By Debbie Carlson, Chicago Tribune
I’m not a hoarder, but I do have pack-rat tendencies with a few things.
Like books. For example, in third grade, my teacher pulled 18 library books out of my tiny school desk. Books still send out a siren song, and I usually can’t resist buying at least one when I’m at a store.
My husband, on the other hand, bragged when we were dating in our 20s that he could fit all of his possessions into a Chevette. That was a bit of an exaggeration, but when we got married, we had to (still do, to some extent) navigate between loving our possessions and not drowning in them.
A.J. Marsden, assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida, said this is an issue in the broader U.S. culture: We buy what we love, but it can eventually become too much, and our possessions start to own us.
“We definitely do develop emotional attachments to stuff. Once we’ve started developing that emotional attachment, it’s much harder to let things go,” she said.
This can lead to tension in the home, said Aida Vazin, a marriage and family therapist in private practice in Newport Beach, California, who recently worked with a couple on this topic.
My husband and I are pretty good at reducing clutter with some things, such as tossing broken stuff and donating old and little-used clothing, but we could — OK, I could — do better.
Marsden said people who have difficulty paring down need to recognize they have an emotional attachment to an object and then ask themselves why. Was it something from a deceased grandparent, a memento from a special trip? Next ask, will letting go of the object really matter?
“Ask yourself, if I didn’t have this, would I forget my grandmother, or would I forget that special trip that I had? And if the answer is no, which usually it is, you can detach yourself from it,” she said, adding that the detachment is critical.
Vazin said a person’s view toward possessions usually points to a deeper need. For the stuff person, it can be a need for protection and safety, or a fear of scarcity. The minimalist may feel entrapped by too much stuff.
Both Marsden and Vazin said it’s important for couples who argue about clutter to talk about attachment to things in an honest, nonjudgmental way. The person who objects to the clutter should propose a solution that works for both people, Marsden said.
Both sides need to give a little, with the pack rat realizing that, in the U.S., goods are easily accessible, and the minimalist accepting products if they’re organized. Organization goes a long way toward harmony, whether that means keeping a collection tamed or dumping the junk drawer from time to time, they said.
In discussing the couple she treated, Vazin said they came to realize that the person who was bringing in the stuff did it because she loved variety and objects that were aesthetically pleasing. Vazin’s solution was that the shopper needed to get rid of purchases after six months to a year to make room for new things. She targeted goods she no longer wore or that didn’t fit in her lifestyle. That way she could part with them more easily.
“The fact that her need wasn’t taken away from her was really helpful. It helped her partner who was a minimalist, because clutter wasn’t building up in the home,” she said.
At Vazin’s suggestion, to tackle my book habit, I looked at what books signified to me, which is the love of stories. Plus, having a book collection says something about me. By paring down my collection, I can keep the books that mean the most to me but also make space for new ones.
“It’s not like, ‘I can’t have my book collection ever again,’ ” she said. “It’s, ‘I get to have something new and fresh and different.’ It makes it exciting to get rid of something to open up space for new things.”