just the way she is. If it really bothers you, though, I think you have every right to have a serious conversation with her about getting rid of things you don't need.
posted by oinopaponton at 7:27 AM on May 5, 2010

Talk to her about it! Ask her for what you need, and ask her for what you want.

See if you can handle it yourselves right now by treating it as a relationship problem.

If not, and you can't deal, then think about getting outside help.

It's more about what both of you are able to cope with, than any objective definition.

For what it's worth, I'm like this about mail, much better now that I have my ADHD treated, I had horrible annoyance and anger at anything getting moved because I knew I would forget about it and never see it again. Unopened mail in drawers? Check! I now chill out and have a system whereby my husband moves stuff whenever it gets in his way, to one basket, and I just put up with it. Then again we live in one room.

(This is just my opinion and I am not a psychologist!)
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 7:29 AM on May 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

If she was a hoarder, there would be no doubt about it. Sounds like she's a collector, and she's somewhat disorganized.

Maybe in the future. Maybe.
posted by Sys Rq at 7:31 AM on May 5, 2010

See if you can handle it yourselves right now by treating it as a relationship problem.

I think this is the best advice. Right now, you two have a difference of opinion in how you want to live your lives. I have some of the tendencies your wife has. I think it partially stems from moving around so much as a kid (military brat) and being a bit of a collector. I have stashes of magazines and I often get upset when my husband wants to ditch a bunch of my stuff. However, I made a choice that I need to pare down. Now, I still have magazines and I will go through them and pull out the good stuff eventually. Or, I'll ditch them all. But I also made two boxes of keepsakes a long time ago of childhood stuff. I told my husband, I'm going to fit everything I want to keep in these boxes and that's it. I've kept to that.

I would go through and start looking at categories with your wife and talking about what is a memento and what is simply baggage. Look at decluttering websites. Look at organizing systems. But, you two will have to come to this agreement together.

Good luck!
posted by amanda at 7:40 AM on May 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

She frequently laments at the mess around the house and in the garage, but not from the standpoint of needing to get rid of anything. It's more to talk about how we need to spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars to have cabinetry built or storage solutions designed to neatly accommodate all the stuff.

Is it possible she has a point? Does your home have adequate storage space? Plenty don't. Would building some extra storage space be a middle-ground between her keeping everything piled up out in the open and her throwing everything away just to please you? The two of you need to start talking about these issues. I find it a little strange you're trying to diagnose her as a hoarder for what seems to me to be a regular case of the messies.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:41 AM on May 5, 2010 [10 favorites]

Maybe you should build the storage system, but be sure to be clear that if you get more stuff it'll end up causing a big mess.

Also, you could get a scanner and scan all those old magazines, and then get rid of them.
posted by delmoi at 7:44 AM on May 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm a lot like this, especially with books and magazines. I just can't help thinking "there will be something in this I need so throwing it out might be a mistake." Hell, I think we all know someone with fifty years of National Geographics sitting around without considering them a hoarder. The mail thing, for me, was more anxiety than anything else. I just didn't want to deal with the damn mail, but throwing it out without reading it could have had grave repercussions (thanks anxiety!)

I suggest separating the stuff into two categories: things to keep (old digests, cards, etc.) and things to process (mail.) How about instead of tons of expensive cabinetry, you (or, well, she) can rent out a storage unit for the "keep" stuff. They're not particularly expensive and the old digests can just sit there in a box until they're needed. For the "process" stuff, you can both take a moment every Sunday morning or whatever and go through the latter so you can throw out what needs to be thrown out.

Good luck!
posted by griphus at 7:47 AM on May 5, 2010

This seems completely within the normal range of my experience. I agree to treat it as a relationship issue; what is to be gained by labeling it as "hoarding"? It doesn't sound at all dangerous, like people who keep moldy food or walk around in cat shit. She's just messy and doesn't like to throw stuff out.
posted by desjardins at 7:48 AM on May 5, 2010

My first thought is yes, that sounds like hoarding behavior, and maybe eventually she will stop trying to hide it when people come over and it will just be full on. Accumulating stuff has to start somewhere, I guess. But if there's so little stuff that company can come over and see the house and think it looks neat and tidy, then that doesn't sound like so much more stuff than most people have in their homes (and hide when company comes over).

But then I realize that it's framed in a way that leads me in that direction, and I am not sure what I would say if I just saw that behavior laid out as part of a person's overall behavior.

And I wonder what I would say if she asked a question and said my husband is like a monk with no stuff and he keeps wanting me to get rid of my holiday cards/magazines/stuff and it's important to me because x,y,z.

I'm curious if her behavior is related to the stuff itself or if it's behavior that is triggered by the stuff but has a different underlying cause. I don't think I phrased that well, but I am trying to get at whether or not she is actually attached to the stuff and genuinely irrationally upset at the thought of losing it, or whether she's angry that you are neater than her and she is kind of rebelling, or whether she's upset about something totally unrelated.

My understanding is that hoarding is an outward manifestation of some fairly significant internal processes, and I don't know if that type of behavior falls along a continuum (I suspect it does), and there are probably other non-hoarding reasons that would lead to seeing some of the same behavior.

