Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Influence

Living with a Hoarder?

Dear David,

My husband and I have been together for about five years. While I noticed his tendency for piles around his own place prior to our marriage, this propensity has gotten much worse since we have been married. I’m no neatnik, but there is an uncomfortable level of clutter in our home; I have to walk around several stacks of stuff just to get to our bathroom. How do you confront a hoarder that you otherwise love and respect?

Drowning in My Own Home

Dear Drowning,

As I began to read your note I was imagining the messy housemates my wife and I have had over the years. But then you used the word “hoarder,” and described yourself as “drowning in your own home . . .” You are obviously in a much tougher spot than I first thought—and with someone you love. My heart goes out to you.

A Pack Rat or a Hoarder? I want to start with this distinction. If your husband is a pack rat, he can be reasoned with. He may want to hold on to things, and may need some time, but he has perspective. He’ll have some prized possessions that he won’t want to lose, but he won’t become anxious or emotional about losing the less important items.

However, if your husband is a hoarder, he will become anxious and feel threatened by losing anything. He won’t have a sense of proportion between more and less valuable possessions. Another clue that your husband is a hoarder is the impact on your home. If hallways and rooms no longer serve their normal function—if the stacks of stuff make it hard to get around—it indicates that your husband is a hoarder.

Hoarders Need Professional Help. Hoarding is commonly associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and requires treatment from a mental health professional. Professional treatment often combines medications (SRI—Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) and cognitive behavior therapy. The success rate of this combination of treatments is quite good.

Getting a Hoarder to Treatment. How do you get your husband to admit his problem and agree to enter treatment? I’d suggest an approach called Motivational Interviewing. This approach recognizes that you can’t give your husband a “motivational transplant.” You can’t give him your motivation; he has to develop his own. The key to success is to create a safe environment where your husband can explore his own motivations for changing.

Below are three principles you can use to create this psychological safety:

• Ambivalence is normal.
• People have a right to make their own choices.
• Nothing will happen until the person is ready to change.

I’ll illustrate Motivational Interviewing with a technique Michael Pantalon uses in his book, Instant Influence. Ask your husband a question similar to the one below:

“How interested are you in getting some professional help? Rate your interest on a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 means not at all interested and 10 means very interested.”

Make sure he gives you a number. If he responds with a 1, then ask what it would take for him to give it a 2. This gets him to tell you what he needs before he’ll be ready. The most common answer will be greater than 1. If he picks a 2 or higher, then ask him why he didn’t pick a lower number. This gets him to reveal that he does have some motivation to get help. Make It Safe for him to explore the reasons behind this motivation. Often, he will begin to convince himself of the need for change.

Use All Six Sources of Influence™. Our research here at VitalSmarts shows that change is far more likely when you combine multiple sources of influence. While I would not use our Six Source Strategy instead of professional treatment, I think it can be a powerful aid. Think of ways you can apply all Six Sources of Influence to help your husband change.

• Source 1—Personal Motivation: Get your husband to describe long-term goals for your home and your relationship. Then encourage him to see how his current behavior won’t get him to his own goals. Emphasize safety and autonomy; he needs to own this change project. Seek to build engagement and a collaborative focus.
• Source 2—Personal Ability: Work with your husband to establish guidelines for what the house looks like and when a possession will be relinquished. Remember, the more he is the one creating the guidelines, the more he will own them. Create these guidelines up front instead of making a separate decision about each possession. Begin with guidelines for the least-valuable possessions, and then work up to more controversial items.
• Source 3—Social Motivation: Avoid setting yourself up as a nag. Instead, get your husband to agree on days and times when he will clean up areas and reduce possessions. For example, he could set aside a half hour every Wednesday at 8pm. That makes the calendar and the clock the cue, instead of putting it all on you.
• Source 4—Social Ability: Work together. Be a coach, not an enforcer. Let your husband make the decisions, and then you can take the actions—such as donating, selling, or discarding the possession. Make it as easy for him as you can.
• Source 5—Structural Motivation: My wife and I use the simple rule that we can’t bring something into our condo until we get rid of something else to make room. A rule like this can create rewards for getting rid of things.
• Source 6—Structural Ability: Work with your husband to create a checklist he can use to track and monitor his progress. This checklist could include “no stacks on the floor, no broken items in the house, etc.” Make the items as specific as possible so little judgment is involved.

I hope this is helpful. Your husband needs you now more than ever.

Best Wishes,

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4 thoughts on “Living with a Hoarder?”

  1. Ken Donaldson

    Great article and much appreciated. My mom is 90 and has been a “border hoarder” for many years (my dad’s way of coping over the years was to build more cabinets to store it all in…they had LOTS of cabinets in the end), with the level of it worsening as the years have gone by. I’m a fairly emotionally intelligent mental health professional, so I get all the implications. However, as you know, when it’s your own blood, it can be (and usually is) much more challenging. I usually come to this conclusion: She’s not going to change (I have brought in people to help and she’s stone-walled every one of them, including me) and I need to focus on acceptance to prevent resentment and ongoing frustration. However, I have also begun to develop the art of “therapeutic deception.” When she’s not there, I subtly take some of her “stuff” (mostly paper, boxes, articles, coupons, etc.) and throw it away. It doesn’t feel good, but it feels better than having her stuff sprawl until it reaches the pint of her tripping over it and therefore becoming dangerous. Would love to hear your thoughts and feedback regarding all that. BIG thanks proactively!!

    1. David Maxfield

      Your caring and empathy for your mother come through loud and clear. I think that having your heart in the right place will show in your actions.

      I agree that there are times when the advice I gave doesn’t apply. You bring up one of these circumstances: When the need for them to change is relatively low: a.) Your mother is elderly enough that the problem won’t get much worse, and b.) You can cope with the situation in a way that keeps her safe.

      Another time when my advice doesn’t apply is the opposite of yours: When the need for them to change is especially high–for example, they are creating an immediate threat to their own safety or to the safety of others. In these circumstances someone needs to play the enforcer role–to take immediate action to restore physical safety. Often, loved ones allow unsafe conditions to continue out of love for the hoarder.


  2. Candy Sullivan

    My husband is a hoarder. He pretty much confines his hoarding to his side of the bed/bedroom, his truck, his half of the garage. I am no neat freak by any stretch of the imagination, but we have bugs in the garage and I know it’s because it’s disgusting (my side is reasonably organized.) He had 2 strokes last year – nothing physical to look at, but the personality changes – the neuro said this was part of it. He gets very angry that I bug him, when it has been 2 years. Our friend took a week off to help us organize and at the end of the week we dumped 500 lb. of trash and still barely made a dent. Our sprinkler has been broken for 2 years but no one can get to the unit because of his ‘stuff’. We may have to move from this rental and I don’t want to have happen what happened the last time – when we paid to store GARBAGE for 7 years (yes, it was trash – I was taking care of my mother, said this big pile was to go curbside. When we moved from that storage unit, I discovered our kitchen trash can with GARBAGE in it.) If the garage was clean he would feel better but I can’t get him to see that getting it done once and for all would be beneficial to his mental health.
    I think he would benefit from medication and hope that he can get on something when we go to the neuro which is in May.
    This is more of a vent. Sorry.

    1. Mary B.

      I’ve been married for 17 yrs. to a hoarder, who is also controlling and immature. It’s just gotten worse. Anything I say is incorrect. I’ve given up. Can’t do it anymore as I’m not well. I try to “act as if” everything is fine–can’t do any more than that. I would rather live in one clean room with my two sweet cats; however, that wouldn’t work either. Some days I hope my life on this old earth is short. No victimization–just wish it were my time to go.

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