When You Don’t See Eye to Eye

One of the most common questions I receive is about what to do when someone else in the household isn’t “on board” with the plan to get organized. Sometimes this is teenagers leaving their belongings strewn all over the house. Often, it is a spouse or significant other who has a differing philosophy when it comes to possessions. So, what do we do when we don’t see eye to eye about stuff?

First, I’d like to acknowledge that this situation is very common. It is unusual to find a household in which all of the members have the same feelings about how and where items should be kept. Although I have no data to support this, I believe that the majority of couples feature both a “keeper” and a “shedder.” As the old phrase suggests, opposites attract. While this can be challenging for day-to-day living, it can also have the positive result of providing balance.

Second, this situation can be irritating to both parties:

  1. The person who wants to clear out a space and keep things in order feels frustrated by the visual clutter and chaos of the household.
  2. The person who likes to hold onto things, and who isn’t bothered by visual clutter, feels perpetually criticized and pressured to live in a manner that doesn’t feel natural.

Third, bitterness and resentment can easily set in under these circumstances, so it is worth the effort to see what can be done to bring about détente. There are tactics which can alleviate tension and strategies for letting each party have at least some of what they want. As with all situations, non-emotional communication works wonders. If you have difficulty talking without becoming emotional, try writing your feelings down and scheduling time to discuss what is on your mind.

Lastly, here are a few specific “Don’ts” and “Dos” to bear in mind.

DON’T…

Nag

If you’ve shared your wishes, and the other party is not complying, it is time to try another strategy. When we repeatedly say the same thing over and over, others tend to tune us out. Of course, small children need reminders, but if you feel like a broken record with teens or adults, the music you are playing is unpleasant, and they are choosing not to listen.

Complain

Much like nagging, perpetually bemoaning how unhappy you are about a situation is unlikely to result in changed behavior by another person. You might think that people who love you will hear your complaints and start complying with your wishes, but in my experience, this frequently does not happen. Instead, you become known as a negative person who is always unhappy.

Throw away someone else’s stuff

This one is tempting, but it just isn’t ok. Again, if you are culling belongings for a baby or small child, you (as the parent) have the right and responsibility to remove what is no longer needed or wanted. However, beyond this stage, people have the right (and responsibility) of ownership. This means that they get to choose what they want to keep. You may hate the old, ratty t-shirt, the unused rowing machine, or the collection of frog figurines crowding the shelf, but if you don’t own them, you can’t get rid of them. When you feel the urge to silently “disappear” an item, imagine how you would feel if someone did this to something you own. It fosters distrust, which is poison for relationships.

Hide other peoples’ stuff out of sight

Again, this one is tempting, especially when friends and guests are coming over. We want things to look nice, so we sweep the unsightly or disorganized items away into a drawer or box. The problem is, when the other person comes looking for them, they can’t find them. Worse, we can forget where we put them, which means the other person loses time trying to find an item because of an action we have taken. If there is a need to clear possessions away, offer a container to the other person and ask them to gather their own items up. This way, they will at least know where things are.

Clean up after people who can do it themselves

This is largely an issue for the person who longs for order. Since they are the ones troubled by the way things look, they often fall into the habit of coming along behind the less-orderly person and cleaning up. Over time, this becomes a pattern, and one person ends up doing all the work of resetting and restoring order. This can end in resentment and bitterness.

Discount the other person’s opinion as silly or unreasonable

Parties on both side of this argument can struggle to appreciate the other person’s perspective. We always think our way is the right way, and why can’t the other person wake up and see the light? However, as I said in the beginning, in moderation, there are benefits to both approaches. We need to at least be open to the idea that the other perspective has some validity. This helps us move toward compromise.

Rescue someone when they can’t find something

If you live with someone who resists the urge to put items back where they belong, there will likely come a time when he/she can’t find an object that they need. Why? Because it isn’t where it is supposed to be. This can lead to panic and an “all hands on deck” reaction in the household to find the missing item. Periodically this happens to everyone and helping out is the kind thing to do. However, if this is a common occurrence, the individual at the center of the problem may need to experience the consequences of his/her behavior. Unfortunately, we often learn important lessons more through pain than through pleasure.