Bottom line, it matters less what you call it and more how you handle it. I would boil it down to specific behaviors that you would like to see handled differently because they are affecting your marriage and/or quality of life, and then discuss with her why you would like to do things differently and how can you work with her to get to that point.
posted by mrs. taters at 7:50 AM on May 5, 2010 [4 favorites]

It's more to talk about how we need to spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars to have cabinetry built or storage solutions designed to neatly accomodate all the stuff.

Do not do this. It would be like trying to cure obesity by buying a bigger belt.

What you need to do is every so often throw things away. Not in large quantities... more like, in The Shawshank Redemption where every day he drops a little dirt out in the prison yard.

My wife is the exact same way - we have to save magazines because she has work in them, but it gets to be too much so I'll tear out the relevant section and recycle the rest. Magazines in particular are very heavy - perhaps you should ask her to go through them and tear out the feature stories for inspiration. AD is mostly ads anyway.

But no, this is not hoarding. Not even close.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 7:50 AM on May 5, 2010 [3 favorites]

Sounds like hoarding to me.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 7:52 AM on May 5, 2010

I'm just like your wife, and I'd get angry at my spouse as well for the exact same things. I don't know what classifying her as a hoarder or not actually will do to help your situation, so I'm skipping past that explicit question and jumping to the implied question that seems to be that her behavior is a bit misaligned with your expectations.

There are two separate things to deal with. First is the clutter, and the second is understanding her behavior. What worked for me in the first case is that I took a spare room that became my office/workshop/tinkering/whatever area. This room was *mine* and it was forbidden to nag me about it's state. In return, all the common and shared rooms were not to be cluttered. This has worked surprisingly well, I move my stuff to my room and organize it how I want. I'd recommend giving a similar arrangement for your situation a shot. If you don't have a spare room, a closet or portion of a room could work. This would keep the clutter out of the common areas and still allow her to organize her things as she wishes.

Which brings up the second point about her behavior and understanding it. I'm going to assume that she's does these things for the same reason I do from here on out. Understand that she has an emotional attachment to the stuff she is keeping and that she has a mental map of where things are. When you move the stuff around, it totally screws up her mental map of where things were and now she won't be able to find x without undue effort. It's her way of organization. As for her not touching some of the things for years, that's the wrong way of looking at it. The right way is whether or not she still has an interest in those things, and whether those things *might* be useful. I too have kept every personal correspondence and I would be upset if I lost any of it. I don't know why it's important to me, but it just is, and I assume its the same for your wife.

I don't think that she has a "problem" unless she can't keep things confined to agreed upon locations. If she has too much stuff for her room/closet then she has to deal with what stays and what goes, you get to enforce it not expanding past that area. The area does have to be reasonable though, a shoebox, or cabinet is unreasonable. A closet wouldn't work for me (guitars, amps and stuff), but a small room works fine. So be fair on the size of space, but don't feel bad about enforcing it. If something does expand beyond the space allowed, give her a reasonable opportunity to clean it up. So maybe letting her now that if the stuff is still out there on the weekend, you're going to put it in a box in her room for her to sort out later. That kind of thing. I wouldn't throw anything of hers out, let her do that. Also, one she has her own space, the stuff if the overfilled drawers can be moved there as well.

This has been the arrangement I've had for several years now, and the house is uncluttered. And even my room, which is embarrassingly cluttered continues to slowly improve (emphasis on slowly, though).

In short, although it's possible your wife has a hoarding issue, I don't think you've created a structure that would give her the opportunity to keep it under control. Try that first, and if she can't contain the clutter, then it might make sense to look for remedies to treat the underlying behavior. Otherwise, she just has a different organizational framework than you.
posted by forforf at 7:54 AM on May 5, 2010 [9 favorites]

From my own experience with... well, not hoarders per se but "pilers," like my mom and her endless stream of ripped out New Yorker articles, your wife is frightened at not being prepared for particular situations. Hence the worry at not being able to find things, the need to collect a particular magazine she considers useful to her field, etc. She's not able to trust her own abilities to know what to do.

If you or I needed to know how to, say, paint trim, we would look on the Web and find some tutorial or other, but she will want to look through everything she has before realizing that, hey, none of them have EXACTLY what she's looking for and she'll probably have to either find new reference material online or TA-DA!!! purchase it anew. Even if it overlaps 90% with something else she already has. But knowing that she has reference material, and can find "better" reference material, is her way of providing for herself and those around her... when she could probably provide just as well, if not better, by using the resources in her head.

And, really, what would she do if she DID have control over everything? She'd be like Marge Simpson in Cypress Creek -- nothing to do. Having a continual task in mind like cleaning "the mess," even if that task is way too tough for us to deal with at all, gives us purpose. Some of us (myself included) are so used to chaos and disorder that anything else seems creepy. But it's still not normal.

