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Gay Male Relationships and Storing Stuff: From Collector to Hoarder (Hoarding Disorder)

Dollarphotoclub_55006205Moving in with your partner is a wonderful rite-of-passage in a relationship.  It extends the level of commitment from “boyfriends” to domestic partners, or, now, spouses.  I always say that a relationship has to work on four levels: 1) emotionally; 2) physically (including your sex life); 3) domestically (making a home together); and 4) managing “the other” (any distraction or intrusion that undermines your relationship).  It’s that third one — “domestically” — that can sometimes be the topic of the couples that I see in my office for couples therapy.  Domestic bliss is like having a roommate, but one that you love and have sex with (although some roommates do; it varies).  So it’s difficult when you love someone, and they’re your partner, but you still have conflict about how to share a space (apartment, condo, home, etc.).  Usually, one partner is “neater” than the other, and usually partners vary about how to manage, well, just a lot of “stuff”.  What can you do?

1.  Talk about it.  Like most problems in relationships, setting aside some time without interruptions to just focus on discussing one topic, and generating creative compromises, helps.  Realize that you only have a finite amount of space in your house, even a big house.  Talk about what you like to see your place look like; maybe you like open spaces, but your partner has a collection of valuable (at least sentimentally) objects to display.  In the three skills of couples (Commitment, Communication, and Compromise), you have to communicate your needs/wants but compromise to balance his needs/wants.  You each have a 50 percent stake in your home, as equal partners, even if you don’t share the rent/mortgage equally if your incomes differ (an article on that is here). 

2.  Assume that you “own” your home’s space equally.  Design the space by walking through your home and brainstorming ideas of what could go where.  Get creative with shelving, trunks, containers, and cabinets.  

3.  Designate “his space” and “your space” equally.  Maybe not by whole rooms, like roommates, but by sections of rooms.  Is there a closet that can hold his collectible Barbies?  Can your 8 boxes of collectible baseball cards fit under the bed?

4.  Seriously talk about whether the condition of Hoarding might actually be going on.  Sometimes the problems we face are just mild difficulties, and sometimes we have to consider the possibility of a true psychiatric disorder going on.  The “bible” of mental disorders, the DSM-5, published by the American Psychiatric Association, added “Hoarding” to its list of official diagnoses in its latest edition (May, 2013).  This can affect from 2%-6% of people in the U.S. and Europe, and can affect males more often overall, but women tend to acquire more stuff from buying.  People who are particularly indecisive, had stressful/traumatic life events, or family members with similar problems could be especially at risk.  Previously, hoarding was just considered part of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.  Some of these symptoms include:

a.  Persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of value.

b.  Need to save items and distress associated with discarding them

c.  Results in an accumulation of items that clutter active living areas and compromises their intended use

d.  Causes distress in functioning at home or work, including risking a safe environment for self or others

e.  Is not better accounted for by OCD, Depression, or delusions, etc.

f.  Could be with excessive acquisition of possessions there isn’t space for, with good or poor insight that it’s a problem, or denial that it’s a problem despite all the evidence (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 247)

If you suspect that your partner suffers from true Hoarding disorder, it’s important that you talk to a therapist.  He or she might also refer you to a psychiatrist (that’s an MD, doctor, who can prescribe medications).  There are several medications that will really help reduce the symptoms of Hoarding (and OCD; see my article on “Loving Someone with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder”, here).  Also, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy sessions can help a lot, and often in a short time. 

Gay men can be particularly vulnerable to problems about “space” at home because often being “dual-income, no kids” households, we generally have more money for entertainment systems, books, CDs/DVDs, souvenirs from travel, or a fondness for collecting things related to gay sensibility (movie memorabilia, sports memorabilia, pop culture items, dolls/action figures, curios, journals/magazines, electronics, “convenience” appliances, etc.) because we can take the money we would have spent on raising kids and redirect it to things we can afford to buy.  Because gay male couples flourish in sophisticated urban areas, the pricing of our homes (relatively to the square footage we get) can be high, leading to limited space for anything that’s not used daily.  There are just demographic and cultural issues to consider that maybe straight couples don’t have (as much).  

It’s important that your house feels like a home (an article on that, here).  Disorders, even the more rare ones like Hoarding, can get in the way of a relationship sometimes, but like the vows say, it’s for better or for worse.  If you’re upset about a clutter or “stuff” situation in your home, it’s good to know there is help.  Working through the challenges of a relationship helps to strengthen your bond over time, and there is hope that with work, problems about things around the house (large or small) can be resolved. 


Ken Howard, LCSW, is a licensed psychotherapist and life/career coach who has specialized in working with gay men, as individuals and couples, for over 22 years.  He helps many gay men (and others) resolve the issues that undermine your quality of life, and helps you to thrive.   

For help improving your personal or professional life, whatever your current challenges are, consider sessions with Ken for counseling, coaching, or therapy sessions, at his office in Los Angeles/West Holllywood (near Beverly Center mall), or via phone, or via Skype, anywhere in the world.  Call/text 310-339-5778 or email for more information.

Ken is also available for expert witness work on legal proceesdings involving gay issues, all LGBT issues, HIV issues, and issues concerning psychiatric illness or disability, as well as organizational consulting for non-profit organizations, corporations, college campuses, and conferences. 

To get your copy of his self-help book, Self-Empowerment: Have the Life You Want!, click here.  It’s your “portable therapist” for the challenges you face today in your mental health, health, career, finances, family, spirituality, and community. 









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