Will Willis was speechless the first time he went to Ashley Greer’s studio apartment in Old Town Alexandria in 2006. “It was like a total bomb site,” he says. “There was a lot of stuff in there.” The mix included odds and ends of craft projects, art supplies, vases and clothes.
Will’s place a few blocks away was a sharp contrast. “Everything was really nice and neat,” Ashley, 39, recalls. “He had a little drying rack because he hand washes everything. For some reason — and this drives me crazy — he doesn’t trust dishwashers.”
Despite their different approaches to clutter and cleaning, Will and Ashley fell in love. They moved in together and upgraded to larger quarters, where Ashley’s stuff could be spread out and she had her own hobby room. The honeymoon didn’t last forever, though.
“The rest of the house was relatively clean initially, but over the years, the clutter came,” says Will, 44. “I struggled. I struggle daily. I struggled 20 minutes ago.”
Ashley and Will are one of many couples in “mixed” relationships: One person is comfortable with having a lot of stuff around, the other isn’t. Some people are sentimental about old birthday cards, CDs or faded Burning Man T-shirts. Others keep surfaces and storage spaces free of clutter, constantly pack bags of donations and give the side-eye to their partner’s overflowing shoe rack.
“It’s rare that my clients have the same thought process, emotions and vision about the things that they own,” says professional organizer Tanisha Lyons-Porter of Natural Born Organizers in Los Angeles.
The pandemic has only highlighted these differences. Stay-at-home orders last year propelled America’s obsession with decluttering and organizing into a new galaxy, as people had no choice but to confront their — or their partner’s — possessions. While some couples saw this as a time to finally dump massive amounts of stuff, plenty of others did not. Anyone irritated by crammed closets and littered kitchen counters was on emotional overdrive as households sheltered additional family members (and their possessions) and stockpiled flour and toilet paper.
“The awareness of the amount of things that couples have definitely increased in the first six months of the pandemic when everyone was home,” Lyons-Porter says.
So what happens when a pack rat ends up with a minimalist? Sometimes it means calling in the pros to help them find a compromise, or at the very least, learn to respect one another’s needs.
“If the difference in a couple’s tolerance for clutter and stuff is impacting their health or finances or relationship, that’s often why they get outside help. It might be an organizer or a therapist,” says Danielle Tanner Liu, a professional organizer and productivity consultant at Totally Orderly in Oregon.
“When I work with couples together, I have a conversation about what is their goal, why they are reaching out and what is bothering them,” says Kathy Vines, a professional organizer who founded Clever Girl Organizing in Melrose, Mass.
Among Vines’s clients are Ellen and Dennis Steward, who for five years have been working together on clearing their basement, garage and storage room. They tossed old sporting equipment, rusted beach chairs and a bike rack for a car they no longer owned. But even as they purged, Dennis kept buying one thing that drove Ellen crazy.
“I have a little bit of a Lego problem,” says Dennis, 50, an electrical engineer who got his first Lego set as a kid. “I now qualify as an adult fan of Lego. I’m also a ’90s Star Wars fan. So when the two were combined, I knew I was doomed.”
Now his son Deacon, 8, is also into Lego. “Sometimes it gets a bit out of hand,” Dennis says. Some recent father-son projects have included Lego Star Wars Tantive IV (1,768 pieces) and Lego Roller Coaster (4,124 pieces). Dennis bought a Lego Flower Bouquet (756 pieces) as a project for Deacon and Ellen.
During the pandemic, Ellen, 51, who works in physician relations at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, started noticing the colorful plastic building parts in almost every room. “There were finished Legos on windows and shelves, projects that were partially done, and loose pieces scattered on the floor that were very painful to step on barefoot,” she says.
“At times it felt like the walls were closing in on me. I was like, ‘This needs to change,’” she says. “I would see all those loose Lego pieces and I would say, ‘I don’t understand. You spend your money on these things and they get built and then they get broken and then what?’”
Vines suggested having Lego-free zones in the house, and also that Dennis and Deacon set up a system to organize their tens of thousands of Lego parts. Being stuck at home during the pandemic finally made it happen. Dennis researched and found Tom Alphin’s Lego Storage Guide. He printed labels and got 14 of Akro-Mils’s 64-drawer storage units. Each drawer is labeled and holds a specific Lego piece. There are more than 1,000 labels available for the various bricks, tiles and plates. Dennis now spends hours sorting pieces and placing them in drawers. “I have really appreciated his efforts,” Ellen says.
Vines says conversations can lead to solutions. “If you share a space with different goals and purposes, there often needs to be a compromise,” she says. “It goes back to the idea of understanding how living a certain way is really uncomfortable for someone else.” (And in this case, downright painful.)
“It can sometimes feel like couples therapy, even though I am certainly not a therapist,” Vines adds. “But when we talk about things, it turns out it’s often not really about the stuff.”
Marilyn Wedge, a marriage and family therapist in Westlake Village, Calif., says, “Like any other relationship issue, they have to work at this and talk about it and come to a place where both people feel comfortable.” Sometimes that means having the person with the clutter promise to keep it in one room or even in a storage unit off-site.
