The Ultimate Garage Cleaner’s Guide to Marriage Repair

A few years ago a client gave me a refrigerator magnet that reads:


Yep. I agree.

Especially when one of the chores involves the word garage. That’s how our garage ended up looking like a scene from the reality show where they bring in five guys in hazmat suits while a team of kind social workers comforts the hoarder.

No, neither my husband nor I have trouble with hoarding. What we did have was a troublesome habit of tossing all manner of stuff into the garage, thinking we’d deal with it “later.” Which is a very bad idea when, year after year, you’d rather be writing, or hiking, or… well, doing pretty much anything but tackling our neglected mess that grew worse by the day.

Brave and determined, and tired of the mess, we put a date on the calendar, written in ink.

“I’ve got a plan,” I announced on the morning we’d picked, at which point I noticed that my husband had begun to look a bit like he did the day we went whale watching on rough waters: glassy-eyed and slightly gray.

“Let’s just take it one box, or bag, or old chair at a time,” I said with my hand on his arm, intending to both reassure him and keep him from dashing back into the house.

“One pile for the trash can. One pile to keep. One for Goodwill, and another for things that are worth saving if they can be fixed,” a strategy I’d learned from an enthusiastic blogger who writes about clearing clutter.

Within a matter of hours, everything was sorted and classified, spread out on the lawn, and what had seemed unmanageable — no, monstrous! — was well under control.

Once we were done, we were exhausted and happy, vowing, like converts, that we would never, EVER, let this happen again.

Back in my office on Monday, I realized that marital troubles are a lot like our messy garage: one unresolved issue stashed here, another buried and forgotten there. Things once valued, now broken, left un-repaired.

Most of the couples I work with show up in my office looking much like my husband and I did on garage cleaning day: a bit overwhelmed, staring down the mess, hoping to find a good place to start.

Yes, relationship struggles are far more challenging and complex to sort out than old boxes of books, gardening tools, and thirty years worth of paint. Even so, the clutter clearing rules that we followed are a surprisingly helpful way to begin.

And no, you don’t have to drag it all out onto the front lawn.

1. Things you need to take to the dump.

imageGot any old grudges taking up space? What about resentments or unmet expectations?

Many of us hang on to negative feelings that color the way we see our lives. Or, we hang on to past hurts and keep them “live” in the present.

If you’re ready to clean house, consider letting go of any and all of the following: grudge-holding, stinginess, nastiness, and score-keeping, along with any excuses you have for why you don’t do things that will give you a more satisfying marriage.

2. Things you need to spruce up.

Even in the best of relationships, we can find at least one or two things that need to be cleaned up or repaired.

Why not start with any bad habits or self-defeating attitudes or low standards you’ve set? It can be something as simple as remembering to turn off the light in the basement, or as meaningful as deciding to curtail your complaints. All too often, we take our partner for granted, failing to show up as our most loving and kind-hearted self.

Maybe you’re carrying some sort of hurt that needs to be addressed. Or, there’s something for which you need to apologize, or something that you’re willing to forgive.

Sometimes we get lazy or busy and we rush out the door with a hand wave instead of a kiss, or we forget to say thank you. Or, we don’t put in the effort to take care of problems as they arise and we end up with a relationship that resembles my old, cluttered garage.

If you’ve got a long fix-it list, begin, as we did, by tackling one messy issue at a time.

3. Things to hold and to have.

Research has shown that happy marriages are happy, in part, because the happiest couples focus on what’s good. Even in the midst of an argument; even when they’re, well, unhappy.

This isn’t to suggest that you ignore problems that need attention. My suggestion is that you make a practice of acknowledging the positives: the small, loving gestures; the everyday ways you support each other; the quirky, endearing behaviors that make your spouse one of a kind.

Maybe she knows how to make you smile when you’re grumpy, or he makes sure you don’t dash out the door without your travel mug. Maybe he helps you stay calm when you’re sure you’ve lost your keys, or, in a conflict, she’s willing to patiently hear you out even when she disagrees.

Remember, even the messiest of marriages holds its share of treasures that need to be brought forward and given their due.

Woman with question mark on blackboard4. Things you need to reinvent.

When cleaning out a garage or a closet there are plenty of things to take to Goodwill. But nobody wants our less-than-stellar behaviors, or our stockpile of outdated beliefs.

Some things, however, don’t need to be tossed out nor cleaned up. Sometimes what’s needed is for us to look at our familiar problems and stuck places and try to see them in a new way.

Say you’ve been frustrated, thinking your spouse is a terrible listener. With a fresh eye you may see that, in fact, you need to more clearly articulate your feelings and thoughts. Or, if a big problem in your marriage is that your spouse is really defensive, you might want to see if you play a part by being critical, or short-tempered, or all over his or her case.

Sometimes we see problems when what we’re facing are merely differences, which, when seen in a new light, may be opportunities for us to be more tolerant or to explore something new.

5. New things to bring in.

Now that you’ve created some space in your marriage, consider some valuable things you might add. More fun? More affection? Less dashing around?

Maybe you want more quality time for yourself and with your spouse. Or more courage to tackle those difficult-to-talk-about, but important issues.

Having carted out your grumpiness, you’ve made room for more kindness. The same goes for ditching the score-keeping and stinginess, which will make room for more warmth and generosity.

And after all your hard work, that’s a lovely reward.

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13 thoughts on “The Ultimate Garage Cleaner’s Guide to Marriage Repair

  1. Love the comparison between cleaning up a garage and a marriage. In many ways it’s easier to take care of the garage because the garage doesn’t talk and remains passive. Among your points I like Things to Reinvent and the fact that problems can only be differences. That’s so true!


  2. Timely post, going to take advantage of spring cleaning fever and put my own marital house in order! Thanks for the great insights!


  3. Best marriage blog on the internet. A few years ago, we went to two marriage counselors. The first was young and not long out of school. Very nice, but we left with a sense that we knew more masters degree boilerplate than how to cherish each other. The second, an older and very wise woman who reminds me of you. She got us on the right track and it has stuck. Parts of your previous blogs have been on the refrigerator for a while now. In addition to sharing the rest of today’s wonderful stuff: “I will finish the interior remodel and rearranging of the garage by Sept. 1”, goes on there today.


    • What a kind note. Great to wake up and find a comment like this in my inbox!

      I’m really glad you’re finding my posts helpful. And happy to know you had good professionaly help to get you on track.

      Thanks so much for sharing this. And good luck with the garage. 🙂


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