clutterbug and organizer need help
September 10, 2010 7:06 AM   Subscribe

My wife is a clutter bug while I'm an organizer. I'm finding her methods of leaving stuff where she last used it is an impediment to my projects and affects my well-being. What can I do, or how can I harmonize our two traits/methodologies?

My wife has a tendency of populate empty space with her stuff, projects, and whatever she's working on. In her methodology, her stuff tends to end up all over the place whether it's kitchen counters, chairs, on the floor, wherever she last used it.
By contrast, I tend to put stuff away. I like open, empty spaces and for me, having an orderly environment is the basis I need to move on to other events. In other words, for me, clutter in my personal space is like having a bunch of unfinished thoughts lying around to trip over.
I spend an inordinate amount of my time putting stuff away, cleaning up the kitchen, or worse, leaving it where it is.
When my wife is home, her personal field tends to map this out and I tend to ignore the chaos. Our relationship helps us bridge the gap between her tendencies and mine.
If she leaves on a trip, like now for example, my very first thing I do is immediately put stuff away, clean up, and then have a clear field of view for bigger projects that may never get done because I'm trapped in the clutter field.
If I go too far cleaning up, then upon her return, I've moved her stuff, which causes recriminations and upset. Since she organizes by populating space with her things, she finds them by where she left them, not by putting them into a logical container/space where they can be located later.
The ultimate impact on me is that I tend not to get to larger projects that need doing because of the clutter field. In her absence, when I can start marshaling my resources on bigger projects without spending my 'startup' energy on putting stuff away, the actions I take can lead to a conflict because I'm changing her personal space without her permission or understanding.
If I don't take action, then things tends to remain the same, which is unacceptable to me in terms of getting more important tasks and projects done.
She's a professional artist, and I'm more the rationalist, though those labels don't begin to describe our range of per personal beliefs and behaviors. I've wondered if there's a biological impulse behind filling up space for the female, and creating empty range for the male.
So, the question, how can I encourage a harmonizing of our tendencies so I have a clear field of action for my life and she has the security and stability in hers with regards to her clutter behavior?
posted by diode to Human Relations (46 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have a room in your home that could become your own personal space? You can use it for your own projects and keep it however you like, with the understanding that no one else (wife included) will go in and wreck it.
posted by backseatpilot at 7:11 AM on September 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

one good trick is to give her specific spaces to clutter - perhaps she can have baskets that are "hers" to fill with her projects, or funky old wooden crate boxes, etc. you can also agree on spaces that are "yours" to fill or keep empty, for you to do your work.
posted by anya32 at 7:12 AM on September 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

The only thing to do is to look for ways to compromise. Can you two find a space for your wife where she can clutter to her heart's content? Like a "hobby table" or something? Maybe a whole room where she can leave things about wherever she wants? Then the rest of the house would be an area where clutter can be a bad thing?

Or perhaps you can schedule regular (weekly?) clean up sessions where you both work to clean up the house? Then for about half the week, the house will be pretty free from clutter, then the second half of the week, it'll get a bit more cluttered. You might feel better about it because you'll know the clean-up is coming soon, and she might feel less pressured to change her habits since you have both agreed on the regular de-cluttering plan.

Good luck.


I've wondered if there's a biological impulse behind filling up space for the female, and creating empty range for the male.

No, that's silly.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 7:13 AM on September 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

As a clutterer type, but also a rationalist like you, my opinion is that you've got to treat this the same as any roommate situation - compromise. For example, the common areas like kitchen and living room have to remain uncluttered, and she's responsible for putting her stuff away there. Then she can have certain rooms, depending on your house layout, where she can cut loose.

"If I go too far cleaning up, then upon her return, I've moved her stuff, which causes recriminations and upset."

This is borderline hoarder behavior, honestly.

"a biological impulse behind filling up space for the female, and creating empty range for the male"

I don't think so, but I'm no expert. My boyfriend, also an artist, can clutter like nobody's business.
posted by HopperFan at 7:16 AM on September 10, 2010

Does your wife have her own workspace or office? Do you? If you don't now, can you designate certain areas of your home as hers and yours?

Where I am going with this is that perhaps you can agree to keep common areas to a certain level of cleanliness, while "anything goes" in your own workspace. If she leaves stuff out in a common room, then perhaps you have permission to move whatever it is to her area.

Sometimes, especially if your home is not large, you might have to do a project on the living room floor or dining table. Then, the agreement might be that you put your work materials away afterwards.

This might all be anathema to your wife's creative process, though. It's just an idea that sort of works in my house. We are still cluttery, but when company comes over we throw stuff in our offices.
posted by cabingirl at 7:17 AM on September 10, 2010

First, forget about the male/female stuff as far as practice is concerned. It doesn't matter if there's a biological impulse behind it. You and your wife are not Alice and Bob in an Evolutionary Psych textbook and attempting to treat what is going on in that manner will only lead to contention.

