Hoarding has been thrust into the public eye through television programs that depict filthy houses overflowing with trash, animal feces, rotted food and mounds of material goods both usable and not. But hoarding doesn't have to be at this extreme level in order to cause relationship problems.
Hoarding is an inability to resist the compulsion to gather and keep items to excess which is defined as not having functional living areas due to the storage. There are five levels of hoarding but even at its lowest level of severity, hoarding causes distress when a couple's living environment becomes more of a cluttered, disorganized landfill than a clean, safe abode for its inhabitants. The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DMS) of Mental Illness includes hoarding as its own mental condition and not merely as a symptom of other mental illness.
Your options when your spouse hoards
Most mates don't know how to deal with the hoarding spouse except to leave when the hoard pushes them beyond their psychological limits. Some remain miserable living in only a tiny personal space amidst the hoard, like a chair in a garage or in a car, in order to keep the peace with the hoarder. But there is a third option. When hoarding is recognized as a mental illness, spouses should step up and reclaim their space for not only their own health, safety and peace of mind but for the health of their marriage and mate. It's just not a matter of poor housekeeping anymore.
What doesn't work
1. Threats. Threatening a hoarder only increases the stress that cause him/her to hoard. Hoarding is a compulsive behavior that brings about some minor and temporary relief from a hidden pain, trauma or stress. It also can be associated with other mental conditions such as OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). But threats don't get the hoarder to change his behavior. Even if you threaten divorce.
2. Guilt. Forcing the hoarder to choose between the hoarding and people only makes the hoarder feel guilty because he is incapable of resisting the urge to hoard. It isn't about his love for things over people. You may make that comparison but it does not register that way in the hoarder's mind.
3. Cleaning up with the hoarder. Because the hoarder lacks the ability to make rational decisions about what to keep or toss, he will agonize over every small item in the hoard which will cause any helpers great distress. Cleaning up the initial hoard is not a good time to begin a hoarder's therapy as can be witnessed on hoarding television programs.
4. Ignoring the problem. What you must understand is that hoarding is a mental condition and doing nothing about it will not bring about necessary change in the hoarder's behavior or mental state.
5. No condemnation or judgment. Express love and concern, not criticism or ridicule. Remember: this is a mental disorder.
What can work
1. Getting professional counseling before an organized clean up. Prepare the hoarder for what is coming.
2. Repeat the following easy-to-understand statements:
a. Stress that he/she has had years to make rational decisions about cleaning up.
b. His inability to make those decisions is a mental disorder for which he will receive help.
c. While he is receiving help, there will be an initial clean up to restore his living condition to what will be HEALTHY and SAFE.
d. His favorite things will be kept and stored for him and he can have access the them but cannot bring them into the house if it makes the house unhealthy or unsafe for him.
e. The only items that will be tossed are those that pose a health risk for him. Filth, trash, unfixable. Everything else will be donated to the charity of his choice.
3. He may not be involved in this initial clean up. It will be too painful, overwhelming and unmanageable for his mental state.
4. Organize the clean up, making sure that the hoarder will be vacationing in a clean, beautiful place.
5. Keep and display some of his treasured items so his house still feels like his own home.
6. Try to distance yourself from the emotional assaults that a hoarder can toss your way to make you feel bad about cleaning up. That is his mental illness talking.
Continue with professional counselors and be vigilant about the hoarder's gathering behavior. It has been my personal experience with hoarding that without counseling, a hoarder will continue to hoard. Friends and family can help by always taking out some garbage or unused items by saying, "Oh, we'll drop this off for you at the charity store. Or thank you, I know someone who will use this." Hoarders will release things if they believe that they won't end up in a trash can.
I wrote a book about our personal experiences with hoarding that addresses the emergency clean up and how to ease the mind of the hoarder throughout the process. Other books confront the emotional issues as therapy while others discuss organization. Both issues are important as an ongoing treatment plan, but when your hoarder's health is at risk, you need emergency measures. I hope this will help:
Digging Out: How to help a hoarder
Digging Out: How to help a hoarder
.99 Kindle version