I’m a longtime reader, first time submitter, writing because of concerns about my marriage. My wife and I have been married for four years. We have a child together at this point, we own a house together, and I thought things were going pretty well.
That was until my wife recently came forward to me, saying she was at a breaking point with my collecting, and that I needed to “stop acquiring more stuff” because she couldn’t take it anymore. I’ve always been a pretty hardcore collector, whether it’s toys, movies, video games, comics, specialty drinkware… pretty much if it is collectible I may have some interest in it. This has never been a secret and she was well aware of this aspect of who I am since before we even started dating, let alone being married. It’s just part of who I am.
Mind you, I’m not a hoarder. I do go through my collections once or twice a year to do a “purge” of items that I no longer feel a connection with or that I feel no longer serve their purpose to me. If I’ve upgraded movie to a new format or a toy of a character to a newer version I like better, I usually sell the old one to both make space and to keep costs down when it comes to my collecting. My bills are always paid and it has never caused a financial problem.
My wife recently had a breakdown and one of the key talking points was that I need to stop bringing stuff into the house. Obviously in the larger picture, my marriage is more important than my stuff, but I’m not sure if I could ever just STOP collecting entirely or quit cold turkey even if I wanted to. This hobby is just such a big part of who I am and what I do.
When I suggested that I could get rid of a lot of stuff and downsize, she shot that down saying that she knows these things make me happy and that it’d just cause me to resent her (which I can’t even argue against entirely, because I previously downsized my collection in a relationship and tried to stop buying new stuff, and it did cause resentment later).
I want to try and meet in the middle to accommodate her because I don’t want her to feel like I’m just disregarding her feelings, but I’m not sure how to go about doing this. Just stopping collecting entirely feels impossible.
She said “I still love you, but I don’t know if I can do this anymore” and implied divorce was on the table. After some talking and things calmed down, she asked me to go to marriage counseling, which I happily agreed to because I don’t want to lose her.
Here is where the second part of my problem kicks in. I have rarely been sure of anything in life. I’m super indecisive a lot of the time. But with my wife, I knew right away when I met her that she was the person I wanted to be with. She’s the only thing I’ve ever felt 100% confident about. But now that she has come forward and put the possibility of divorce out there, it’s got me in a weird new headspace filled with doubts about our future for the first time.
While things have calmed down for now and seem to be hopefully on a good path with counseling in the plans, it has me panicking and thinking about “well what are my backup plans if this goes south” for the first time in this relationship. It has me scared for the future of our marriage for the first time in my life, and now everything I was “certain” about for my future is a lot of “well hopefully, but on the off chance it isn’t I should have a backup plan”. What can I do to settle these feelings? Should I even be trying to settle them? Because in my mind, feeling like I need to have a backup plan means I feel like I’m one foot out the door already, and I don’t want to live like that.
I love my wife, I want her to be happy in our marriage too, but now that she cast potential doubt on our future I’m worried about continuing to be “all in” on our marriage like I always have been, and being anything less feels disingenuous.
Help me Doctor NerdLove, you’re my only hope!
OK, TC, you know how I’m often saying “the problem you’re asking about isn’t the problem you have?” The reason I tell people this is because many times, the thing they’re writing in about isn’t the actual issue, but a symptom. Solving the symptom might bring some temporary relief, but it’s not going to actually solve anything. In order to solve the problem, you have to address the cause, not the symptom.
I bring this up because you’re in a similar position. Your problem isn’t your collection. That is, it’s not the physical stuff, per say. It’s what that stuff represents in your marriage.
Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen this become an issue. I have a good friend whose ex-husband was a collector and his collection was, likewise, a strain on their marriage. However, the problem wasn’t the collecting, per se, nor was it the collection itself. The collection was an issue, but – as with your case – it wasn’t the issue. The physical items were a problem, yes, my friend never asked him to get rid of them, much as your wife hasn’t. However, not only was this because she knew – again, as your wife did – that asking him to downsize things would’ve caused more problems in the long term, because while getting the collection out of the house would’ve brought symptomatic relief, it wouldn’t have changed the underlying issue.
The issue was the way that the collection wasn’t just a collection. It was a continual encroachment on everything. His memorabilia and collectors items, posters, books and so on were like a river swollen by rain and runoff, leaping its banks and flooding the fields and plains around it. A couple of show-pieces quickly became a shelf. That shelf became two shelves. Then an entire bookcase. The collection was moved to a room that originally was intended to be a home-office for the two of them, but before long, what was supposed to be shared space was quickly becoming his space, as his stuff took up more and more of the available real-estate while my friend’s stuff was increasingly shoved aside. Before long, my friend found that they were avoiding getting things for themselves because there was no room. And yet, the ex-husband kept buying more stuff and the items would start to creep out of the room and into the rest of the house again. The office was the first step. Then the walls immediately around it. Then the end of the hallway where the room was. Then a couple display pieces around the living room TV…
Now occasionally, my friend’s husband would do a quick purge – selling some items to other collectors for quick cash, donating some to Goodwill, selling others to friends. But clearing out space wasn’t done for the sake of marital harmony, so much as clearing out room for new additions to his collection. And, of course, this meant that not only would the free space be rapidly refilled, but it would also overflow into other shared spaces.