Keep in mind that some people, perhaps including your wife, need that kind of "mess" to work. In the same way that you need tidiness to work. Now, there's only so much asking for her to keep spaces clean. At a certain point, this becomes your problem and not hers. What you need to do is establish separate working spaces. I'm not sure how you live but you can split a room, have separate worktables, something along those lines. Just create a space where she is the mistress of the domain and mess is okay, and also out of sight for you (as I doubt your space being too ordered is an impediment for her.) Cede complete control of this space, like there's a forcefield around it.
posted by griphus at 7:18 AM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is borderline hoarder behavior, honestly.

No, it's really not. My room is a mess, but I know where everything is. Were someone to go in there and tidy up, I would go insane because I would no longer be able to reach out and grab whatever I need from wherever I left it last. Rands agrees:
Each object in the Cave has a particular place and purpose. Even the clutter is well designed. Don’t believe me? Grab that seemingly discarded Mac Mini which has been sitting on the floor for two months and hide it. You’ll have 10 minutes before he’ll come stomping out of the Cave — “Where’s the Mac?”
posted by griphus at 7:21 AM on September 10, 2010 [6 favorites]

I've wondered if there's a biological impulse behind filling up space for the female, and creating empty range for the male.

Well if it helps, I'm female - and a creative type as well - and I'm like you. In fact your description of your wife's clutter was practically making me twitch. I couldn't live, or think, or create, in a space like that. And so I agree with everyone who says you both need your own individual spaces, and some form of compromise in the shared spaces.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 7:27 AM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

The default for space where one person tends to fill it is that it gets filled with that persons stuff. Have you talked to her about how it makes you feel? It could be that she just doesn't know it bugs you that much or it could be that it's a way of asserting control over the space you live in.

What's worked for me is basically having defined "zones" where stuff can and can't be piled up, and having defined places to move stuff to so my wife can find it if it's been moved from a "no Stuff zone". That makes it sound a bit hostile, but it really isn't in practice, and it avoids the problems you have of feeling anxious about the "clutter field" and my wife being annoyed to find stuff not where she left it. Over time we've both relaxed a bit more towards the other's attitude.

We both had a lot of strong feelings about stuff and space though - i.e. they represent things in your relationship that you may not be completely aware of. So try to listen too as your wife probably has just as strong attachments to the clutter field as you do to the idea of space.
posted by crocomancer at 7:28 AM on September 10, 2010

I like the idea of creating separate spaces. Can you carve out a nook for yourself where no clutter is allowed? I can relate to her frustration about things being put away - my things may look messy, but there is an order to it that I intuitively understand. Imagine if you came home from vacation and found that all of your pencils had been put away with the forks, and the spoons were in the bathroom. Your idea of logical is not universal. You have a system that works for you, and she has a system that works for her. You both need to compromise, not just her.

I'd recommend taking a hard line with "filthy" messes that might rot or attract pests, but learning to chill out and learn how to get your own work done (including big projects) without blaming your inability to do so on her.
posted by fermezporte at 7:32 AM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've wondered if there's a biological impulse behind filling up space for the female, and creating empty range for the male.

No. My husband is the "filler" and I'm the "empty range" one.

First, it sounds like she needs a space -- ideally an entire room -- where she can create her mess, especially if it relates to her work. A room with a door. That you can close. (We do not have that kind of space available, but that would be best for us too.)

Second, agree on clutter-free zones. I don't particularly care how much clutter is on the dining room table unless we're having a party, so he can spread out there indefinitely. (Honestly I tend to a bit as well, for longer-term projects.) But my kitchen counters? HELL NO. They better be clean at night so I can get up in the morning to a nice clean kitchen. The living room is also a clutter-free zone (or rather, limited clutter, since there's always reading material and baby toys and so forth).

Third, creating storage solutions where she makes the mess is good. I generally find my husband a storage solution that I feel creates an appropriate amount of space -- he has a small bookshelf as an end-table, for example, one of his primary clutter locations -- and I say, "How would this work?" If it seems appropriate, he agrees to it, we buy it, and the agreement is all his clutter in the living room has to stay confined to that space. Any of his clutter I find elsewhere in the living room (a clutter-free zone) will be returned to that space. When that space overflows (as it inevitably does), he has to sit down and sort it, or I will box up the overflow and put it in his workspace in the basement for him to sort through later. He HATES when I move his overflow, so he usually sorts it. (And I try to box up the stuff that I know he hasn't looked at in months, rather than the stuff on the top of the stack.) We have bins for his hobby supplies, a workspace for his home improvement projects, etc. All different kinds of storage solutions, but we agree on a space limit and he commits to staying within that limit, and I agree not to mess with his stuff as long as it doesn't overflow. He admits that me "forcing" him to do this makes it easier for him to find certain things.

