For more than 15 years I have been in the business of helping people declutter and organize their homes. One of the most common areas I’m asked to tackle is the overflowing and cluttered closet. And one of the greatest challenges comes when a couple shares that space.

For this reason I was intrigued when my friends at SpareFoot conducted some research that confirms something I’ve witnessed time and time again: 50% of couples fight about the amount of space their partner’s possessions take up. Sound familiar? Frankly, I’m a little surprised it’s only 50% …. maybe the others just didn’t want to talk about it!

Fighting Over Stuff

It’s easy to fight about “stuff” – especially when it’s spilling into the master bedroom, a shared space that should be one of the most relaxed an intimate in the house. Some of this might sound familiar: dirty laundry lying on the floor, clean laundry piled up but not put away, piles of shoes (or bags or ties or shirts), and clothes that are never worn taking up valuable closet space.

All of these things are impossible to ignore and often end up staring us straight in the face when we open the bedroom or closet door. Add to that that many studies have proven that when we see clutter, our tension levels shoot up (by the way, the reverse is true too – when we see a neat, organized space we feel a sense of calm). So, with all of that clutter it’s no surprise there’s an increase in tension, and with the rise in tension fights often erupt.

Here’s the truth though: the fight over the amount of space that you each have in your closet is often symbolic of something deeper going on.

Closet Space Diplomacy

So, if you’re one of those people who routinely is annoyed by the amount of space your partner’s possessions take up in your shared closet, take a deep calming breath and consider some of the following ways of dealing with that.

First up, you need to talk to your partner about the situation. You already knew that, right?

But, here’s the deal: you need to communicate in a way that makes it not about winning an argument or proving that you were right all along, but instead is about your shared values. You chose this person as your partner because you two generally see the world in a similar way. Your shared values are what bind you together. Fighting for your relationship is way more important than fighting for how many shelves you’re each entitled to for your sweaters, underwear or T-shirts.

In fact, when the argument focuses on the amounts of possessions you each have, you’re automatically creating a situation where there has to be a winner and there has to be a loser.

For example: “You have three shelves for shirts and I only have one. You need to give up one of your shelves so we have the same amount of space.”

That argument can easily become about who has more power, control and ownership over the space. No one wants to be the loser in that kind of debate .… so, what ends up happening is that people either dig their heels in on their position or they start an unhealthy negotiation: “OK, I’ll agree to get rid of ten pairs of shoes if you’ll get rid of all of your old ripped up t-shirts.”

A discussion like this is no longer really about clothes but more about how much ground each will cede. The winner feels victorious and the loser feel resentment. That way of bargaining doesn’t work in the long run and it’s not good for a relationship – trust me I’ve seen it.

Another Way Forward

As odd as this may sound to you, instead, consider that your shared closet is a physical manifestation of the amount of respect you and your partner show each other.

Are you being thoughtful in your use of the space? Is your partner? Is what’s really bugging you the fact that you’re feeling like your needs are not being considered properly or that you’re being taken advantage of? Honestly, on some level that’s pretty common for lots of people.

First, start a conversation with your partner about how you feel, not how many sweaters you have. Make it a little humorous and light – after all, we’re talking about closet space and not something more significant. But have that talk.

Before you do, think about how much respect you’re also showing your partner. Are you the kind of person who is happy with fewer clothes than your partner has? Is it reasonable and generous on your part to give up some of your space to your partner so that he/she feels happier?

Or is the opposite true, do you believe that you need more space in the closet because you simply have more clothes than your partner has? If that’s the case, think about other areas of your life where you’re willing to give up a 50/50 split – not in exchange, but instead as a show of respect.

Final Thoughts

Be open and honest with your partner. Acknowledge when you’re starting to feel defensive and say so. You might be surprised how a reasonable, adult and mature conversation about your closet space leads to talking honestly about other shared areas of your relationship: your finances, how you spend your time, your work/life balance. When the clutter discussion is no longer about a winner and a loser you come to see your space and your partner in a whole new light.

At the end of the day, however, I’m also a pragmatist. Sometimes space is tight and you need the clothes you have.  If you and your partner arrive at the conclusion, consider getting separate closets. Using the closet in the guest room may just be the solution that keeps your relationship humming along!

Peter Walsh