Help! Should I Move In With My Hoarder Boyfriend?

Prudie’s column for Feb. 14.

© Provided by The Slate Group LLC Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by THPStock/iStock/Getty Images and Wavebreakmedia/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

 By Daniel Mallory Ortberg, Slate

I’ve been with my boyfriend for over two years. He’s several years older than me and is eager to move our relationship to the next level. He has been pressuring me to move in for a year and wants to get married. I love him, but I’ve always had a few conditions: He needs to address his moderate hoarding problem and declutter his apartment so I have a place to put my stuff, he has to start taking better care of himself (he hadn’t seen a dentist in seven years), and we need to fight in a healthier manner. We tend to get into one or two big fights a year in public with a smattering of smaller spats in between: It’s mostly him being moody and lashing out and me not responding well to that. Since we had this conversation, he has decluttered some 25 percent of his apartment, spent a few thousand on furniture that better accommodates his stuff, and has even seen the dentist a few times. We also have been fighting less. This is definitely great progress, and I’m proud of him, but there is still a lot to do. He expects me to move in April.

We regularly discuss our goals, but I’ve been flustered this past year, feeling like I have to constantly monitor, manage, and assist him so we meet my expectations by a deadline he is comfortable with. When I express these feelings to him, he gets upset and says he’s bending over backward for me and I’m not seeing everything he does for me in our relationship (buy most dinners, help with my coding class homework, offer to financially support me if I want to quit my lousy job). But I can’t help but see that after a year of decluttering, his 2,000-square-foot apartment still can’t accommodate my stuff that currently fits into a 150-square-foot bedroom. That’s the thing that worries me most about moving in! I’m also worried that we’re only fighting less because I’ve been busy with coding boot camp and we haven’t been in any situations which tend to provoke him (socializing in big groups, hot weather, being tired). It took a year of pestering for him to get to a dentist. I realize the changes I am looking for are big for him, but I also don’t feel like I am totally irrational for having these expectations of a 38-year-old. He has admitted to feeling some pressure to get married as he nears 40. I am afraid come April that not only will his apartment still not have room for my stuff, but he will get upset if I don’t move in anyway. Worse, I am afraid that once summer hits, he will become easily irritated again and we’ll get into another big fight. How do I handle all this? I dragged him to couples therapy after our last big public spat last summer, but there were a zillion reasons it didn’t work out for him, and he refuses to try again.

—To Move or Not to Move

If the (apparently painstaking) progress your boyfriend has made over the last year means that your two boxes of stuff still can’t fit in his place, he’s made a single trip to the dentist, and you’re worried he’s going to start losing his temper because it’s summer, then you should definitely not move in with him. I’m also more than a little worried about his offer to financially support you if you quit your job. He’s already putting a fair amount of pressure on you to get on board with his timeline and ignore your own concerns, and I worry that he’d start throwing his weight around all the harder if he were your sole means of financial support.

You say you love him, but you sound exhausted, anxious, and cynical about the future of your relationship. He can be making important strides in changing long-standing habits and those changes may be insufficient for you to be interested in living with him—both of those things can be true at the same time. It’s necessary to distinguish between legitimate struggles that he deserves to get help and support with (like hoarding or anxiety in big groups of people) and harmful choices that he’s making (like picking fights with you to manage said anxiety). You also don’t have to stay in this relationship just because he saw a dentist, bought a few extra dressers, and stays out of the sun. If he considers the work he’s done over the last year to be bending over backward for you and you see it as just a drop in the bucket, then it’s time to call for a pretty serious timeout and take the idea of moving in off the table for now. If he can’t handle that, that might be a sign that he’s less interested in having a relationship with you and more interested in getting you to do what he wants. And if the idea of spending the next few years trying to drag a 38-year-old kicking and screaming into an equitable relationship doesn’t appeal to you, consider how nice it might feel to be single and not worried about when you’re going to get yelled at next or where you’re going to put your stuff. He may be an otherwise nice person, and you may wish him all the best as he gets help for his various issues, but what are you getting out of this relationship?

Dear Prudence,

I’m a bisexual white woman married to a bisexual black man. We have two young daughters. I don’t enjoy spending time in “mommy groups” because it feels like a constant competition to be “ideal” mothers. Also, a lot of these moms seem to put their whole identity into motherhood, and I don’t. I feel like a novelty in these groups; sometimes members will latch onto me as the most interesting person they know, and it’s exhausting. I recently worked a kid’s birthday party (I’m an entertainer) where all of the parents were LGBT couples who seemed to be part of a meetup group. Prudie, I want to go to there! They were all so laid back, easy to talk to, and had interests in common with me. Many also had biracial children. They were giving each other braiding tips in a way that the straight, white mommy groups around here just don’t! I want to be part of a group like that so bad, but I’m hyperaware that as a bi woman married to a man, I would probably not even be welcome. As much as I try to be out, I know I benefit from the privilege of being perceived as straight. My husband and I met at the LGBT support group in college, but when it was formed, there was a great debate as to whether bisexual people should even have been allowed to join. My husband says I should just let it go and try to make friends with the moms I don’t really like if I’m lonely, because I apparently haven’t given them enough of a chance. Whatever that means. Is it so wrong that I want a space where I feel allowed to be weird and queer and not a perfect parent?

