I think my wife of 20 years is trying to kill me. She’s insisting we need her late mother’s dishes. We have a perfectly good set of everyday dishes, plus plates with ugly hand-painted fruit, other expensive dishes, boxed-up Fiestaware, and fancy china that’s been packed away since our wedding. So, we already possess over four dozen plates, and we’re just two people, and never have people over. Her mother’s dishes are only the latest addition. Our house is exploding with stuff: hundreds of books that will never be read, shelf upon shelf of glassware that’s never used, a basement of children’s toys that haven’t seen the light of day for years and never will. Is there something imbedded in female DNA compelling women to hoard things? As we acquire more and more stuff, I’m afraid a tipping point will be reached, and my brain will explode.
It must be tempting to give her an ultimatum: “Bring one more teacup into this house, and I’m renting a bull.” Unfortunately, she’s unlikely to respond by chucking plates at you. And, as you’ve surely observed, plying her with reason only makes her cling to all that crockery that much more tenaciously. That isn’t because she’s a woman. Hoarding seems to be a human instinct — one we share with squirrels. To the squirrels’ credit, they appear to have little interest in collecting a plate with what’s either a badly painted raspberry or a decorative take on a diseased pancreas.
Hoarders tend to be “perfectionistic and indecisive,” says hoarding expert Dr. Randy O. Frost. Because they’re afraid of making mistakes, they have difficulty assessing whether they’ll have future need for, say, those Richard Nixon-head salt and pepper shakers. Frost explains that saving allows them to avoid making a decision, and to avoid the chance that any decision will be the wrong one. For Frost and his colleagues, mere “hoarding behavior” like your wife’s crosses the line into a “clinical” hoarding problem when living spaces can no longer be used as intended and when there’s “significant distress or impairment in functioning.” One hoarder’s home was so jam-packed that her children had to eat with their plates on their laps on the few uncluttered chairs and both entrances to the house were blocked. Frost’s study didn’t say how the woman recognized she had a problem, but I’m guessing it was hard to deny once her kids had to climb out the window to catch the school bus.
Because you and your wife aren’t likely to end up like a 43-year-old Bronx man — trapped for two days under an avalanche of a decade’s worth of newspapers, magazines and junk mail — she isn’t likely to go for the cognitive behavioral therapy that’s helped some clinical hoarders. Probably your best appeal comes out of the work of 18th century economist Adam Smith, who noted that sympathy compels people to put others’ interests first. Tell her you understand these things are meaningful to her, but you’re unhappy and feeling smothered, and ask how can you work together to change that. Don’t expect miracles — like a sudden desire to hold a garage sale. Suggest storage. Cost? Well, as Frost told me, if she sees a tangible price for collecting — maybe even $200 a month — she may give that 22nd cutting board a harder look. And, even if storage costs $2,400 a year, maybe that’s a bargain price for sanity, marital harmony and avoiding the need to pay somebody to rob you of pallets of gravy boats and boxes of amputated Barbies while you’re at the Olive Garden.
Will you query me?
I keep hearing that when people get engaged they should get premarital counseling. I think that’s ludicrous — if you need couples counseling before getting married, don’t get married.
— Have Brain
For people in relationships, there are questions — “Isn’t it romantic?” — and there are questions: “What if I decide I don’t want kids?” and “When the children need private school, who will drop them off at the adoption agency?” People hate to muck up the fantasy with treks into grim reality, and premarital counseling gets them to address common issues that cause breakups and strife. Couples don’t go because they necessarily have problems, but because they’re looking to avoid them. If you’re averse to having a stranger ask you a lot of prying questions, you can use books: “Don’t You Dare Get Married Until You Read This!” by Corey Donaldson and “1001 Questions to Ask Before You Get Married,” by Monica Mendez Leahy. Don’t ask your partner every one; use the questions (and sections like money, daily routine, kids and traveling style) as jumping-off points about stuff to consider; for example, from Donaldson’s book, “Would it bother you if I got artificial breasts?” Answer: Well, it’s especially worrisome if you’re a man.