Husband: pack rat. Me: neat freak. How do we learn to compromise?

Guest post by Baditude

We got this question about neat freaks and pack rats, and it seems like almost every couple has this problem. Are you the packrat, or the one quick to chuck stuff? What suggestions do you have for negotiating different organizational philosophies? – Cat

I cleaned my room todayMy husband and I probably argue most frequently about my penchant for throwing stuff out.

I hate clutter. If a thing has no use, no purpose, no reason for being, I want to get rid of it. I don’t like souvenirs or knick-knacks or tchotchkes. I like tidiness.

It’s deeply satisfying to declutter. I feel a physical lightness after organizing a space. When I look around at a tidied room, it lifts my mood.

But my husband likes to keep things “just in case.” He keeps golf clubs — even though he hasn’t golfed in the three years we’ve been together — and half-used college notebooks. I can totally understand why he keeps that stuff. He did enjoy golfing occasionally at one time, and the notebooks still have lots of usable blank pages.

I try to be sensitive. He worries when I clean out a drawer that I’ll throw out something important. When he looks at his closet, he sees clothes he might wear at the right occasion — not clothes he never wears.

So I don’t push my cleaning ways on him, and I don’t resent that his stuff takes up more of the closet space than mine. I really try to have him look through the boxes before they go to Goodwill, and the piles of paper before they hit the recycling bin. But this is a difficult adjustment for both of us.

How can I deal with this difference in styles?

Comments on Husband: pack rat. Me: neat freak. How do we learn to compromise?

  1. This is my house! 20 years and we are getting it to work FINALLY! What I can’t see I don’t clean. If his piles are out in the open they are fair game …

    • My problem is that I am the purger, while my husband and 3 kids are the hoarders (some might argue that the husband is the 4th kid). So it’s 4-against-1 in my house. We can still fit 1 car in our 3-car garage, but just barely – and you have to squeeze your way through just to get in the car. Our problem has recently been compounded by the fact that we got 6,000 pounds of old stuff out of storage that our company finally stopped paying for. We’ve gotten rid of half of it so far (and I am very surprised by and proud of my husband for this first-pass effort), but the rest has been agonizingly slow. In part, because I literally have no room to work. I am debating parking the car outside so at least I will have some garage space to work, but I’m afraid this gesture might be mistaken as surrender (if my husband sees hard-earned empty shelf space, he interprets it as an invitation to fill it with more crap). My other problem is that I’m very pregnant and can’t lift anything too heavy, and thus I am forced to rely on my aforementioned pack-rat husband to move around and donate boxes. Seriously considering hiring somebody…

  2. I think you guys just really have to show that you respect each other. You can do it by not throwing out anything without his consent, an he can do it by taking care of his own stuff. He has to make sure that his things doesn’t flow into your space, or your common space.
    My partner is a bit of a pack rat, too, but I hardy notice it because he keeps it all tidy in his own closets/spaces. And I NEVER throw out anything that belongs to him, because I know that would hurt and upset him. It’s all about respect ^^

    • I totally agree with this. This is kind of the unspoken arrangement my husband and I have. We’re both packrats, but in different ways so we just keep the common areas clutter free and our closets are our secret spaces for mess. 🙂

      • I totally agree with this. It’s important to respect each other’s living styles. My partner and I have different styles, which we maintain in our own spaces. If something is “bothering” me, looking cluttered (to my eyes), I’ll ask him where he’d like me to put it. That’s been super helpful. I am also guilty of clutter, but in different spaces, ways, and times, so that was important to accept. It’s not him or me, it’s just a difference in styles and perceptions.

  3. I’m the pack-rat. My husband is the purger. Twice a year or so he goes through a “let’s get rid of stuff” frenzy. I’ve compromised by getting rid of lots of stuff (lots of clothes, those half-filled college notebooks, a little tv with a built-in vcr, extra pillows that we kept in the cedar closet of our old apartment) and it does feel good. I generally don’t miss them. And being the one who is neat in day-to-day life, it does make things easier.

    But then every now and then my husband will say something like this: “Do you know what would be great? If we had a little TV with a VCR that we could keep in the bedroom for watching movies.” And my head explodes because we HAD that thing. And we got rid of it. Because he wanted to. I won’t buy a new one out of principle, because along with being a packrat, I am cheap.

    The best compromise that I’ve found is storage. I keep those things that I don’t use on a regular basis but MIGHT need someday neatly organized and boxed in the attic or basement. Someday, if we finish either space, I may have to deal with that, but until then it’s a good stopgap measure. And if my husband says, “Do you know what would be great? If we had a little space heater,” I know just where to get one.

