One of the major sources of conflict in many relationships is that often-avoided elephant in the room…CLUTTER! As with most taboo issues, clutter can sneak into your life very quietly. And, before you know it, the small piles on desks and on living room floors grow exponentially.

To better understand this issue, it’s important to realize that people relate to their possessions in different ways. For some of us, being surrounded by an abundance of certain items provides a sense of comfort and security, and for others, an overwhelming amount of stuff can mean chaos and lack of control. Some people actually grieve the loss of their belongings due to their emotional connection, whereas others feel a sense of liberation and freedom.

If you are in one of those “opposites attract” relationships, the site of decluttering can become a war zone. Partners often wind up feeling disrespected, ashamed, guilty or angry, and are perpetually walking on eggshells. When clutter runs rampant, power struggles often ensue and relationships may suffer.

When clutter turns into relationship conflict, couples often:

  • Become isolated and withdrawn since they feel embarrassed about inviting friends and family.

  • End up in fights with accusations and complaints. Feel emotionally depleted since they spend so much energy and time either in conflict or in a state of unspoken resentment about the clutter.

  • Find it difficult to just chill out when they are surrounded by such a chaotic mess and are constantly reminded that they need to do something about it.

  • Avoid intimacy since the clutter literally gets in the way—it’s tough to make love in a bed piled high with old magazines and dirty laundry.

The good news is that there are many ways for couples to downsize and get rid of clutter.

Communication tips for couples:

  • Talk about and develop a specific plan—signed by both of you—with days, times, and tasks written down. No, it won’t hold up in court, but by doing this you will show each other that you are committed to the decluttering project.

  • Share your feelings about certain items for which you have intense emotional connections, so your partner has a better understanding.

Practical tips

  • Take photos of any special items before you part with them and then make a memory book. After all, it’s often the emotional connection that’s important, not necessarily the item itself.

  • Keep parts of a collection versus the entire collection—just your three favorite VHS movies instead of all of them.

  • Give items to those individuals and organizations that will use and appreciate them.

  • If you have time, sell items on EBay or Craigslist. As tempting as it may be to make some money on your items, you can use up vast amounts of precious time in taking photos, writing descriptions and dealing with buyers. You need to do an analysis and decide if it makes sense.

  • Avoid renting a storage facility. For some, it is a freeing thought, but for most it is a significant waste of money and you are simply postponing your decluttering issue.

  • For a price, enlist the aid of services such as 1-800-GOT-JUNK or rent a dumpster.

  • Involve an impartial third party, perhaps a mutual friend or even a professional organizer who can guide you through the process. It may cost money, but for many couples it’s well worth it.

Finally, always remember that there will come a time when you must deal with the clutter. For example, when you want to move from your apartment or sell your house, it will be imperative to clear out everything. You certainly don’t want to move the clutter into your new space. And, if the worst happens and your relationship comes to an end, would you want others rummaging through your belongings?

So stop procrastinating, make a plan, and get it done. And, if you find that your attachments bring you and your relationship too much pain, seek professional help from a therapist or life coach.

Downsizing will ultimately give you more time and more room in your home and in your heart.