Minimalism and Your Reluctant Spouse

“You haven’t looked at the bin of books since college!” I complain, sounding more incensed than I cared to admit to myself.

“The girls might read them.” My husband says, not quite patiently.

His problem: The bin we are discussing is one full of hardcover science fiction and fantasy novels my husband purchased through a mail-order subscription service. He hasn’t touched them or any book in the time that I have known him which at this point has passed a decade. He says he’s read them all.

My problem: I like science fiction and fantasy but I’m not even sure who these authors are. This is besides the point of the larger issue in that I feel I need to control the situation. I’ve gotten rid of my things and we have pared down our items and our kids’ items. As soon as my mission towards minimalism passed through Me-town and We-town, I failed to hit the brakes and flew right through my husband’s border security.

Getting on the Same Page with Minimalism

Step One: Know Thyself

Why do you want to be a minimalist? What value would the practice add to your life?

I can only speak for myself. Six months after the birth of our second child, my anxiety was at an all time high. My husband was working nights (he still is) because we couldn’t find or afford daycare. I was taking graduate courses in teaching ELL for additional licensure to add to my language arts degrees. My days were busy teaching at a correctional center where there was a day program for middle school and high school kids. It wasn’t the first time I had a full plate but it was the first time I had a full plate with two kids.

I had a vague sense of what minimalism was but my focus, sitting in our basement and stressed out of my mind, wasn’t on adhering to any sort of dogma. I simply wanted to clear my plate of responsibilities.

By the time my husband looked around after getting home the next morning, the house looked different and the garage was piled high with boxes to take to Goodwill.

In beginning of your journey towards minimalism, you will want to define what it can do for you. Are you trying to save money? Are you overwhelmed by all the stuff? Are you misplacing or losing items all the time? Are your weekends spent cleaning or shopping and it feels like one endless cycle? (Let me know in the comments!)

Also, I don’t think it’s a philosophy you can be half in half out about. Once you begin, you’ll see how minimalism inhabits other areas of your life. That’s the part I didn’t anticipate. I just thought I was decluttering my house.

Step Two: Know Your Subject

There is a sort of training involved in getting one person to adapt to a new environment and for it to seem like a welcoming place to reside. Any changes to one’s environment can be stressful. You have to get to know your subject (your spouse) and how they might react to any changes you are making.

In the famous words of Harper Lee as said by her character Atticus Finch, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Before my husband was afforded the time to consider what it was I was throwing out, I assured him that all the items we were getting rid of were clothes our youngest was too big for, clothes I no longer needed, and books I no longer wished to read. I would be leaving his things alone because I had enough of my own stuff to deal with.

I had correctly assumed that my husband would feel a threat to his belongings and those of our children. I think he assumed that because I had gone through various phases and interests in the time that he has known me that this was one more phase but that this one might actually affect him in some way. I did not declare that I was now a minimalist. I had to make the change seem nebulous and gradual even if for me the change was more dramatic and solid.

In her novel, What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage: Lessons for People from Animals and Their Trainers, Amy Sutherland takes an effective yet seemingly dehumanizing approach to understanding the way her husband thinks and acts. Her approach is both amusing and disturbing as she begins by defining her husband’s specific breed of human.

The exotic animal known as Scott is a loner, but an alpha male. So hierarchy matters, but being in a group doesn’t so much. He has the balance of a gymnast, but moves slowly, especially when getting dressed. Skiing comes naturally, but being on time does not. He’s an omnivore, and what a trainer would call food-driven.

Sutherland accomplishes incremental changes in her husband’s behavior but doesn’t expect miracles. She ignored his negative habits and supported his positive ones. In doing this, she “trained” her husband to stop asking her where his missing items were, to stop hovering over her when she was cooking, to stop leaving dirty clothes all over the place.

Sutherland says that after two years of exotic animal training, her marriage is far smoother but it’s because they’ve both adapted. Once she explained what she had been doing to her husband, he wasn’t annoyed but rather amused. He even turned the tables on her a time or two.

So how does this work with getting your spouse to accept and practice minimalism?

Step Three: Make it seem like you are doing all the heavy lifting and watch your tone

Start by saying, “Hey, I’m taking some of my clothes to Goodwill, can you take a few minutes at this time to look through yours and I can take care of donating it?” Notice the tone. It’s supportive. You are going to Goodwill, you are running the errand for him/her. It would get a whole different reaction is you were to command, “I’m getting rid of stuff, you need to look through your things.” This is a blatantly disrespectful tone that would make your spouse feel as if you see them as a child.

Similarly, you wouldn’t say, “I’m thinking of taking some things to Goodwill, do you have anything that you want to donate?” This is far too passive and it reduces the question into a yes/no option. If I were tired and my spouse said this to me I would probably say, “Nah…maybe next time.”

Step Four: Reward

Breathing Room

For the first portion of your collective journey, concentrate on having fewer items to take care of. I recommend going category by category kind of like Marie Kondo does in her method. Make it comfortable. Put on some music. Make a plan to go to a movie or have a date night at home after. Ask more questions of your spouse and make fewer assertions. “How many whisks do you think we need?” instead of “Three whisks is too many, let’s get rid of two.”

If you can’t agree, come up with a compromise where you will put the items you are disagreeing on in a box (not immediately going out for Goodwill) and if you find you need the items, they will be within reach. Give this box a sell-by date. If neither of you uses the items left in the box after a month, it might be time to give the items away or sell them. If you find yourself taking an item out to use it, then find a place in your home where it will be easily reachable but out of sight.

Money Money Money…Mon-nay!

One of the best rewards of minimalism after the fact that you have less stuff to clean up after is the monetary gain. When you are in the habit of buying fewer items and just keeping to the basics, you have more money for your dreams. What would you do if you had $100, $200, $500 more per month? Because this is the kind of money I am talking about getting back into your bank account.

I recommend, if you haven’t already, joining your bank accounts and writing out a budget together. Once you know what is coming in every month, take a look at the regular monthly necessary expenses (basic items such as heat, electricity, grocery staples, gas, and rent or mortgage) and subtract those. Then look at the more negotiable items you can minimize.

After becoming minimalists and establishing a budget, my husband and I have been able to pay off more than $15,000 in credit card debt in 18 months. Now we are on track to pay off our house we bought last year in nine years. Can you imagine what you would do if you didn’t have a mortgage payment?

The Minimalism Game is More Fun in Co-op Mode

Once you have all the items boxed away, try not to compare their stack with yours. You are in cooperation, not competition. If they have one box to your twenty, they are still attempting to work with you. Reward their efforts with a smile and a hug.

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