      • Hoarders terrifies me, because I can see myself becoming that. O.O

        So naturally every time I see it, I want to throw away EVERYTHING. It’s quite effective as a scary tool.

      • Me and my roommates are all pack-rats, with a lot of neat freak guests and significant others. We eventually learned that the best thing for it is putting on an episode of Hoarders on Netflix about once a week while cleaning the living room and kitchen. “Do you need this?” “Umm…” *sees woman cry over moldy containers being thrown out* “NO.”

    • Basements and attics were going to be my suggestion (if they’re available). An example would be to point out the things he never wears and ask if you can put them in a big Rubbermaid in the attic. Clearly label the contents of the container and tuck it away. If, over the next few years (I would consider setting a firm timeline) he doesn’t use anything in the box, then it gets given away. If he does, then continue holding on to it.

      Even tiny crawlspace attics and basements can usually accommodate a few Rubbermaids, which in turn can usually provide a degree of weatherproofness the space itself might not.

      • this has been my partners solution for me. He’s constantly throwing things in boxes and trekking them down into the basement. It works but somehow I always find a way to make more clutter.

    • That’s my thinking toooo!!!!! I think “pack rats” are just naturally normally (for the most part) frugal individuals. We feel its a waste to throw out something we paid for and then pay for it again one day when we find its use for repurpose. My boyfriend thinks I’m a pack rat even though I’ve been slowly finding random things that he hoards as well ha ha ha. Our main “argument” is my collection of clothes 🙂 When we first moved in together (a recent on going process out of storage a.k.a. mom’s basement he he he) his comment was- “what did you have before? 3 walk in closets?!?!?!?” being sarcastic and… yes… actually I DID!!! Over the years I have acquired eccentric antique pieces of furniture that I have grown to love based on the memories I now have of them and some funky clothes that my sewing machine drools at in anticipation of the day I have my studio space back, until then it’s hissing at me from its box… in mom’s basement 🙁

      But… I think my boyfriend is happy that I have used the spare bedroom as my closet, that he previously used as storage (of a former roommates left behinds!) and I organized “his closet” in our bedroom and “his dresser” so that it’s even easier for him to find his own stuff.

      But we don’t throw each others things away, and we don’t say-when was the last time those skates saw a roller rink?!?!?! Or-really….. leather pants from your “gothic stage”? Or even better- one day he’ll ask me, once he discovers them- a collection of empty cigar boxes? and what use is scraps of cut up clothes stuffed into a giant industrial sized garbage bag?!

      But one day… my sewing machine will be happy again… and… I think my kids will get a kick out of dad’s roller skates and leather pants as the roll around the house in them or wear them for halloween… at which point… they can then be reincarnated at a goodwill when someone else has an AH HA! moment.

      I don’t only “hoard” things because they might one day have a purpose… I do it because I wish I could see some of the things my mother and father talk about that are long gone due to “downsizing” 🙂

  4. Are you sure I didn’t write this in my sleep? Because this is my situation as well! The only thing that has truly worked is limiting the massive purge to 1 time a year. I will start putting stuff in boxes then, over the course of a few weeks, have the guy sit down with me and go through things one by one giving it a “yay” or “nay” to keep. If he says “yay,” I’ll ask when the last time he used the thing was — if it was more than 6 months, we get rid of it. Tedious? Yes. But it’s the only successful way we’ve found so far…

  5. I’d have this problem even on my own. I attatch sentimental value to things way too easily and I hate getting rid of anything that might be useful, but at the same time I like things to look clean and clear.

    With my boyfriend it’s even worse because he honestly has no problem with mess. (Once before we were living together he dropped a train ticket on his bedroom floor. 3 weeks later I was back and the exact same ticket was in the exact same spot!)

    My solution is to try and hide the clutter. Draws and cupboards work wonders because outside their look neat (and provide surfaces to display selected ornaments) but can be crammed full of stuff inside. The problem at the moment is we don’t have enough of them.

    • I’m exactly like you, and my boyfriend is exactly like yours!

      Drawers and cabinets are a great idea. We just moved to a bigger place, and I’m working on emptying two big drawers in the living room to throw his things in when the mess gets to me.

