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Why Men Keep Things Forever

It takes a lot more than a basketball hoop on a trashcan to get men to throw their stuff away.

Sure, your wife is the materialistic one. That is, until you’re asked to part with spare tools, stray documents, and those 17 free t-shirts you squirreled away in your sock drawer. The truth is that men can be just as sentimental as women, and as hesitant to throw useless items away.

Perhaps more. “There’s a guard dog instinct to protect your family,” psychologist Paco Underhill told Fatherly. “You feel something about this bolt and set of clamps that you’re going to need it desperately, and the fact that you have it is going to make you a hero.”

Indeed, men’s unique connection to their belongings may trace back to their evolutionary roots as hunters, rather than gatherers. In a contemporary context, men no longer have to hunt and are less interested in the process of acquisition, but are still as concerned with resources overall — they don’t love shopping, but they accumulate garages full of items over time, and hate to let them go. And men’s relationship to all that clutter seems to be tied to their relationship to marriage, family, and unresolved emotions. When collecting reaches pathological levels of hoarding, most men are forced into treatment by their wives. Fathers seem to have the strongest attachment to material items, Jacquie Denny, who handles estate sales as the founder of Everything But the House, told Fatherly.

“Men are the fixers, the protectors, and the ones who need to be prepared all the time,” she says, noting that husbands who’ve lost a spouse may struggle the most with letting go, as a result of unresolved grief and other complex emotions attached to the clutter.

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The gap between men and women keeping things comes down to the difference between passive and active acquiring, Jessica Grisham, a professor of psychology at the University of New South Wales in Sydney who studies hoarding and collecting habits, told Fatherly. Women shop and purge regularly, but men obtain items more indirectly as gifts, freebies, and junk they find, and protect it with more intensity.

“They’re not going out and buying stuff. It’s just whatever comes into the home, trying to use that to its maximum value, to a point where it’s a concern,” Grisham explains. “Maybe that’s part of why they don’t see it as a problem.”

Men and women consume in distinct ways, which trace back to their mating behaviors. Virile men with higher levels are testosterone spend more money and are more reckless with it, and women tend to shop more when they’re ovulating. Women appreciate the process of shopping, while men appreciate the availability of parking, the length of the checkout line, and other aspects of utility. There’s less research on the purging habits of men, but one survey found that about 33 percent of women throw their partners’ things away without them knowing. Other figures indicate that men cohabitating in relationships only get to choose about 25 percent of what’s in the home.

Despite being diagnosed with clinical hoarding disorder fairly evenly across sex, Grisham has found in her recent clinical research that men seem to do worse in treatment and are generally less aware that their behaviors are even a problem. Though this work still in progress yet to be published, with a current sample of about 60 people, less than half of which are males, her data gives insight into why men cannot part with what they’ve accumulated even in more severe instances. And almost all the men she sees in treatment have been forced to change their hoarding and collecting behaviors as an ultimatum by their romantic partners.

“It’s only when you scratch the surface that you realize it is quite a severe problem and they’re underreporting, under acknowledging, and oftentimes pushed into treatment by a significant other,” she says. This may help to explain why there’s a poorer prognosis for men once they get help. They genuinely don’t think they need it.

As much as men and women have different relationships with their belongings, they are meeting in the middle as gender norms become less rigid. Men are spending more time and money on clothing than ever before, and seem to suffer from compulsive buying as much as women. Although Underhill and Grisham agree that women still primarily in charge of what comes into the home, research shows that this is gradually shifting too, but some variation remains. However, Denny argues that many men are not as comfortable as women expressing emotions verbally. Men are as emotionally intelligent as women, but they have lower levels of emotional self-awareness and self-regard, studies show. There’s evidence that this is improving as well, but men will likely be quicker to take up shopping than crying.

“Women are more verbal about emotions and keep pictures and notes and cards from their kids,” Denny says. “A lot of guys won’t do that, but they’ll keep their kid’s first bicycle in their garage even if the kid is 40 years old with kids of their own. It could be their way of expressing sentimentality and remembering their relationship with that person.”

For anyone whose collecting and disposing habits could be cause for concern, the most efficient but least practical way to deal with this is by moving residence. Underhill, who grew up moving frequently, says moving is like boot camp for people who can’t let go. It forces men to self-edit from a pragmatic place that they may not have been able to get to without moving, potentially with added the motivation of financial gain from downsizing. Purging then becomes a way to gain rather than lose resources. This is why the distinction between people who stay in one home and people who move regularly is much larger than it is between men and women when it comes to keeping things forever.

Those who can’t just uproot and move in order to detach from their things may want to consider their level of attachment to certain items and where that’s coming from. Women are usually more sentimental savers and men are functional savers, according to Grisham, Denny suspects that men are far more sentimental than they’re given credit for. Their objects of utility may look different than women’s objects of affection like pictures and love-letters, but they have the same significance to them.

Denny recalls complimenting the shirt of a man she was working with, who quietly struggled to tell her it was the last thing his wife left him before she died. To her, it’s not that men are any less emotional, it’s that they haven’t been socialized to verbalize these emotions to the same extent as women. When they cannot outwardly express their grief, nostalgia, or sentimentality, they store it in stuff. Perhaps that’s another core reason why men keep things — not because they might need it, but because the feelings left after cleaning out the garage are that much harder to face.