Your Stuff or Your Relationship? How your love for your things may lead to the end of romance

For couples on my therapy couch, clutter is one of the most contentious topics of conversation — opinions are heated and divisive. One person loves to save magazines, cards, memorabilia, coupons and matchbooks. For this person — we’ll call them the Saver — clutter represents one of two things: potential — items that will be useful in the future, or sentiment — a reminder of a special time. Saver’s partner, Purger, much prefers throwing out as much as possible, yearning for clear surfaces, drawers and shelves. For Purger, less stuff equals less stress. Saver and Purger argue about what to keep and what to toss. Purger might even secretly throw out some of Saver’s precious items when Saver’s back is turned!

Saver and Purger might not know it yet, but the magazines, unopened mail, dust collecting trinkets, and collectibles might actually foreshadow the demise of their relationship. A new study by found that one in three Americans — and nearly half of Millennials — would consider breaking up with someone if that person got rid of something that had sentimental value to them. To further fan these flames of relationship instability, the study found that ninety percent of Americans in a relationship admit that if they knew there wouldn’t be consequences, they would get rid of some of their significant other’s possessions.

These are some bleak statistics, but since relationships are hard enough, let’s not allow a little clutter to be the reason for a break-up. To cope successfully with clutter quarrels, every couple should take the following three important steps — I call them the THREE C’S OF CLUTTER CONTROL:

#1 CARE: Spend time discussing what clutter, or the lack thereof, means to each of you.

After chatting, Jake (27) discovered that his fiancée Lindsay (26) becomes very anxious when surrounded with too much clutter. This helped Jake become sensitive to how much clutter he lets accumulate in their apartment. After a meeting with me, Crystal (42) and her husband Len (42) talked about Crystal’s persistent suggestions that Len purge at least some of the tools, wood, paint, glue and other items he is confident that he will eventually use for home improvements. Len shared that while growing up, his parents fought bitterly because his mother frequently discarded items that his father wanted to keep. In fact, the SpareFoot data bears out Len’s parents’ experience — it reveals that 56 percent of men in a relationship report that they frequently stop their significant other from throwing out items they want to keep. When Crystal gained this insight, she started to appreciate Len’s need to hold onto things, and made an effort to support his home improvement projects, making them both happy!

#2 COMPROMISE: It is easiest to stubbornly advocate for one’s own position, but, as in any relationship standoff, compromise is usually best.

Carl (33) and Lindsay (34) reached a standoff when Lindsay refused to declutter her tiny closet — clothing was in piles everywhere, and even crept into Carl’s closet. Finally, after witnessing a big fight, I noted that Lindsay didn’t have to make an immediate decision to give away her clothing permanently. The couple compromised by renting a small storage space for Lindsay to store off-season items, giving her time to sort through clothing at her leisure, and returning much needed space to both of them.

#3 COMMUNICATE: Work together to create a plan that allows both people to feel more comfortable.

It is understandable that Purger might have the urge to discard Saver’s belongings, especially if the accumulation evokes anxiety. Certainly, sneakily throwing things out would avoid conflict. However, this avoidance reflects a fundamental breakdown in communication, deceit in the relationship, and disregard for that which is important to the other person. Instead of trying to bypass an argument, it is far healthier to talk to one’s partner lovingly and without judgment. Recognize, too, that while compromise is ideal, it’s possible that in some instances one person’s needs will prevail.

This is the fabric of all good relationships — at times we get what we want, but sometimes we give our partner what they need first. Instead of clutter ending relationships, let’s use it as an opportunity to learn about each other and enrich them. 

Dr. Susan Bartell is a nationally recognized psychologist, consultant, speaker and author in suburban New York.

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Susan Bartell

Dr. Susan Bartell is a nationally recognized psychologist, consultant, speaker and author in suburban New York.