  6. Both my fiance and I are pretty good about getting rid of extraneous stuff. Most of the stuff we don’t use often is stored in random shoeboxes and crates, and my strategy for de-cluttering those is to take the box, look at it without opening it, and say, “What’s in here?” If neither of us can think of the answer, we get rid of it without even opening it. The logic being that if its contents were really, truly, important to either of us, one of us would know what they are. Sure, we’ve probably tossed a couple handy things accidentally using that method, but you know what? I can’t remember what they are!

  7. As the purger/neat freak… I have given up the garage and basement to his knick knacks and hoarding of all things he holds dear.
    Mainly everywhere else stays clutter free and I keep a rubbermaid with his name on it for random items he leaves around the house that seem to have no home. This is working better than him hollering, “Where’d you put my ______(insert random thingamajig)” across the house every couple days.
    We also have learned to compromise on items going to goodwill and will often have a pile of 10 things and ask him to sort and get rid of half.

  8. I feel this. My boyfriend and I have been living together for ~4 months now. He is the purger with a permanent “For Good Will” box. However, I am ever so slowly being converted into a purger. Although my default state is “what if?”, the thought of moving all that STUFF again makes me extremely queasy. So lately, I’ve been getting rid of books, movies, clothes, an old tv, etc.

    And the apartment looks way better for it. But I think that I’ve had some influence on him, too. He brings in more decorative things and likes holding on to our little sentimental tokens. So maybe part of the solution is to see the value in the other’s way of doing things.

  9. We are just the opposite. I craft alot so I have a ton of supplies, but other things as well. We’ve compromised in a couple ways. I have a bunch of under-the-bed tubs to store “in case” craft supplies and opposite weather clothes. I also have occasional purges. I regularly go through our room and make hard decisions about throwing things out.

    Can or does your husband keep rarely used items stored away in bins or are they just around the house? Could you maybe come to a rule about “junk”, like if it hasn’t been used in X many years then it should be donated to Goodwill or Salvation Army? Anything in good condition I donate rather than throw away, which makes me want to get rid of it more because I want to help others out.

  10. Ha! I think we married the same guy with the exception that mine has every golf gadget every made. He does golf but will only use the gadget once and then it gets piled somewhere “just in case”.

    His father’s one of a kind clubs have been framed and are hanging on the wall otherwise, they would still be on the floor getting tripped over.

  11. My solution? Boxes and goodwill.
    Whenever we clean the apartment, I allow him to keep one box of souvenirs. He can put whatever he wants in his box. But it’s only on box.
    I also have a big garbage bag open in my closet and whenever I see something I’m not sure I want to keep I toss it into the bag and make a donation for goodwill every year. I ask myself the question ”Will it make somebody happier then me?” And a lot of stuff ends up in the bag!

    • My question is “Do I only wear/use this when I have no other option?” If I only wear something because everything else is dirty, but I don’t really like it, then I should get rid of it and get something that fulfills the same purpose, but that I actually enjoy.

      • With clothes I ask “do I love it?” which usually covers how I feel when wearing it, cause it’s hard to hate something you look great in. I also read a Jesus-y article about holding onto things once and the main idea behind it was that we hold on to certain items (clothes being the main one) because we don’t have faith in ourselves that we’ll be able to replace it, or are willing to accept our lives as is (who is really going to wear their prom dress again? Those pants that you can’t fit into? Party clothes when you’ve settled down and become a “real” adult?). I find that question/little talk helps a lot.

  12. My boyfriend and I have lived together for almost a year now and we have this same situation: I’m a keeper of all things sentimental, and he is basically a keeper of nothing. He has one little box he fills with ticket stubs and carefully preserved posters from concerts he’s been to, while I have an entire apartment full of little things that I love.

    At first, it definitely was a compromise. But I’ve noticed that as time as gone on, I’ve become more willing to part with things. Clothes I never wear, books I never read, things I have just because that I don’t even really care about– I just kept them in case one day I cared about them again. I’ve probably cut my possessions in half over the past year, and he has been very supportive of this and not in the least bit pushy. And he has come to definitely understand and be more relaxed about how tidy things have to be, as well. Our place has gone from looking spic-and-span to comfortably and neatly lived-in. I guess I don’t have much advice here, but what I’m saying is that things have wound up working out in the long run. 🙂

  13. I am so lucky in that my hubby and I are both super-purgers. I do have a tendency to hold on to a few types of things (art supplies, pens) but I keep them in very neat and tidy, labeled drawers.

