"I'm a Hoarder and My Husband Hates It"

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The Counselor's Turn

"Lots of people are pack rats. We call it hoarding when it begins to negatively affect relationships, jobs, and friendships. There's technically no cure for the compulsion, but medication and therapy can help hoarders let go. Being on meds helped Sharon stay calm. But to save her marriage to Brian, she had to understand why she'd kept things and then learn how to discard them. And Brian needed to learn how to express his anger rather than retreating to his computer -- which was passive-aggressive behavior that left them leading separate lives.

"Sharon's hoarding was most likely rooted in her past, so we started by discussing her childhood. With distant parents, her only emotional connection was to her brother, Russell, and her grandmother. I asked Sharon about the first time she felt compelled to hold on to things. She recalled the time Russell, then 16, got into a huge fight with their mother. He left home for good and their mother threw out all his stuff. Sharon, who was only 10, retrieved it all from the trash and stored it in her room.

"I helped her make two important connections. First, keeping things gives her a sense of security, as if she's holding on to the people those objects remind her of. Second, the pain she feels when she throws things out is linked to how she felt when her brother left. Sharon began to realize that her disconnection from Brian had been driving her recent hoarding. The more he pulled away, the more stuff she kept.

"Brian finally saw that his wife wasn't 'lazy' -- there was an explanation for her irrational behavior. I also helped Brian understand that on an unconscious level, he'd thought he'd be able to rescue Sharon from her hoarding. 'A spouse's love isn't enough to motivate someone to change a behavior -- whether it's smoking, overspending, or hoarding,' I reminded Brian. 'People change when they are ready to.'

"From there I outlined a practical plan aimed at helping both of them. I urged them to eat dinner and do something fun together every day. On weekends they needed to go birding. The more connected Sharon felt to Brian, the less stuff she'd need to keep. They took my advice. As their bond deepened it became easier for Sharon to part with old belongings and she became interested in sex again.

"I cautioned Sharon not to set a big deadline for decluttering, because if she didn't meet the goal she might feel like a failure and lapse into obsessive thinking. Instead, I recommended that she set aside 15 minutes a night. 'Having a daily deadline keeps me focused,' Sharon admitted. Meanwhile, I encouraged Brian to keep in mind that throwing things out is a grieving process for his wife and to listen without judgment.

"I also helped them communicate more effectively. Sharon had to make specific requests ('I need help Saturday while I clean closets'), while Brian had to voice his frustration instead of shutting down. The direct approach worked. When Sharon left a pile of empty boxes next to their bed for more than a week, Brian calmly asked her to throw them out. 'Before counseling I would have seethed about it for weeks,' he said.

"These changes didn't come overnight. And things aren't perfect. Sharon still can't part with her remaining lawn signs, and the house isn't as neat as Brian would like. But they are proud of what they've accomplished. 'I'll always be a work in progress,' Sharon said, 'but at least I can control my hoarding and the house isn't an obstacle course.' 'Plus we understand each other better,' Brian added. 'It's great to get back to the good stuff.'"

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, April 2011.


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