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:
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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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?