I would suggest that you (not your wife, at least not yet) look into Peter Walsh's work, including It's All Too Much. Watching him on Clean Sweep (old TLC show) really helped me come to terms with some of my behaviors and recognize them in others. I think his approach is great for helping to understand why we do these things and how we can get out of these habits by learning to trust ourselves.
posted by Madamina at 7:54 AM on May 5, 2010 [6 favorites]

This is not hoarding. This is not even close to compulsive hoarding. Compulsive hoarding is at the far end of the spectrum where the hoarder can't throw anything out, anything. Cardboard cereal boxes, wire hangers, newspapers, seriously. You cannot even believe. And I say that as someone who once had to help move a hoarder who was being evicted, as well as moving into a house that a hoarder had lived in for decades. Especially the poor woman who we needed to find new housing for. We were helping her to pack and she was grabbing the most insane stuff to take with her. Broken picture frames, plastic toys from McDonalds. We tried to talk her through what was necessary to take with her versus things that were not necessary, and she could not rationally distinguish between trash and necessities. Couldn't even attempt it. Couldn't describe to us why the empty Quaker oats container that she was anxiously clutching was important to take with her. It was heartbreaking.

However, it seems that you are bothered quite a bit by her, let's say, archival tendencies. She's attaching emotional importance to some things, wants others to be available to her when she feels that she needs them. And the fact that iehavior is creating problems in your relationship--your disrespect for what is important to her, her inability to negotiate boundaries around "stuff" with you--is enough reason to try and figure this out.
posted by jeanmari at 8:09 AM on May 5, 2010 [3 favorites]

Do you think she'd be willing to throw away the paper, the mail and cards and correspondence stuff, if it was digitized instead? There's effectively no problem storing things once they've been scanned; it might not take care of the psychological issue (if there is one), but if it eliminated the practical/relationship problem resulting from piles of paper overtaking the house, would it really matter? She'd have the stuff she wants saved, and you wouldn't have drawers full of clutter.

A good auto-feeding scanner (the Fujitsu ScanSnaps or Kodak ones get good reviews) will set you back a few hundred bucks but if you use them they can mean basically unlimited storage. Plus you can back things up easily and search and find things quickly, which I suspect she can't do right now. Maybe you can get to a "win-win" if you look at it that way.

The trick might be to also get a good paper shredder and put it next to the scanner. Scan things, put them into whatever the electronic filing system is (maybe back them up), and then shred them. Shredding them immediately after capture eliminates the possibility of hanging onto them "just in case." (Really, you're destroying them before the compulsive-hoarding thing kicks in and comes up with a rationalization for keeping the paper.)

At the end of the day you might end up with a stack of hard drives and/or a small ongoing cloud-storage bill, and the need to stay on top of stuff on an ongoing basis, but you'd be free of all the piles of junk.

The magazines are harder and I don't really have a great solution for those. Maybe you can get a collection of back issues on CD? (I think NatGeo and PopSci and some other magazines have done that.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:18 AM on May 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

It sounds to me like she's a pack rat, not a hoarder. I can see why this would annoy you, but it's not interfering with normal functioning or a sign of mental illness.
posted by Dasein at 8:19 AM on May 5, 2010

Please don't pathologize the person who depends on you for support.

Buy an inexpensive but nice file cabinet or two from an unfinished furniture store, plus some appropriately-sized hanging file racks (with her permission). Then you can have a fun little evening together, with snacks and music playing, where you make some labeled hanging file folders for the cards, bills, etc.. Be sure you leave _lots_ of extra space for future storage (empty folders, for example with, so that everything has a place to go.

It sounds like she's frustrated, and you're frustrated too. You're right to be wary of accumulating too much stuff, but she's right in that if you just have a good way to store stuff, you can not only keep more without having it overwhelm you, but you can both access and use it better. Invest in storage -- durable, well-designed -- and you'll be glad you did.
posted by amtho at 8:28 AM on May 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you want to say, "This behavior stems from mental illness, therefore it is not a valid choice of how to live." This is counterproductive because, first of all, you don't have an actual professional diagnosis, and second of all, your preferred housekeeping habits aren't necessarily more "right" than hers.

The advice to treat this as a relationship problem is the perfect place to start: see if you can sit down together, on your own or with an objective third party (therapist), and discuss each of your perspectives. You don't need to get your wife to agree that her habits are somehow "wrong," instead, you need to find a way for both of you to live happily under the same roof. It may mean that she'll have to change some of her habits--for your sake, not because they're inherently wrong--and it may mean that you'll need to change some of yours.

Practically speaking, rather than thousands of dollars on new cabinetry, it might be worth hiring a professional organizer to help the two of you to create a new system that incorporates both of your needs into a new way of running your house.
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:39 AM on May 5, 2010 [4 favorites]

I don't think your wife is a hoarder, just a messy pack rat. If your wife was a hoarder, I would be Chief Hoarder Extraordinaire of the World, what with my piles of journal articles, my table covered in junk mail, and my seven billion back issues of cooking magazines, Yoga Journal, and Runner's World that I haven't gotten around to sorting out and throwing away.

