Wednesday, January 30, 2008

In some metro-area homes, clutterers are leaving their stuff about while neatniks are following in their wake, nagging and picking up things. These “odd couples” can turn to professional organizers for help, but focusing solely on neatening the house can leave more to be straightened out.

“Many people play out their power struggles, particularly married couples, through clutter,” says Jessica Duquette, principal and founder of In Perfect Order, a professional organizing and lifestyles management company based in Cape Cod, Mass., that provides phone coaching services nationwide. “It’s not about the stuff. … It’s about rebellion, grief, loneliness, rage and resentment.”

These couples need to realize that the clutterer may not be able to throw away anything, may need things kept out to see what is where or tend not to put things away, metro-area organizers say. The neatnik or neat freak has a higher need for order and likes to have everything organized and in its place, they say.

The couples have the right to set boundaries about their space and things, says Scott Roewer, president of the National Association of Professional Organizers’ Washington, D.C.-Metro Chapter. He also is president of Solutions by Scott LLC, a professional organizing company in Northwest that serves the metro area.

“If their habits and lifestyle is infringing on your living area or your happiness, it’s OK to ask for change,” Mr. Roewer says.

Clutterers and their neater partners can learn to live together in a way that accommodates both the messes and the order, metro-area psychologists and organizers say.

“The first thing is, it’s important that couples shift their thinking from ‘you and me,’ which can translate into ‘you versus me,’ into ‘us.’ In other words, the relationship is its own entity,” says Robert Scuka, executive director of the National Institute of Relationship Enhancement, a nonprofit educational corporation in Bethesda. “Think of what’s important for the relationship, not just, ‘What are my needs?’ ”

If couples think of the relationship first, they can recognize that both partners have legitimate needs and desires, Mr. Scuka says. To do this, they need to talk through the issue, identify what is important to each partner and work at a resolution that leaves both of them feeling that their primary concerns are being addressed, he says.

“One general strategy is to negotiate for your space, my space and our space,” says Victoria Robinson, owner-organizer of Clutterbucks, a professional organizing company in Falls Church.

The messy partner, for example, could have a room or area that the neater one would agree not to clean or organize, while common areas of the home, such as the living room or kitchen, would be kept neat enough for guests, Ms. Robinson says.

“The person who is very neat has to realize the other person is never going to achieve their standards. Likewise, the one who is the clutter person is not going to be able to expect the other person to put up with that much stuff,” says Cheryl Larson, owner of Cheryl’s Organizing Concepts, a professional organizing company in Clarksburg.

The clutter, for example, can be kept in a room or area that can be closed off from view, Ms. Larson says.

This room or area can be the clutterer’s “safe haven” from the sterile, neat environments that cause discomfort, says Amie Ragan, a clinical psychologist who works in private practice In Birmingham, Ala. Her doctorate is in clinical psychology.

Ms. Ragan recommends putting in writing how the common and individual spaces will be maintained.

“In a situation like this, nobody is right,” she says.

The arrangement needs to be explicitly agreed to and discussed, says Ariane Benefit , organizing coach for Neat & Simple Organizing Solutions in Bloomfield, N.J.

“It boils down to learning good communication skills and learning to negotiate,” Ms. Benefit says. “It’s about creating clear and specific rules you both agree to.”

In the common areas, for example, the clutterer and neat one can agree to be responsible for picking up their things and cleaning their own messes, says Janet Schiesl, owner of Basic Organization, a professional organizing company based in Centreville.

“You have to communicate how you want the space to be,” Ms. Schiesl says.

The couple needs to be considerate and respectful of the common and individual spaces by thinking through how one’s actions can affect others, says Cindy Post Senning, co-director of the Emily Post Institute in Burlington, Vt. She holds a doctorate in education.

“Communicate regarding all joint spaces and then commit to following through with that. So, if you agreed to not leave dishes in the living room, then don’t leave them,” she says.

At a more practical level, containing the clutter in the common areas can help keep it manageable, Ms. Duquette says. A coat rack, container or basket can be placed near the front entry to accommodate those in the household who tend to drop their coats, bags and briefcases on the first flat surface they see, she says.

“You want to make things so it goes with the flow,” she says. “For people who don’t care where stuff goes, you can’t expect them to put things away meticulously if they’re not that type of person.”

The first step in conquering the rest of the clutter is to purge — to get rid of unwanted and unneeded things while taking into account the available space for putting away the remaining stuff, Ms. Larson says. Examine the source of the clutter, such as several magazine subscriptions, and before purchasing new things, identify where they can go or what to throw out to make room, she says.

In addition to purging, Florence Feldman, owner of Clearly Organized, an organizing company serving the metro and Tidewater areas, recommends putting like objects together and finding an appropriate location, container or space for each category.

“Maintain the system. If you can’t maintain it, you have to go back to step one,” Ms. Feldman says.

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