Fourth, accept that you will be her Google. My husband can find a pen if it's in his stack o' crap in his endtable, but not if it's in the neatly-labeled office supply area. And certainly not if I PUT SOMETHING AWAY WHERE IT LIVES. It might as well have disappeared into another dimension. So you will spend a lot of time with questions like, "Where's my phone?" "Charging station, it was dead." "Where's my blue pen?" "Pen cup on the desk." "Where's my khaki shorts?" "Bottom drawer with all your other shorts." Accept this as the price for cleanliness and try not to get annoyed. You have disrupted her method of keeping track of her stuff.

Fifth, and this may not even need saying, but ... when you put away overflow in one of these agreed-upon clean areas, DO NOT THROW ANYTHING AWAY. Put it all in a banker's box or something. Nothing makes my husband crazier than me throwing something away that I thought was useless but that he still needed. I can't tell. And since I never throw ANYTHING away from his stuff, he knows that if he can't find it, it's around SOMEWHERE because I didn't throw it out.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:37 AM on September 10, 2010 [19 favorites]

If she leaves stuff out in a common room, then perhaps you have permission to move whatever it is to her area.

If you go this route, set up a specific place in her area where you would always put her things, like an inbox. That way, if she remembers that she left X on the living room table but it's not there, she'll know exactly where it got moved to.
posted by CathyG at 7:41 AM on September 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

Similar to what crocomancer describes, one thing that might help is to compromise between 'logical' and 'usage-based' organization/storage. Do you like having a box with all the art supplies, and is that where you put her stuff when you clean up? Maybe she'd be happier with a series of 'stuff boxes' in different rooms that would allow you to clear off surfaces. This worked in my relationship: I put baskets and such in convenient spots around the house, so if I need/want to clear up the kitchen table, assorted kitchen table project stuff goes into a nearby basket where it can be easily located.

And nth-ing that she needs her own work space in the apartment that can be cluttered to her heart's content!
posted by heyforfour at 7:41 AM on September 10, 2010

Does she work at home? Do you? If she works at home and needs stuff a certain way to work, and your projects are hobbies, I can see why she would be upset at you moving her things. Imagine if someone went onto your work computer and randomly hid a bunch of things in folders and you had to go ask them where they put everything and THEN you had to try to put it all back. It would feel really invasive and disrespectful, especially the fourth or fifth time, after you'd asked them to stop.

Of course, you share the space, so it's a bit different, but maybe that will help you empathize with her discomfort and irritation.

(I'm a clutterer, my significant other is not).

I have my own space where they can't touch or move ANY of my stuff. We don't have separate rooms to dedicate to it, and it didn't work well to just say "this is my space, don't touch it."

I was really pissed at having my things moved even when they were in "my" space, whereas they felt really bothered by having to look at all of it strewn around.

What helped was putting a visual barrier up so that they don't have to look at my clutter. It essentially disappears and it's a lot easier for them to keep their hands off my stuff.

There are spaces that are, likewise, no-clutter zones (their desk, the kitchen table, etc.) I don't put my stuff there, and that's that.

There are some areas that are kinda both of ours. I attempt to keep clutter minimal and move it at the end of the day (or whenever). They're free to move stuff that's there, but I ask that they move it all to one specific, designated area, so I don't "lose" it.

I also ask that if I'm right there, they ask me to move it myself so I can put it somewhere that still works for me but doesn't bother them as much.
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:48 AM on September 10, 2010

wow, that takes a good short term memory, to always remember where you left something last.

Not exactly; it's more of a long-term memory issue. The clutter builds up over time and is constantly looked at. The green screwdriver remains on the third shelf for months and when it is used and put back on the tabletop, it's a new thing in a new place and gets remembered as being there now.


Please, please, please heed this. It doesn't matter what it is -- assuming it is not something that is rotting -- or what condition it is in.
posted by griphus at 7:48 AM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

My partner and I are exactly like this, I (female) am the creative messer upper and he is the logical orderly organizer. What has worked for us is making each other's expectations clear and abiding by some common rules we set. We each have one room to ourselves that is exempt from our overall rules - mine is a giant mess with things askew, his is like a museum of computer parts. We've agreed to keep the major rooms clean and organized because that's where we do most of our entertaining and having it clean means we don't have to frantically hide messes when guests are coming over. When I want to work on a project outside of my craft room, I can do that, so long as I don't leave the mess lying around. (This has benefited my creativity, as now my mindset is "let's do this project because I took out all the supplies", versus "I'll work on this project a bit, oh look a butterfly let's go look at that and leave this stuff out".) In return he doesn't touch my messes, ever, which certainly beats the "shove it in a box" method he used before. It has taken me a few months to get used to these rules but now I appreciate them, not only for the way it keeps our house looking tidy and organized, but for the effect it has on our relationship - he is more calm and feels less stressed, I am more calm knowing that my stuff is where I left it last.

So my advice to you is to sit down with your wife, explain how much of an impact the clutter has on you, and work together to find some balance between the two extremes. I had no idea that my partner was becoming physically and mentally ill due to my clutter and certainly don't actively desire to cause him more stress!
posted by Meagan at 7:52 AM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


If it's obnoxious, wait until you can ask and then do something about it. If it helps, imagine the computer metaphor again--what if someone went into your computer and deleted six or seven files at random because they "didn't look important"? No, no, no, no, no.
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:53 AM on September 10, 2010 [4 favorites]

My husband and I are just like that (except the roles are reversed, so I don't think your theory about the "cluttering female" has any merit).

