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My husband and I were in our mid 40’s when we married almost 15 years ago, combining our children and our accumulated goods. He brought thousands of books with him that had been in storage for years. He promised to organize and cull the books and asked me not to do anything with them without checking with him first, which I agreed to do. We added a huge room onto our bedroom to serve as his library, with rows of back-to-back shelves, but it isn’t enough. Most of the aisles between the shelves are piled so high with books that passage is impossible. I feel it is a health hazard (I can’t even get a vacuum into the room!) and a fire hazard. I’ve offered to work with him or even to do it for him. He becomes irrational when the subject is brought up–hyperventilating, yelling, then getting so worked up he can’t even speak. I suggested he put his feelings in writing to help me understand. He said he would as soon as he calmed down, but he hasn’t.
Both our widowed mothers, siblings, and all of our children have offered to come help load up and haul away books, but in the first place I don’t feel it is my place to tell my husband what he can or cannot have, and in the second place I feel guilty about the agreement I made not to do anything to the books without his approval–which he won’t give. Is it ever okay to retract an agreement? We can’t go on a mission and leave things like this. I don’t want to leave this for our kids to deal with when we die. What do you recommend?
Both you and your husband made an agreement about his collection of books before it mutated into an overwhelming hoarding problem. You are keeping your end of the agreement, but, because he’s done nothing to sort through and discard books, he hasn’t kept his end of the agreement. Now, it’s time for a new strategy.
People with hoarding behaviors often have little to no insight about how their environment is affecting them those around them. There is tremendous denial, shame, and avoidance, so the problem will continue for years until something drastic happens. It’s unlikely things will change unless he gets professional help. Hoarding behaviors are often a manifestation of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which is highly treatable.
If he won’t agree to attend intensive counseling, then an intervention with family members and friends is the next best approach. Friends and family members will need to meet with a qualified professional who specializes in treating anxiety disorders. They will need to get support so they don’t enable or sabotage the outcome of the intervention. Staging an intervention will raise the intensity and initially create tremendous tension, so the team needs to be unified and prepared.
I don’t recommend throwing his books out until you’ve worked with a therapist. Getting rid of the books isn’t the solution. He needs to learn how to cope with the deep-seated and distorted beliefs he has around his books. Sure, you could gut the house and clean everything up, but the real change has to come from within.
You want to work with his anxiety, not against it. You’re not going to tell him what he can and can’t keep. He’s the only one who can decide what he will keep. With the help of the therapist and intervention team, he will have steady and loving pressure to do something with his piles. He will have his reality put in front of him until he can’t deny it any longer.
Please don’t get stuck on the agreement you made with him. It doesn’t make sense for you to continue feeling guilty for helping your husband. He’s unable to keep his promise to you because he likely has a mental illness that needs serious help. He’s created a health and safety hazard, not to mention an environment where you can’t be free to invite others into your home. It’s isolating and punishing to everyone who lives with a hoarder.
This will take time, but a competent professional can help you build a map for how to exit this maze of books. You don’t initially need your husband’s consent, but with good treatment, it’s likely he’ll begin to make positive movement. Your loyalty is to your husband’s health and safety, even when he can’t see it.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.marriage-recovery.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.