I also save greeting cards and family correspondence. It is a sort of a tradition to do so in our family, and it can actually be an extremely valuable way to preserve links between the generations -- when my grandmother passed away recently, we found an enormous box labeled "The Little Darlings," which contained Every. Single. Letter. (and greeting card) ever written to her and her own mother from her children and grandchildren, as well as the letters that she and her mother had written to each other. Sure, it was a huge box that weighed 50 pounds, but it brought us a lot of cheerful moments and memories during a hard and unpleasant time. Some of those letters were written during important times, like the Depression, and World War II, and are therefore of historical interest as well.

I would be pretty pissed if my husband wrote a question about whether or not I was a hoarder without making an effort to compromise somehow (allotting some extra storage space for articles and magazines, etc.). I think that the storage-space idea is actually an excellent one -- it needn't be thousands of dollars' worth of custom cabinetry. In fact, $100 worth of Ikea Antonius metal frames and wire pull-out baskets might just do the trick. (It's meant for laundry storage, and it works great as a combination of a coat closet and storage space for winter and bike accessories, but the baskets would also be good for putting papers and old magazines into.) $100 is not really very much money if it saves a major marital argument. Plus, that way, if she has too much stuff for the storage system, you can reach an agreement whereby the stuff just has to fit into the space, so she will have to find some way to cut down on the Stuff Volume.

Really, I would make a couple suggestions about this:

- Have a reasonable, realistic conversation with your wife. Let her know how much clutter bothers you. In return, it is your duty and responsibility as a partner in a marriage to actually listen to your wife's perspective. Marriages require compromise. She shouldn't be distressing you by leaving the house in an intolerably cluttered state, but you shouldn't distress her by making her get rid of things to which she has a perfectly reasonable attachment. (Don't give her behavior pejorative labels like "hoarding" or suggest that she has a mental illness. If she was really a hoarder, there is no way that you would be able to have friends over. I've seen hoarders' houses. They had stuff stacked to the ceilings with little paths for walking into the different rooms, and there were dead animal skeletons.)

- Set a time every week or two for you BOTH to go through all the mail and stuff TOGETHER and sort out what is actually important (bills to save, etc.) and what should be thrown away. It helps to have an advance agreement on what should be thrown away, or you will end up hanging onto some ancient catalogs because of a couple items that you might want to buy later. I also get angry when someone throws all the clutter into a bin without telling me, because I know where important documents are when they are in the second of five messy piles on the table. When they all get thrown into a bin, I can't find them and it is then that they will get thrown away. If you both go through it together, nobody's bill, passport, insurance policy, or medical records can get accidentally thrown away. If you get onto a regular schedule of cleaning and organizing things, then you will stay ahead of the clutter and your wife won't go into Frenzy Mode when company is expected and nobody will have to accuse anyone of being a hoarder.
posted by kataclysm at 8:50 AM on May 5, 2010 [5 favorites]

I think that everyone is cluttered to some degree. Hoarding, a la the TV show, is a long way away from what your wife is doing.

My SO used to keep magazines and mail like that and still does to some degree. I just put my foot down about it and fight it with logic.

A friend recommended "Christopher Lowell's Seven Layers of Organization: Unclutter Your Home, Unclutter Your Life" as containing some pop psychology on why people hoard/clutter.
posted by k8t at 8:52 AM on May 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Is Architectural Digest available from your local or university library?
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 8:53 AM on May 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think this is totally normal behavior, and that's coming from someone who is pretty much the total opposite--I throw out basically everything that's not absolutely necessary, often to my later detriment. But saving magazines (even lots of magazines) and correspondence (even lots of correspondence) is what plenty of healthy, productive people do, and being messy and disorganized about the mail is a common condition, too. And who the hell doesn't "furiously 'clean up'" when guests are coming? I can recount several times when I went over to someone's house for the first time and they jokingly said "Don't go in that room, that's where I shoved all the mess when I knew you were coming over" or something similar.

So you have a normal, somewhat messy and disorganized wife. The simplest, most direct solution would be to just reconcile yourself to this fact. If it's really wearing on you, perhaps you can stake out a room in the house that you will both agree to keep clutter free, or, if you have enough room, maybe you can have a room of your own that you can keep exactly the way you like.
posted by HotToddy at 8:56 AM on May 5, 2010

I agree that this sounds more like a relationship issue than a mental disorder one. She just likes to keep more stuff and feels more uncomfortable getting rid of things than you do. Mr. Murrey and I have that difficulty too. Despite trying, I just don't and will never understand his need to keep so many things that seem (to me) to just gather dust--magazines, personal papers, old report cards, decades-old to do lists, etc. He says he'll get around to doing something with them someday and I remain skeptical. Best I can gather is that he is more sentimental than I am.

When we moved in to our new house, we compromised...he could keep what he wanted, but it would be put in the attic until he was actually ready to deal with it. And then, it would be one box at a time....not the pulling down of 10 boxes to only have 10% removed/dealt with from each.

