25. Clutter in Relationships, Part 2

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I received this email from a subscriber named Diana.

“What do you do if your spouse doesn’t support your attempts at organization? My spouse keeps everything! We’ve been married for almost 10 years and he still doesn’t like me to organize his areas of the house or his belongings. I find his clutter VERY frustrating, especially in our joint areas. Our bedroom closet is impossible to walk into. His desk (which is in our bedroom) has papers tucked everywhere, including around the monitor. When I clear the clutter from a surface, he puts something on it. The ironic part is that he criticizes when I clutter. My house is a work-in-progress, and his clutter is a discouragement to my own efforts. Do I just leave his mess? HELP!”

Thanks for your email, Diana, and for your permission to discuss it here. This is a great description that illustrates issues of clutter in relationships.

But, before we start, a disclaimer. People are complex, and relationships are complex, and it’s really hard to get a sense of either from a one paragraph email. And although I am a counselor and a graduate of the Interchange Counseling Institute, I am not a licensed therapist. I’ve never met or spoken to you or your husband, and some of what I’m going to say is not even responding directly to your email, but instead is based on my work on this topic with other couples. So, please do not make any major, life-changing decisions based on this post.

So first, let me make sure I understand your email. It sounds like the state of your shared environment is really not working for you. The closet and the desk are a source of frustration every time you see them, and you see them a lot since they are in your bedroom. It sounds like you also feel powerless to do something about it, since your husband doesn’t like you to organize his stuff. You not feeling supported in your efforts to get organized. Clearly, you and your husband are not on the same page. You are not working together but instead are each blaming and criticizing the other for what’s wrong. It sounds like this is been going on for a while and that it’s frustrating for both of you. It’s even devolved into something of a power struggle.

I suggest you try an altogether different approach. Just try it! What have you got to lose? If my suggestion doesn’t work, you can always go back to the way things are now.

Overall, Diana, the strategy that I’m going to recommend to you has three parts:
1. First, clearly understand your goals and motivations as well as those of your partner.
2. Second, brainstorm, with your partner, ways that you can both reach your goals.
3. Third, resolve antagonistic goals through either compromise or segregation.

I know it was just a brief email, and it was never meant to give a complete picture of everything that’s going on, but there are two very important things that are missing. There’s more information that we need to know how to move forward. First, beyond understanding what’s not working, we need a better sense of your vision for how you would like it to be and why. Second, we need to get a sense of your husband’s goals as well. What is his vision for how he would like it to be and why? I don’t know your husband’s name, so I’ll just call him Jim to make it easier to refer to him. Since you and Jim are sharing an environment, it’s not possible for either one of you to do this on your own. There has to be some kind of mutual agreement on how to move forward, on what you want the environment to be like. You must each know your partner’s goals as clearly as you know your own.

And since you are creating an environment with your partner, it’s really useful to explore your goals and to formulate a vision with your partner. And that’s what I invite you to do now. I will describe an exercise that you can do with your partner. This exercise will invite each of you into having a deeper understanding of your own goals as well as those of your partner.

This exercise is an example of a type of exercise called a repeated question. Repeated questions are really useful at facilitating deep exploration of a topic. To start out, choose one of you who will be asking the question, let’s call them person ‘A’, and the other who will be responding, and we’ll call the person who’s responding person ‘R’.

‘A’ will ask, “What do you want?” And ‘R’ will respond truthfully. Then ‘A’ will then ask, “And what will you get from that?” When ‘R’ responds, ‘A’ will ask again, “And what will you get from that?” After every response, person ‘A’ will ask again, “and what will you get from that?” Person ‘A’ will continue asking the same question after every response. ‘R’ will keep responding, striving to have a deeper response than the last time. ‘A’ will keep repeating the question, until ‘R’ feels that they have explored as deeply as they can and that there’s nothing more to say.

A few examples will make it more clear, so here are two examples of what this might look like.

Example #1:

‘A’ ‘R’
What do you want? I want there to be less clutter.
And what will you get from that? Then there will be clear surfaces.
And what will you get from that? Then I’ll feel more relaxed in my office.
And what will you get from that? Then I’ll be more productive.
And what will you get from that? I’ll get more stuff done in less time.
And what will you get from that? I’ll have more free time to do things I enjoy.
And what will you get from that? I’ll be able to spend more time with the kids.
And what will you get from that? I’ll feel like I’m a better father.

Example #2:

‘A’ ‘R’
What do you want? I‘d like to be able to walk into the closet.
And what will you get from that? I’ll be able to access my clothes.
And what will you get from that? I won’t have the infuriating annoyance I face every morning when I’m getting ready for work.
And what will you get from that? I’ll feel like a big weight has been lifted.
And what will you get from that? I’ll feel like I have a partner in creating a functional living space.
And what will you get from that? It’ll relieve a lot of resentment that I feel toward you.
And what will you get from that? I would feel closer to you.

A few more things to know: First, the person asking the questions, person ‘A’, will not say anything else. They will not evaluate the response or suggest answers. They will not give a disapproving grunt. They will just keep asking the questions and listening to the response. Person ‘A’, your goal is to listen and understand what your partner is saying, and the way you listen is important to the success of the exercise. You want to understand what your partner wants even if you don’t want that same thing yourself. For example, if ‘R’ says, “I want the desk to be covered with snow,” you don’t want to be thinking, “that would be too cold, and it might get your papers wet.” You won’t be saying anything other than asking the repeated question, but your attitude should be like “Oh, I didn’t know you wanted the desk covered with snow. That’s interesting.” And, as you ask “what will you get from that?” You’ll get to find out why they want the desk covered with snow. The point is to hear the response with curiosity instead of judgment.

