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Too Much Stuff: When Your Partner is Hoarding

Wednesday’s post discussed obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Hoarding–with lots of debate–is currently considered a type of OCD, but deserves a blog post of its own because of its unique impact on you and your partner’s life.

Let’s start with a definition so that we’re clear that “hoarding” is not the same as “pack rat.” Drs. Randy Frost and Tamara Hartl of Smith College are credited with the widely accepted definition of compulsive hoarding. It is the behavior that consists of: “accumulation of a large number of possessions that seem useless to others; creating living spaces that are difficult to use; and being prone to impairment such as indecisiveness, disorganization, perfectionism, procrastination and avoidance that isolate them from others.”

In layman’s terms: if you as the non-hoarding partner decide one day that you are “gutting the place” because you can no longer sleep in the bed, take a shower in the bathroom, or get to the stove because of the sheer amount of “stuff” around, your hoarding partner is most likely going to have some serious issues with you.

Hoarding generally falls into two categories: possessions and animals. Hoarding often starts in adolescence, but many people do not get help until middle age. Elderly people who hoard are in additional danger because of poor eyesight leading to tripping and falling over possessions being in walking areas, or fires being started because of item encroachment into the kitchen or heating appliances. Here are ten things you should know about hoarding.

The person who hoards struggles with three main issues:

  1. Information processing: the person has trouble categorizing items, finding things, and deciding what to do with possessions. For animal hoarding, the person may not know what else to do with the animals they have acquired.
  2. Beliefs about possessions: the person has strong attachments to their possessions, worries about forgetting things, and feels a need to stay in control of their belongings. For animals, the person may believe that no one can take care of the animals like they can (even though it’s clear that the animals are neglected.)
  3. Emotional distress around discarding items: the person often feels very upset when having to discard an item and may feel out of control until they either have that item back, or have acquired something else to take its place. For animals, again, the person may feel that no one else can be trusted to care for the animal, or if they do give one away, they find another one quickly to replace it.

In addition, it is difficult for hoarders to admit they have a problem. Excuses are easy: “I just haven’t gotten around to cleaning up yet,” “I might need that later,” and “Those newspapers/magazines/books have important information in them!” If they are open to it, have them try this online quiz about hoarding.

“But,” you say, “the house is a mess! I can’t take it anymore–either the stuff (or the animals) goes or I go!”

The reality is, you may not be able to do anything, but if you’re reading this, it probably means you at least want to try. Here are some steps to approach the problem:

  1. Recognize that your partner is suffering from emotional and social pain. They may be experiencing extreme anxiety, overwhelming compulsions, shame, confusion, and helplessness. Encourage them to seek treatment for the problem. Medications, like serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), seem to work best when used in conjunction with cognitive behavioral therapies. This approach can take time, sometimes years, and a real desire for change is also necessary for a hoarder to combat the illness and find a successful treatment strategy.
  2. Do not decide you are going to “take care of the problem” yourself by cleaning out the house or giving away the animals. Doing so will not “cure” your partner, and will likely cause great psychological distress. Even if you decide to contact social services for help, without treatment, your partner will likely start hoarding again.
  3. As the partner living in the space, you deserve to have a clear spot of your own. Pick an area, such as your half of the bedroom or a guest room, and negotiate with your partner about clearing it out. If that means moving piles from the area to another, then do it. This can be the first step to clearing other areas as well.
  4. Read this post on the Healing Together for Couples blog for additional tips on handling what they call “mutual stuff.”
  5. As always, seek your own support, through your own therapy, support groups, online forums, and friends and family. Living with a hoarder can cause embarrassment, shame and isolation, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Do you live with a hoarder? What has helped?

Too Much Stuff: When Your Partner is Hoarding

Kate Thieda

Kate Thieda, MS, LPCA, NCC, is a patient advocate for Women's and Children's Services at Duke University Hospital in Durham, North Carolina. She is a licensed professional counselor associate and a National Certified Counselor who specializes in cognitive-behavioral and dialectical behavior therapies. Her book, Loving Someone With Anxiety, will be published by New Harbinger in the spring of 2013.

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APA Reference
Thieda, K. (2011). Too Much Stuff: When Your Partner is Hoarding. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 13, 2020, from


Last updated: 22 Apr 2011
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