zen habits : breathe

5 Ways to Lose Your Stuff (Not Your Lover)

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Jennifer Gresham at Everyday Bright.

You feel like you’ve tried everything. You set something outside with the garbage, but find it back inside the house because your spouse couldn’t bear parting with it. Or you plead for help with clearing the clutter, only to have what was supposed to be a guest room transform into a storage area.

You crave a more minimalist home, but not at the expense of your marriage. You’ve resigned yourself that living with all that stuff is simply the price you pay for love.

Or maybe convincing them to part with it is easier than you think …

I’ve always loved my husband’s sentimental nature. I think it’s sweet he stored our hastily scrawled love notes and considers saving gifts from family an act of loyalty (yes, even the wind-up sushi and 4 foot long Spanish sword). Of course, he’s also kept early drawings of airplanes and his high school Letterman’s jacket.

I came to minimalism late in life and goodness knows I still have a long way to go. But as the girl who consigned her wedding gown, I thought I could help him see the benefit of reducing our material burden. I reminded him of all the clutter we never used, yet found ourselves trapped into keeping; I hinted at the money we could earn by selling those things on Craigslist. At times, I’m ashamed to admit, I called his reluctance silly.

Not surprisingly, those somewhat confrontational introductions to minimalism didn’t go well. The key wasn’t just being more delicate, though that certainly helped. As Chip and Dan Heath explain in their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, to persuade your family or anyone else to embrace a new idea, you must appeal to both their minds and their hearts.

5 strategies to make minimalism a joint venture

1. Bring in an outside expert. Maybe this has happened to you: your spouse gives you some advice, about your job or your family, but you don’t believe it until someone else tells you the same thing. I don’t quite know why this happens, but this phenomena can complicate your family efforts with minimalism as well.

In the spirit of leveraging this built-in bias, I let my husband borrow my copy of Chris Guillebeau’s The Art of Nonconformity. I didn’t introduce it as a text on minimalism (it isn’t), just an inspiring read. Before I knew it, my husband was telling me how reducing our material footprint would give us more flexibility in everything from housing choices to travel plans.

Find a book on a subject your spouse already wants to read, but also speaks to the general principles of minimalism. For example, if your spouse loves sailing, try a true story about someone who sold all their belongings to sail around the world.

2. Create a purgatory for your stuff. For you, probably nothing’s quite as joyful as watching the garbage truck turn the corner with ten bags of your former possessions. But if your spouse is still on the fence, that scenario sounds more like a nightmare.

Decluttering in steps takes the edge off. In our case, we designated our garage as our “purgatory.” Anything that stayed there without being missed for more than 3 months could safely be removed. If someone really wanted it, the item could move back in.

If you’re short on storage space, try finding a “foster home” for your things. Maybe a friend needs a stereo or a frying pan–let him borrow yours until your spouse feels comfortable making it a gift. The point is to make the first decision reversible, which reduces the fear factor and allows the emotional side of the brain to ease into the decision (while still removing the item from the house).

3. Lead by example. I’m a modest person and have never been a fan of “I love me” walls boasting diplomas or awards. But the Outstanding Educator award I earned at the Air Force Academy is special–I actually cried when I won it. So when I decided to toss the bust and plaque, that got my husband’s attention.

Determine what truly motivates your spouse’s hoarding. Is it guilt, nostalgia, or just laziness? Demonstrate how your spouse might bypass those issues without making a big deal of it. In my case, I told him I realized I didn’t need the physical object to feel the pride it represented, which triggered my husband’s own revelation that clinging to his childhood memorabilia was likewise unrelated to the happy memories they held for him.

4. Be happy. I’m a lucky woman; making me happy seems to be one of my husband’s life goals. And without a doubt, eliminating items from our house makes me happy–for several minutes at least. Too often, however, I focused on everything we still had to sort and discard instead of celebrating our steady success.

Expressing the joy of less is the secret weapon in your efforts to share minimalism. You can approach it directly by putting your happiness into words, or you can demonstrate your improved mood in more subtle ways. For example, you could invite your spouse to an impromptu dance in the living room, explaining “Look at all this room!”

5. Believe. Addressing our extensive CD collection was the hardest for us. We admitted we almost always listened to music from our iPod. The problem was that we had hundreds of CDs that weren’t yet in our online library.

Although I initially volunteered to tackle the daunting project of converting the music, I never found the energy to begin. I suggested we either give away the discs and lose the uncataloged music, or resign ourselves to keeping the collection. To my surprise and delight, my husband provided the best alternative: he’d rip CDs every night as he surfed the internet.

I told him how proud I was of his initiative. “Don’t be too proud,” he warned. “All I’ve done is put them on the computer. We haven’t gotten rid of those CDs yet.” But with the stereo system already in purgatory and over 100 CDs captured, I felt good. I hugged him and said, “I believe in you.” And I do.

Take a cue from other change management programs, like Weight Watchers and Alcoholics Anonymous, and be that base of support for your spouse. Sometimes, having someone who believes in your ability to succeed can be inspirational enough to make it happen.

The challenge

At some point, you had an epiphany. Maybe when you had to move and you just couldn’t believe how many boxes your stuff required. Or maybe you woke up one day and said, “Enough is enough.” And once you knew what you wanted, or in this case didn’t want, you were eager to make it happen.

But you can’t convince someone else to have an epiphany. They have to come to it on their own. The more you push, the more resistance you create. Enticing your spouse to follow you to a happier life, not escape an unpleasant one, is the goal.

Remember how you felt when the two of you first met? You probably thought you could subsist on love alone. Here’s the secret: you can. You just have to remember how.

Now hurry. Go clean house.

A scientist by training and an optimist at heart, Jennifer Gresham helps you find the clarity and courage you need to transform your life at her blog Everyday Bright.



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