And now to the person who is responding, person ’R’, you are giving your vision of what you want for your environment and how you would benefit from it. At this point, avoid saying what you want from your partner. For example, instead of saying “I want you to clean up your papers,” say instead, “I want the desk to be clear.” Just express your desires without saying specifically how they will be accomplished. That part comes later.

After you do it once, switch roles so that the person who was asking is now responding and vice versa, and do the exercise again in these different roles. Continue switching roles and repeating until each of you has done the exercise at least three or four times both as questioner and as responder. Continue as long as you’re still getting useful information.

This exercise is really great for three reasons. First, it can be quite revealing. If you are both open to digging deep and really exploring, you may find things out about yourself and about your partner that surprise you. Second, you’re learning not only about the surface goals, but the deeper motivations underneath them. For example, in the second example above, the first response given by ‘R’ was that they wanted to be able to walk into the closet, but what they really wanted is to feel closer to their partner. It’s useful to know the deeper goals, because it may help you to become aware of different ways of reaching those goals. For example, maybe there are better ways to feel closer to your partner then organizing the closet. Third, it can help us understand the type of experience we want to have. I believe that we don’t crave stuff. Instead, we crave an experience and we believe that having stuff will help us realize that experience.

For example, Michael keeps a lot of stuff, but he rarely uses much of it himself. But lots of his friends and relatives have learned that Michael has a lot of stuff and they often come to him asking to borrow something that he has. Michael gets a lot of pleasure in being able to offer his stuff other people, and so he gets to experience himself as being generous.

Jerry keeps stuff to use as resources. He wants to feel like he’s prepared for anything that might happen, and so he keeps stuff so that he can have the experience of feeling prepared.

So stuff is often not an end in itself but rather an attempt to have an experience. Similarly, getting organized is often not an end in itself but also an attempt to have an experience, and based on the experience you want to have you might go about getting organized in different ways.

For example, this month I’ve had two clients who wanted help organizing books on their bookshelves. One client, Cathy, is a university professor who uses the books as reference material. Access is really important, so we organized the books in alphabetical order by author. Another client, Abby, has a bookshelf full of books that are never used — they are purely decorative. So for Abby, we put the books on the shelves in a way that looks really nice. It looks nice to have books of all the same height on a given shelf, so the size of the book was the only factor we considered in determining where it should go. They were not sorted or categorized in any way based on their content.

On the surface, both Cathy and Abby have the goal to organize their books, but because they have different motivations for what they wanted from that organization, we go about organizing in a different way. Cathy will now get to have an experience of being efficient and resourceful, of having the information she needs when she needs it. Abby will now get to have an experience of enjoying an environment that is artistic and beautiful.

Especially when organizing with a partner, it’s really helpful to know the deeper goals and motivations because it opens up different possibilities of how you can work together to succeed in reaching the goals that both of you have. The exercise I’m giving you, when done with openness and positive intent, will help you have a deeper understanding of your own motivations as well as those of your partner. If nothing else, it’s still a good starting point for a conversation about how to create a situation that works for both of you.

I invite you to put me on pause and try this exercise with your partner now. [musical interlude]

After you each have a deep and clear understanding of your own goals and motivations, as well as those of your partner, then you can negotiate to see if there’s some way that you can both reach your goals. Can you find an arrangement that feels like a win to both of you? Often this can be achieved. There’s an organization called the Human Awareness Institute, or HAI for short, that offers workshops in intimacy, relationships, and communication. They do great work and I recommend them highly. They wrap up this idea in the following recommendation: “Ask for 100% of what you want, be willing to hear “no,” and then negotiate to find a win-win.

But there are occasionally times when two persons’ goals seem to be contradictory to each other. For example, Jack might say, “I want to have clean, open surfaces because I feel so much more relaxed in that environment.” And Jill might say, “I like to have all the surfaces completely covered, because that’s familiar to me, and I feel safe and comforted in that environment.” Of course one surface can’t be completely clear and completely covered at the same time. But even if the goals are contradictory, there are still ways to find a win-win, and those ways are compromise and segregation.

To compromise is to find a middle ground so that each person at least partially gets their needs met. For example, Jack and Jill might agree to have the surfaces 50% covered, so that hopefully it’s clear enough that it still feels relaxing to him, and covered enough that it still feels comforting to her. The other possibility, segregation, is to divide the environment into different areas and allow each to take ownership of a different space. For example, Jack and Jill may each claim a room of their own. In his room, he can have all surfaces as clear as he wants, and she can have all surfaces in her room as covered as she wants. Some people segregate by actually living in different houses. Segregation can be done on a room by room basis, but can also be done with smaller areas, like tables, closets, even drawers or shelves. When segregating, it often ideal to have some sort of physical boundary between the two areas, to keep one from overflowing into the other, and to visually separate between them.

To summarize, in this podcast we talked about having a deeper understanding of your own as well as your partners goals and motivations, because this will help you work together to find a solution that gives you both what you need. I gave you an exercise that I hope will help you do that. Remember that often our stuff, our habits, and the way we interact with each other is an attempt to have an experience, and ultimately the experience we all want to have is to feel loved and accepted. And finally, even when goals appear to be irreconcilable, we can still find a solution through compromise or segregation.

One Response to “25. Clutter in Relationships, Part 2”

  1. Cade says:

    Great insight! That’s the answer we’ve been looking for.

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