HELP! My partner is a hoarder! What can I do?

Q. How does one declutter and simplify when they live with someone who is panicked by the mere thought of removing something of questionably dubious value that might be needed thirty years from now?

A. This is a really tough question because it sounds like the person you are dealing with is a hoarder. Hoarders are very different from your average person who is messy, or has some clutter. A hoarder has deep-rooted, psychological reasons for hoarding, and they experience the kind of panic that you describe, when faced with getting rid of stuff.

So I suggest this approach when dealing with a hoarder.

First – understand that hoarding is a serious disorder. You will need to find it within yourself to develop both compassion and patience for your hoarding partner. I acknowledge that this won’t be easy, but it’s the only way through your situation.

Second – educate yourself about hoarding. The more you understand, the easier it will be for you to support and encourage your hoarding partner. A great place to start is Hoarders Anonymous at www.hoardersanonymous.org. I’ve included information from their website below.

Third, take care of yourself. While your hoarding partner cannot change overnight, that doesn’t mean you need to drive yourself nuts by living with the kind of clutter that a hoarder accumulates. Here are some ideas on how you can take care of yourself. After educating yourself about hoarding, you can have a compassionate and understanding talk with your partner, and hopefully get him to agree to make an appointment with a hoarding professional. A hoarding professional is not your average psychotherapist – its someone who specializes in helping hoarders.

Another way you can help yourself is by designating one room in your house for your hoarding partner to use for his stuff. Ideally, this should be a spare bedroom, garage, basement or whatever is available. It needs to have a door that you can close so you don’t need to look at the mess. Understand that your partner cannot throw things away without experiencing great distress and anxiety, so simply give him a room. Hopefully, with time and help, your hoarding partner will be able to let go of some stuff, but in the meantime, let him have a room.

Make two rules:
1. Any shared space in your house needs to be kept clutter free.
2. The room that you give to your hoarder must be kept in a safe condition. This means there cannot be items that pose a safety hazard such as tripping, and most importantly, the room needs to be kept free of items that could cause or inflame a fire.

Here is information from the Hoarders Anonymous website. I strongly encourage you to do further research by doing a Google search for “hoarding help” or “hoarding.”

“The Psychiatry Department at the University of California describes hoarding as a disorder characterized by one’s difficultly discarding items that appear to have little or no value. Hoarding is not simply an issue of aesthetics, but also can result in serious threats to the health and safety of the hoarder and anyone else who spends time in her home.

Compulsive hoarding is a mental disorder, deeply ingrained in the hoarder’s mind and habits. While it is vital that a hoarder receive support, you must recognize that you cannot “heal” her. A hoarder’s condition can improve with cognitive therapy and sometimes medications to treat an underlying condition, but as her friend your primary role will be as her supporter.

Hoarders are considered to have a form of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). While most people with OCD never hoard, those who do can have a difficult time unraveling their hoarding habit with their compulsive need to save things. Here’s how you can help.

Educate Yourself
The International OCD Foundation (IOCDF) offers information and other resources on its website. You can read through to get a better idea of what your friend is dealing with as well as what she faces as she attempts to control the disorder. Maryland Hoarding Cleanup also offers resources for those dealing with the problem.

Provide Practical Support

  • Help your friend find a professional in your area that deals specifically with hoarding issues, recommends IOCDF. Taking the first step can be the toughest. Offer to help her find someone she feels she can work with.
  • If you are physically able, offer to help with the actual clean-up process when the time comes.
  • Help your friend gather others who are willing to help with the clean-up. Give everyone an assignment. One person might be asked to find a way to dispose of the mess, while another goes on drink and food runs. Try to think of all those small details that she may be too overwhelmed to remember.
  • Do small things to let your friend know that you’re thinking of her. If you keep in mind how embarrassing a condition like compulsive hoarding is it, you can begin to understand how low her self-esteem is. She needs to know that you don’t judge her. Invite her over for a movie night, bring her a special coffee drink on occasion or find other ways to let her know she has a friend. Remind her that hoarding is just one component of her personality and not her entire identity.

Dig Deep for Patience
Psychology Today warns that patience is an integral part of helping a hoarder find a healthier way to live. While it would be wonderful if you could rent a dumpster and have everything out of the house by the end of the day, that’s not the way it normally works. Rather than expecting her to change her deeply entrenched behaviors overnight, be grateful for each tiny baby step she takes forward.

Understand That It Is a Process
The reason most hoarders say they began to keep unneeded items is because they thought maybe they would be valuable in the future or because they had sentimental value, reports The Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Even after her home is perfectly clean, your friend is still going to be dealing with the issues that led her to hoard in the first place. She has a great deal of work to do to get to the bottom of what’s causing her behavior, and can certainly use a friend during this time.”

This quoted information was originally posted on the Hoarder’s Anonymous website, here.
Image Source: Pixabay

12 comments

  1. Timely! Thank you. After reading this-and after watching some of the hoarder reality shows, I realize that we are just a bit overrun with stuff that does not have an assigned home. And that my tolerance for this is a bit less than my husband the prepper. I will just work on carving out a few perfect rooms and let the rest be a little cluttered. After all, no one is tripping over anything and you could still easily get the paramedics in and out! It is just harder to clean if you have to move stuff.
    My husband does feel more comfortable with the in-case stuff around, but is certainly not a clinical case after reading the definitions in the article. He was just brought up on a ranch by people who lived through the depression. He has been a firefighter for many years, so has a heightened sense of “pre-planning”.
    That being said, I think I will get up and go tidy something and toss a couple of items in the outbox.