“The partner has to say, ‘This is causing me stress and we have to work on it.’ It could be stressful for the clutterer too, and they could feel overwhelmed but embarrassed to ask for help,” Wedge says. She sometimes recommends Clutterers Anonymous, a supportive 12-step group.
Being sentimental about a lot of possessions can sometimes have a deeper meaning. Michael Tompkins, a psychologist and co-director of the San Francisco Bay Area Center for Cognitive Therapy and author of “Digging Out: Helping Your Loved One Manage Clutter, Hoarding and Compulsive Acquiring,” says sentimental attachments are often pathways to memories. “Over the years we become attached to certain things that provide positive experiences,” he says, such as baby photos or items inherited from grandparents. “Letting go of that memory is very scary — and triggers intense feelings of loss.”
Julie L. Pike, a clinical psychologist in Chapel Hill, N.C., says, “I’ve had clients who have lost parents at a young age who want to keep everything that reminds them of their loved ones, and of course that causes tension with their partners.” It’s painful for some to declutter, she says, and “it’s important to respect that and treat it with compassion.”
You can tell that Dwight Radcliff, a pastor and a professor, and his wife, retired deputy sheriff DeShun Jones Radcliff, have had many rollicking discussions about their stuff.
“I believe that there are two places that things belong,” says DeShun, 51. “Where you are using them or where they belong. My husband, not so much.”
“I think there are four or five places where they belong,” says Dwight, 46.
The couple, married for 22 years, live in Monrovia, Calif. They called Lyons-Porter when they moved into a new place in 2015 and were struggling with the stuff of life: an exercise ball, a wedding dress, parts of an old headboard.
DeShun says that Dwight seems oblivious to how he’s scattering stuff. “In the bathroom, my handsome husband leaves his towels and clothes in the middle of the floor when he’s finished with them,” she says. “His desk where he has ongoing brilliant ideas and communications is usually cluttered with so many different items and notes I don’t understand how he executes so much incredible information.” DeShun adds, “I love this man, but when it comes to cleaning we are two totally different extremes.”
Dwight says he tries to be neater, but they agree that he will never be up to her standards. “We give each other a lot of grace and we love each other tremendously,” he says. “We try to do what is best for the team.”
Professional organizers deal with these issues daily. “Honestly, I would say that almost all couples have to some degree a different idea of how to create order and how much stuff to keep,” says Liu.
It’s important to respect feelings. “Try to understand that the person might have suffered a traumatic event when they were a child and that’s why they want to keep things,” she says. Or perhaps they grew up in a small space and were not allowed many items, or they might have grown up without being able to afford much.
People intent on getting rid of things, on the other hand, often don’t have an emotional attachment to their possessions, says Robyn Reynolds, a professional organizer at Organize2Harmonize in Los Angeles. “This could be the way they were brought up. Sometimes if their childhood homes were overrun with stuff, they might be very minimalist in their own spaces. It varies from person to person,” Reynolds says. “But usually opposites attract.”
Reynolds can’t “make people get rid of anything,” but they might take more kindly to her opinions than to each other’s. “When I am working with two people, I’m a professional with no attachment to the stuff,” she says.
Robert and Nicheryl Knibb of Chino, Calif., reached out to Reynolds several years ago for help maximizing space and dealing with their vinyl records, DVDs and clothes. “DVDs and clothing do not take up that much space,” Robert told Reynolds, who helped him find places for some of these things.
Nicheryl, a manager at a health-care software company, admits “it’s easier for me to detach myself from things than it is for my husband.” Robert, 58, an account manager for a billing company, isn’t crazy about the times that Nicheryl goes into “purge mode” and starts getting rid of stuff. He takes longer to decide whether he wants to keep something. The couple had a bicoastal relationship before they were married; Nicheryl didn’t notice all of Robert’s stuff when they were dating. When he moved to California from New York, he arrived with stacks of winter clothing. “I had coats and suits that I don’t wear anymore. Eventually I saw that the office climate is more business casual here and the actual climate is warmer,” Robert says.
“Yes, he got rid of them,” says Nicheryl, 56. “But he thought about it for 15 years before he did it.”
Ashley Greer and Will Willis, who now have a 5-year-old son, Finnley, and two dogs and a cat, moved again four years ago, and Ashley now runs a floral design business, Atelier Ashley Flowers, from their townhouse. Working from home has increased clutter: Vases, flowers and other supplies are constantly being delivered. There are more pet beds and more kid and pet toys. “While I have a certain tolerance for clutter, my husband is the complete opposite, and he can’t relax unless things feel straightened up,” Ashley says. She has a lot of interests and says, “I need all of the things for all of those interests.”
“It’s a weird situation because not many people like cleaning. But it makes me feel good,” says Will, who is a picture framer for the U.S. Senate. He says he has a “mini panic attack” when he sees stems and petals littering their kitchen floor. “There is no winning. We do fight about it, but I just grit my teeth and walk away. Eventually I come back and put things away.”
They may never see eye to eye about this. But Will says life is too short to dwell on cleaning and clutter. “If you love this person, that is a small thing to get up in arms about,” he says. “That is the most important thing.”
Jura Koncius covers style, home and design for The Washington Post.