—Meetup Anxiety

I think you are partly overthinking this one! If you don’t want to spend a lot of time with people you consider boring (and who consider you a novelty), then don’t. This informal-seeming, friendly group of couples doesn’t sound anything like your support group in college. You might also want to look for other parenting support groups that aren’t just for mothers or that specifically serve parents of biracial children, since it sounds like that’s something you’re currently missing in your life. I think it’s a false equivalence to assume that all straight white mothers are caught up in a Stepford wife–style game of perfection while just on the other side of the fence is a rainbow coalition of exciting multiracial families, but if you’re interested in finding groups that center nonstraight, nonwhite families, you have every right to do so. If some of those groups feel slightly chilly or difficult to break into, then look elsewhere or consider starting your own and getting the word out that other weird/nonstraight mothers who feel ill at ease in traditional parenting groups should give you a call.

Dear Prudence,

After 27 years of marriage and three children, my wife left. She didn’t even tell me to my face—I came home to an empty house and a letter detailing all my faults as a husband and a man. She was unhappy and had been waiting for years until our youngest was off to college. She met someone else; he made her feel like a “real woman.” This killed me. I have never cheated on my wife, always bought her flowers on Sunday, and took her out for our anniversary and her birthday. My parents were married for 60 years, and I thought we would be too. She spent all of the fall with her lover and never returned my calls. I finally got a lawyer after Christmas. He filed the papers. Then, out of the blue, my wife left me a message. Things didn’t “work out,” she made a mistake, and she wants to come home. I don’t want her to. A month ago, two months ago, I was praying for this, but not now. Our kids are ecstatic; Christmas was really hard on them. I don’t know what to do.

—Came Back Too Late

It’s a little unclear what your soon-to-be ex-wife thinks her mistake was. Was it in going off with this particular guy or in thinking she’d been unhappy in your marriage for years? Because it may be a little harder to get rid of that sentiment than to get rid of the guy. If your kids are all grown up and out of the house, then I don’t think you need to spend too much time worrying about how your decision to reconcile with her (or not) will affect them. They’re capable of developing their own independent relationships with their mother regardless of your relationship with her.

This past year has been something of a whirlwind: You went from thinking your marriage was mostly happy to finding out your wife had been miserable for years, that she’d already left, and that there was someone else. On top of that, your attempts to talk to her were all unsuccessful. I can imagine why, even if you don’t want her back at this point, part of you feels conflicted because you’ve been looking for answers all on your own for so long. It may be helpful to have a conversation with her about what exactly happened and why she’s suddenly changed her mind again.

It also may not help! You certainly don’t need to try to get closure from her in order to continue moving on with your divorce. You have sufficient information based on her behavior over the past year—the affair, the cruelty of leaving a note, the total radio silence, the sudden announcement that she’s ready to move back home without asking you how you feel about it—to move ahead with your decision without it. I’m not sure you could ever get an answer from her that makes you feel like you really understand the last year of your marriage, and I’m not sure you need it either. She left on her terms, and now she wants to come back on her terms. It’s time for you to do what’s right for you.

Dear Prudence,

I’m a woman in my mid-20s who has been dating an amazing woman for about a year. We’re long-distance, so every other weekend one of us drives to see the other. The issue isn’t the distance. It’s her brother “Joe.” My girlfriend is the youngest of five siblings, and I like most of them. However, Joe is incredibly possessive and passive-aggressive. He’s 30 years old, still living at home (so is my girlfriend), so he’s around whenever I visit. When he walks in a room, he huffs, glares at me, greets everyone in the room besides me, complains if we mention that we’re going to dinner, and generally gives both of us the silent treatment. The other siblings say he isn’t used to seeing his younger sister dating and is just jealous and possessive. But after a year, I assumed he’d get over that.

My girlfriend has talked to him about it, and he always claims he doesn’t know what she’s talking about or that he was just tired from work (he tutors for maybe an hour a day). It’s making me dread my visits, because I have to see a grown man sleeping on the family couch in his underwear all day, just to be rude to me and give his sister the silent treatment. My girlfriend adores her brother. Joe is also rude to the other siblings’ significant others, but my girlfriend is the only one who’s stood up to him. What should I do? I’ve already stayed in hotels on my visits, but then Joe complains I’m isolating her from the family if I do that. I would hate for this to be what ends my relationship.

—Girlfriend’s Brother Might End Our Relationship

Oh, boy. This is really weird and really bad. I’ll take your word for it that the rest of your girlfriend’s siblings are friendly, but “he’s just not used to seeing his younger sister dating” is a really creepy justification to offer for their brother’s behavior. Thirty-year-old men don’t need to be “used to” the idea of their sisters dating; it’s not something they need to be gently eased into. Add to that the fact that he’s walking around the house in his underwear, completely ignoring you, and claiming that you’re trying to “isolate” a grown woman from her family if you want to stay in a hotel for a few days a month, and you’ve got a really unsettling cocktail of psychosexual neuroses. And your girlfriend “adores” this man? She’s also the only person in her family who’s ever said anything along the lines of “Hey, Joe, please put some pants on and make eye contact with my significant other,” which makes me worried about the relative emotional healthiness of every single member of this family.

