How Clutter Affects Our Relationships

How to deal with a loved one who is not “following the program” or who is very messy is one of the most common questions I hear as I speak to clients and field questions about organizing at my workshops.  I often tell people that an anecdote from my own household.  My husband could care less if the surfaces of our house are dusty or our floors are dirty.  It barely phases him, but if I don’t load the dishwasher efficiently or stack the same size forks and spoons together in our silverware divider it irks him beyond belief.  Even though I am a professional organizer, there are certain areas of my life I don’t feel like sweating the small details, but I realize they are important to him, so we have had to find ways to compromise or pick up extra slack in the areas we care about more.  

For some families the issues are greater and the compromises harder to make.  That’s why I will share my five tips for dealing with relationship conflicts over clutter.

1. Talk about each others definitions of organization.  Often you may be operating on a completely different definition of what it means to be organized.  Ask anyone and they will define it slightly differently every time.  If each of you don’t outline your expectations of how to keep an organized home you can continue to have the same arguments over demands that are not clear to the other person.  You may discover that your family member could care less about being organized at all.  They may also process items more visually than logically.  Once you all understand each others expectations it is easier to find ways to help each other rather than argue with each other.

2. Find areas you can compromise.  I have been called in over and over again by parents to get their teenagers rooms in order.  Often the teen is resistant and embarrassed to have me in their space.  I often explain to the parents that I am going to be no good to either party involved if the teenager doesn’t want the help or have a problem with they way they are keeping their room.  Sometimes the compromise is to just close the door.  In other cases it may be agreeing on one goal to achieve regularly rather than maintaining a system that is more for the parent than for the child. This brings me to the next tip.

3. Make the system easy to follow for the person who cares more.  Unfortunately, in many cases it is the person who is more bothered by the disorder that loses out.  In order for them to have the perfection they desire they will have to maintain the order themselves.  You can’t force someone who is extremely creative and visual and likes to pile to use a file system because you think logically and linearly.  However, if you can get that person to put papers to file in a tray and you file the papers each month for them in your simple system you can work together to maintain the order you may crave.  However, you cannot get angry at the person who hates using files being unable to file with you.

4.  Bring in an outside mediator.  Sometimes it just is not productive for family members to organize together.  Often I have been called in by family members to be the mediator and they are usually impressed at how much better their family members accomplish with an outside person.  That’s because other family members tend to judge, reprimand and have impatience with the person who may have trouble making decisions and sorting through the items on their own.  An outside person can often show the empathy and patience in a non-bias way that a family member cannot.

5.  Seek the help of a qualified therapist if there are greater hoarding concerns.  Often the real troubles between family members are sparked by a person living in the house who is hoarding.  Hoarding is a serious issue that can lead to blocked rooms, dangerous paths and emotional duress.  Often a hoarder has a larger attachment to objects and papers than the average person.  So much so that anxiety and strong emotions can build when forced by a family a member to address their issues.  The family will continue to fight and threaten the hoarder to no avail until that person pursues help with a therapist.  Hoarding is much more than just a disorganization problem and sneaking behind their back to eliminate clutter can be very detrimental.  For more information on hoarding visit the Institute for Challenging Disorganization at www.

For more information on this topic, you can also join me for a free workshop on “How Clutter Affects Relationships,” at The Organized Lifestyle Store, 725 Boston Post Road (Second Floor), Guilford, CT on February 20, 2012 at 6:00pm.  Call to register at 203-458-7674 or e-mail

Kristin Mastromarino is a Professional Organizer and owner of Livable Solutions Professional Organizing ( and The Organized Lifestyle Store (  You can e-mail her your questions at

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