There is nothing like staying at home, with your family, 24 hours a day, for 3 months to create a little tension. Even though we love each other and may be thankful for having more time together, we are still dealing with the challenges of cohabitation, such as:
- Limited privacy
- Shared work and play areas
- Traffic in the kitchen
- Increased cleaning needs
- Perpetual “noise”
- Differing dietary needs and tastes
- Endless dirty laundry
In addition to the typical complexities of shared space, this recent period of “stay at home” has meant that most of us have had fewer outlets through which we can express our stress and emotions. As a result, it easy for small issues to explode into major disagreements. One potentially volatile topic in homes tends to be the use and placement of household belongings.
Here are a few common sources of arguments:
- Refusing to put toys away
- Leaving dishes lying around
- Loading the dishwasher the “wrong” way
- Borrowing others’ belongings without asking
- Dropping dirty clothing and towels on the floor
- Strewing toiletries across a shared bathroom counter
- Deserting project supplies on the kitchen table or island
- Dumping shoes in the middle of the floor
The good news is that there are solutions for almost all sources of consternation related to physical possessions. Unfortunately, they are not always quick and easy. The longer a pattern has been in operation, the more difficult it will be to change. Also, if there are chronic issues involved, such as hoarding disorder or dementia, specialized systems and consistent support will likely be required. Still, for most families, common annoyances can be addressed and improved.
So how do we proceed when conflicts are impacting our ability to enjoy a space?
FIRST, we need to remember that unless we live alone, we will not always have our own way. Compromise is simply a part of sharing space. Whether we are living with a roommate, spouse, parents, au pair, in-laws, or children, we have to acknowledge that there will need to be some give and take.
SECOND, we can prioritize working on the issues that are causing the most grief. Not all irritants are equally egregious. Furthermore, if we try to micromanage behavior, we will become known as the family nag… whom everyone typically tunes out. Instead, try doing a “brain dump” of everything that is bothersome. You can do this alone, but you will get more family buy-in if everyone is asked to contribute. Once the list is made, go back and put an asterisk next to the two or three that are causing the greatest stress.
THIRD, we need to involve relevant parties in strategizing solutions. Of course, small children mostly require clear and consistent instruction, but as children get older, they can and should be part of any negotiation to improve the household dynamic. Parents get the final say, but children are more likely to comply with rules they have helped establish. Hold a family meeting to talk about the two or three issues from the top of the priority list. Let everyone who wishes to speak do so. Some may think there is no problem or be disinterested, while others may want to come up with suggestions.
FOURTH, identify a new pattern by which the family agrees to abide . The proposed actions should be clearly articulated, so that no one can later claim, “I didn’t know that I was supposed to do that.” There should also be agreed-upon consequences for failure to comply; everyone should know in advance what will happen if they don’t get with the system. Likewise, you may want to decide on how the group will reward itself for successfully implementing the change, such as “if everyone puts their toys back in the proper places once a day, we will pick up ice cream on Saturday night.” To ensure that everyone remains on the same page, write out the new policy and to post it in a common area.
LAST, and this can be the hardest part, be consistent in enforcing the new way of doing things, especially in the first few weeks. This isn’t about punishing, but rather about respecting the contract that members of the group have made. If/when someone falls short, the consequences need to be brought to bear. The temptation is to “let it go just this one time,” but chronic offenders tend to take advantage of this kind of mercy.
The good news is, during this season we may have a little more time to cultivate successful patterns. Perhaps we don’t have the pressure of needing to be at practice in ten minutes, so we can wait for a chore to be completed or a temper tantrum to play out. Or maybe the time saved by not commuting means having the few extra moments to walk around and put things away.
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Establishing a new order may take a bit of effort up front but life will be so much more pleasant in the long run if you invest the time to design organizing and storage systems with which everyone can live.
What issues tend to bubble up around “stuff” in your space? Have you ever intentionally negotiated a solution?