When Christi M., a 45-year-old dance instructor from Edmonton, Alberta first started dating Tony*, she thought she’d found the man of her dreams. He was smart, creative, thoughtful, and most of all, “a good soul.” But there was one thing that bothered her: he wouldn’t let her come to his house.

“We’d been going out for months and he kept making excuses for why I couldn’t come over,” she says. “He’d say, ‘No, no, I haven’t cleaned.’ I told him I’d been in guys’ houses where they hadn’t cleaned before, but when I finally walked in, I thought, ‘holy crap.’” Every table, countertop, and horizontal surface had piles and piles of paper on it. Plus, there were foot-high stacks of newspapers and magazines covering the floors. “It wasn’t just unclean,” she said, “It was as though in another 20 years, he would be walking through mazes of newspapers. He didn’t like to throw things away. He was sure there was something in there he was going to need.”

Why throwing stuff away is so difficult
According to research by Dr. David Tolin, founder of the Anxiety Disorders Center at The Institute of Living at Hartford Hospital, approximately 3-6 million people in the U.S. suffer from a compulsive desire to collect and save objects — everything from newspapers and magazines to clothing and gadgets to food, garbage… even animals. But while pack rats or collectors may accumulate dozens — even hundreds — of objects they consider valuable (for example, Beanie Babies, Pez dispensers or first-edition items), compulsive hoarders find it impossible to discard anything. This leads to them accumulating old computer parts, National Geographic issues and junk mail to the point where their bookshelves — not to mention, their relationships — often collapse.
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“It can be very stressful for a person who’s dating a hoarder because it’s so different and they don’t understand,” says Elizabeth Lombardo, a Wexford, PA psychologist who’s treated both hoarders and their partners. “But it’s also stressful for the hoarder.” Lombardo adds: “If you hoard, you probably meet criteria for obsessive-compulsive disorder. That’s an anxiety disorder and having that anxiety manifests itself via collecting things. Not being able to throw things away can be stressful in and of itself. Hoarders know it’s not normal — but it’s not something they feel they can control.”

Your place… NOT mine
Since hoarders will often go out of their way to prevent people from seeing their homes, a hoarder’s new love interest can at first feel snubbed or unwanted. “I had a client who was dating a woman, but he hadn’t been to her house because she didn’t want him there,” says Lombardo. “He thought it was an indication of how she felt about him. Eventually, she told him her place was a little messy and cluttered. But when he finally saw it, it was a real eye-opener. The mess was overwhelming.”

Overwhelming as it might be, though, hoarders often refuse to discuss the issue — or even seek help for it. “I was with a hoarder for six years,” says Judy McGuire, author of How Not to Date. “He was very embarrassed by his hoarding and would avoid talking about it, even though you’d sometimes turn around too quickly and a tower of New York Times back issues would come crashing to the floor. We had lots of fights about it.” Hoarders can also come across as secretive, since shame and embarrassment is a big part of the disorder.

“My boyfriend had a couple of storage units, but he wasn’t straightforward about them at first,” says Tanja B., a 32-year-old marketing director from Seattle, WA who was with a hoarder for three and a half years. “It took some time to unravel that. He also introduced me to his mom but would never let me go to her place. Later, I found out she has a house but couldn’t live in it because it was cluttered from top to bottom with stuff. I think he was embarrassed about the hoarding, but I also think that, to him, it was just normal life. It’s how he grew up and what he was used to, because his mom also hoarded things.”

Living with a hoarder
Hoarding does tend to run in families and they can be young or old, male or female. They are not all the same, though. Some are pack rats run amok; others accumulate seemingly worthless objects to the point that their homes become unsafe, unhealthy and even unlivable. Despite this, even serious hoarders can often live otherwise functional lives — i.e., there’s no way you can tell someone’s a hoarder simply by looking.

Like anyone else, they have friendships, date and fall in love, which means plenty of people find themselves moving in with a hoarder (or inviting one to move in). This is a situation that can often crank up the frustrations between partners, especially for those who don’t fully understand the disorder. “When I first decided to move in with my boyfriend, he agreed to throw out some stuff,” says McGuire, who lived with her hoarder for two years. “But I didn’t know what hoarding was then. I didn’t realize it would be like removing hairs with a tweezer one by one, that every copy of the New York Times would have to be looked at before it could be put in the dumpster.”

Brad C., a 52-year-old wedding DJ from Bellingham, WA, says he, too, didn’t know anything about hoarding until his new live-in girlfriend started emptying out her storage units and filling up his house. “I thought she just had that nesting thing going on, that she liked to have all her stuff around her,” he says. “But the stuff just piled up. Eventually, it got to the point where there were trails through the house.” Even more frustrating: When Brad tried cleaning up, his girlfriend became extremely agitated. “She just went crazy, as if I was taking her children away or something,” he says. “There was a serious emotional attachment to all that stuff. That’s when I knew it was more of a psychological issue.”

Create boundaries by maintaining your personal space
What should you keep in mind if you’ve fallen for someone with a compulsive hoarding habit? “If you’re going to be with a hoarder, you should maintain your own space and not let this person bring his or her stuff into it,” advises McGuire. “Also realize that a hoarder’s probably not going to change. Women will think, ‘oh, he’s just messy’ — but there’s messy and then there’s compulsive. You can test the difference by picking something up in the hoarder’s house and saying it needs to be tossed out and see how he or she reacts. If that person starts screaming, then you’ll know.”

McGuire also suggests learning as much about the disorder as possible (one good resource is the International OCD Foundation’s Hoarding Center). “You might want to go to therapy and find out the right way to react to hoarding,” she suggests. “You wouldn’t want to throw out someone’s stuff while he or she is at work, which I did a couple of times.” Lombardo stresses that it’s important to remember that hoarding is a symptom of a larger issue, not the issue itself: “One of the struggles with dating a hoarder is that a person will think, ‘If he or she loves me, it’ll stop.’ But it takes more than love to change things. Hoarders are keeping that stuff for a reason — not necessarily a rational reason, but a reason nonetheless. If you get rid of it, it’s a huge violation and a huge source of stress for the hoarder. If you’re dating a hoarder, remember that the behavior is caused by something deeper, like issues with self-confidence.”

Most importantly, though, Lombardo says people should keep in mind that not all relationships with hoarders are doomed. “The important thing about hoarding is that it’s treatable,” she says. “Cognitive behavioral therapy can help you change your thoughts and emotions. Hoarders can get the help they need to make those life changes.”

* Some names have been changed to maintain privacy.

Diane Mapes is a freelance writer based in Seattle and the author of How to Date in a Post-Dating World. She can be reached via her Web site, dianemapes.net.