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The case for decluttering as a form of marriage therapy

The case for decluttering as a form of marriage therapy

by Ashley McGuire | February 12, 2019

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A scene from Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. Image: Denise Crew, Netflix

Can decluttering be a form of couples’ therapy? The new Netflix series, “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo,” would suggest so.

The show is a series of episodes featuring Marie Kondo, whose book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up has sold over 10 million copies, and who has people everywhere feverishly tossing their belongings. In each episode, Kondo guides a couple or individual through the process of reducing their belongings, keeping only the things that “spark joy,” a phrase she coined.  

I wasn’t expecting the marriages of the couples who hired Kondo to feature so prominently in the show, or if anything, I was expecting to see bickering about what to toss and what to keep. Yet I was surprised to find that in the first two episodes, both couples said they grew closer through the process of decluttering their homes.

The two couples couldn’t be farther apart in life—the first are the busy parents of young children, their kitchen counters are littered with bottles and their floors with toys and tiny socks. The second couple are empty-nesters in a home that feels like a mausoleum filled with dusty photos and heirlooms.

Both felt completely overwhelmed by their possessions and recognized the need to change.

They aren’t alone. One-in-four Americans admit they have a “clutter problem.” According to a survey by The Huffington Post, 84% of Americans report worrying about their home’s cleanliness and organization. A third of those people said that the stress they felt about their home was “extreme.”

One-in-seven Americans report being unable to use a room because of clutter, and nearly three-fourths of Americans agree they could stand to get rid of some possessions. 

In fact, Americans have so many possessions that renting out storage space is now common (there is currently 7 square feet of storage for every American), even though home sizes have tripled in the last 50 years while family size has significantly decreased.

Spaces we once filled with children, we now fill with stuff. And it’s causing some couples angst.

All the while, we know that happiness is linked with having fewer possessions, not more. One recent study tested children in two different rooms, one with 16 toys and one with four, and concluded that when children are surrounded by less toys, “they have a  happier, healthier playtime.”

Researchers at UCLA discovered a link between a “high density of household objects” and cortisol levels, the hormone that regulates stress, in women. And a Cornell study found that clutter-induced stress can result in unhealthy coping strategies like overeating and binging on television.

We also know that one of the most common areas of couple conflict involves the division of household chores (and who does more).

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Marie Kondo’s clients would come out of the process of decluttering feeling empowered in their lives and more united in their marriages. They have just removed a significant source of mutual stress from their life, opening up more space, literally and metaphorically, for each other and their children.

My husband and I adopted the KonMari (the Marie Kondo method) approach a couple years ago and experienced similar results.

Rather than fighting about what to get rid of, we wound up teasing each other and laughing about how silly it was that we hadn’t gotten rid of one thing or another. We laughed as we took not one, but two car loads of books to the local library as wide-eyed librarians watched us unload.

For weeks, we would wait until our kids went down for a nap and then tackle one slice of our possessions. It turned into quality time that I looked forward to. Life with three children in a 1500 square foot apartment made tidying a necessity for us, and it’s something we work at constantly.

Our next project is the utility drawer in our kitchen, and rather than dread it, I look forward to the chance to spend a quiet hour decluttering it over coffee with my husband.

More and more social science proves that clutter and possessions are an albatross. Couples looking for a marital boost, and a little extra room, might give KonMari a try.

Ashley E. McGuire is a Contributing Editor at the Institute for Family Studies. Her new book is Sex Scandal: The Drive to Abolish Male and Female (Regnery, 2017).  Republished with permission from IFS

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