I think my wife of 20 years is trying to kill me. She’s insisting we need her late mother’s dishes. We have a perfectly good set of everyday dishes, plus plates with ugly hand-painted fruit, other expensive dishes, boxed-up Fiestaware, and fancy china that’s been packed away since our wedding. We already possess over four dozen plates, and we’re just two people, and never have people over. The dishes are only the latest addition. Our house is exploding with stuff: hundreds of books that will never be read, shelf upon shelf of glassware that’s never used, a basement of children’s toys that haven’t seen the light of day for years. Is there something imbedded in female DNA compelling women to hoard things?  — Terrified

It must be tempting to give her an ultimatum: “Bring one more teacup into this house, and I’m renting a bull.” Unfortunately, she’s unlikely to respond by chucking plates at you. And, as you’ve surely observed, plying her with reason only makes her cling to all that crockery that much more tenaciously. That isn’t because she’s a woman. Hoarding seems to be a human instinct — one we share with squirrels.
Hoarders tend to be “perfectionistic and indecisive,” says hoarding expert Dr. Randy O. Frost. Because they’re afraid of making mistakes, they have difficulty assessing whether they’ll have future need for, say, those {mosimage}Richard Nixon-head salt and pepper shakers. Frost explains that saving allows them to avoid making a decision, and to avoid the chance that any decision will be the wrong one. For Frost and his colleagues, mere “hoarding behavior” like your wife’s crosses the line into a “clinical” hoarding problem when living spaces can no longer be used as intended, and when there’s “significant distress or impairment in functioning.” Frost’s study didn’t say how the woman recognized she had a problem, but I’m guessing it was hard to deny once her kids had to climb out the window to catch the school bus.
Because you and your wife aren’t likely to end up like a 43-year-old Bronx man — trapped for two days under an avalanche of a decade’s worth of newspapers, magazines, and junk mail — she isn’t likely to go for the cognitive behavioral therapy that’s helped some clinical hoarders. Probably your best appeal comes out of the work of 18th century economist Adam Smith, who noted that sympathy compels people to put others’ interests first. Tell her you understand these things are meaningful to her, but you’re unhappy and feeling smothered, and ask how can you work together to change that.
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