You need two rooms, or, if that isn't possible, you need to draw an imaginary line through your living spaces to divide between "clutter allowed"-areas and "will get cleaned up"-areas. It's not fair to both of you if you have one standard of cleaning that applies to every spot in the apartment. That will just make both of you unhappy!

In my home, we have one room for my husband to "clutter up" completely. If he leaves stuff anywhere else, I just go and put it on his (cluttered) desk. I would certainly not be able to live in a space where everything is constantly cluttered up, so you're not alone in this sentiment.
posted by The Toad at 8:10 AM on September 10, 2010

Slight expansion on "do not throw anything away" -- sometimes I will pre-sort my husband's pile o' stuff. (Now and then it gets to the point where even he can't find anything, I'm getting stressed, we have company coming, and he doesn't have time to deal with it because of work demands so HE'S getting stressed ...)

Generally I will sort "recycle," "put away in file cabinet," "put back," and "wtf?" or something like that. I put stickies on the tops of the piles and put "put away" and "recycle" right in front of his favorite chair so he can deal with them that night. He only rarely pulls anything out of the "recycle" pile, but just having the chance to go through it himself and knowing what he's throwing away helps.

Or I'll go through his pens and sort them into "don't work," "good pen," and "you have six of these in your drawer, can I put three away?" Or whatever.

So there are ways that you, as the "neater" person can help the less-organized person while still working within their systems. But really, it's very upsetting if you throw stuff away ... I think my husband needs to actually SEE things disappearing into the recycling bin himself, or he has a nagging sense of something missing for ages afterwards. It makes him cranky.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:13 AM on September 10, 2010

"This is borderline hoarder behavior, honestly."

No, it's really not. My room is a mess, but I know where everything is."

I knew someone would take exception to this, but I have to politely disagree. The issue is not about just one person's room and their private space. This is a situation where someone is cluttering up the whole house, and then getting upset when stuff simply gets put away - it's not like he's throwing it in the garbage. Not all hoarders are like the extreme examples shown on TV. There's a lot of different degrees of hoarding and hoarding behavior, and I'm not condemning Diode's wife for possibly displaying some signs, just bringing up something that may help Diode understand why she clutters and doesn't want stuff moved. Even though he wasn't specific, I'm sure this is not the first time Diode and his wife have had a discussion about this issue - and I'd be interested to know what she's done to alleviate the situation so far. Like I said, I'm a clutterer, and my room is like yours - but when you live with someone, compromises have to be made.


Please, please, please heed this. It doesn't matter what it is -- assuming it is not something that is rotting -- or what condition it is in."

By the way, this is a classic hoarder demand. "OMG how could you throw away that stack of newspapers from 2008? I wasn't done looking through them!!!"

It's absolutely OK if someone has hoarder tendencies, IF it isn't affecting their relationships or living conditions. Eyebrows McGee and her husband seem to have reached a good workable solution to clutter vs. non-clutter. The non-clutterer has to know what they're dealing with, though, including all the emotional attachment to "stuff" and having it around.
posted by HopperFan at 8:16 AM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I agree with one room for her stuff to be thrown about as she wishes. You can even help her organize this room. Read below.

You wife is a creative types and a lot of creative types have ADD-like tendencies and leave their projects and things everywhere because their minds are going a mile a minute and it's difficult to do something boring -- like put away things where they belong.

Encourage your wife to dedicate her art to one room.

Sit down with her. Diplomatically discuss the problems of the household. Express your feelings of overwhelm and anxiety with the current state of affairs.

Encourage her to work on one project at a time. If she engages in a myriad of media this is disastrous for the disorganized. I'm only assuming she has multiple interests (most creative types do) but if she is a painter, a sculptor, works with textiles, dabbles in pottery, this is fantastic, but one thing at a time is crucial. It's not fair for her to keep everything out and disorderly. Some people will disagree with me but if she has trouble staying with one project than I think it's important to stick with one thing at a time.

If she is a collector and a buyer of new supplies, stop collecting now. This is crucial to an organized space. Stop bringing stuff into your house and get rid of much stuff as you can. Don't think about things too much. You already bought them. The money is gone. If you don't use it, be ruthless and forget about it.

You may have to be the one to clear out and organize to get a good system (that works for you and your wife) in place. This could take a week or so of uninterrupted chunks of time. Think about each room and how you use it. What is in that room that does not belong? What is working? What is not?

Think about her personality and keep it simple for her. She probably needs big bins where she can visualize her stuff. Forget about lids. Once something is in a lidded container, she will forget it. (maybe that's a good thing, I don't know.) Open shelves are a good idea. Do not worry about beauty in your organizing. Sure, beautiful lidded leather or straw containers are pretty but often they are very impractical. Buy deep, inexpensive bookshelves from Ikea, large stackable open bins, metal or plastic, and clear glass and acrylic containers, so she can visualize and put things were they belong easily. Think about her tools. Organize, clean out, purge ruthlessly, and then think about appropriate sized containers for her tools.