  14. I was faced head-on with my boyfriend’s packratting hoarding tendencies when I moved in with him. I’m definitely the decluterer on the team, although not a “neat freak” – I think a clean house is a sign of a broken sewing machine!!! I am frugal and would rather utilize something rather than just chunk it, but really…soda receipts all over the place? Tripping over tennis shoes that are where they shouldn’t be? COME ON!! Let’s pick up our own stuff and contain our personal hoarding in our own personal space. I thought about bringing his computer desk into my sewing room so we could spend time together while I sewed and he surfed the net, but now I’m rethinking that so his mess stays out of my space!

  15. My fiance and I both come from packrat families; I lived with a neatfreak roommate for awhile and adopted more of her habits, so now I’m more the “AUGH clutter, get rid of it!” person than my fiance is.
    We’ve talked about setting aside at least one day of hard-core spring cleaning per year to keep us in check. So not too rigorous, but it would be an opportunity to take stock.

  16. We are the same! My husband was at almost hoarder level when we moved in together, I think it was partially to laziness that he never got rid of anything, but it was still terrifying for me, an adamant purger. We have been living together for 2 years now, and he has slowly changed his ways. I think what made him decide that purging is great and that a clutter free house can bring harmony is the experience of moving from the 2400sq ft house we shared with his brother to a 700sq ft house. When he was faced with either getting rid of about 2/3 or his junk or paying $100 a month to store it, he started to prioritize really quick 🙂 He started out with an entire basement full of junk and we eventually got it down to about 5 boxes of stuff that he really truly wants to keep. I have learned that if I can find a nice way to display his sentimental stuff or make it useful again, I don’t feel so frustrated about keeping it. For example, he was hanging on to a bunch of t-shirts he designed and printed in college, but couldn’t wear. They were just sitting in giant trash bags, and driving me nuts. I ended up making a big quilt out of them, so now he can use it every night.

  17. We keep this kind of thing from being a problem by trying to keep the main/mutual living spaces fairly free of clutter. About every other week is cleaning time when all the clutter that has accumulated in the common areas is picked up and gone through. Then, we each have our own rooms to keep however we choose- messy with lots of stuff, or clean, tidy and minimal. For me, it’s my office/craft room, for my husband, it’s the garage/basement/man room. that way, whatever is in each of those rooms, the other person can’t comment on and it doesn’t even bother the other person since they don’t go in those rooms. Another “rule” that has been put in place recently also, in our situation with motorized vehicles (because I think he has way too many), is that when he wants a new one, he must get rid of two!

  18. My husband and I both have pack rat tendancies, but I have been fighting mine, and forcing myself to let go of stuff for years, and he hasn’t. I think this makes it harder because I really get not wanting to get rid of things. Plus, I tend to be the one who leaves things around the house, but I’m also the (usually only) one who picks up too. I get so frustrated by having too much stuff for our space, and I try and leave it for my husband to pick up and deal with, but his way of ‘dealing with it’ is putting it in a pile, or moving it out to the carport, neither of which really solve it. It’s an on going issue for us, probably will be forever, but we deal. Right now the compromise is that I pick up, and he doesn’t complain too much if something isn’t ‘where he left it’ (never mind that where he left it was the middle of the floor). As you can see, this is one of our most conflicting issues.

  19. My boyfriend and I came up with the perfect solution for this! In our situation- it totally works!

    He has his own room (we call it The Cave), and he does whatever he pleases with it. He even keeps his clothes in there (we have limited closet space). I don’t even go in “The Cave” unless we work on music together, and I’ve learned to not care how messy he keeps it. It’s his own personal “office” for writing music, and storing all of his pack-rat junk!

    Over time he realized why I hate clutter so much (all of that “eye candy” really stresses me out & is incredibly distracting)! He realized that he works better with his music when he has a tidy room to work in, but he still likes to get messy sometimes. So “The Cave” sort of taught him a pretty valuable lesson!

  20. I’ve been in relationships before where this was an issue, and it’s often come down to two conversations that, on the surface, don’t seem to have much to do with pack-rat/purge tendencies.

    The first conversation is about creating private spaces. Even in cramped quarters setting aside a little bit of personal space for each partner to use however they want (even just a desk drawer or nightstand will do, though good larger-scale storage is way better) can make compromising on the possessions in the rest of the household way easier.

    The second conversation is about class and money. Personally, I know that my hoarding tendencies are often based on a fear that I won’t be able to afford to replace items I’ve purged if I need them again in the future. Especially if a partner purges my possessions without consent it can feel pretty scary and like a major loss of resources. It may be worth exploring class financial backgrounds and current earning differentials within a relationship as part of the conversation about hoard/purge habits.

