When Clutter Is an Obstacle to Marital Unity

Shown from behind, a dark-haired woman staring into a overstuffed closet
It is not uncommon for one spouse to have a propensity toward hanging on to things while the other is quick to get rid of nonessentials. How do you handle that debate in a healthy manner?

Eight years ago my wife, Kim, and I came to a life-changing realization: There is more joy in owning less than we can ever find pursuing more. Sharing the conviction that we wanted to live with less stuff and less distraction, we sold, donated or discarded most of our possessions: clothes, furniture, toys, décor, cookware. If it wasn’t useful or beautiful, we released it. We immediately experienced joy in our newfound freedom — less to clean, organize, manage and repair. A win for both of us! However, the decluttering honeymoon ended abruptly on the morning of my son’s birthday.

As my wife looked through the slim remnants of what had once been a jam-packed kitchen drawer, she discovered that I had taken the initiative a week earlier to clean out a few unused items. Apparently, I made a mistake by deciding to throw out football-shaped Jell-O molds just before my son’s sports-themed birthday party.

The tone of her voice from the kitchen clearly communicated that I had taken my minimalist pursuit one step further than she desired.

It is not uncommon for one spouse to have a propensity toward hanging on to things while the other is quick to get rid of nonessentials. The most common question I am asked when I speak on the benefits of owning less is how to how to handle disagreements between a husband and wife. Sometimes, the conflicts are significant; other times, minor. But my answer clarifies that what matters most is not a decluttered countertop, but that we handle our debate in a healthy manner.

The heart of the matter

Through the Jell-O mold incident, I discovered an important truth concerning possessions and relationships: Seeing everyone else’s clutter is easier than seeing our own.

Blind to his own accumulation, a husband might bemoan the piles of his wife’s belongings in the bathroom or a shared closet. And overlooking the abundance of her own possessions, a wife might be upset about her husband’s overflow of items in the basement or the garage. This tendency to recognize others’ faults while ignoring our own is what Jesus was getting at when He asked, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3)

Jesus understood people and relationships. He was calling us to recognize the way we naturally operate. He advised, “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5). He might have said,  “Deal with your tools in the garage before removing the Jell-O molds from the kitchen.”

Real traction

If you still find the amount of stuff in your home cluttering your marriage relationship, here are three ideas to help you achieve the freedom and unity you’re after:

1. Honor your spouse.

Engage in healthy discussions (not those born from frustration or impatience). Focus on the benefits and the positive changes that could come from decluttering. Communicate in a calm manner. After you clear up some misunderstandings, you may find your husband or wife begins to catch the vision of owning less.

2. Look for common points of agreement.

After you have decluttered your own possessions, look for shared spaces that you can tackle together. For example, you might ask, “Can we both agree there is too much stuff in this closet?” Or “Do you think I could tidy up this junk drawer?” Finding points of agreement helps couples get on the same page.

3. Expect it to be a process.

Give your spouse time and space. I’d guess there are things your husband or wife would like to change about you. Offer the same patience he or she has shown you.

Rarely do couples agree on everything, so humble compromise is the way to success. Although Kim and I experienced some bumps along the way, the joys we’ve experienced from living with less have far outweighed them. Since committing to owning less, our family has been strengthened by having more time, more money and more energy for what matters most.

Joshua Becker is the author of The More of Less: Finding the Life You Want Under Everything You Own.

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