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Navigating Relationship Challenges During Spring Cleaning: Therapist-approved Tips for Handling Disagreements with Your Partner

Spring has sprung and if you're starting to clean and organize, but if you can't seem to find common ground with the person you live with, you're not alone. Keep reading to understand why you may be stuck and how to deal if you are!

Organization, or lack thereof, in the home environment, is a common, yet often overlooked concern within all types of relationships. Though arguments around this topic can arise at any point in time; in our practice, we notice a few specific life transitions where tensions really rise to the surface. Some examples include: couples deciding to move in together during or after wedding planning, parents of newlyweds who are learning how to become empty nesters, and just about every New Yorker who is navigating small-space living. No matter the circumstance, disagreeing on the tidiness of one’s space can be a challenging, and deeply personal, problem to solve because of what our belongings mean to us and core lifestyle differences.

In this article, we’ll focus on how three tried and true couples therapy techniques can help resolve disorganization struggles and the interpersonal conflict that comes with them: (1) effective communication, (2) expressing empathy, and (3) staying curious and non-judgemental.

Effective Communication

Disagreements are a normal part of our lives; so normal that we see disagreements arise out of friendships, family dynamics, and romantic relationships. Think back to your last argument with a friend, family member, or partner. Think back to how that disagreement made you feel, how it could have made the other person feel, and what caused the disagreement. What if we told you that the outcomes you’re recalling could have been drastically different if you altered a few key factors?

First, set the mood. Before jumping into a conversation that could ruffle feathers, we want to create an atmosphere that is conducive to discussing a personal matter. So first, check-in and remember the acronym “TIDY” or Tendencies, I-statements, Distractions, and Yes.


To set the stage for this conversation, bring awareness to your tendencies when conversations get heated. Do you raise your voice? Leave the room? Bring up their last mistake? Getting in the habit of recognizing your tendencies before jumping in, as well as during the conversation, can help extinguish conflict before it has a chance to ignite. Remember, practice makes perfect so even if it’s hard the first time, keep at it!


I-statements that use feeling words reduce defensiveness, work toward solutions, rather than focus on the problem, and eliminate the need to mind-read. Let’s take an example using Barbie and Ken. Once Ken is feeling calm and present, he approaches Barbie and says, “I feel a bit overwhelmed when you leave your bags around the house. Could you please hang them up when you walk in the house?” In this instance, Ken is expressing how he is feeling, sharing a specific observation, and suggesting a change in Barbie’s behavior. Well done, Ken!


Next, we have D for distractions. While they're challenging to come by in a device-filled world, there will always be pockets in the day where you and your partner can talk for at least 10 minutes. As you look for a good time to broach this conversation, consider moments when televisions are off and computers and phones are put away. Consider what else your partner may have endured during the day like work stressors, commuting struggles, or an argument with a friend. For help with this one, we turn to another acronym: HALT. If you or your partner is feeling Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired, save this conversation for another time. As we navigate this conversation, we want both ends of the table to be present, open-minded, and ready to listen.


Finally, Y. We want to get the Yes, or rather, consent to move forward. Before approaching your partner, ask this simple question, “I want to talk to you about something that has been on my mind, do you have the capacity to have a conversation, right now?” Allow them the chance to say yes. By giving them this control at the outset, they are coming into the conversation not from a point of defensiveness, but rather curiosity.

Now that we’re prepared for this conversation (thanks, TIDY!), we want to be aware of the one-two punch often triggered by a conversation about cleaning up one's space. A conversation about clutter can cause tension between people who share spaces, but what we don't always remember is that it can also come across as a demand. For example, if Barbie tells Ken to pick up after himself, we may see Ken get defensive, feel enraged, and maybe feel judged. Often when we’re talking to our loved ones about tidying up, the message they hear is “you did something wrong” and “now do something about it.” Ugh! No wonder Ken gets worked up after receiving this one-two punch from Barbie. Remember the I-statements discussed above when you’re thinking about how to frame and communicate the issue at hand. We want to encourage a conversation after all, not a knockout. 

Attachment & Empathy

Maybe it's the college T-shirt that you haven't worn in a decade but is a point of pride. Maybe it’s the apron that reminds you of your late grandmother who would wear it while cooking family meals. Maybe it’s that dilapidated poster that you purchased while traveling abroad. We all hold onto our belongings for a reason. The attachment we have to our belongings is what becomes a point of tension when someone asks us to “just toss it.”

Recognizing that we all have possessions that mean something to us is the next step in alleviating tension in discussions around organization. Rather than shouting something like, “Just get rid of it, you haven’t used it in years!” try pulling the item out of its hiding place, presenting it to your partner, and saying something like, “Tell me a story behind this piece” or “Talk to me about what this item means to you.” If we can express empathy towards the person in our life who refuses to get rid of a particular belonging, it invites storytelling and ultimately, connection; now with another human being, rather than an object. Sometimes, the opportunity to process one's attachment to our belongings using curiosity and empathy is all it takes to gain closure and say goodbye.

Staying Curious and Nonjudgmental

Now onto phase three. As you unpack how cherished the item is to your partner, remember to stay curious, nonjudgmental, and patient. Our stuff could give one insight into who someone used to be but doesn't identify with anymore. Staying curious by asking questions can help you and your partner develop a clearer picture of what that time was like for them. Additionally, maintaining this curiosity creates greater opportunities for "awe." Awe, an emotion we all seek to feel but feel so rarely, can be sparked by learning something completely new about your partner through the things they store. Think, marathon bib, intricate watercolor they painted, or coat they made from scratch. Reserving judgment and asking questions can bring two people closer together before then helping to find proper storage alternatives for their stories and memories.

After having this conversation where you’re able to see why your loved one is latching onto their things, we can get creative in how we offer to preserve them. Some things that can help include taking digital photos of the item, writing up a story about what that item means to you, cutting out a square from the textile, scrapbooking, and keeping one special item out of many (think mugs). Working together, this could even turn into an activity to do together. In fact, it may even be an opportunity to turn the camera to yourself and repeat the process.

Transcending from Awkward to Awe

When you consider all these factors, the task of organizing your home becomes an opportunity to strengthen a relationship. We can learn so much about ourselves and our loved ones through the invitation to explore our life experiences through our belongings. You may hear stories about your partner you’ve never heard before or get a glimpse into some of their values and beliefs that they initially found hard to put words to. What started as a difficult conversation can turn into a mechanism for connection to deepen a friendship, explore past and present interests, and broaden the picture of what makes your loved one whole.

When it comes to the accumulation of “stuff,” bringing order to chaos can feel liberating. Organizing one's space, reducing one's belongings, and cleaning up those hidden nooks and crannies can feel like a breath of fresh air and help a couple, family, or friends feel a bit more peace in their shared space.

Need additional support with these tools? Book an intro call with an AisleTalk therapist today to see if therapy might be able to help!

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