She should have a tall garbage container in her creative area and every room that collects trash. Again, don't worry about beauty. If trash tends to collect in certain rooms, buy large plastic (nonlidded!) kitchen trash cans, line them with bags, and keep one in every room that collects trash.

Put another trash can with liner in the laundry room for clothing donations.

Along with a trash can, put a large open box, or an additional lined can, in her creative space for donations. Once these cans are filled, tie them off, put in trunk if you have a car, and bring to Goodwill on your next outing.

If you can afford it, hire a cleaning person. It forces you to pick up before the cleaning person comes. It helps tremendously because there isn't enough time for things to get really, really bad.

I learned these tips and much more in the excellent book, Organizing Solutions for People with Attention Deficit Disorder
posted by Fairchild at 8:19 AM on September 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

As a semi-clutterer who drove an OCD roommate nuts, I think the best idea she has was to de-clutter the bathroom by buying a little basket and shoving all of my stuff in there. The basket was cluttered as hell but it kept the rest of the bathroom pretty clean.

Maybe you can implement that on a larger scale--if you can't have separate spaces, buy her tubs or baskets in the spaces she's most likely to clutter where she can shove all of her stuff when she's done. Cluttering is generally a "I'll come back to this later" phenomena, not a "I like things messy" phenomena, where you can't be bothered to organize things when leaving because you're coming right back, no, seriously, you are. So if you give her the option of cleaning being the same as "sweep it into a tub" you may see improvements.
posted by Anonymous at 8:20 AM on September 10, 2010

Yep. Different spaces maintained according to your idea of order and hers, giving both of you enough space to work.

Keep in mind that, to reduce conflict and get things done right, you're going to end up being primarily responsible for maintaining order in the uncluttered areas of the house. The larger the areas maintained according your standards, the more cleaning you're going to end up doing.

I've wondered if there's a biological impulse behind filling up space for the female, and creating empty range for the male.

It's not a gender thing - I'm a male clutter-bug. And it's not really rational vs. creative either.

If I go too far cleaning up, then upon her return, I've moved her stuff, which causes recriminations and upset.

That's because she can find things when you move them. Things are in different piles for a reason - different projects or tasks, or aspects of projects.

I think it's a matter of public vs. private working styles. Idiosyncratic, flexible organization (putting stuff in piles) makes sense if you're working independently. Putting stuff back "where it goes" is necessary when you're working with other people, so everybody can find stuff when they need it. (So if you both cook for instance, the kitchen may need to be organized your way, if she does most of the cooking, maybe not.)
posted by nangar at 8:24 AM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

By the way, this is a classic hoarder demand. "OMG how could you throw away that stack of newspapers from 2008? I wasn't done looking through them!!!"

I think the "not throwing stuff away" thing is less about hoarder-y "OMG that stack of newspapers from 2008!!" and more about "yeah that crumpled ticket stub you threw away actually had a really important phone number written on it" or "that seemingly useless piece of plastic you threw away was actually an important component of my new bike rack".
posted by EndsOfInvention at 8:24 AM on September 10, 2010 [13 favorites]

"tubs or baskets in the spaces she's most likely to clutter where she can shove all of her stuff when she's done"

This is good, to an extent, but I suspect a lot of clutterers here are similar in that we like our stuff out for view - if I put stuff in bins, I tend to forget about it, and then the bins start to multiply like clothes hangers.

"clear glass and acrylic containers, so she can visualize and put things were they belong easily"

Yup, exactly. If I can see it, it still exists.
posted by HopperFan at 8:25 AM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm the cluterbug, and my wife is the organizer. I realize my clutter drives her crazy. Some of it is inexcusable laziness (leaving spicses on the counter after cooking rather than putting them away once they're no longer needed). Some of it is inexcuable (IMHO) in that we just don't have "a place" for something, and I can't hold it forever.

The compromise that we've worked is that I get a few cluter areas. There's at least one spot in the main rooms that I get my domionion over. However, there's also some bins that my wife has free range to move my stuff to for when my clutter areas gets to large.

Example; on the counter near the coffee maker is space aproximately 1.5 square feet. I keep a mug of pens/screw drivers/pliers, and some small containers for the battery tester, tape measure, art the kids' made, my mp4 player and headphones, my receipt collection (I've recently seen receipts from grocery stores dating back to 2007 (don't judge me! I was able to return those moldy clementines that one time)). currently an etch a sketch I got at good will, and a lot of junk/stuff. In theory every weekend I go through this section, and make sure it's organized, neat, and not overflowing. I'm not consistent with this :/

Eventually piles of stuff are falling over, there's pens and tools in the piles, paper everywhere, and it's a foot past the coffee maker. I imagine that when Ms. nobeagle gets to the point of seriously considering organizing my screw driver collection into fleshy spots on my body she instead takes my stuff which has gone out of our agreed upon areas, and she makes a reasonable effort to not take things I'll likely want/use shortly, and moves it to a bin in a pre agreed upon location. Part of the agreement is that I don't sound to judgy/upset when I go to one of my accumulation spots, note that it's been organized and can no longer find what I need. I'm also not consistent with this :/

As others said, she throws nothing away; that's my job. Yes, I do eventually get rid of the grocery receipts (in theory they only stay one week), but we've never had to return a big ticket item and not had a receipt months later), I do pare down/organize the bins. And I do work to eliminate the clutter from laziness.