Perhaps you could compromise and have a large drawer where your wife likes to keep the unopened mail. Once it is full, it's full and she needs to deal with it. But it solves your frustration with the mail all over the counter. Perhaps you can deal with the magazines so long as they are confined and out of the way---like in the attic.
posted by murrey at 9:00 AM on May 5, 2010

It was already brought up, but I just want to nth this point -- would your wife be comfortable with getting rid of the magazines if she can digitize (scan) what she wants out of them? Such a project will likely take a fair amount of time, but it would lead to a reduction in some of the "clutter" in the closet.

I agree with others who say that your wife is better described as a packrat and a bit messy, and you should approach this as a relationship issue rather than "my wife has a mental issue."

FWIW, I do not think it's particularly telling that she hangs onto old correspondence -- people can and do attach a lot of sentimental value to cards, letters, etc. Unless they're messily filling a room floor to ceiling, I can't imagine what the problem would be in letting her keep these.

The mail and magazines can just be approached as problems to solve -- the magazines as mentioned above, and the mail perhaps as something you both need to tackle together as soon as you get home each day. Bring the mail in and go through it together.
posted by asciident at 9:06 AM on May 5, 2010

Labeling her isn't helping. You and she need to talk about how the house will be kept, and each of you must respect the needs of the other, while being able to give on important issues. There are many approaches to managing stuff. My rule: if it's clean, tidy, organized, I can find stuff I need, and I have the space, No Problem. When I start losing bills, invitations, checks, etc., can't use the kitchen table for eating, and it threatens to bury the little dog, Problem. By being in opposition, I think she's more likely to save stuff. By stating and insisting on your reasonable expectation of using space in the house, and by respecting her wish to value things differently, the 2 of you can be on the same team, and resolve some of the issue.
posted by theora55 at 9:14 AM on May 5, 2010

If your wife was a hoarder, there would be no company coming over. There would be no drawer in the world to hide the problem. Your wife wants to hang on to more stuff than you think she should, that's really the long and short of it. Her personal preference for what she wants to keep is interfering with your personal preference for how neat and tidy you'd like things to be. You're going to have to work this thing out on the level.

Meaning, you're not crazy, she's not crazy, now you talk to eachother about it like sane people. No fair trying to invoke mental illness to win your case.
posted by pazazygeek at 9:15 AM on May 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Today's Fresh Air on NPR is on the topic of hoarding, btw.
posted by iamkimiam at 9:32 AM on May 5, 2010

This seems pretty typical of people who work in visually oriented fields. Of course severity varies.

I'd suggest, before spending on new shelving and the like, that you hire a certified professional organizer who specializes in working with people in visually oriented professions
posted by jgirl at 9:39 AM on May 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm not a psychologist, but based on what you describe I would presume she is a hoarder. I don't think saving old magazines and correspondence for years and becoming emotionally distraught at the prospect of going through some of them to decide whether they are truly worth keeping qualifies as "normal" behavior.

I say this as a daughter of a mother who could be described almost exactly by your post, including the furious cleaning up before company arrives. I remember one time I was going to have my parents-in-law come stay overnight at my mother's house. She has a rather large, 4 bedroom house, but neither of the two guest bedrooms were habitable and certainly not fit for hosting a guest. My husband and I decided to clean one of them up. We even repainted it and made it really, really nice.

You'd think we had cut her legs off after hearing how upset she got. The most upsetting thing I did? Throw away a stack of old electricity from 1995. Now, a year later, she does admit to me that she is very grateful that I made a beautiful guest room in her house and she's even taking baby steps to declutter the rest of the house, as she realizes it's a much better way to live.
posted by sickinthehead at 9:40 AM on May 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, and just to comment on jgirl's comment: my mother is an interior designer. She, too, has a huge stack of architectural digests that can never be thrown away, lest she lose some sort of pivotal inspiration (she, too, has never once gone and reread any of these magazines).
posted by sickinthehead at 9:41 AM on May 5, 2010

What you need to do is every so often throw things away. Not in large quantities... more like, in The Shawshank Redemption where every day he drops a little dirt out in the prison yard.

Please don't take this advice. Grownups don't sneak around behind each other's backs. If this is really a serious issue for you, pulling stunts like this is not only childish, but will backfire when your wife inevitably finds out and then just digs her heels in harder.

As for the magazines, I have two suggestions. Both worked for me. I moved four different times, with 10-year collections of Sports Illustrated (weekly) and at least 10 other (monthly) magaines.

1) Suggest donating them to a local library. She can go visit her magazines any time she needs inspiration. I donated some of my more obscure magazines, and surprisingly, never felt the need to go visit my collections.

2) Find out if a local school is having a recycling drive, and donate them. This is what prompted me to finally get rid of the SIs. I'm pretty sure I funded the entire district's gym equipment for the year with my donation.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 9:58 AM on May 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

I am like your wife with clothes (I might need that anarctic jacket in new jersey someday!!!!) and magazines because they have really pretty pictures in them and I like my eyeballs massaged. I recommend that you and hopefully your wife read this book to gain some insight as to why she might be needlessly keeping things. It helped me purge a bunch of stuff and I enjoy the open space much more than I ever enjoyed the stuff that was taking it up.
posted by WeekendJen at 10:09 AM on May 5, 2010

Having a continual task in mind like cleaning "the mess," even if that task is way too tough for us to deal with at all, gives us purpose.

