Nothing kills romance like smelly socks tossed on the floor, dirty dishes piled in the sink and piles of unpaid bills.

A new SpareFoot survey found that almost half (48 percent) of American couples who are married or are living with a partner argue over clutter. Seven percent of couples engage in clutter spats every day.

The survey, conducted for SpareFoot in January 2015 by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, shows one-third of cohabiting couples (33 percent) argue about clutter either monthly, weekly or daily. And over half of couples (52 percent) said that when they clash over clutter, both sides get accused of harboring too much stuff.

Often the wife will blame the husband for having too much stuff, and the husband will blame the wife.
— Organizing and efficiency expert Kristin MacRae

The most common source of clutter conflict? Overflowing closets. Over half (51 percent) of couples who quarrel over clutter say the disagreements caused them to get rid of clothing. Arguments also spurred couples to purge excess belongings, including furniture (29 percent), electronics (28 percent) and books (25 percent).

“Opposites attracts,” said feng shui expert Tisha Morris, author of “Mind, Body, Home.” At her workshops, Morris frequently fields questions about couples and clutter. “Often, one person is a pack rat and the other is a neat freak,” she said.

Does your excess stuff strain your relationship? Here are six steps you can take to stop arguments over clutter.

1. Have a Heart-to-Heart.

Even if you’ve had it up to here with your spouse’s clutter, talk about the issue nicely, said Peter Pearson, a psychologist and co-founder of The Couples Institute. He has firsthand experience: He’s messy and his wife, Ellyn, wants the house to be neat. Over the years, they tried everything from housecleaners to a gold-star chart to solve their disagreements over clutter. Each strategy worked—for a little while.

Tisha Morris
Tisha Morris suggests each partner carve out his or her own space.

Eventually, they reached a long-term solution: His wife started thanking him for tidying up and telling him it made her feel wonderful and loved. The ongoing praise, and acknowledgement of his efforts, motivated him to put his stuff away more often, he said: “I’d say the problem is about 80 percent solved.”

2. Don’t Assign Blame.

“Often the wife will blame the husband for having too much stuff, and the husband will blame the wife,” organizing and efficiency expert Kristin MacRae said. “Usually, they both have a lot.”

When the blame gets passed back and forth, each of the pair shuts down and nothing gets decluttered, MacRae said. Pearson agreed: “As soon as you point a finger, the rest of the discussion is going to be strained, tense or not very constructive.”

3. Tackle the Problem Together.

If you’ve both agreed that something needs to be done about the clutter, set aside a block of time to work on the mess together, MacRae recommends.

Kristin MacRae
Don’t play the blame game, Kristin MacRae says.

While you’re working, she said, each person should take the lead on decluttering the areas of the house that they use most often—for example, the “man cave” (him) and the bedroom closet (her).

“While they’re going through clutter, all they need to do is decide what they’re going to keep or toss,” she said.

4. Respect Your Partner’s Stuff.

When decluttering as a couple, respect is a must, MacRae said. That means you don’t toss something that belongs to your partner, or to both of you, without asking first.

“Let the other person know, ‘Hey, I want to get rid of this’ before you throw it out on the front lawn,” she said.

5. Make a Deal.

If orderliness is important to you but not your honey, or vice versa, come up with a compromise, said family therapist Deb Castaldo, author of “Relationship Reboot: 14 Days to Getting Love Back Online.”

Deb Castaldo
Deb Castaldo suggests reaching compromises regarding clutter.

Say, for example, there’s a stack of old magazines that’s driving one of you crazy. “Can you make an agreement that if one of you doesn’t do anything about it by certain date, you give the other one permission to clean it up, rent a storage space or bring in a cleaning lady?” she said.

6. Carve Out a Space of Your Own.

Clutter issues can be easier to deal with if each partner gets his or her own space, said Morris, the feng shui specialist. The designated space can be a whole room, part of a room or even a drawer or shelf, she said.

Make an agreement that you won’t comment on the state of the other person’s space, she said. “Everyone needs a place where they can completely be themselves without their partner getting on them,” she said.

Survey Methodology

Princeton Survey Research Associates International’s January 2015 Omnibus Week 3 survey obtained telephone interviews with a nationally representative sample of 1,003 adults living in the continental U.S. Princeton Survey Research Associates International conducted telephone interviews by landline (501) and cellphone (502, including 284 without a landline phone).

Interviews were done in English and Spanish by Princeton Data Source from Jan. 22 to 25, 2015. Statistical results are weighted to correct known demographic discrepancies. The margin of sampling error for the complete set of weighted data is ± 3.7 percentage points.

couples and clutter

Photo of Deb Castaldo courtesy of Chris Marksbury/(201) Magazine

Allie Johnson