24. Clutter in Relationships, Part 1

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I’m really happy to be making this post, because in it I’m combining my two greatest passions: (1) organizing and (2) intimacy and relationships.

Although the word relationship often refers to romantic relationships, I have found that the same concerns about clutter in relationships, can arise in any type of relationship. The relationship in question could be between spouses, between domestic partners, but it could also be between family members, or between housemates or even colleagues at work. It could be any time two or more people have a mutual interest in using a space or the stuff in that space. It could be any time one individual has a concern or interest in the well-being of another, like a daughter wanting to help her father get organized. Although I will use the terms family member, spouse, loved one, or partner, remember that the situations I describe can apply to any type of relationship, romantic or otherwise.

I was inspired to create this post by an email from a subscriber. In part two (coming soon), I will specifically address the email from this listener. But first, I want to give some important background by pointing out something I’ve noticed in the time I’ve worked as a professional organizer. I’ve noticed that sometimes a client will receive a suggestion from me more readily than they will receive the same suggestion from someone they are in relationship with.

I’ll illustrate this with an example. When Marcia said she was ambivalent about a red sweater, I suggested that she donate it, and she readily agreed. Later, her husband Jeremy said that he had been trying to get her to get rid of that sweater for years, but she had always refused. The same suggestion got different results when it came from different people. Why do you think this is?

One possibility is that after years of encouragement from Jeremy, she had reached the point where she was ready to let it go, and would have done so even if he had asked her. Although we can never know for sure, I highly doubt this is the case. Instead, I think there’s something else going on here. Underneath the question of whether the red sweater should stay or go is a whole host of relationship dynamics.

It could be that Marcia knows that Jeremy has an agenda to have her get rid of the red sweater, and so she resists in order to feel a sense of autonomy. It may be her way of feeling in control. If this is the case, then the harder Jeremy tries to get her to ditch it, the more she will resist him. Furthermore, if she ever does agree to donate the sweater, she will feel like she just gave in to him instead of making the decision for herself. She may be resentful. She may even resolve to never give in to Jeremy again, so future decisions may become power struggles.

I readily admit that the scenario I describe is completely made up. I don’t know, I can’t know, what’s going on in Marcia’s head. I’m describing this possibility because these are the sorts of things that affect decision-making. And I do know with certainty that often people can hear suggestions from me more readily than they can hear the same suggestions from a family member.

So why does this matter? It’s important because it can help you be more effective. There are reasons people respond the way they do, and if you understand these reasons, you can be more effective at organizing with them. I have found that there are certain characteristics and attitudes that I have that make me successful at helping people reach their organizing goals, but the point is not to promote myself. The point is to show you that, if you can adopt these attitudes, it will make you more successful as well.

Okay, so there are five reasons people respond differently to me than they respond to their loved ones. Two of these reasons have nothing to do with me, but rather are due to the role I play as a professional organizer, which is different than the role of a family member. Let’s look at these two first.

The first reason people respond differently to me when they do to their loved ones is that I am external to their usual situation. Just the fact that I am not part of their everyday lives helps them to be more objective with me. We have no history, and at the end of the organizing project, I’ll probably go away and I may never see them again. If I judge them — I won’t, but if I did — so what? They would just not invite me back. So there’s less risk with me. But if their spouse judges them, that’s a much bigger deal, because of the ongoing nature of their relationship. There may be a lot of emotional baggage from the past and there are also expectations for the future. This puts more pressure on the interaction and makes it more important that the situation be worked out in a way that is sustainable and equitable.

Sometimes couples get into a situation where the organizing project is all they talk about. The difference in their organizational styles becomes the most important thing in their relationship. Don’t let this happen! Remember that the clutter is just one aspect of your relationship. There are so many parts of your relationship that go beyond it. There are lots of reasons you were drawn to them in the first place. In order to help remember this, I invite you to share appreciations with each other. If you ever get to the point where you’re bogged down in disagreement or a power struggle, that’s the time for each of you to say three things that you appreciate about the other person. It may feel difficult at that moment, but if you try you will be able to do it, and it’ll help broaden your perspective beyond the narrow focus of the clutter challenge.