Now, again: the issue wasn’t the collection. The items themselves weren’t the problem. Nor was it that he was bankrupting them to buy gewgaws or not able to cover his share of the mortgage or utilities or shared expenses. The issue was that he was continually turning what was supposed to be shared space into what was ultimately his space. My friend was feeling squeezed out of what was supposed to be their home, not just his. Even what was specifically designated as “ours” became “his” by default just through sheer volume of stuff.
And the problem that ultimately ended the marriage was that he never recognized this enough to stop. My friend had no space to call their own in the house they shared with their husband, and even the communal, shared space was functionally his.
So, let’s turn back to your issue here, TC. Like I said: your collection isn’t the problem, per se. This is part of why your wife isn’t asking you to get rid of things. She knows that not only would this make you resent her for demanding that you do this, but also: it’s not the only solution. I suspect that the reason why your wife can’t keep doing this is that, like my friend, she feels like she’s getting squeezed out of what’s supposed to be her life and her space too. And I suspect that this isn’t a new issue for her. It’s likely something that’s been bubbling under the surface for a while until it reached the part where she couldn’t just brush it aside any more.
And once she couldn’t brush it aside… well, that’s how one pebble can suddenly become a landslide.
I bring this up because if you want things to get better, you need to recognize this for what it is – both the problem and why your wife has made it an issue after all this time. If you want to feel secure in your marriage and in your relationship, you need to understand the causes and how you got there so that you can ameliorate things and then work with your wife to mend the cracks.
The seeming suddenness of this change is what’s fucking with your head and making you feel like you need a backup plan. Your wife has put the future of your relationship in jeopardy, nor has she cast doubt on the survival of your marriage. The fact that she brought this up wasn’t holding the marriage hostage, it was the relationship equivalent of the “check engine” light coming on. She wasn’t threatening the relationship as trying to make sure that she can get your attention and emphasize how serious this is to her. This wasn’t her saying “I want out”, her saying “this marriage is in danger and I need you to see that so we can fix things.” While yes, that’s cause for alarm, it’s the alarm that says that attention is urgently needed.
And in fairness: I can understand why this is messing with you. To you, it must feel like this has come screaming out of the clear blue sky. Small wonder this rocked you on your heels and has left you wondering what it all means. The fact that you’re having questions about the one thing you were 100% all in on is what’s making you feel like maybe you’ve already got a foot out the door; when you’ve only ever known complete certainty, the slightest hint of doubt feels like a tectonic shift.
But the fact is that long-term relationships have their ups and downs, including times when you’ll wonder why you’re still in this relationship and maybe it’s time to be single again. Many times, this is a temporary feeling about a temporary situation and if everyone grits their teeth, grabs hands and white-knuckles their way through, they come out on the other side and recognize that this was just turbulence, not a Relationship Extinction event.
However, if you want to keep it that way, you need to recognize just how things got here in the first place. And I suspect that your being 100% certain about things with your wife meant that you didn’t realize that your collecting was bothering her that it could be a strain on your marriage. Much like folks not realizing that the way they’re driving their car increases unnecessary wear and tear and can damage the car itself.
So what do you do now? Well, couples counseling is a good start; it gives you both a place to talk about what’s affecting you in a way that’s mediated and guided by someone instead of a Festivus-style airing of grievances. But this should also be a wakeup call that you can’t run a relationship on autopilot and trust that your certainty about it is all you need. Relationships need maintenance and check-ins to make sure everyone’s ok and that things aren’t building up in hidden or unseen places. It’s a reminder to you that you’re not just an individual in a frictionless environment, you’re part of something that’s bigger than you and what you do directly affects it.
And it’s important to recognize that making accommodations and recognizing how your actions (in this case, the collection) can affect others doesn’t suddenly become an all-or-nothing proposition. You don’t need, for example, to quit collecting or to throw your collection out. What you need is to be conscientious of issues like how much space your collection is taking, how much time and so on. One of the things that will likely help is to treat your collection the way museums treat theirs. What you see when you go to any museum, whether it’s the Met, the British Museum, The Getty, the Natural History Museum, any of them, is a fraction of what they have. Everything else is in storage, kept safe, cataloged and organized. Having a few show pieces – the cream of the crop – in your house is likely acceptable, especially if you keep it corralled to one area. Having the rest stored away, say, in a storage unit that you kit out with shelving, means that you can have the joy of your collections without the stress it imposes on your wife. And taking time to rotate a few pieces back into storage and bringing others out helps you keep the feeling of interacting with your collection.
Hell, take it a step further and build yourself a digital catalog of what you have; take some high-quality product photos with a whitebox, compile information about the items and keep that on a cloud server somewhere and you’ve got instant access to your collection on an as-needed basis if you ever need to just take a moment and look at all of what you’ve gathered… but without causing more stress for you or your family.
But more than anything else: feeling less than 100% certain doesn’t mean that something’s wrong. It just means that you’re no longer working from a point of unawareness and blind faith. You’ve been given a wake-up call, an alert that you’re overdue for some much-needed maintenance. Start paying more attention and being more present and you won’t get blindsided by these moments – and the attendant stress and anxiety – again.