science of us

When You’re a Pack Rat and Your Partner Is a Minimalist

Photo: Lambert/Archive Photos/Getty Images

It started with a bentwood rocking chair. I saw it on the sidewalk following a birthday lunch with my parents, perfect beside the giant hole in its caned seat, and convinced them to help me carry it the several blocks back to my apartment. For the next few weeks it sat in the living room, surrounded by a growing number of other curbside castaways — a white glass swag lamp with scrolling gold details, a vintage school desk with a base so heavy I borrowed my bodega’s hand truck to move it, a pair of blue velvet wing chairs baring only the subtlest of stains. I just couldn’t let them sit there all alone, or worse, end up in a landfill.

My roommate Sean, who inherited his three whole pieces of bedroom furniture from the previous occupants of our apartment, had been quieter than usual. I noticed him wince when I brought home the blue chairs, part of my attempt to furnish our place after the departure of our third roommate, Chris, and his collection of bookshelves (not books; bookshelves). I asked him what was up.

“When I moved into this apartment,” Sean said, “I knew the compromise I was making was the clutter. I thought it would be gone when Chris moved out, but I’m starting to worry I was wrong.”

He was wrong. As a pack rat descended from a long line of pack rats, I recognize I’m something of a nightmare for minimalists like Sean; it’s just that there’s so much good trash on the streets of Park Slope, and resisting my magpie instincts feels impossible. With Chris gone, the two of us have found ourselves in a fairly common odd-couple situation: Whether it’s because of true love or a desire to save on rent, many of us share space with people whose accumulating and decorating habits differ significantly from our own.

Alison Lush has been a professional organizer since 2010. To my surprise, when I reach out to her, she says she’s a fellow born clutterbug “from a chronically disorganized background.” Chronic disorganization is distinct from mental-health issues like hoarding disorder, Lush says, but it still exceeds your everyday, run-of-the-mill mess; it’s marked by long-term struggles with clutter, a depleted quality of life, failed attempts to declutter and organize via traditional methods, and discouragement as a result of that failure. For chronically disorganized people like us, the solution isn’t as easy as KonMari-ing, especially not when it comes to keeping the peace with tidier significant others or roommates.

“Of course it’s easier when two people who are minimalists or pack rats live together, but that’s not how love or life works,” says Lush, who regularly works with couples at opposite ends of the stuff spectrum. “I’m very lucky in that my husband is fundamentally respectful, which is a necessary part of people like us sharing a space. You have to own your personal perception, rather than being judgmental — there’s no wrong or right in this situation, and suggesting otherwise makes people defensive right out of the gate.”

Lush says that, as with resolving any relationship conflict, disagreements over how much stuff to have around the house are best resolved by focusing on your own feelings rather than casting blame. If you’re the anti-clutter half of the pair, for instance, “instead of saying to someone, ‘You’re really messy and it’s a problem for me,’ focus on how much easier it is for you to function and get things done when the house is clean,” Lush says. “There’s a big difference between going, ‘This is what’s important to me,’ and ‘You have to stop doing that.’”

In fact, that’s the central tenet of her advice: Trying to force anyone — your partner, your roommate, even yourself — to change completely is futile. A better strategy is to work together to set realistic boundaries and expectations, a process that starts with each side examining their own motivations for feeling the way they do about clutter.

“The first thing I’d recommend someone struggling with clutter should do, before trying techniques to minimize it, is ask themselves why the clutter exists in the first place,” Lush says. For example, in her experience, chronically disorganized people are often creative and interested in unusual objects or in raw materials for (never finished) projects; have a sense of responsibility when it comes to “rescuing” things; or are unconsciously trying to re-create absorbed images of wealth and opulence.

There are also often overlaps between chronically disorganized people and people with ADHD, depression, and addictive tendencies. For Lush, who began “a process of self-reflection” while embarking on her career as an organizer, it was a mix of things — but largely what she calls “a mentality of poverty.”

“I used to spend a lot of time in thrift stores,” she says. “I mostly didn’t go shopping because I needed anything; it was because it made me feel rich to bring home bags of stuff. I’d been sort of on autopilot for years, just accumulating things and bringing them home and not thinking about the consequences. It was when I started to think, ‘What are my values and goals? What do I want from my home?’ that I realized having my house so full of stuff was costing me on the level of quality of life.”

Lush now lives in a two-bedroom apartment with her husband, which — after some very intentional editing — feels peaceful rather than chaotic. She says she owes it to “reprogramming herself” from her previous mentality, in which she never felt like she had enough — or good enough — stuff, to her current “mentality of abundance.”

“You can do a whole big clean-out,” she says, “but if you don’t first address your motivations, your home will revert to the same state six months down the line. Choosing a random strategy from a magazine won’t work; figuring out your particular issue will inform what strategies are ultimately successful for you.”

Lush has found that a successful technique for her, and for some of her clients in pack rat–minimalist relationships, is to allow a certain amount of accumulation — as long as it fits in designated spaces.

“Because I don’t have an internal sense of what’s ‘enough,’ I decide on physical containers for categories of things, and they have to fit inside,” she says. “I can bring something new home, but if it doesn’t fit in its space, I have to make a choice; there can’t be any overflow.”

For Lush, this means reserving specific spaces (no more, no less) for tops, pants, and other items in her shelving unit. For clients with larger homes, it may mean dedicating an entire room or two to storage, as long as nothing creeps into agreed upon uncluttered areas.

“If partners can agree on some crystal-clear boundaries and stick to them,” says Lush, “then nobody has to fundamentally change.”

For outside assistance, Lush recommends checking out the Institute for Challenging Disorganization’s free public fact sheets. Many professional organizers also offer one-time feedback sessions, in which they’ll visit a home to simply to make suggestions. Still, those resources are nothing without empathy and understanding.

“The main message I hope to offer any people who have this vast kind of lifestyle difference is that we all come from different backgrounds, and there are any number of reasons why we are the way we are,” she says. “I would encourage partners or roommates to remember that nobody is wrong or right, and to always, above all, be respectful to each other.”

When You Love Clutter and Your Partner Is a Minimalist