Oh on preview this too very very very much. When I first finally cleaned my apartment I was really bored and loney for a few days because I simply didn't know what to do with myself after work if I didn't have clutter to move around.
posted by WeekendJen at 10:15 AM on May 5, 2010

I know...I know..typical hoarding symptoms

Yeah, not so much.

You need to meet a real hoarder, someone who keeps every plastic takeout food container and every newspaper and even junk mail.
You just have a clutterer, and there are millions of us and we aren't really all that crazy. We know we are messy, and we try, we really do. But we feel overwhelmed by mail and are deeply attached to our magazine collections (Spy in my case, been dragging them around the world for no good reason). So we stuff crap into drawers or into closets when people come over. This is frighteningly normal behavior.
I'd venture to say it's the people who have pristine houses that don't need a last minute stuff-it-behind-the-sofa when company comes that are the freaks.
posted by CunningLinguist at 10:24 AM on May 5, 2010 [7 favorites]

Mod note: From the OP:
Thanks for all the thoughtful responses. I'm somewhat relieved that many if not most people consider such behavior as normal. My big fear was that she is on the continuum to becoming a hoarder; anecdotal evidence from MeFites seems to believe no...and that is comforting. Interestingly, a Fujitsu ScanSnap is already on order (by me) to archive old bills, receipts and tax records and whatever might come up in the future. Indeed, I might be more monk-like and fastidious than my spouse, heck, even to a fault. There is not one "thing" in my house that I would miss if I had to suddenly enter the Witness Protection Program, and leave all of my worldly belongings behind. The situation is more than workable. I just didn't want get professional advice or post to AMF, let's say, in 2015, and have 20 responses stating, "Dude, you missed all the early signs of condition X, why did you wait five years?!"
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:43 AM on May 5, 2010

It sounds like she has issues with managing paper and needs a home office/filing area.

Get her a large desk, some stacking trays, a large, sturdy filing cabinet, a bunch of file folders, and a Brother label-maker and lots of label tape. Maybe hire a weekly cleaning service for a while to take care of the week-to-week maintenance stuff (bathrooms, kitchens, vacuuming, etc.) so she has extra time to focus on going through and filing all her paper. A professional organizer could help her set up a system.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:49 AM on May 5, 2010

yes you scared me for a second since I do all of these things but no, I'm not a hoarder and neither is she.
posted by chickaboo at 10:50 AM on May 5, 2010

Some people like to keep stuff and some don't. It would drive me crazy but I agree with the idea of making more storage space and letting it go.

When you stop being able to use your home's rooms for their intended purposes because of clutter, you'll have a better argument. This just sounds like lifestyle differences.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:55 AM on May 5, 2010

OP, you've gotten some great advice upthread, but can I say: I hope you don't talk to your wife about this issue the way you've phrased it in the thread. Please don't just criticize her like this, it isn't helpful and all you'll get from her will be resistance. You leave the reader with the impression that all the clutter in the house is your wife's, that none of it is yours, and it's entirely your wife's job to keep the house perfectly neat and tidy. No offense, but if you were talking about me the way you seem to be talking about your wife, we'd be having some mighty strong words, you and I.
posted by LN at 11:04 AM on May 5, 2010

She's not a hoarder, she's just cluttered and messy. Some organization would help, but a couple of cabinets of old magazines and being messy with the mail is not that outside of the normal range of human behavior. If the stuff starts taking up entire rooms, or she starts keeping cabinets of old meat packages, then I'd start to worry. Sounds like you're just annoyed that she's messy because you aren't.
posted by ishotjr at 11:06 AM on May 5, 2010

There is not one "thing" in my house that I would miss if I had to suddenly enter the Witness Protection Program, and leave all of my worldly belongings behind.

My brother is like this. I am not. I feel deeply connected to "my stuff." I feel better with my books around (I simply can't understand my friend who ditched all his books for a Kindle). I keep every letter and photo, have a dozen boxes labeled "mementos" and my closet is crammed with clothes for a myriad of weights, moods and seasons. I don't need three pairs of black ski gloves, but I have them. I don't think about all this stuff much, and rarely open the boxes, reread the books or wear the clothes, but I would be hard pressed to get rid of any of it. It's just a different way of coping with the world. I find your lack of connection to your stuff completely alien, you'd find all my clutter completely alien. Just realize that your wife sees it my way, and try to accept it. It's not wrong, just different.
posted by CunningLinguist at 11:17 AM on May 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

My husband sounds somewhat like your wife. forforf's advice is good; while we don't have a spare room, I'll say to him, "You can keep all the childhood toys/art supplies/whatever that you can fit in this gigantic tupperware tub," and he's pretty good now about sorting down to one tub's worth. (But we've been at this decluttering/de-packratting thing 8 years with him.)

For "his" end table, I got him one with shelves and a drawer, so he can keep a considerable quantity of paper and reading material in/on it. When it overflows, he sorts it back down to fit. I don't know how often he actually READS stuff he keeps there, but he does sort it back down to fit. It controls his clutter desire in the living room.