DO…

Talk openly and honestly in a non-contentious moment

Whenever you have something potentially volatile to discuss, the best plan is to schedule a mutually-convenient time to sit down and discuss it. Avoid delivering a lecture or speech in the heat of the moment, and instead, let the other person know that a situation is bothering you and you want to schedule a time for a conversation. If possible, do this in neutral territory, such as out at a restaurant over a cup of coffee or on the back deck over lunch. Share the topic of conversation in advance and aim to record your key points in writing before you meet. This will help to keep you on topic and avoid emotional escalation.

Acknowledge the validity of the other person’s position

I’m not a therapist, but I know that everyone likes to be heard. Each needs to make a concerted effort to hear the other party’s point of view. You might be surprised to discover the reason behind a particular behavior. For instance, teenagers are often not trying to be disrespectful when they drop belongings everywhere, nor are they trying to upset their parent. Rather, they are frequently simply time-strapped and exhausted, with more pressing things on their minds.

Prioritize what matters most

If you share space with someone who feels very differently about how things should be maintained, odds are that you will need to pick your battles. The best way to do this is by identifying what is most important to you. For instance, if you want order, you may find that having the floor clear is what you most want. Perhaps you long to have the kitchen counter kept clear, or for everyone to put their dirty clothes in the hamper. If, on the other hand, you are more of a keeper, you may want to have a place where you can empty your pockets without getting a lecture. Maybe you like having certain items on display, even if they look cluttered. Aim to have 1-3 priorities that you each agree to honor.

Negotiate boundaries

One strategy that can work well is to mutually determine a plan for various spaces. For example, the household rule may be that family members can keep their bedrooms (or office, craft room, etc.) as they wish but may not leave their belongings lying around in the common spaces (e.g. the living room, family room, kitchen, etc.). The key to making this strategy work is for the more organized person not to interlope or complain about the state of other peoples’ private space. If it drives you crazy, close the door. If items are left out where they should not be, they can go into the private space (open the door and tuck it in), or into a container designated for that person (e.g. a basket in the mudroom).

*     *     *     *     *

The question of how best to accumulate, manage, maintain, and store physical belongings can be controversial. If you have faced this situation, what has worked well for alleviating the tension and finding a mutually-acceptable approach?

35 thoughts on “When You Don’t See Eye to Eye”

  1. Great advice and I will say thankfully for the most part my husband and I are of the same mind and usually not one to keep things longer than necessary and are both able to part ways with stuff when the times comes. But ever does become an issue in our house, I will keep your suggestions in mind. Thanks 😊

  2. You make wonderful points here, Seana. Your advice to have a conversation in a neutral spot is such a good idea. And, writing down talking points so you stay on topic – hopefully without bringing in judgements is very important. I think you are correct that most (if not every home) is made up of opposite tendencies when dealing with possessions. One person who wants to keep their things and the other who wants to reduce the amount of stuff in the home. Compromise is the word that comes to mind here. It can’t be one person dictating what stays or goes. There has to be a middle ground so that everyone in the home has some say.

    1. Exactly, Diane. All adult members of the household need to feel that they are being heard, and have a say in how things are done. Over time, I’ve noticed that good communication, and setting a good example yourself, can bring a household to order.

  3. Respect is the most important part of any relationship. Your list of “do’s” shares so much respect for how two people can disagree on organizing and come to compromises. Thank you for sharing this important topic.

    1. Dr. Phil used to ask, “Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?” Respect is critical to strong relationships, so sometimes we need to release some of our ideal vision so that the relationship can be honored and kept strong.

    1. It seems to be a common situation. As I said, it isn’t necessarily a problem, just an environment that needs some intentional conversation and mutual respect!

  4. Great post! I always am careful of choosing my battles. One doesn’t want to live in combat all the time but one doesn’t want to suffer in silence either. Boundaries are great if the person who has the cluttering problem honors them.

