Can This Marriage Be Saved? I’m a Hoarder

March 10, 2011 at 3:47 pm , by

Many of us have a tendency to hold on to objects and items we know we should just ditch: receipts for gifts from three Christmases ago, cassette tapes we’ll never play again, the 10-plus-year-old leaky rubber boots that now only function as doorstops. But for someone like Sharon, in this month’s Can This Marriage Be Saved? column, clutter is more than just a hassle – it’s a relationship-wrecking issue that engulfs her living room and her life.

Sharon is a 43-year-old accountant who’s been married to Brian, 40, for 10 years. She’s been a hoarder for their entire relationship, but Brian has only recently gotten fed up with the mess.

Sharon’s side She can’t bear to throw away her things because she associates many of them with particular memories, and she’s enraged that her husband threw some out without asking her first. She has obsessive-compulsive disorder and that, combined with her anxiety about getting rid of her things, has caused her hoarding to get out of control. She wants to learn to let go of all the stuff, most of which she admits is junk, but it gives her such overwhelming fear that she physically can’t do it. Sharon and Brian met online and fell in love fast, bonding over their lonely childhoods and shared hobbies, and Brian has known of her problem since the first time he saw her jam-packed apartment. He didn’t voice his complaints until they bought a home three years ago and had to pack their belongings to move. Now, he avoids his wife completely, preferring video games and work to her company. She feels totally isolated, alone and desperate to change.

Brian’s side He loves his wife and thinks she’s perfect in every way, except for her hoarding. He threw some of her things in the trash because he couldn’t find room for his car in the garage, not because he’s spiteful, and he’s tired of her empty promises to clean up the place and thinks maybe she’s just lazy. Brian naively thought the hoarding would improve after they married, and now they can’t even make friends in their new neighborhood because they’re ashamed to have company over. He’s tried to help her sort through things and get rid of them, but her irrational response to discarding anything made him give up quickly – and now, he’s given up on her, too.

The counselor’s view Lots of people are packrats, but the habit becomes a problem when it negatively affects a person’s life. There’s no cure for hoarding behavior, but people like Sharon can learn to let go of their things and live more normally. Sharon’s only real connection in her childhood was to her brother, who left home as a teenager and never returned. Her mother threw away all his things, and young Sharon retrieved them all and kept them, setting her up for a life of hoarding as a means to hold on to her beloved brother. When Sharon revealed this, Brian realized his wife wasn’t lazy but had a real problem, and he accepted that his love was not enough to “fix” her. The therapist recommended Sharon take 15 minutes a day to organize an area of the house, which gave her guidelines without being restrictive, and told Brian to listen to his wife talk through her attachments to her stuff without judging her. Brian stopped being so passive-aggressive about his anger and told Sharon when he was feeling overwhelmed by the clutter, and Sharon is making progress, with the help of counseling, to part with some of her things and restore order to their home.

Don’t miss the full column in the April issue of LHJ, on newsstands now! Follow us on Twitter @MarriageBeSaved for daily relationship advice, quizzes, date ideas and more.

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