The second reason people respond differently to me when they respond to their loved ones is that I am an objective expert, with 11 years of experience working with hundreds of clients. They are paying me to overcome some hurdle they’ve had difficulty facing on their own. So they likely have more trust in me than they do their partner because of my experience and professionalism.

So people are generally open to my suggestions just because I’m a professional organizer and because they are hiring me to help them accomplish something. But beyond my professional role — and with this, we are really getting into the heart of the matter. Beyond my professional role, there are attitudes I hold, consciously and deliberately, that make it possible for others to receive my suggestions more objectively. These attitudes are the result of choice, and so they can be adopted by anybody, including those in relationship, including you. You are (most likely) not a professional organizer, so therefore you probably won’t be granted the credibility I am as a professional organizer, but you can adopt and cultivate these three attitudes like I do to help to have a more harmonious relationship with your family member around clutter. In fact, I consider these three attitudes to be the foundation of my effectiveness in working with people and clutter.

Attitude #1: I have no specific agenda. I have no agenda about what should stay or go, and I have no preconceived notion about how their stuff should be arranged. I’m not going to try to convince someone to let go of something they want to keep. I’m not going to insist that someone put all their books on the bookshelf. My only agenda is to help someone reach their goals, and this means that the first step is to have a very clear understanding of what those goals are. More on that in part 2.

Attitude #2, I am completely nonjudgmental and noncritical. It’s common that someone who is disorganized is already criticizing themselves, and they may be afraid that others will criticize them too. Consequently, they may be hesitant to show me their environment because they’re afraid I’ll judge them. Nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t have any judgment about how it is or how it got that way. When I look at a space, rather than being critical of it, I’m already thinking, “Where are we now, where do we want to go, and how can we get there?” “What categories of stuff are present, and what storage spaces are available?”

The difficulty in working with family members is that there’s a danger they might be more judgmental. “This is awful! How can you live like this? Why are you keeping all this junk?” Such comments are not only hurtful, but they’re actually counterproductive, because when people feel criticized and attacked, they become demotivated or even resistant.

I believe that humans have a tremendous capacity for change and growth and that that capacity is greatly diminished when they feel criticized. I believe that the best way to support someone changing is to accept them completely just the way they are. Although it sounds ironic, acceptance is what can most empower someone to change.

Attitude #3: I don’t make conclusions about someone because of their stuff. I know that because someone’s disorganized, it doesn’t make them a bad person. It doesn’t mean they’re stupid or lazy or incapable. They’re just disorganized, and they may be disorganized for a wide variety of reasons, and some of those reasons may be out of their control. I would never conclude that because someone has unpaid bills, for example, that they are undependable. There may be lots of stuff going on that I don’t know about. While organizing, I have encountered sex toys, illegal drugs, pictures of ex-boyfriends, tattered teddy bears, and lots of stuff that people felt self-conscious or shameful about, but I don’t care, to me it’s just stuff. I want to categorize it and label it like anything else.

Although I can understand why there are certain things that people don’t want to label. One of the benefits of labeling is that everyone knows what’s in the container without having to open it. But in certain cases, you may not want everyone to know what’s in the container. Imagine having a box labeled “stuff I don’t want the kids to know about.” It might work okay until they start to read, but at that point that label’s gonna be a bull’s-eye. You know that when they understand the label, it’ll be the first thing they go for.

So, to review, when I’m working with a client, I make sure to have no agenda of my own, but rather find out their goals and work towards them. I’m completely nonjudgmental, about their current state of organization, how they got that way, and what stuff they want to keep. Also, as part of being nonjudgmental, I don’t make assumptions about them based on their stuff I realize there may be other influences that I’m not aware of, and I always give them the benefit of the doubt.

If you can adopt and develop these attitudes, you will be more effective in working together with your loved one to de-clutter. However, and this is a great big, enormous however, it’s more complicated because you’re in relationship with this person. You either share space with them or you have a concern for their well-being. So the choices they make affect you in some way. So you do have your own goals, and your goals may be different from theirs. What to do then? Find out in “Clutter in Relationships, Part 2,” coming up soon.

2 Responses to “24. Clutter in Relationships, Part 1”

  1. slinky says:

    I am so glad you came back with these podcasts! Where is the e-book folks can buy??

  2. slinky says:

    oh I love the new podcast!! PLease put a PayPal donate logo on EVERY single page so folks can easily go about sending you money!!

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