She needs some open space, I need some clutter space, and we each have some. And yes, it's unfair for me to expand beyond my agreed upon clutter space, but at least there are options which we can all be happy about for when this occurs and I'm not there immediately to fix the problem. As much as I grow frustrated when I try to get something from my pile and it's not there, it's only not there because I wasn't pulling my weight.

on preview, much of what CathyG said.
posted by nobeagle at 8:33 AM on September 10, 2010

It's not borderline hoarder. Good gracious. It's 'I haven't physically seen's hard for me to find it. Even if I can reason out what it is and where it should be.'

I have a fantastic visual memory. I have a less excellent memory for categories/sorting. When I have to think of things in terms of 'screwdriver=tool=toolbox=garage," I am consciously thinking about each step. It doesn't take long, but by contrast I barely have to think about what I saw in a pile of stuff. I just...recall it. Months later, I'll know what is in the file box if I've seen it in there.

(Of course, really my clutter is not at all like that. My clutter is shiny, attractively arranged in a complex pattern, and usually manufactured by thinkgeek or promotes the Wings or Caps, as a clever natural ploy to entice intelligent, athletic and hopefully fertile males into my nest. /teasing about biology)
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 8:36 AM on September 10, 2010 [4 favorites]

"I think the "not throwing stuff away" thing is less about hoarder-y "OMG that stack of newspapers from 2008!!" and more about "yeah that crumpled ticket stub you threw away actually had a really important phone number written on it" or "that seemingly useless piece of plastic you threw away was actually an important component of my new bike rack".

Actually, I think the original comment was "never throw anything away." Emphasis mine, that's the word that grabbed me. As for your example - how long were that ticket stub and piece of plastic laying around? If they're still sitting there after 3-4 months, that would be a different issue. Even then, I think if someone found a ticket stub with a phone number, or a mystery piece of plastic that looked like a part, most people would ask before tossing. Or I would hope so.

"It's not borderline hoarder. Good gracious."

Good gracious, it certainly can be.

I actually hate it when my stuff is moved, too - but having a relative who's a hoarder, and knowing several as friends - that's why I said "borderline hoarder behavior." Not anything to freak out about, just something to be aware of.
posted by HopperFan at 8:40 AM on September 10, 2010

Best answer: Some excellent suggestions. Wish I'd thought of them during a previous relationship. We luckily had enough space for her to have her own studio/office+bath. That helped a lot.

The rule, though: When neat lives with messy, messy always wins.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 8:45 AM on September 10, 2010

You got some good advice here. One thing to add is that you need to be careful that when you discuss this with her, you don't present your tendencies as normative. You two have different personal styles, but because, on a cultural level, neatness is often associated with responsibility, it can be assumed that your tendency is somehow the "right" one. Case in point: many more people in this thread have suggested that you give her a specific space to clutter (a good idea) than have suggested you designate a space to keep organized (equally a good idea). That's because most people have a knee-jerk assumption that the best thing is that most of the house be organized. Approaching her with this attitude (and I didn't really get the sense from your post that you have it, so this is just general caution I'm advising), is a recipe for defensiveness.
posted by Ragged Richard at 8:49 AM on September 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I'm a clutterer, but I inherited it from my dad. As a kid my stuff table pile sometimes got higher than his, but both were taller than me. Now, I have a second bedroom, which is The Place Stuff Must Go. It's working so far - the couch is clear, at least! This is something you absolutely cannot force her on, by the way: you both need a system that works for both of you. My mom liked to throw stuff out she thought us kids weren't using, because it was on the floor or whatever (she'd go through our rooms while we were out) and twenty years later my sisters and I can recite the list of violations.
posted by SMPA at 8:55 AM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

You should each have your own spaces, and surround those spaces with ways to catch and control the overflow, like a nice inbox tray for papers, and a storage container with small trays for crafts. You should agree on what space is shared space, and that it cannot be hogged for long term projects - place more bins near it for each cleanup. If you can each have a room this is wonderful - and to prevent getting tired of that room and filling it with junk, you could trade rooms every year and redecorate them - a very fun project for both of you.

