While no one wants things dirty, the same is not true of clutter. An empty tabletop is, in my eyes, a thing of beauty; to Dave, it’s a potential home for one of the piles he creates on every available surface. Leah Elder, 32, of San Francisco, agrees: “My husband makes the piles,” she says. “I combine them.”
My spouse, unfortunately, is convinced that if his piles were merged or put out of sight, his brain would freeze up permanently. Dave’s brand of incessant Chinese-water-torture clutter is not the same as the occasional sheer messiness of life. Certain things — like children’s bathrooms or play areas — are meant to be messy for relatively short periods of time, and some partners are more comfortable with this than others. Says Katy Glass: “John sometimes gets upset when our children throw their book bags around, so either I pick up before he gets home or I ask the kids to do it. And sometimes,” she adds, “I just tell him to lighten up. This is, after all, a home.”
Creating clutter is a crime of which men and women are both guilty. Garold Mahoney says Karen has a habit of leaving the vacuum in the middle of the floor when she’s finished with it. Or she’ll accidentally drop a piece of paper on the rug and leave it there for days before he finally breaks down and picks it up. “When I ask her if she’s doing it on purpose,” Jim says, “she tells me, ‘Of course not. I just didn’t see it.'”
I’ll admit that when men are the clutterers, we’re equally oblivious. We drop clothes on the floor instead of in the hamper. We leave our shoes wherever we happen to take them off. You may think this is some kind of passive-aggressive attempt to get you to play Mommy and pick up after us, but trust me, we’re not that smart.
Eliminating clutter altogether seems an unreasonably strict and unfair goal. You’d do better to establish “safe zones” where the clutterer is free to build piles: in a closet, for instance, or on top of a nightstand. In return, the anti-clutterer is not allowed to organize anything in the zone. The penalty for uninvited entry into the zone is — horror of horrors — a larger zone. And the penalty for unauthorized spreading is nothing short of total pile termination.