    1. Yes, it isn’t easy when a disorganized person doesn’t respect the boundaries. This is true for any boundaries in relationship. All parties need to be willing to compromise for the good of the relationship. In most cases, this can be achieved. I know I’ve used some of these approaches in my own situation, and with good results. I’d even say my husband has, over time, embraced my approach more and more.

    1. During the teenager phase, I always required that there be a clear path from the bed to the door in case of emergencies. I also transitioned to them doing their own laundry so that my hard work didn’t end up in heaps on the floor. 🙂

  5. What solid advice, Seana. Developing “respect rules” in the household can work well. The idea of agreed upon rules for shared areas and complete control over private areas can create a lot of harmony and understanding in a home. Your idea of “pick your battles” is also a great idea for keeping the relationship wheels well greased.

    1. Strong relationships require that we value the other person, and that includes their approach to keeping and maintaining things. I believe if each party feels a bit of control, this lets each have a “win.” Closing the door worked wonders in my home during the teenage years!

    1. I used to clean up after my kids a lot, and it ultimately made me tired and kind of resentful. I’ve learned since then. There are better options!

    1. I seem to run into lots of couples with this struggle. I think it is pretty common, and I think it can be encouraging to know that there are options!

  6. This all boils down to respect, and it’s hard to respect someone whom you feel disrespects you, so this means having rules about communication. All of the advice you gave is stellar, but preceding that is what almost nobody talks about, and that’s needing to communicate about these things before forming a household with someone. This works well for adults (significant others, roommates), though, of course, not so well when you have children, or circumstances require joining households with elderly parents.

    All of your DO advice is important, but it can be hard, for example, to “Talk openly and honestly in a non-contentious moment” for some people, and I think it’s important that people remain open to family counseling to help achieve mutual goals.

    Great job!
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    1. I completely agree that anything you can “pre-game” before entering a marriage or joint living situation is important. I would be much more alert to this topic now than I was when I was dating at age 18. I think my children were more aware simply because I talked to them about it!

      Counseling can be helpful for so many situations. Good, fair communication requires the willing participation of both parties. If that is turning out to be difficult (or impossible), and the other party will consider couples therapy, I would say go for it! This is just one of many topics that couples can struggle with, and I think a professional organizer and/or a therapist can be very helpful in providing balance, objectivity, and a calm head!

  7. Yes! We are all individuals with our own needs and preferences. You have some great tips here for those that navigate how to organize their shared spaces. I would add that most people jump to strategies before they discuss one another’s needs when organizing. People generally don’t argue about needs and feelings so it’s a good place to create a foundation before moving on to the “how to” part. Thanks for confronting this important part of organizing!

    1. I love this comment, Jill. That is so true! We need to start with the “why” before we jump to the “how.” Let each other talk and really listen. This makes us more willing to compromise.

  8. Thanks for a great post. So many times I hear people say, “when my husband goes away I am going to organize his…” which usually means removing some items. I always tell them to give the person an area for their things and an area for their own things as a starting point. I find that it is easy to see where the other person’s stuff is and not realize that your own stuff may also be causing problems. Those are great lists of dos and don’ts

    1. Sometimes simply keeping your own things in order can start to rub off as well. It all boils down to respecting other people and finding a solution both parties can agree with. If that has been tried and remains impossible, a professional may be helpful.

  9. I think absolutely everyone lives with this situation to varying degrees. Conversation on a non emotional level is the best answer. It often takes exhibiting a strong opinion and explanation that backs that us. I think all your suggestions were great-the do’s and don’ts.

    1. That’s it, Dianne. Honest conversation, and being clear about what you are feeling helps. You can’t change someone else, but you can stand up for what matters most to you.

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  11. It’s so interesting. Cassidy and I used to not see eye to eye and now we more or less do, but I sort of arrived there on my own. The tactics of being a team didn’t help. Now it’s us not seeing eye to eye with the kids, and sadly, I do nag and complain with them sometimes. I realized recently that they deserve the same respect Cassidy and I pay to each other. It helps!

    1. It is a blessing when, over time, a couple can learn to appreciate each others’ strengths, and in doing so move to a center of agreement!

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