The key is that we find a size of storage space for Type of Thing X that seems "fair" and reasonable and then he is pretty diligent about keeping to that, since he's aware he's a packrat. But I virtually always have to set up the initial storage system, sorting system, or whatever.

Another thing we've done is, he always kept T-shirts (for example) because they had sentimental value (they were all from activities and events, you know). I helped him sort through old ones for the important ones. We donated the unimportant ones, and I took the 25 or so most important and made him a T-shirt quilt out of them. Similarly we childhood doodads, we sort down to the important ones and put those on display so we can enjoy them, instead of having boxes of stuff we never see put away. And I remind him the memory is important, not the tchotchke. But keep in mind this is emotionally EXHAUSTING work, and you will not get through very much at a time. (Like, I pick one sentimental thing collection I'd like him to sort through once a YEAR.)

Having a kid helped, because suddenly the detrius of our pre-kid lives seems much less important (for each of us) and because clutter has become edible. :)

In terms of the correspondence, I'm not a particularly packratty person, and *I* keep (almost) every card/letter/wedding invitation, for many of the reasons people said above. When one of my great aunts died, she had just boxes, from her whole life, of letters and wedding invitations and birth announcements and so forth. I try to edit a little bit -- I keep picture Christmas cards and ones with personal notes, but not just generic ones -- but I love that stuff and I loved going through my great aunt's.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:48 AM on May 5, 2010 [4 favorites]

I want to reiterate what people are saying about who is a hoarder and who is not. My MIL is a compulsive shopper and hoarder. When she and her husband moved out of the house that they'd lived in for over 15 years, her husband took 17 TONS of junk to the landfill. That's after moving out they stuff they wanted to keep to the new home and after craigslisting and garage-saleing a bunch of other stuff.

Her fridge is packed front to back with little bits of leftovers, scrapes of butter wrapped in wax paper, half of all the fridge contents expired. She used to have rooms full of stuff including several wardrobes of clothes that do not fit her, out of style or were never worn (tags still on). When we visit at her new house we take away anything she'll give us (she's very generous) and we usually donate it. In trying to cook in their house and make some room I moved two sets of the four sets of measuring cups into a box in the garage (where we'd been putting other multiples) and she noticed! "Where's my yellow measuring cups?" I offered to swap them with one of the other sets if she liked it better but for her they were special and different somehow and she needed them. All of them. She has an uncanny memory and an eagle eye for our decluttering shenanigans.

Sadly, this goes hand in hand with her issues with depression and overeating.

Anyway, your wife doesn't have to have all those symptoms to be a hoarder but I don't think she is. You guys just need to recognize that this is a difficult conversation but that you can come up with ways together to compromise so that your living space is acceptable to both of you.
posted by amanda at 11:50 AM on May 5, 2010

I had a stack of Architectural Digests going from 1991 to modern-day-times which I "hoarded" ever since 1991. During a moment of weakness last fall, I got rid of them all. There is almost not a day that goes by that I do not regret that bad, bad decision.

Your wife wants to do her artistic and creative projects, but has put her dreams on hold... for you. Think of how much time she is able to work on her creative projects, and now, think of how much time she spends doing things with you. Why does she spend so much time doing things with you, and so little time doing what _she_ wants to do? Think about it. And now, you're even trying to kill off her stack of magazines, her last glimmer of creative hope.
posted by shipbreaker at 2:31 PM on May 5, 2010 [4 favorites]

I just want to chime in to recommend a book that will help you understand the mentality of a less organized person. It's The Messies Manual by Sandra Felton. Sounds cutesy, but it is, simply, great. Go to Amazon and do the "search inside this book" bit. Enter "messies classified" and you'll see the various types of disorganized souls - perfectionist, rebellious, relaxed, sentimental, spartan, clean, safe, old-fashioned, idealistic. You'll probably recognize your wife's habits in one or more of these descriptions.

(I bought this about a year and a half ago, but I've just noticed that it's no longer sold directly through Amazon.)

Anyway, it is a helpful guide for disorganized people and those who live with them. I never did follow through on a lot of her suggestions (various binders, etc) but the "diagnosis" section was fascinating and she has a lot of great tips, including how to talk to someone with an organization problem. Might be something for you to check out to get some perspective.
posted by troubleme at 4:12 PM on May 5, 2010

You might be interested in this public radio interview that aired recently on hoarding. It's very informative.

It does sound like hoarding to me, or the beginnings. Especially since she becomes angry at the thought of throwing anything away. What I learned from the interview is that the stuff is invisible to them until company comes and they become embarrassed. It does sound alarming to me. Especially since she wants to spend money on storage systems. Storage systems are a waste of money for the most part. Hopefully she will realize that getting rid of stuff will be more freeing.

The fact that she may put the greeting cards in a scrapbook "one day" is a huge red flag that she has some sort of problem. What about her parents? Do they hoard or keep clutter around?

The Story of Stuff
and other resources on the web may enlighten her. Movies and books like No Impact Man may inspire her.
posted by Fairchild at 5:08 AM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I agree with Fairchild and think that radio interview is a must-listen for you and others in this thread.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 7:02 AM on May 6, 2010

Wow, Fairchild, were we listening the same radio program?

