I love you, not your mess

Last year, Tracy McCubbin – who has been a professional declutterer for two decades and lives by the motto “Don’t put it away, put it away” – married a man she described as “very messy”.

Both recognized the “cosmic humor” of their unlikely pairing. When the couple first moved in together, Ms. McCubbin put blue painter’s tape on every drawer and cabinet in the kitchen, offering a map of what goes where. But she has also learned to practice what she preaches to her clients and to keep a cool head when faced with inconveniences that do not interfere with her daily functioning. Like his bedside table, buried under books, charging cords and TV remote controls, she’s pretty sure they’re no longer theirs.

Or the mess of tools that her husband, an avid gardener, likes to leave behind in the garden. “It’s everywhere,” sighed Ms. McCubbin. “But you know what? We have a beautiful garden. Our fruit trees bear fruit. It was really about understanding: This part doesn’t matter.”

Ms. McCubbin and other organizing and psychology experts said there are some practical strategies that could help pack rats and neatniks live together in relative harmony.

“Often when a person is confused, the underlying thesis is that they are wrong, they are doing it wrong, they are bad,” Ms McCubbin said. But in many cases, household clutter is simply an indication that solid systems are not in place.

Some of the solutions she offers her clients are almost too obvious, she said. For example, she’s worked with frustrated parents whose children throw backpacks and coats onto what she calls the “runway” right outside the front door. It helps to hang a few hooks that they can easily reach.

Ms. McCubbin also recommends providing ample shelving for an avid reader’s books. (“The rule of thumb in the sand is that they have to be on a shelf. They can’t be stacked on the floor.”) At home, she put a plate by the front door so her husband wouldn’t lose “his” “10 or so every day 15 minutes in my head” looking for his wallet and keys.

“It’s always important to explain that these systems are put in place to help,” she said, “and not because you’re wrong.”

Ms McCubbin said it was most important to consider the practical implications of clutter.

“The goal in organizing is to make your home work for you,” she said. “It’s not about rainbow bookshelves or making things look perfect, it’s about managing the clutter so you can cook in your kitchen and actually use your garage.”

Put most of your energy into shared spaces, Ms. McCubbin advises her clients. For example, she and her husband enjoy cooking, so the kitchen needs to work well for both of them, she said. But he has an office and a bathroom that she rarely goes into so she doesn’t have to see the mess. (Many people don’t have that much space, she acknowledged.)

Focusing on function can be especially helpful for parents who don’t want to fight their children over messy bedrooms. Antonia Colins, who runs the website Balance Through Simplicity, has two teenage daughters, one of whom has cleanliness issues. So Ms. Colins has laid down basic ground rules, she said. For example, it requires tidy floors and a desk that offers enough space for studying. (She also expects her daughters to put their dirty laundry next to the washing machine and return all the plates and glasses to the kitchen.) But she looks the other way if the bed isn’t perfectly made or there’s a pile of clean clothes in the clothes Corner.

Sometimes clutter piles up because someone isn’t willing to put in the effort to clean and organize. Sometimes it’s because they have mental or physical obstacles, explains Michael A. Tompkins, psychologist and co-author of “Digging Out: Helping Your Loved One Manage Clutter, Hoarding and Compulsive Acquiring.”

Perhaps the most obvious example is hoarding disorder, but there are other connections between mental health and clutter. For example, people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or other executive dysfunction often struggle with excessive clutter. In such cases, patience and understanding can go a long way, he said.

Physical limitations can also be a factor. “I’m 73, so I can talk about it personally,” said Dr. Tompkins. “My ability to maintain my living environment has deteriorated as my physical performance has deteriorated, not because I am not still interested in keeping my living environment tidy and organized.”

He said it is important to notice any sudden or drastic changes in the cleanliness of a person’s home (or if they appear to be accumulating an unhealthy amount of things) and report them to a GP as they could indicate an underlying health problem .

If someone just doesn’t want to compromise on clutter, that can also be a cause for concern. There could be more fundamental relationship issues at play.

“It’s never just about the socks,” said Kiaundra Jackson, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles. “It’s really about poor communication skills or different needs or gender roles – or something much deeper.”

If a person is particularly strict about clutter in the home, it may be more about control than cleanliness, she said, and he or she may need to work on it in individual therapy. Couples therapy or simply working with an organizer can also help you better understand when you’ve reached a stalemate, Ms. Jackson said.

Although outside support can be helpful, learning new communication tactics can sometimes be enough to defuse conflict, Ms. Jackson said. Don’t bring up the topic of mess if one of the parties involved is hungry or tired, she said. And beware of nagging, which in her opinion consists of repeating the same thing in the same way over and over again.

“Try a different way, try a different tone, try a different time of day,” Ms. Jackson urged, as if she might be writing an email instead of complaining about clutter at the end of a long work week argue.

Be intentional when expressing your expectations, Ms. Jackson said, and review them often, because regular check-ins can prevent resentment from building. She declined to provide a specific time frame for these conversations, as it varies from household to household, but encouraged anyone entering a new phase of life (such as after the birth of a child or a job change) to think about expectations of the household.

“Even if there has just been a shift in preferences,” she said, “that needs to be expressed.”

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