If over the course of an entire year she’s only talked to him about it (to no avail) and isn’t making plans to move out, minimizing the amount of time you have to spend with him, or correcting his behavior when he acts badly in the moment, then I think you have a pretty solid picture of how things are going to be in the future. Do you really want to be with someone who thinks it’s OK for a member of her family to treat you like this? Or even if she disapproves, to expend so little energy trying to change the situation? You say you’d hate for this to be what ends your relationship, but frankly I’m worried that this won’t.

Dear Prudence,

My grandma was a severe drug addict who terrorized my mother as she was growing up. It left her with lifelong issues. I’ve never even seen her take an aspirin, and I was terrified to drink the sacramental wine at Mass as a child. I am an adult now and have grown to enjoy going to breweries and having a glass of wine with dinner. I am careful and in control; the few times I have been drunk, it has been at my home or within walking distance. This is a huge source of conflict with my mother. She hasn’t straight accused me of being an alcoholic, but she will make inflammatory statements if I post a picture online of myself with a margarita or go through my kitchen and comment about the wine or six-pack in my fridge. It is wearing on my last nerve and worse. She makes these comments in front of other people, too. I am not my grandmother. I resent having to pay for the sins of a woman who has been dead for a decade. I am tired of being treated like a lush for having a few beers over the weekend. My mother doesn’t do that to anyone else—not her brothers or their kids. Just me. How do I deal with her?

—Past Sins on My Head

There’s a reason there are a number of support groups dedicated to serving the adult children of alcoholics, and I hope your mother can start going to one. It must be overwhelming and exhausting to feel so haunted by her own mother’s alcoholism that a decade after her death she’s still afraid to take an aspirin. That doesn’t justify your mother’s attempts to manage her own pain by trying to control you, but it may prove a helpful context when you tell her why you’re unfriending her on social media or not inviting her into your house: “I’m not available to stand in for Grandma because of your own issues with alcohol. I know that I’m a moderate, responsible drinker, and it’s been very painful when you single me out for criticism that you don’t offer to your other family members. I don’t know what it’s like growing up with an alcoholic parent. I can’t imagine how scary and painful that must have been for you, and I hope you can find someone to talk to about that. But trying to embarrass me in public when I have a margarita or going through my refrigerator is not a solution, and you need to stop doing it.”

Dear Prudence,

I left my abusive ex some months ago. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I’m working through all of it in therapy. I’m not in contact with him, although he has tried to send messages, which I have ignored. Recently, I found out he’s been talking about me and about the breakup on a publicly accessible forum. On this forum, he switches seamlessly between talking about how much he misses me and continuing to degrade me (like he did in our relationship). I’ve seen him flat-out lying to these strangers, and I’ve also learned things that he lied about to me while we were together. It’s hard not to see all of this as more clues to solve the puzzle of what happened. Whether he seems remorseful one minute or says something incredibly hurtful the next, it feels like validating evidence. Do I need to stop looking? And if so, how? On top of that, I’m also wondering if you see anything morally wrong with reading what he writes. Is this an invasion of privacy on my part, even though the forum is publicly accessible?

—Should I Stop Reading?

I don’t see anything morally wrong with what you’re doing, although it’s clearly taking an emotional toll on you, and in the long run it will be better for you to stop. But it’s not a question of right or wrong so much as a question of whether this time and energy you’re spending puzzling over his public rants is benefiting you. To a certain degree, it must feel validating to see him furnish proof of his own lies, but I don’t think you’ll ever fully be able to “solve the puzzle of what happened,” because there’s not enough context or justification in the world to explain why he abused you, no matter how much his mother didn’t love him or his ex didn’t understand him or his boss didn’t value him or whatever other excuse he can come up with. It may help to keep track of what you’re feeling before and after you look at your ex’s posting history; you might even jot down a sentence or two each time you do and show it to your therapist so you can see if you notice any patterns. Maybe you have a tendency to check his posts more often when you’re bored or anxious, or maybe you notice that afterward you tend to feel more in control of your life or more energized. All you need to do right now is gather information about this habit and talk to your therapist (and maybe a close friend or two) about what it’s doing for you, what it’s holding you back from doing, and what your goals for the future look like. It’s only been a few months, and you’re doing all the right things. I think you should consider this particular habit something you are allowed to do—rather than something forbidden and damaging so that it could potentially become a way for you to punish yourself—as long as it serves you, and something you don’t plan on using indefinitely once you’ve found other ways to find peace in the aftermath of a damaging breakup.


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Love Magazine: Help! Should I Move In With My Hoarder Boyfriend?
Help! Should I Move In With My Hoarder Boyfriend?
Prudie’s column for Feb. 14.
Love Magazine
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