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With help, messy mate can get a grip on clutter

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“MY PARTNER is a pack rat. What can I do about all the stuff?”

Such is a common complaint from men and women who go crazy trying to live with a mate’s clutter. Whether it’s subconscious or conscious, opposites do attract — neaties tend to gravitate toward messies, and vice versa.

If you’re a neaty, know that your messy cannot always help it. Dorothy Lehmkuhl and Dolores Cotter Lamping, authors of “Organizing for the Creative Person,” say our tidy tendencies depend on which side of the brain we use more: “The right brain produces a broad spectrum of intuitive and creative talents; the left brain produces those talents necessary for traditional organizing skills. It is only natural then, that people who prefer right brain activities will have developed more right-brain skills and may not have concentrated on learning left-brain organizing skills.”

You can guess that the neatly squeezed toothpaste tube is the product of a predominantly left-brain thinker.

With the knowledge that we cannot truly change another person, is there any hope? Are there gentle ways to encourage others to get organized? Or do we need to mark the room down the middle with tape like we did as children?

Here are some pointers:

Set an example
Clear your own clutter, and those close to you often spontaneously follow suit. The energy that is awakened by clearing out clutter can be inspiring. Young children will need your help if their space is out of control. In this case, set a timer and divide and conquer, with the child picking up clothes and you gathering books, etc.

The aim of education is action, and we act quicker when we understand how something benefits us. Put another way, when we realize the downsides to living in clutter, we have more incentive to do something about it.

Show your mate articles on the psychology of clutter and its harms, and she or he might finally take action. Or point out how the clutter causes real problems: frustration and stress due to losing things or being late, or embarrassment over the papers piled in the office.

Or point out the potential health issues of clutter. A few years ago, my daughter learned in science that “bacteria is everywhere — even on the floors of our house.” I pointed out to her that this includes the clothes all over her bedroom floor.

A note on children: It is reasonable to confine their personal clutter to their room and to regularly clean it. The teen’s need for autonomy and privacy vs. a parent’s need for order can be balanced by shutting the bedroom door.

Gotta maintain
Establish certain shared spaces as “must maintain” areas. This can be the kitchen sink and counters, formal living room and/or hall bathroom.

When there is disagreement about the organization of your space, talk about what is needed for each person to be content, and what each is willing to do to make things better. For the sake of the relationship, many people are motivated to change behavior.

On the other hand, avoid nagging — explain your needs once, and see what happens. For example, my kids unload the dishwasher. They sometimes have trouble fitting glasses in the cupboard — i.e., understanding which glasses can be stacked and where the taller glasses go — but their help is more important than perfectly lined-up glasses.

If you do need to correct, speak with respect and kindness. Messies are usually doing the best they can. Encourage any visible progress. Baby steps are good.