Most anyone wants to present their best "face" to guests when they are coming to visit. Most of us will "tidy up", throw things in drawers, etc when someone comes over. Hoarders CANNOT do this because there is NO WHERE TO THROW THE STUFF! All of the drawers are already full, whole ROOMS are packed--floor to ceiling--so there IS no way to clean up. The embarrassment is not what defines a hoarder, the ability to change the situation defines a hoarder.

"Hopefully she will realize that getting rid of stuff is more freeing." Very much like the OP, you are projecting your own feelings about stuff on someone else. This judgmental perspective is a big barrier to discussion about compromise and to negotiations about stuff. Everyone's attachment to stuff exists on a big, big spectrum. To force your own point of view on someone else about something that has meaning to them is counter-productive.

And greeting cards for a "scrapbook" someday? These might seem like arbitrary items to YOU but she is able to distinguish WHY they have meaning to her and her "sensemaking" about them is quite rational. Although I wouldn't do it, I could understand someone wanting to keep a record of meaningful correspondence with someone that they loved. Unlike the hoarder in your radio story who couldn't let go of a plastic bag full of bottle caps which had no usefulness to her beyond her being fascinated by their "prettiness."

Sorry to pick on your answer, but it is important to really think through what the interviews with the hoarders in those scenarios is implying versus just looking at "keeping stuff = bad" and "ditching stuff = good".
posted by jeanmari at 7:30 AM on May 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

jeanmari, maybe we didn't listen to same program. I linked to the Radio Times interview. The authors were also on Fresh Air with Terry Gros Regardless, you are right. Perhaps I am jumping to conclusions. I cannot diagnose a hoarder. Also, I am projecting and I apologize.

Although, the idea of saving greeting cards for a scrapbook someday is a concern. There is no harm in saving greeting cards. Maybe it's not a red flag for hoarding but never taking action on all of this "stuff" is concerning when she says that she desires to take action. As the authors mentioned, collectors display their stuff. She puts her magazines in a cabinet which is more "healthy" but the indiscriminate piles, maybe not so much.

They say it isn't hoarding unless the person's life is affected. She cannot socialize, work, function in daily activities. This doesn't sound like the case.

Maybe the poster will find this interview and pictures helpful. Scroll down.
posted by Fairchild at 9:48 AM on May 6, 2010

Mod note: From the OP:
@amanda: Your description of your M.I.L.'s "fridge behavior" kinda scared me because, yes, it does sound a bit like my wife. Currently, my fridge will be (over)stuffed with small tupperwares containing, for example, one slice of apple, two spoonfuls of brown rice, or a quarter of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with bite marks. I asked her about this and she has been very frank, "I just can't throw this stuff out. It's wasting food. " Similarly, the freezer will be (over)stuffed with food. Examples include upwards of 4-6 opened packages of the same item (corn comes to mind) found throughout the freezer, each in a zip lock. When I asked her about this she admits the freezer is too full to notice that there are leftovers to be used. So as a result it seems like chronic disorganization.

Thanks for the NPR links. I was able to listen to part of the show and have concluded that my wife is not a hoarder; nevertheless, I still don't understand what the continuum is from the non-hoarder to the full-blown can't walk around the house hoarder. My wife's behavior was and is mildly annoying; only the tv show out now about real hoarders caused a light bulb to go off and think about the "diagnosis"

@forforf: You get the best answer. I don't have a spare room to devote to her stuff, but we'll come up with something to segregate her stuff from the rest of the family's living space. My most delicate quandry is figuring out how to handle her (our) frustration when the kids leave their stuff all over the place. It seems like other people's messes/clutter/stuff does indeed bother her.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:40 AM on May 6, 2010

To follow-up on the follow-up, one factor in my MIL behavior is also my FIL willingness to go along with it. He vigorously avoids conflict. My MIL can be very unpleasant when she doesn't get her way so I understand that he has coping mechanisms to deal with her. But his unwillingness to draw a line in the sand as well as participate in taming the problem (like, say, cleaning the fridge his own damn self) enables her behavior, in my opinion. The fridge and the mail and household bills are communal domaine and there's no reason to cede control if the result of that is unpleasant for the family.

Just think about whether your bahavior is also contributing. I often feel like if my husband doesn't like the way I do things then he better be prepared to pitch in or do it his own damn self. Know what I'm saying?
posted by amanda at 2:37 PM on May 6, 2010

My understanding of hoarding is that if she is heading down that path the last minute cleanup you describe would actually be physically impossible.

When the clean up is no longer possible, then you need to worry. In the meantime this is just annoying, and you two just have to figure out a way to talk where she doesn't get so defensive (I think the rubbermaids is a good compromise, like she could set a day during the week that she sifts through all the stuff that was placed in one (mail, etc.))
posted by Acer_saccharum at 6:07 PM on May 7, 2010

Don't worry until you have to make paths through the stuff to get from room to room.
posted by _paegan_ at 2:04 AM on May 10, 2010

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