“We’ve Discussed Marriage But I Can’t Handle Her Hoarding”

I’ve been with my current girlfriend, “Darlene,” for seven years. When I met her, I was just coming out of a divorce, I had just gotten a demotion at work, and I was probably a little bit depressed, but she decided to give me a chance anyway. We’ve talked about marriage, and I have always told her I wouldn’t be ready to take that step again until I was more secure financially. Well, that day is here. I was promoted again at the end of last year, and, between my base salary and overtime pay, I now make a great salary.

The problem is, Darlene is a hoarder. I didn’t really know this at first because she hid her stuff at a storage unit until she couldn’t afford it anymore. I didn’t initially let her know how much it bothered me, but I can’t take it anymore. It’s gotten to the point that I’m embarrassed to have any family over—-including my kids—-because I don’t want them to know how I’m living. Darlene also has two older children (18 and 21) who have absolutely no interest in doing anything. No college, no job – nothing.

I do love Darlene and because of that I don’t want to just up and leave. I’ve expressed to her that I don’t want to live like this, and I don’t know what else to do besides leave. I’ve had this on my mind for a while, and I’m looking for some advice. Anything is appreciated. — Can No Longer Live with the Hoarding

First, I’ll state the obvious: Everyone in this scenario needs therapy, especially Darlene. Hoarding isn’t something that someone can just get over, like recovering from a cold. It’s a sickness in the way alcoholism is or having an eating disorder or a drug problem is. People need dedicated treatment that addresses the root of the problem, and then long-term support and a plan to modify behavior. Your expressing to Darlene that you don’t want to live the way you’ve been living is a start, but without the support of a licensed mental health professional, she’s not going to be able to make the changes you need her to make in order for you to be happy living with her.

Now, maybe the less obvious point: It’s not great that you’ve been with Darlene for seven years, talking about marriage and telling her you’d be ready for that step once you were financially secure, and now that you ARE, you want to leave the relationship because of the hoarder lifestyle. I appreciate that you didn’t understand the scope of the problem when you first began dating, and maybe it wasn’t as bad then as it is now. But surely, at some point in the past seven years – maybe during one of your talks about a future marriage – there was an opportunity for you to address the elephant in the room, and it sounds like you didn’t take that opportunity until just recently, once you had secured the promotion and a better salary.

I’m not sure what you want me to say here. That it’s OK for you to leave Darlene now? That you were a real champ for sticking by her side all these years despite the hoarding and that you deserve to live the life you want now and shouldn’t feel guilty about it? I hope that’s not why you’ve written to me. I hope you aren’t simply in search of someone to relieve you of your guilt. At the same time, you shouldn’t stay with Darlene if you’re unhappy. I just wish that you would’ve tried to address the root of your unhappiness before you got the salary you told her you needed to have before you’d consider marrying her.

You can’t go back and change the timeline now, so here’s what I would advise: If you care about Darlene, try to get her some help. Offer to pay for some therapy for her. Find someone who has experience supporting people with a hoarding addiction. If she is open to getting help, maybe there’s still hope for a future for you two. If she isn’t open to help, even after you tell her that a future marriage is contingent on her getting treatment for the hoarding, I think THEN you can leave the relationship with a clear conscience.

If you decide to leave the relationship regardless of whether Darlene gets help, or if you aren’t prepared to help her pay for the treatment, I’m not sure your conscience will be as clear. That doesn’t mean I would advise staying with her anyway. You should definitely leave if you’re unhappy and don’t see a path forward together. But know that the kindest thing would have been ending the relationship once you understood the level of the hoarding problem and the effect it had on you, not leading Darlene on for years to think you were going to marry her once you felt more financially secure and then dumping her once you attained that security. At the very least, take this lesson and do better in your next relationship.

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If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy(AT)dearwendy.com.

11 Comments

  1. LisforLeslie says:

    Book for you to read: Stuff – by Gail Steketee & Randy Frost

    Is she in your home or have you been living in her home? If in her home, why wasn’t this a deal breaker? Why would you move into that? If in your home, why have you allowed this? Wendy is right – therapy is a must. Read the book – figure out what kind of hoarder she is, it will help you steer to the right kind of therapist and hopefully a solution.

  2. Anonymousse says:

    I feel bad for Darlene. All this time, why have you been feeding her that line? It’s really too bad you’ve kept that up all this time. Why?

    I think what Wendy said was great advice. Offer her help and move in with a clearer conscious.

  3. Since you’re earning a good income now, why not rent a large storage unit for her. You say that worked until she couldn’t afford to maintain it. Would that solve most of your problem?

    1. With hoarders that doesn’t tend to stop it, they just hoard out the unit then continue on with the house. It’s the hoarding part that’s the issue, not the space.

    2. With hoarders that doesn’t tend to stop it, they just hoard out the unit then continue on with the house. It’s the hoarding part that’s the issue, not the space.

