How to find peace when you’re living with a packrat

Woman with tons of clothes

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Many people who try to simplify their lives and declutter their living spaces find that the most difficult obstacle in their quest for simplicity isn’t the clutter itself … but a significant other or roommate who isn’t on board the simplicity train.

Living with a packrat can be downright frustrating for many simplifiers.

by Leo Babauta

Recently, reader Jasi asked, “I live in a big house with tons of things, mostly my husband’s. He’s not on board with my lifelong minimalism and quest for a simple lifestyle. Damn shame I adore him so. Any suggestions for finding peace with a packrat?”

This is actually an issue that many people making positive life changes will face: they want to make changes, but others in their life don’t want to make the changes. If you have a spouse who likes to spend a lot but you’re trying to be frugal, or a spouse who eats fatty, sugary foods when you’re trying to eat healthy, it can be very difficult.

But there are ways to live in peace, instead of constant war, with a packrat. Let’s look at several strategies — and you should find the strategy that applies best to you.

4 strategies for living with a packrat

Strategy 1: Win them over

This is the strategy I’ve used with success with my wife, Eva — and it’s the ideal strategy, of course.

I didn’t force Eva to join me in any of my changes, but partly because of inspiration from me, and partly because she’s a strong-willed person herself, in the past year or so she has joined me (or worked on her own) to eat healthier, exercise (for the first time in her life!), reduce clutter (it’s a blast!), become organized, and achieve her goals. I am extremely proud of her.

The strategy is to inspire your significant other to join you in your positive life change. You cannot change someone, or force them to change. You can’t nag or bully. However, here’s what you can do:

  • Inspire. Show them what a great thing this change is for you, how it has helped you and made you happier. Show them how much of a burden is lifted when you get rid of clutter, how simplicity is so much more calming and pleasing. Show them how excited you are about this.
  • Inform. Talk to them about what you’re going through, why you’re doing it, what it requires, how it makes you feel. Offer to give them some reading material, ask if they’re interested. If not, don’t force it on them. Just encourage. I have sent Eva links from time to time that she might be interested in, and she actually reads some of them.
  • Ask for help. Making a positive life change is always easier and more likely to be successful if you have support from a loved one. Be direct and ask your significant other (or roommate if that’s the case) for their help. Many times, people will give you help if you ask for it. Don’t make it seem like you’re trying to change them, but that you just want their help in making your change.
  • Make it a team effort. If they are open to the change, and want to read more about it, ask them if they’d like to join you. Sometimes, they will! Suggest that instead of you making this change alone, the two of you do it together, as a team. It can be great fun! Eva and I love decluttering together.
  • Be patient. Just because you’re excited about making a change, doesn’t mean your partner will be. You have to expect that — people move at their own pace. Just be encouraging, and months down the road, you never know — your partner might start to come around. Until then, don’t be negative at all if you can help it — negativity works against you.
Packrat - too much stuff in garage storage space
Picture by AndreyPopov/Deposit Photos
Strategy 2: Zone defense

If the first (and ideal) strategy doesn’t work, or at least hasn’t worked yet, and your partner or roommate refuses to join you in decluttering, work out a compromise.

A compromise is not ideal — compromises never are. But it can keep both of you sane, so you might give it a try: split up the house into zones. For example, the living room and kitchen might be yours while the home office and bedroom are theirs, or you might even have zones within a room. Again, not ideal, but it’s workable, and I’ve heard of people doing this with success.

Within your zone, you are free to do with it what you want. Declutter, or hoard, it’s up to you. Decorate it how you want. Keep it as clean or as dirty as you want. But no one is allowed to violate the other’s zone, and if you make a mess in the other person’s zone, you must agree to clean it up right away.

This can be a permanent or a temporary solution.

Strategy 3: Find zen in the center of chaos

This is much more difficult than the first two strategies, but I’ve also known people who have learned to use it: just learn to live with their packrat ways. Accept that you cannot change them, but that you love them, and just accept their clutter and mess.

It’s difficult, I know. It takes a lot of meditation, a lot of soul-searching, a lot of deep breathing. It may take months or years to learn this, but consider that if you don’t, you may lose your sanity. Accept what you cannot change, and change that which you can.

One way to live with this strategy is to ask your packrat loved one if you can declutter certain things, and keep their clutter hidden in cabinets. Then, you just need to worry about them leaving things around the house — if you don’t like it, you’ll need to clean up after them. If you can live with it, then don’t clean up.

If you choose this strategy, I suggest 1) doing some daily meditation or exercise to find your center of peace; and 2) having at least one corner of the house that is your own, that you can spend time in, reading or meditating or working, without clutter. Your little zone of peace.

Strategy 4: Ditch ’em

This, of course, is the most drastic of the strategies, and is strictly a course of last resort.

There are times when two people grow apart, and their lifestyles and views on life and hopes and dreams are no longer compatible. In these cases, it could be beneficial to both parties if they go separate ways, especially if staying together causes more harm than it does good.

Now, I’m not recommending that you get a divorce. I would never recommend that — although I have heard of people who have done this because they can no longer live together (due to clutter and other issues).

I think this strategy is usually more appropriate for roommates, as they don’t have the issues of a relationship and legal and financial ties to separate. But if things have gotten so bad that you are no longer happy in your relationship, you should consider all options.

Leo Babauta

Leo Babauta

Leo Babauta is a father, husband, writer and the creator of Zen Habits. Zen Habits is about finding simplicity in the daily chaos of our lives. It’s about clearing the clutter so we can focus on what’s important, create something amazing, find happiness.

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