Unfinished Remodeling Projects and Clutter


I received this question by email recently, and it’s got three very familiar elements in it:

I am reasonably neat and organized. Not obsessive and definitely not a clean freak but I like my papers organized and my home relatively tidy. My husband is one of the messiest people I’ve ever met. With his encouragement, I’ve organized his desk but it’s back to where it was within a month. A mess of string, rubber bands, clips, books, checks, checkbook, 20 prs of reading glasses, random nails, batteries, you name it in what looks like a post tornado whirlwind.
We came to an understanding that he could keep his office and his workshop any way he wished but our papers including a hanging file basket of yearly tax stuff would be organized. We had issues surrounding the stuff that needed to be filed- he would throw them in piles but we solved that by buying a table he agreed not to throw anything on but papers needing filing.
Two years ago he decided, with many misgivings on my part, to redo our bathroom. He said it would take a few months. It is nowhere near completed. In the meanwhile, all the stuff that used to be in the bathroom clogs up my study and our hall closet. I share a bathroom with our daughter now- and she is as messy as my husband and the space is tight. I cannot find things on a daily basis. It is a daily stress.
I was going to put all the files in my office but there is no room because it is overflowing with bathroom stuff .
I cannot tell you how stressful it is to go to sleep in a junked up room crammed with bathroom items, work in a crammed up office crammed with bathroom items and step into a super messy garage crammed with all the new bathroom fixtures/appliances mixed in the most messy way with our regular food, paper goods and other supplies.
I cannot even think straight any longer.
I think we:
a. need to hire someone to finish the bathroom ASAP
b. need to create a third neutral space to house our joint papers that hubby cannot extend his mess into
c. in the long view: we do not decorate for holidays because whatever bins I put holiday decorations into are lost in the mess of the garage. I find this greatly reduces my enjoyment of festivity and life living with such disarray.

Unfinished Remodeling Projects
I’m going to take as a given that our goal isn’t to get the house ready to sell to facilitate a divorce but rather to strengthen the marriage and make it more enjoyable for the writer.
If that’s the case, the writer wants the bathroom stuff (1) out of the bedroom, (2) out of the office, (3) out of sight, and (4) accessible from her daughter’s bathroom. Paying someone to finish the bathroom remodeling isn’t the only way to get what she wants. And it’s possible this approach would rob her husband of what he wants, if that happens to be the satisfaction resulting from remodeling his own bathroom.
The most marriage-strengthening solution is the Third Alternative they come up with together. It may turn out he’s not looking forward to finishing it himself, but hiring someone else to do that hasn’t come up because he’s just not bothered by the current state of the room. In that case, it’s a great solution.
But if he’s looking for more time to finish his project, here are some others they might come up with together or she might implement on her own:

  • a garage sale armoire in the hall outside the daughter’s bathroom
  • temporary shelves inside the unusable shower
  • a rolling storage cart
  • a shoe caddy on the inside of her daughter’s bathroom door

The trick is in separating what we need from what we’d prefer. Can we give our spouse a little more time on a project by reducing the amount of daily annoyance it causes for us?
Of course, if this were the only bathroom in the house or if using the other bathroom were a huge issue, she could say, “I need a bathroom near where I sleep and room in it to store things. It doesn’t need to be this one you’re working on, but it’s what I need. Let me know if you need more time on the bathroom project. If so, let’s figure out together where I can sleep with a usable bathroom next to it until it’s done.”
The writer and her husband have come up with a few steps to decrease the clutter problem, but they are not working. So what next?
I’d like to invite you to help get us to a Third Alternative. The first two alternatives are (1) the convenience for him of leaving things on any surface where they can be searched for as needed and (2) keeping things orderly enough to require no searching for, in particular, joint financial records and holiday decorations whenever she wants them.
On the blog, please leave a comment with one or more suggestions for Third Alternatives that will please both of them (i.e., give him the convenience and her the instant access to those two categories of things) and avoid the resentment both of them likely feel right now.
I’d love for us to give her “50 Ways to Keep Your Lover.” In fact, I’ll send a prize to the one she and her husband agree is best for them if we come up with 50.

About the author

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.


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  • Patty, I felt better after writing to you. We had thought of an armoire or caddy in the bathroom I now share with my daughter but there is no room- it’s a tiny, tight hallway. We added a long shelf and two small ones in daughter’s small bathroom, but it’s not enough.
    Plus, I have to trek up two flights of stairs to the BR and I’m older with the need to go more often. It’s terribly aggravating to stumble in the dark up two flights of stairs at night when the need arises.
    We spoke at length about the bathroom issue. My husband said he is willing to stop playing tennis on Sundays at 11 as he arrives home too exhausted to work on the bathroom, thus losing that day entirely for remodelling. He can switch to playing one evening during the work week as he never works on the bathroom after work.
    The larger issue is he enjoys companionship while working. I found a retired handyman who will come by next week to discuss helping my husband.
    Additionally, a neighbor is having the same issue with her bathroom and her husband. We are introducing our husbands tomorrow with the thought they could work on one bathroom one weekend and the other the next, and have fun male companionship. Our husbands are almost the same age, both mechanical engineers and we think will get along great.
    Once the bathroom is finished, I can start to organize and declutter all the other spaces.

  • Sounds like you found what your husband needs to get the project done, Susan. It often feels like they are just unconcerned with our needs when they are flummoxed on how to get their own needs met. You found him two different companions for the project. This, to me, is one of the wonderful things about being part of a couple, knowing how to get each other’s needs met (when we’re not so busy defending our own that we forget to ask what’s needed).
    I hope readers will still contribute ideas for the clutter problem, because it’s one that affects many couples. Will you still be our judge when we hit 50 suggestions?

  • This set of suggestions came in by email. Looking for lots more. Please add yours.
    Is it not important to figure out why he doesn’t pay attention to the clutter?
    It will continue to happen unless HE figures that out.
    Is it a timing thing… Too busy etc?
    Setting a small goal that doesn’t require a tonne of time, a short project that would be simple and quick to complete for him. This would allow him the experience of completing something and perhaps enjoy the success enough to do again?
    She could set a timed schedule allowing so many hours to complete each step in the bathroom…offer to help him do it(maybe A fun task for both).
    Perhaps the satisfaction of organizing for her and enabling him so it’s no longer an impossible job for him.
    Day to day mess happens …. The key is does it ever get cleaned up ? Maybe setting a specific time through the week to do this would help…put on some fun upbeat music to ‘clean and organize by’
    Hope these help

  • The conflict between neat and messy is one that my parents never solved. My dad simply retreated to his study, the one room he could keep her piles of stuff out of.
    I’m impressed by how the writer and her husband were able to talk about this and start coming up with solutions. Dealing with someone who seems to be the opposite (neat-messy, spender-saver, etc.) often looks impossible. Trying to find out what each person REALLY wants and needs is vital, and I so appreciate this blog for showing how to do that.

  • These are all great suggestions! For everyday organizing, I found the book Organizing Solutions for People with ADHD by Susan Pinsky really helpful. She has some great advice for organizing paper that would work even if ADHD isn’t an issue.

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.

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