  4. From the LW:

    “Hi Wendy,

    I left a few details out that might make things a little easier to understand. I first brought these feelings to her attention two years ago, and it’s been a recurring topic ever since then. When we talk about she acknowledged that it is a problem and she will try to do something about it but eventually she goes back to doing the same old thing.

    Here in the last few months it’s gotten to the point where I don’t even want to come home at night, because I don’t even feel comfortable being there. There have even been times where I could’ve taken off from work and chose not too, because I didn’t want to be there. I let her know that the hoarding has to stop or I have to go. I can not and wiil not continue to live like this. At this point I don’t see any other options but to go. “

    1. Anonymous says:

      I think you need to go. The hoarding won’t end. Wendy says nothing about her adult bum kids who I assume live there too. Just say goodbye, in person, nicely. Then go.

  5. As has already been stated – hoarding is not something one can just decide to quit and then do it. Generally people really need help. Good, qualified help, not just someone who says they’ll help a person to get rid of the things. Because weeding out the surplus stuff is just a small bit of the problem, that’s the (relatively) easy part. If you still love her, or even if you just respect her for being there for you, when you were down on your luck, you will see to it that she gets help and help her financially with it. Even if you do end up ending the relationship. Someone, who as far as I understand, has loved you for seven years, and whom you have loved for seven years, deserves to get a helping hand from you. I’m not saying you should pay for treatment for the rest of her life if it doesn’t get better. But for an amount of help that usually gets people on track — the professional you go to can maybe give you an average? This process will probably also be beneficial for you as well.

    You didn’t say who moved in with whom, but if you moved in with her, and can’t stand to live there, maybe you can move out without ending the relationship? That’s not how most people progress through a relationship, but I know some people who have been happier that way (without the influence of hoarding or such), and as a temporary solution it could fit even more people. So that you don’t have to live in the hoarder chaos. This could also help you figure out if you really miss her in your day to day life, or if you just feel relief when you aren’t not only outside of the hoarder house, but without her as the unique person that she is. I’m not an expert, but being out of the house, but not of her life, maybe could also be beneficial for her at a stage where she has to deal with a difficult process. Maybe, I’m not sure. This will be overwhelming for her, she will have to deal with a lot off issues from before you met. Maybe from childhood, maybe from previous relationships, maybe from abuse … Again, I’m not an expert, but at least in many cases there is some kind of trauma behind the hoarding behaviour. And maybe this past trauma and/or the hoarding has affected her kids growing up with her as well.

    People who cope with a trauma in this way (if that’s the case), can also exhibit other coping mechanisms as well. They may for instance become people pleasers, or develop other survival strategies. You will have time to reflect on wether this was one of the things that actually drew you to her, and what will happen if and hopefully when she discards not only the hoarding, but possible other coping mechanisms as well. Behaviours, that in contrast from the hoarding, suited you, that you actually benefited from. If that is the case, that’s also important to find out. You will also have the opportunity to reflect on whether you have developed codependency living with he, and to deal with that. This will be a process for the both of you, and if you will still want each other after you have each dealt with your own issues. Maybe there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for why you didn’t get that something was wrong for whole five years, or maybe there’s something for you to look into, to discover about your self. For both your sakes.

    Sometimes, people are drawn to each other’s trauma, so to speak, it will be very beneficial for you to find out if this is the case. So that if this is the case, you don’t repeat this mistake. Actually the British comedian John Cleese, together with the psychiatrist and psychotherapist Robin Skynner, wrote a book touching on that theme in the eighties, Families and How to Survive Them. It’s more than 30 years since I read it, but I was studying behavioural science at the time, and remember finding it genuinely interesting.

    I wish luck to the both of you. I hope you understand that whether the two of you end up together or not, actually is the secondary question here. The main thing here is in what way the both of you cope with this situation, and how you end up at the point where the both of you decide if you will be continuing together or apart. You both have some work to do with yourselves. Definitely she, but maybe also you, will need help with it. You however seem to be in a stronger place than she at the moment, and with your better economy (if I understand the situation correctly) have more power and opportunity to give the both of you the push you both need to deal with the issues. I hope you take that responsibility, even if it turns out that you will be leaving her.

  6. Yeah, the two grown kids at home with no jobs thing is almost as bad as the hoarding. And regardless of your intent when you met her, the children were school aged then and you had no way of knowing they’d decide to stay home and do nothing as adults. The 18 year old gets a pass (for now) because it’s understandable to take some time and figure out a way forward after high school, but 21 with no job and not in school is a giant red flag. Wendy’s advice is very kind, but you would also not be unreasonable to leave this situation without therapy, imo

  7. Do you have to live together to love someone?

    If you love her and want to keep her in your life, you can have separate homes as long as it is financially possible. IMO, this would solve so many relationship issues in many cases (including my own…) Especially in cases with two grown adults who are not planning to have children together.

    Rent/buy a suitable apartment close to her home, where you spend most of your time together. Allow her to bring a few changes of clothes and some personal items, but be very clear it is your home, not an extension to hers. Maintain strict boundaries in this.

    You can’t heal her. But this is worth a try if you really do want to keep seeing her while maintaining your own sanity.

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