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Couples Therapy

When working with couples on organizing projects I often hear some judgment and blaming. When romantic partners don’t agree on how a home should be organized, there are a lot of “always” and “never” statements thrown around. “She always throws out my stuff,’ is something I’ve heard more than once. “He never puts anything away,” is another common bit of blaming.

Organizing as a couple can be difficult, but it often yields better, more lasting results than organizing with one partner only. Both partners need to be committed to the process. If one partner thinks organizing is unnecessary or a waste of time and money, the process is almost certainly doomed to fail. But in many cases, the unwilling party can be convinced to give it a try if he or she feels supported, respected, heard and is assured there will be a spirit of compromise.

Many relationships have one partner who is “the messy one.” The “Oscar” partner may not deign to put things into the cool containers the “Felix” partner purchases, but she might have a very productive creative life or lucrative career. The “Felix” partner may keep a beautiful home but be too anxious and compulsive to be successful in business. That’s the beauty of collaboration — instead of blaming each other for weaknesses, you can benefit from and revel in the strengths. Positive encouragement and emotional support are much more likely to result in less nagging on the one hand and the garbage being taken out promptly on the other.

If you’re the “Felix” and it is no big deal for you to tidy the kitchen, then follow Nike’s lead and “just do it.” The person who values order often has to take responsibility for implementing and maintaining it.

On the other hand, if you’re the “Oscar” and also bring home the bacon, watch out for the entitlement that can come with being the major earner and be mindful of the little things that drive your partner crazy. Would it kill you to use a coaster? Maybe you could concede a tiny bit, especially if Felix agrees to tone down the nagging and always manages to have your favorite trousers pressed.

The big “a-ha”: If, when all is said and done, your partner will not use a coaster, and the resulting rings on the tabletops bug the living daylights out of you, then purchase furniture that can take the abuse, or have glass cut to lay on top of the tables. The same advice applies to couples with young children. White carpet and expensive upholstery are not good choices. If you’ve got Oscars or mini-Oscars, your home should be furnished to take tough love yet stay somewhat presentable. Again, don’t fight it, embrace it.

Also, organization is often a matter of style. If there are no underlying issues in the relationship that would cause the messier partner to want to sabotage the neater partner’s organization, then what I usually see in Oscar-types is a real willingness to make simple changes. Oscar may not start using a labeler and filing his own medical records, but he will probably see the value in putting clean dishes away in the same places every time. Felix may be able to concede that the spoons and forks don’t have to nest perfectly as long as they make it into the silverware drawer.

Clear communication is the cornerstone to organizing a home with a partner. Asking for what you need (in a loving way without tears or yelling), offering solutions that are as simple as possible and agreeing to change an irritating habit of your own are essential footings in the foundation of a house in order.