"My life is overrun with stuff," said Sharon, 43, an accountant who's been married for 10 years. "I save things most people would toss because they remind me of good friends and good times. My house is jammed with mementos. Until recently I had 30 lawn signs from when I worked for Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign.
"For most of our marriage my husband, Brian, didn't complain. But that's changing. He just got rid of all but two of my Hillary signs and my late grandmother's handmade lace tablecloths — without telling me. Those were some of my most prized possessions!
"It was cruel. Brian knows I can't help my behavior. I have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Apart from hoarding, I obsess about things and have trouble concentrating. I was diagnosed at age 30 and my doctor prescribed medication that reduces my anxiety and improves my focus. That turned off the worry switch in my head, but it didn't stop the hoarding.
"I want to get my hoarding under control. But deciding whether to keep or discard stuff like an old driver's license or a map from a city I've visited is agony. Brian wants me to pitch things without reminiscing about them first. I wish he'd be more supportive.
"Brian and I met through an online dating site. It was love at first e-mail: We both had lonely childhoods, an interest in politics, and an unusual hobby — bird-watching. My hoarding had scared away other boyfriends, so at first I only met Brian in public places. But on our sixth date I told him about my OCD. The first time he saw my cluttered apartment, he looked like a deer in headlights but said, 'It's okay.' I thought I'd hit the boyfriend jackpot!
"We got married eight months later. I moved into Brian's condo but still paid rent on my apartment for two more years — it took me that long to clean it out. We rented a storage container for the stuff I kept. Brian hated spending the money but he didn't pressure me. We got along great.
"Three years ago we'd finally saved enough money to buy a house. We emptied out the storage locker and we took that stuff to our new home. That's when things started to change. Brian griped about the clutter and badgered me to get rid of things. 'Why can't you be normal?' he blurted one day. 'Because I'm not normal,' I snapped.
"Since then Brian has been avoiding me. He gets home from work before me, so he eats alone and plays computer games all night long. I eat in front of my computer, then I stay online or read a book. We don't talk about anything but finances and groceries — we don't even watch TV together anymore. If I ask Brian to go bird-watching, he says he's too tired or needs to catch up on work. I feel so unloved! I love Brian and want to be close to him, but he has shut me out. I stopped having sex with him as a result, and if anything, my hoarding has gotten worse. Frankly, I don't know how much longer I can stay in a lonely marriage."
"I do love Sharon," said Brian, 40, a software engineer. "She's beautiful, smart, and kind. She's also the only woman I've ever met who likes birding as much as I do. Sharon is the perfect wife in every way except for her hoarding. She promises to clean up the mess, but she never gets around to it. I understand that she has OCD. But I also wonder whether part of her problem is laziness.
"I shouldn't have tossed out her stuff while she was at work. But I didn't do it to be mean. The garage had gotten cluttered to the point where there was barely enough room to park my car. I get the feeling my wife is more attached to her possessions than she is to me. Otherwise she'd throw things out so we could live more comfortably. Sharon's hoarding isn't just hurting our marriage — it's hurting our social life, too. We haven't made new friends since we moved. I'd be embarrassed if people saw our house, and I'd also worry that they'd break their necks — the place is an obstacle course! The other night I had to move a huge stack of newspapers just to sit down at the kitchen table. And I'm afraid of what I might find under the pile of empty pizza boxes parked next to Sharon's computer.
"I was shocked the first time I saw Sharon's apartment. It looked as if it had been hit by a tornado. Boxes, clothes, papers, and books were piled everywhere. I thought it was sad that she lived like that, but I figured she'd change her ways once we were married. Pretty stupid of me, right? After the wedding I was upset that she insisted on keeping her apartment. In retrospect, it was a huge red flag about how irrational she could be. I'm still mad about the money we wasted on rent and the storage locker.
"Over the years I've tried to help Sharon sort through boxes. Most of the time I've been polite in suggesting that she toss certain things. I've only pressured her when an item seems worthless. It's always the same old story. Sharon is too attached to ever get rid of it. Or she's not ready yet, and she can't explain why. When we were about to move to our new house, I found a Blockbuster membership card that had expired in 1995. When I went to throw it out, she grabbed it and screamed, 'Leave my things alone!'
"Helping Sharon is pointless. So is arguing — she won't listen to reason. Her hoarding has gotten worse and I've pretty much given up. But I can't get past my disappointment. Or anger. And it's hard for me to be open and loving. If I tell Sharon how much I resent her hoarding, I'll hurt her feelings. I'd rather play computer games to release stress than hang out together. Sharon caught me off guard when she first suggested counseling. I'm not thrilled about talking to a therapist, but if it will help Sharon stop hoarding and get our marriage back on track, it's worth a try."
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.