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It's not you; it's your clutter

When is an item a significant object worth collecting or displaying on the mantlepiece — or saving to sell on eBay at a later date — and when is it clutter? And if it’s clutter, is it threatening your relationship? The subject of household clutter has been on our minds lately. Em was at a reading last week for the forthcoming book Significant Objects, a literary experiment that began its life on eBay. Basically, the editors (New York Times Magazine writer Rob Walker and Em’s old friend Josh Glenn of HiLoBrow.com) wanted to see if attaching a fictional backstory to a tchotchke would increase its value (turns out it did). We’ll write more on the book itself when it comes out next month.

Anyway, in an interview in the Home & Garden section of the New York Times, Glenn talks about the project and explains why he actually doesn’t have an abundance of objects, significant or otherwise, lying around his house (and he’d have a convenient excuse, as he and his editing partner raided flea markets and charity shops for the Significant Objects project): “I’ve been reading way too many women’s magazines for a client. And I think this is what they’re saying: ‘Stress causes cancer. Clutter causes stress.’ So, basically, clutter causes cancer.”

So that was a little tongue-in-cheek, perhaps, but therapists and the Wall Street Journal have his back. According to a recent article, clutter is as common a marriage issue as sex or finances; it’s just not talked about as much because people feel silly or petty bringing it up. Because, really, how do you tell someone that their overflowing in-box or their sprawling collection of nodding dogs is a threat to your marriage? (OK, maybe the latter should be a given.)

According to therapists, a couple’s approach to household clutter is, at its heart, a struggle about power and control. Who gets to make the rules about where clutter belongs and where it doesn’t? Is your dirty laundry marking your territory? What if the clutter relates to past relationships? And if you don’t want to keep a clean house — does that mean you don’t respect family life? Or does it just mean you hate to tidy up? (And then there’s the passive-aggressive move of taking all your partner’s clutter and dumping it in a big pile on their desk or nightstand.)

So long as you married your opposite Muppet, clutter will probably always be an issue for you. The best advice we picked up, and this is coming from one Chaos Muppet and one Order Muppet, is 1) designate clutter-free zones in the house (the kitchen counter top, for example, or the coffee table) and; 2) allow each other personal clutter zones that the other person has to pretend to ignore (your own nightstand, for example).

If all else fails, write a short story about your clutter to convince your partner of its value. If your other half isn’t impressed, you could always try selling it on eBay for a profit instead.

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photo via flickr