Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Is There Room for Your Stuff and Your Partner?

In a new and fascinating book, Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee draw upon the stories of different people to illuminate the theory and meaning of collecting and hoarding. They cover the continuum from owning and treasuring something for its meaning, to the creative consideration of the limitless meaning of “ things” hoarded, to the extremes of the Collyer Brothers found buried under 30 years of hoarding 170 tons of stuff.

We all have stuff — be it clothes, books, athletic equipment, antique furniture, cars, TV’s, magazines, CD’s etc. — that has particular meaning to us .

The question is whether attachment to our stuff  leaves room for our partner!

“What’s Yours is Mine and What’s Mine is Yours” – Not always. She may not have an attachment to the motorcycles and tools that have taken the place of the car in the garage. He may not treasure the shoes and purses that leave him a sliver of closet space.

That said, most partners appreciate and even love the personality of their partner and the “stuff” that comes with it. She may actually love that he is the type that can fix anything and he may really like how she looks in those shoes.  Even if they don’t, most partners love seeing their partner happy…. so they move over to allow room for the stuff.

When does Stuff become a problem?

Stuff becomes a problem when it compromises the happiness and well being of the partners. This happens in different ways, depending on the couple.  Consider these possibilities:

  • When the collecting or hoarding prevents one or both of the partners from being who they are.

“I’m a social person – I’m too embarrassed to bring friends home to all the clutter.”

  • When the collecting of stuff becomes a serious financial drain.

“I know we can’t afford it, but it’s one of a kind.”

  • When the partner is torn between the other’s unhappiness and their compelling need to hold on.

“I know Jack can’t stand all the piles of magazines in our bedroom – but I can’t throw them out without going through them.”

  • When there is continual tension and a stalemate of accusation about each other’s stuff.

“I’ll get rid of the fishing gear in the hall when you get all your art work off the dining room table.”

  • When there is a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness about change.

“I love him but I don’t know what to do – I can’t live with all this stuff!”

What Do You Do When Stuff becomes a Problem?

As addressed in Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee’s book Stuff, collecting and hoarding is a complex problem associated with everything from perfectionism, materialism, creativity and pleasure to secrecy and shame. Solutions are not always sought and are not always easy.  When collecting and hoarding make life unworkable, however, when it means the loss of a partner —  people often seek professional help.

As a first step, here are some partner ideas for dealing with the problem of “Stuff”:

  • Plan to sit down and discuss your feelings about your environment.  Are you both happy and comfortable with it? Be as authentic as you can about what works for you, not what you need the other to do. The goal in understanding each other’s needs.
  • Recognize that there is a selective inattention to one’s own stuff (after all there is both attachment and need for it) as compared to a feeling of intrusion and annoyance by the inconvenience or clutter of someone else’s things. You are different people with different needs and different stuff.
  • Given that what we treasure often becomes an extension of ourselves, it is common to become defensive about being confronted about our stuff. Remember your goal is mutual respect and happiness.
  • If there is “stuff” that belongs to either that is taking “too much emotional and physical space” from the other – consider brainstorming some working (not final) solutions that might fit who you both are and what you need. Try one for a week, help each other.
  • Take a good look at your “Mutual Stuff.”  It usually is accepted and appreciated by both. Is there enough of it? The more, the better, because there is uncanny magic in mutual stuff . Be it stuff for the baby, the new pet, the new boat, the room you are decorating or the trip you just took – somehow there is room. Nobody minds because you both have an attachment to it – it represents shared loved, excitement, plans and memories.

Relationships don’t end because of stuff. They end when a compelling attachment to stuff leaves no room for a partner.

If you can, reach for your partner and make room for the “mutual stuff.”