  2. Fabulous article – just out of curiosity is there a specific problem with hoarding for children? We have a four year old that is the fourth child and so now has every toy imaginable taking over the house. I don’t want to part my daughter with her toys but with Christmas coming up and extended family….
    My wife has a thing for keeping the toys and I don’t want to be the bad guy but a strategy for painlessly de-cluttering would be great.

  3. Great question, and you are definitely not alone. We adults are overwhelmed with stuff, and we’re passing the problem on to our kids. So here’a the simplest way to deal with too many toys. Depending on the ages of your kids, sit down with each one individually and tell her or him you’re going to play a fun game. The game is to go around and choose her 5 or 10 (whatever number that feels reasonable to you) favorite toys. Part of the game is to find a way to display these toys. Do that with your child and keep it fun. The next part of the game is hiding the remaining toys so the displayed group of toys gets to be special for a week or month (you choose). Carefully store the toys that were not chosen. The game is to give full attention to the chosen toys for a week/month, and then after that period of time, your child gets to choose which stored toy will come out and replace one of the chosen toys! This way there are never more than 5 or 10 toys out at a time!

    This game teaches your child to discern what’s most important and thus, to not feel overwhelmed by too much stuff and too many choices.

    What a great skill to learn early! Let me know if this works for you.

  4. My husband has too many items all over the house and the basement is full. Our house is 4,000 sq ft. I cannot “not” clean and it’s very stressful. Electronics, radios, etc he likes to sell on eBay. He fixes and cleans them, but has not sold too much. I have told him to get moving and sell and he says he will, but dosen’t do it. He realizes he has too much stuff, but does not like to throw anything away. I used to have people over and had family dinners etc., but have not done so for a long time. My husband will be 75 yrs in March. I said we should move into smaller place, but says he has to sell everything first. I said this will never happen. We do travel and go to other people’s houses for dinner etc. I do not know what to do. Need help.

    J

    1. Hi Judith – I’m so sorry that things are so difficult with your husband’s hoarding. I don’t know if you have property around your house but if you do, you might consider adding a building just for your husband’s stuff. You could buy a pre-made structure from a place like Home Depot, or build a simple building. Either way, you can make it large enough for your husband and his stuff. If this is not possible, then can you help him organize the basement by adding shelves and storage so that you can move his stuff that takes over the house, into the basement? If this won’t work either, then as I suggested to Dave above, I suggest you, too, go to a hoarder’s anonymous meeting to learn how to deal with your hoarder. if you do go, please let us know what you learn, and my best to you.

  5. Hi Janet,

    Thanks for your advice! Reading your blog has helped me to better understand and sympathize with my SO who has hoarding tendencies.

    I have two questions on your rule #1 – Any shared space in your house needs to be kept clutter free.

    It’s easy to agree to a rule like this, but in my experience it’s very hard to follow. My questions are:
    1. How do you get to a point where the shared spaces are clutter free to begin with?
    2. More importantly, how do you deal with the situation when the rule is broken?

    Thanks!

    1. Dave you’re asking a great question. It’s easy to tell someone who isn’t a hoarder that shared spaces must be kept clutter-free, but when you’re dealing with a true hoarder, you’re dealing with a mental disorder. Nonetheless, my first question to you is, is your partner agreeable to having your shared space be clutter-free? And does she acknowledge that she has a problem? If she is agreeable, then you can, indeed, set some rules. First, you need to designate a room that’s just for your partner so she has a place to put all of her clutter. And then you two can agree that in fairness to your own sanity, she needs to do a sweep of the shared spaces every night and put her clutter in her own room. If she is not agreeable to this, or if she doesn’t acknowledge that she has a problem, then I suggest you go to a hoarder’s anonymous meeting yourself to learn how to deal with her.

  6. My husband of 4 years is a hoarder. I now understand some of the items he can’t let go because of memories. His space is in the garage and it is driving me insane walking around the clutter to get into the house. I now understand I need a lot of patience and an appt. with my psychiatrist to learn more about dealing with him.

  7. I have a husband who has so much stuff he builds more space in order to keep his stuff. We now have 4 new outside buildings full. I feel like I live at the junk yard. Trying really hard to understand. I will see a professional for myself. I have started a business, but i have to give up on it because people can’t come here.

  8. My husband is an expert at avoiding dealing with his “stuff”. After 32 years of marriage, I told him today, that if he doesn’t stop avoiding responsibility and begin dealing with his “stuff”, I will file for a divorce. I feel as if I have been held hostage, due to his overtaking of our entire house and garage, with his “stuff”. I haven’t parked in the garage in over 20 years! I can no longer do my art, due to his overtaking of space. He has told me that, “I will do whatever you want, yet he Always has a reason , or puts some other activity ahead of what he needs to do. I wake up in the morning, walk about the house for a bit, and BAM, the clutter, the dysfunctional use, (or non-use) of space right in my face. I am sick of not having a table to eat at! If anyone knows a way to legally “force” a spouse to begin the process of de hoarding, PLEASE let me know. I am starved for a life of simplicity, happiness, and productive creativity that is akin to true peace of mind. Blessings to all of you who live with TOO MUCH. May simplicity rein forever!

  9. I wound up moving to my own trailer…he is not welcome to bring anything over. We now live separately, as I was going stark raving mad. I am also calling code enforcement and letting the officials take care of it. I’m done.

  10. Does anyone here have advice on how to cope with knowing the stuff was more important than you are? I am no longer living with the hoarder but this broke my spirit.

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