Emotional Hoarders

Married couples have learned to hoard, sometimes literally, but more often metaphorically. They hoard emotions, they hoard hurts, they hoard disappointments, rejections, the list goes on and on.

There are big hoarders and small hoarders. I once entered the home of a widow who lived next to us in California. I say “entered” somewhat euphemistically. It’s more like my groping hands led me into a little space in her kitchen  where a leaky pipe was located. There were walls of newspapers and magazines on either side, making it looking like a corn maze and the smell of cavernous hallways was intense. There were objects piled up all over the livable space and the air was so thick I could swear it was being hoarded as well. Now that’s what I call a big hoarder.

Small hoarders, on the other hand, only keep things in one room in the house. Maybe it used to be the bedroom of one of their kids who went to college, an old closet, or maybe even an attic. If you visited their house, you would have no clue that there is a messy room somewhere because everything looks so clean and good. The chaos is a dark secret, they keep it only between them, and they only go there to dump more stuff, and when it is full, they may even put a lock there and avoid going there at all costs.

Couples who are big time hoarders leave everything on the floor. Like the big hoarders in the reality show, there is little hope for them. I can’t even begin to think about helping big time hoarders. But I have something to say to small hoarders.

You also may have a closet with locks when it comes to your emotional life. You only go there when it is absolutely necessary. You keep shoving things there and keep it secure with a lock. You don’t want to go in because it is too painful.

So when the wife is tempted thinks about how the husband didn’t take her side when his mother attacked her ten Thanksgivings ago, she quickly shoves that into the closet. When the husband feels lonely and wants a little more loving, he immediately retreats, knowing full well that the subject might just aggravate his wife’s headache.

The hoarding closet, then, becomes a form of escapism, a flight from reality, a detour from disruption, but what you don’t realize is that same closet is nothing more than a postponement of “judgement day.” Some day, the hurts and resentments will erupt like a volcano and by then it might be too late to stop it.

That’s why couple who are emotional hoarders need to open the closet. Slowly at first, but surely. A good start is to eliminate from your vocabulary expressions such as “don’t even go there,” “I don’t want to talk about it,” “You know what will happen if we start talking about this,” “There you go again,” etc., etc.

Here is a simple technique: instead of going to the “closet” go to the “cave.” A “cave” is a safe space you need to put between you and the painful issue you may be discussing. If the argument is heating up or is bringing the worse in you, just say, “I need to go into the cave.” At that moment a “truce” is declared, the weapons come down and there is a pause, which, by the way, men, does not mean “there will be sex.”)

Men, especially, need to learn to give their spouses some space. However, you cannot go into the “cave” forever. The “cave” is a respite not a destination. It is not another closet. The “cave” gives you time to calm down and think about what you want to say. After a couple of days (you will have to determine how many), if the spouse is still in the “cave,” you need to call her/him out. Actually “draw her out” is probably a better expression.

When the talk resumes, you will need to learn to re-state. Instead of “How can you say that?” what about, “Can you clarify what you really mean by that?” Or “do I understand that you are saying thus and so?” Listen, re-state, and state your point without attacking the other person. If you do that consistently, you will find yourself without a dirty closet sooner than what you think.

Ivanildo C. Trindade