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Partner is a "Pack Rat"

QUESTION: My wife is a pack-rat. We have a small house, and yet she saves broken items that will never be mended and constantly brings home yard-sale bargains that we don't need. I have thrown out broken mementos, wire stems cut from artificial flowers and more, and she never notices. How can I help her to realize that it is counter-productive to bring this junk home?

ANSWER: Instead of engaging in a battle, consider finding a resolution to your differences. It is highly unlikely that you will be able to convince your wife that her habits are "unproductive." In fact, your judgment will likely alienate her rather than foster cooperation. Don't require that she "see the light" of your perspective, but instead, invite her to establish a true and fair negotiation of space. Consider defining the space in your home as "yours," "mine" and "ours."

Marriage means compromise. Establish rules for what is acceptable to both of you in your "community" space. Be prepared to "trouble shoot" by discussing in advance how house rules will be realistically enforced with the least disrespect to one another. For example, you may agree to keep the living room coffee table "relatively" free of objects. Yet, occasionally something will be placed there and left for a period of time. Determine where you (or your wife) can transfer objects that begin to pile up on the table.

For example, perhaps you can transfer things to your wife's desk or relocate them to a wicker basket bought for this purpose. This quick plan of action will help you to avoid tiresome "nagging," yet allow you to initiate easy action that gives you a sense of control over your environment.

You may even consider acquiring an inexpensive portable storage unit to be placed in an unobtrusive place, such as your backyard, that allows her to "collect" to her heart's desire. Once it is full, it is understood that she has used up her space. She may then sort through her collections or abstain. It is her choice.

Remember that a good marriage is based upon respect for your partner's differences. Do not organize your wife's desk or try to manage her designated areas. Do not criticize the way she keeps her separate space and DO NOT throw her things out. Not only is this disrespectful, but your action encourages her NOT to respect boundaries. Ask that she return this respect by keeping her part of the agreement.

Define limits that respect one another, but stop short of judging your wife's interests as "a waste." One person's "junk" may literally be another's "treasure." Try to see the world through her eyes. Seek to understand the pleasure your wife gains from this activity and appreciate her differences rather than squelching them. Expect her to reciprocate by being understanding of your interests as well.

Surely, you were each attracted to the other for the ways you were different, as well as alike. While it is not reasonable to expect your wife to adopt your world view, it is reasonable to expect a fair compromise that allows both of you to retain your individuality. The successful negotiation of differences contributes toward a healthy tension that keeps a relationship from becoming stale.

Keep in mind what the French believe to be the essence of a good relationship: "Vive la difference!"


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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