Next Avenue: Don’t let downsizing and decluttering destroy your relationship

This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org.

The plaintive bleats of a truck backing into the driveway heralded the arrival of a large metal dumpster, clanking loudly as it slid into place. My partner, Doug, scoffed, “We’ll never fill that!”

But gentle reader – we would fill three more.

The need to downsize presents itself in many ways: deciding to move to a smaller space; the beginning or end of a relationship; tackling a parent’s estate, or just deciding to finally take charge of your junk so that someone else won’t have to.

Doug and I had been together two years when he decided to put his house up for sale since it was too expensive to maintain on his own. Between us, we had nearly 60 years of married life under our belts, but the joint trauma of “gray divorce” had left us both still feeling skittish about living together so he decided to opt for an apartment.

But as chance would have it, his house sold immediately and suddenly there was a firm moving date.

Many things in life make me anxious, but decluttering is not one of them. I’ve made four transatlantic moves and learned to purge as I go, so the process seems intuitive. I do understand, though, that many people really struggle with this and particularly when nostalgia is involved.

Also see: We are in our late 50s and have retired with less than $1 million: ‘Did I jump the gun?’

Decluttering can be overwhelming

I already knew that Doug was sentimental, and this is one of the things that had made me fall in love with him. And, I had seen his basement which was packed floor to ceiling with … stuff. Not everything was his, since the house had been the family home for many years. But there was also, incredibly, a costly storage unit. And although Doug’s superpower is compartmentalizing (ironically!) he became overwhelmed and unsure how to begin.

Watching someone struggle with this slow process is excruciating. There were boxes of childhood drawings to sort through – both his own and those of his children. While I delighted to see his first Crayola cowboys riding across the page, it was clear only part of the posse could join him on his move.

We then uncovered a 1963 Plymouth Fury car model (partially completed, of course); two kettles, neither of which worked; multiple incarnations of Trivial Pursuit games; VHS tapes of “important” baseball games; curled scrolls from fortune cookies (“We had the Moo Shui pork that night!”); ancient keyboards stacked like pizza boxes; User Guidelines for appliances long since departed; carafes that will never fit beneath another coffee maker; tangles of evil-smelling Christmas tinsel and yellowing magazines hailing a new product called Brylcreem.

And that was just the first shelf.

Doug also had a distorted sense of “treasure.” He was keen to show me a portable “fat-back” TV that still worked and certainly, when plugged in, the power sizzled on. However, I couldn’t help but notice that NBC news anchor Lester Holt’s handsome face was being obscured by a giant number 8 – in red.

“You don’t even notice that after a while,” he shrugged happily, noting my frozen expression. “The kids will love this, right?”

I immediately recalled that “help me” look in their eyes when he’d tried to send them home with some especially hideous lamps, better suited to a 1950s funeral home. This is not how you encourage your kids to visit more often.

Also see: To defuse the culture wars, we should start by decluttering our language of meaningless words and phrases

Designate piles, use a timer and other ideas

Like many women, I sought counsel at my place of work and received some wildly varying advice. One woman, frustrated with her husband’s increasing collection of rags, decided to secretly discard a few herself each week. But one day he came up from the basement and asked in a panicked voice: “Where are my rags?” This story did not end well.

Another situation involved a husband who insisted on devoting an entire cupboard in the garage to what appeared to be a gleaming wall of silver. Closer examination revealed towers of flattened toothpaste tubes, reserved for some unknown future need. (And when was the last time anyone saw a metal toothpaste tube?)

More than a few chums thought I was being “too soft.”

“I’d have that stuff on the curb so fast,” one friend commented over wine. “Do it as he sleeps!”

This did not strike me as the ideal tone for a trusting relationship and I also had no interest in assuming responsibility for items that weren’t even mine.

In the end, I chose the middle road. I would be fine with whatever he wanted to keep (and in fact, had already cleared space in my own basement for extra storage) but something – a lot of something – was going to have to go.

Related: Are you tired of Marie Kondo’s ‘does it spark joy’ question? Here are 5 other ways to declutter

The closing deadline was certainly key and within days, Doug was sorting through clutter like a blackjack dealer in Vegas.

Here are a few tips that worked:

  1. Challenge statements such as: “This could be worth something!” or “I’m going to frame/fix/upholster that someday.” Really?
  2. Designate piles on the floor for garbage, recycling, thrift store. You may also need one for “To Be Determined” but make it the smallest and deal with it as you go. Facebook has Buy Nothing sites in many communities where neighbors can post unwanted treasures for free.
  3. Use a timer. Hokey as it sounds, a little bit, every day gets the job done and a time limit makes the commitment less onerous.
  4. Know what you have. Label contents on a paper affixed to boxes or better yet, clear plastic bins.
  5. Consider this – if you love something so much, WHY is it in storage? We emancipated a beautiful vintage radio, an antique print and a handmade toy stable.

A few years later, Doug moved into my house. While the basement here is not pristine, it’s no longer the great unknown. Many times, we’ve laughingly recalled those “Dumpster Days” and each time Doug shakes his head in disbelief: “I still couldn’t tell you what I had.”

Sue Sutherland-Wood has contributed to many publications, both in print and online, and her short fiction has won awards. Read more of Sue’s work on her blog

This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org, © 2022 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.

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