You could also get a critter of some sort that chews up anything left around - small dog, cat, ferret, then you can say "Don't leave that X there, I don't want to take Chewy to the vet again, and have to buy another one!"
posted by meepmeow at 9:19 AM on September 10, 2010

I'm a lot like your wife. In addition to my cluttery habit in itself, I've always had a strong DON'T TOUCH MY SHIT reflex whenever someone moves my mess, even if I know it needed moving, and a teenagery resistance to even gentle reminders to pick up my stuff, even if I was thinking the same thing. I've always been very private, introverted, and protective of my physical and mental space, so that's where those come from. (I get all this from my dad, it's not a gendered thing.) In a shared space, letting my clutter in check is as much about learning to let go of my defensive reactions as it is about actually putting things away.

Having your personal space criticized or interfered with can be really, well, personal. It might help if both of you sat down and figured out what provokes negative emotional reactions in each of you (e.g. is it all clutter that irritates you, or just clutter in your space? Does it upset her less if you ask her to move her stuff rather than moving it herself?) and work out ways to lessen those responses.

I am setting my alarm right now to get up early tomorrow morning and start cleaning in earnest.
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:34 AM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm a clutterer, my boyfriend is an organizer.* We compromise by, as others have said, having our separate areas to work in and by agreeing on the common areas. In the common areas of the kitchen, media, and reading area (the main room is long and thin and divided into media and reading areas) we keep it relatively clutter-free. It's more cluttered than he'd like it, but less cluttered than it would be if I were handling it on my own, so, another compromise.

I have my own office area, which is full of stacks of books and papers and other things. He has his, which is sparse (although covered in dust because it doesn't bother him, inexplicably). I also get to use the dining room area, as we don't eat there. His secondary project area is the living room, because he always cleans up when stopping.

I also bought a rolling tool chest and use it to store all the supplies and scraps of fabric for my fabric projects. It can sit out in the dining/project room and be ready for use at a moment's notice, while still hiding some of the Stuff from sight.

Here's something that my boyfriend does that makes me want to help him: when he gets annoyed enough at the clutter in the common areas of the house, he announces that he's going to clean up this weekend. He - and this is important - NEVER says anything about it being largely MY clutter. He speaks of it and treats it as if it's OUR clutter. I never expected that this little thing would be so meaningful, but I am grateful to him for that.

When he starts cleaning - not in my project areas! - but in the common areas, I then feel guilty and join in. So I pitch in and help him when he's cleaning or do it when he's out.

We also split up a few types of cleaning jobs. Dust can pile up to practically inches thick and he'll never notice it, but it drives me nuts. So that's another compromise: dusting is my job. He usually does the floor, because we have a Roomba and he loves to play with tech toys.

* To the point where he can't remember whether he put the packing tape in the garage, in the Tools and Hardware area, in the Office Supply cabinet, or in the Stuff That Attaches Stuff To Other Stuff drawer with the zip ties and tacks. Whereas I know it's on the coffee table because I taped up a box to mail yesterday. Sometimes my style does make it easier to find stuff!
posted by telophase at 9:59 AM on September 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

I do think it's important, as some have pointed out, to know the reasons behind the clutter. Emotional attachment (aka hoarding behavior) is different than ADD is different than great visual memory is different than my husband's problem, which is perfectionism combined with procrastination combined with an inability to focus on more than one thing at a time.

My husband often puts off dealing with his clutter because, well, he procrastinates, but also because he wants all conditions to be PERFECT before he does ("Oh, I just have to pick up some laundry near the filing cabinet, get new color-coded file folders, sort through those hanging files I don't need, and THEN I will sort away this giant stack of files."). They don't ever get there so it doesn't get done. And then he has the problem that if he goes down into the basement to put away a screwdriver, it NEVER occurs to him to bring up the basket of laundry that is SITTING RIGHT THERE. Because his brain doesn't DO "screwdriver + laundry." It does "screwdriver ... finish task by returning to starting position ... laundry." So a lot of things pile up because he, say, has a list of important phone numbers in his hand but is trying to feed the baby, so he puts down the list and completely forgets about it. (This is much worse since the advent of the baby, since he'll be doing something, have to go rescue the baby from eating a spider, and never go back to the something now that he's focused on the baby.) Anyway, he appreciates my help organizing, since it's not an emotional attachment issue; if it was, he might not want my help. So it's good to understand motivations even though some principals are pretty universal to the clutterer/non-clutterer relationship. (To that end, it's also good to help your partner understand why YOU want things uncluttered -- personally, I find it distracting and frustrating and I tend to buy six of the same thing when the thing isn't where it ought to be. And we like to entertain a lot so I prefer we NOT do frantic cleaning all the time, but keep things mostly maintained.)

nobeagle also pointed out something I think is common to many kinds of clutterers, which is difficulty with routines. My husband is more spontaneous and doesn't stick easily to routines. Sometimes it helps for me to remind him (about the trash) or for him to program an alert in his calendar (to do the cat litter), but sometimes he just can't make himself stick to a routine, and I have to accept that.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:44 AM on September 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

