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organizing a disorganized partner: a guide

Updated: Feb 12, 2019

When I visit a client for the first time who is in a relationship, I usually walk in to find them over the moon that I'm there, and their partner’s greeting of, don’t touch my stuff. I get it; I’ve made that mistake. And I’m going to tell you how to get around it so that both parties can be happy with the process.

Let’s start off with a basic rule: it is wrong to declutter without the owner of the items present. The exceptions are children under the age of 6 or those who are not mentally capable of understanding the situation. On the other hand, if you’ve asked your partner/ child/ roommate if it’s ok to declutter without them present and they’ve consented, then you’re all good.

I’m going to give you a few tips as to how to get them involved without them having to do a lot of work and I’m going to start by telling you about a huge mistake I made early on in my career.

The Mistake(s

One of my very first organizing jobs was for a couple in their 70s and on our first day, the wife suggested we work on her husband’s second closet. We weeded out 85% of it, which I then put into my car and drove to a Goodwill drop-off center. Later that evening she called me and told me I needed to get it all back and that her husband was in hysterics. My stomach free fell and I felt horrible; how could I have made such a mistake? I could defend myself and say that I was just trying to make my client happy but the truth is that I should have known better. No one wants their stuff messed with.

Soon after I made this colossal mistake with my client, I moved in with my then boyfriend, now husband, Dan. I unpacked all my stuff and reorganized his; obviously. Shockingly, he wasn’t pleased. But I’m really good at this, I countered. He stood firm, impervious to my abundant charm; I had moved his stuff without asking and he didn’t appreciate it.

This was new to me, I wasn’t used to being told no when I wanted to organize. My very first client was my little sister, who surprisingly still speaks to me. I would take over her room and organize it however I liked. And I would decide which things to give to myself, kind of like a donation or a sibling tax…

The Fix

It was a hard pill to swallow and it’s a lesson I carry with me always. I apologized to my then boyfriend and to my client’s husband and I put some rules in place. When a client would like me to organize for their spouse or child, I ask for verbal confirmation that the organizee knows what is going to happen. Then I let them know that I don’t get rid of anything without the owner’s consent. What I do is create a ‘suggest to donate’ pile for them to look at. If there’s anything in the pile they don’t want to let go of, I put it back.

How to Organize with an Apprehensive Partner

Organizing with someone who’s not super excited about the prospect is kind of like trying not to scare a cat; you must tread carefully. I have a client, Beth who I’d been working with for months and her partner Sandy wanted nothing to do with our work. That’s fine with me but Beth really wanted me to work with Sandy. Rather than suggesting a 4 -hour session with Sandy alone, I tried 30 minutes. See the steps below:

  1. No peanut gallery – You need one person to direct the organizing and another who is being organized, that’s all. I told Beth to stay out of the room; it is not helpful to have a peanut gallery when you are forcing someone to do something they don’t want to do. Saying things like are you sure about that? But you loved that! Not helpful, thank you.

  2. Keep it simple: Would you be ok if we looked through your shoe collection? I began. She gave a half nod and I knew that was the best I was going to get.

  3. Take it all out: Most people are dishonest with themselves about how much of any one item they have. And sometimes they really don’t know. In this case, Sandy had about 60 pairs of shoes, 40 of them sneakers.

  4. Be cool!: When Sandy realized how many pairs of shoes she had, I was careful not to react. Me following up with you have way too many shoes would not have been helpful.

  5. The rational approach: Ok, I said, so it seems that you like sneakers, what do you think would be a fair number of pairs to have? Sandy countered that she needed different colors for different occasions. How many of each? We decided on a number and moved forward.

  6. Keep vs. let go: Rather than choosing which pairs to let go of, I wanted to put Sandy in a more positive mindset and asked her to choose which to keep. She had decided that she needed two pairs of black sneakers and she had six so she chose which two to keep and the rest were put in the donate pile.

  7. Don’t push it: Once the decisions were made, I released Sandy from what was clearly a painful situation for her. I then put the shoes she let go of into a donate bag and rearranged the ones she had decided to keep. I usually like to check in with clients to see how they feel about the process but in this case, I knew she just wanted to leave.

  8. Recognize efforts: I thanked Sandy for working with me and reminded Beth in private to not make a big deal out of what we had done. Don’t scare the cat! I mentioned to Sandy that I’d be back the next week and that if she wanted to work with me again, I’d be happy to.

  9. Follow up: The next week we took half an hour to continue the process with Sandy’s hats. Again I didn’t make a big deal and again she was happy to leave when we were done.

  10. Stay the course: For some people, the idea of a four or six hour session organizing is second only to getting their teeth pulled. So start small and build up. Wait until they’re really warmed up to do things like paperwork and memorabilia, which take a lot of mental energy.

If you’re like me and you love to organize, try to recognize that it’s not for everyone. If you have a spouse/ child/ roommate who you need to get a handle on their stuff, take it slow and be up front with them about how you’re feeling. Does their clutter make you feel claustrophobic? Is there a middle ground that could work for the both of you?

Try my tips and tricks above and let me know how it goes! You can email me at and follow me on Instagram @toritheorganizer


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