    • When I was in college and trying not to accumulate MORE debt, I hung onto everything: clothes, art supplies, office supplies, everything. And there were many instances where I would need something and be able to dig it out of my closet/under my bed instead of going to the store and buying something new. My roommates and I would also go “shopping” in each others closets to complete an outfit. Now that I am years out of college, have steady income, and live with my stuff-purging husband I am able to let go of more things. Since I know we have the money to replace things if I need them down the road, it’s so much easier. The biggest thing, though, is that our space is more important than our things. We have to LIVE in our tiny rental house, not just fill the space with things. So if something is getting in the way of living and our mutual enjoyment of the space, it goes to the thrift shop!

  21. “Arguably the only goods people need these days are food and happiness”
    Sir Terence Conran
    Gosh, how I wish this quote reflected my home (I’m the hoarder he’s the prince of neatness), I have my own walk in extremely messy wardrobe but I’m queen of procrastinating when it comes to tidying and throwing things away and I can’t resist buying all sorts of rubbish especially when it’s on special offer.
    Last month I “lost” a clear clutter book that I borrowed from the library – the librarian had a good laugh when I explained and paid for a new copy, Oprah says that “clutter costs you money” and this is proof.
    On the home front I like Terence Conrad books, I borrow and return them frequently. Here is his advice about dealing with clutter.

  22. I used to think he was a neat freak and I was the pig pen. ( he still likes to call me that…) but since we’ve lived together I’ve learned that he is also a little pack ratty. Exp. 1000’s of comics, vintage games/systems, records, movies, books…. he is just much better at organizing his mess than me. But 2 years cohabitating and I’m learning. 1)better organizational skills and 2)how to just throw shit away. I tend to hold onto hair products “I might need if I cut my hair short again” anyways lol. Over time we have learned to mesh well. And in our new upcoming apartment we will have separate closests and bathrooms, even tho I know he’l just want to use mine anyways hahaha

  23. I’m the neat freak and my partner of three years is the pack rat. I learned to deal with his clutter by watching my mother (who is also a neat freak) deal with my father (packrat); they’ve been married over 40 years.

    Simply put, my mother keeps most of the house clutter-free, but gives my father one room that’s entirely *his* space where he can keep his stuff contained. I decided to try the same thing with my partner and it’s worked amazingly well.

    Occasionally, things will escape into the rest of the house, but I can just pick them up, put them back in his room and shut the door. Eventually, if the clutter gets too overwhelming for even him to handle in there, it’s self-regulating and he’ll clear some of it out.

    So far, this has been the best solution for both of us.

    • This is exactly what I proposed to my boyfriend last night, only I dressed it up a little differently since he’s very sensitive about the mere suggestion that he’s a slob. I told him it would be his room to arrange/decorate as he pleases. We live in a small 2 bedroom apartment, so it makes me unhappy that I have to relinquish so much space (I want a room of my own, too!), but it’s a small price to pay for keeping the mess out of sight.

      It’s encouraging to hear that this is working out well for you and your parents.

  24. I’m also a reformed packrat (I have old notes from classmates), and my husband hasn’t yet reached the purging phase. Our problem is, his father is a serious hoarder, so he’s so used to cluttered mess. It doesn’t bother him, whereas if our place is messy, I get seriously down.

    So, our solution was, because we have a tiny place with very little storage space we got… a storage unit.

    It’s actually so great. It’s nice and big so there’s space for furniture, and a whole bunch of old sentimental things, and things we don’t use.

    Also, to answer “It’s in storage” to a “Where is my…?” question causes a lot less friction than “I threw it away.”

    We still argue about cleaning up, but that’s a whole other issue…

  25. Mr. Bear used to be a total pack rat, and he’s disciplined himself to keep from becoming a hoarder. Now he’s really into decluttering, and I’m the pack rat. My stepfather is a hoarder and my house growing up was horrifying. I never want to fall into that pattern.
    What we found through talking about why I keep things and why I leave things out all the time is that I’m a very visual person. If something is packed away, I don’t remember it’s there or where it is and it frustrates me. So we’ve been setting up organizational systems that still allow me to see everything. Clear tubs and racks to hang fabric on, a bookshelf that is filled with mini-bolts of fabric so I can see them lined up like books. A cubby hole system to store my skeins of yarn in. Cupboards that have glass doors, etc. I find now I can have everything put away because I can still see it and know where it is. It was the perfect solution for us.

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