My husband is your wife and at first it drove me up the fucking wall, and sometimes it still baffles me to be honest, but I've learned to live with it primarily by doing what's been said multitple times in this thread--giving him arenas where he can clutter but it's contained--smartly placed and appropriately sized/shaped baskets and whatnot in different areas--and resigning myself, as mentioned, to certain small things like just having to put things where they belong sometimes, and expecting him to then ask me where the pencils are (in the, uh, pencil cup of course, but you know...that's just the way his brain works). I remind myself how awesome he is, and how he isn't trying to annoy me on purpose, and in turn he tries harder too because he knows it can bug me, and the fact he makes an effort touches me even when it's not 100% foolproof. So it's a mixture of hacking his tendencies for containment purposes--the basket approach--and just accepting you will be the tidier, and therefore slightly more involved in picking up, partner. It's a small price to pay if otherwise your partner rules and is super compatible with you. Perspective and all that.
posted by ifjuly at 11:12 AM on September 10, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for some very good suggestions in this thread. My wife is not a hoarder in any sense of the word. I've been the one who sometimes tries to lighten our load by throwing out stuff and that's the road to perdition, so I always stage stuff for mutual examination before anything goes away.
My wife has her own room for her business, I do not, so my spaces for work and relaxation are shared with her for the most part. In the sense that 'mess always wins' over neatness, that's one crux of the problem. Her business and clutter habits tend to expand and take over spaces while I'm trying to maintain space that we can both share successfully. It's like shoveling the sea.
I'll share this thread with her with the idea that it's simply a habit we we need to address, rather than it being her or my problem.
posted by diode at 12:07 PM on September 10, 2010

I would also look at some potential physical efficiencies. You might look at changing the definition of "put away" so that your organization scheme matches her productivity habits.

Look where clutter accumulates, actually observing the accumulation of clutter in process. It may be as simple as having a file in the very spot she stands to examine the mail or a basket where you both drop keys and "de-gadget" as you come in the door. If she knits in the chair by the window, a decorative box with her materials by the chair might make it easier for her to avoid poisoning the atmosphere with "clutter."

Look at the kinds of activities for which the "stuff" gets "left out." What kinds of supplies are needed for the task? If the project is a multi-session effort, what needs to be preserved from session to session? If she has to go to ten different places to accumulate the stuff she needs for a project, of course she'd be loathe to dismantle the project site and repeat the gathering process next session. You might consider a number of stackable trays or baskets where project-based accumulations might be stored out of sight, preserving her project without hogging the dwindling horizontal spaces in your home.

Essentially, as much as possible, minimize effort by making the space fit the person instead of the other way around.
posted by cross_impact at 12:49 PM on September 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I am a neatnik who lives with clutterbug wife and kids. It's tough.

Part of what helps me cope is keeping a spotless office - not a home office, but my office at work. It's my space for the 8 hours or so I'm at work and in marked contrast to my home, it's blissfully, blessedly clean and organized.

fivesavagepalms is correct: When neat lives with messy, messy always wins. I've lost the battle in my own home, so I try to compensate with a neat work area at the office. It doesn't alleviate the immediate issues at home but I do find it a bit of a comfort.
posted by cheapskatebay at 1:38 PM on September 10, 2010

This wouldn't solve everything but could you ask her to clean up her stuff before she leaves on a trip, specifically so you can work on the projects you wish with the space you want? That doesn't seem unreasonable.
posted by 6550 at 1:57 PM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

You know why I'm a clutterer? Because if I put something away, nice and neat, in a drawer or file cabinet? I might as well have just pitched it down the toilet, because I'll never find it again if it's out of my sight. This is why I only "file" or put away things that I'm not allowed to throw away ever (like financial records or something else tedious yet important), but otherwise will never use.

That's something to keep in mind in this situation: if she straightens up, then she can't FIND stuff.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:11 PM on September 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

Ahem, label maker (for last poster) - they are amazing and can be peeled off and replaced as needed. Combined with friendly clear plastic containers they are amazing.
posted by meepmeow at 3:48 PM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: When you are trying to do something - cook dinner, regrout the shower, bathe the dogs - and you cannot because the stuff you need has been buried in clutter, ask her politely to help you unbury. Every single time.

Otherwise, it's going to be very difficult for her to understand that something she is not using is actually affecting you and what you do.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 8:44 PM on September 10, 2010

Response by poster: Given how inexact language can be, it's easy enough to project meaning that wasn't intended. We're not drowning in clutter and I'm not utterly stymied by our living environment. Suffice it to say that my organizing principles and hers tend to be somewhat at cross-purposes. I think I'm going to ask her to trade roles with me for 1 week. I'll be the clutter bug and she'll be Miss Neat-o-rama and then we'll see how that affects the way we view things.
Thanks for the replies. It's been an interesting thread.
posted by diode at 9:03 PM on September 10, 2010

You need your own office / man-cave.
posted by Jacqueline at 4:10 PM on September 12, 2010

I disapprove of your method, but you obviously know yourself and your wife better than any of us do. Please let us know how it goes.
posted by griphus at 4:34 PM on September 12, 2010

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