I've been seeing my boyfriend for 10 months and living with him and his 12-year-old daughter for half that time. He broke up with his daughter's mother after she became addicted to coke and then meth. She has been in and out of jail and has a massive number of possessions, loads of which are still here: furniture, little picture frames, small decorative pieces, jewelry boxes full of random junk (earrings, magazine clippings, makeup, little figurines, candy wrappers). When I moved in, I spent days boxing up many of her possessions, but she claims to live in a tiny apartment, won't divulge where, and refuses to take a single box. She even freaks out at the mention of getting rid of her dumb garden gnomes (which she stole from someone's yard while high). If my boyfriend tried to make her take her things, she'd have a huge meltdown, putting their daughter in the middle, and he's submissive to her because of that. I'd put everything in storage, but we don't have the extra money. My boyfriend's getting exasperated about this, and I'm thinking I should just drop it. I hate living among all of her things, but I love him so much that I don't seem to have a choice. — Smothered
You're a hard lady to buy a housewarming gift for, as they don't make plaques that say, "Home is where the heart-shaped jewelry box full of your boyfriend's daughter's mother's candy wrappers is."
It's no small thing, having to wake up every day in some other woman's two-bedroom junk drawer. But like many women, you seem to prioritize your relationship over your feelings and well-being. There are compromises to be made in any romantic partnership, but being gnawingly miserable in order to be happy doesn't end well, assuming you weren't looking to live resentfully ever after. Healthy compromise involves expressing your feelings and together figuring out solutions that work for both of you, not keeping your feelings to yourself until clutter control suggestions like "put random stuff in pretty baskets" give way to thoughts like "commit arson."
There is a way to turn this situation positive — without lighting a match or opening your front door and yelling, "Yard sale!" Use this as your training ground for developing healthier conflict resolution. To bring up how you're feeling, open with the good stuff — how much you appreciate him and your life together — and then tell him that you're unhappy living in a house that constantly reminds you of his ex. Let him know that you understand his concern for protecting his daughter but that the solution isn't submitting to emotional blackmail; it's talking to his daughter in advance about what you're doing and why and maybe scheduling a sleepaway for her on the day the trash hits the fan (or, more prudently, the storage unit).
Tempting as it must be to "store" his ex's things in a landfill, it's safest to proceed with the expectation that she'll sue him for that and claim that the bud vase that was under the bed came from the Qing dynasty and not free, with a Wednesday wax job, from the carwash. As for your not having the "extra" money for storage, tending to your feelings, as well as your boyfriend's, may mean that you both go without lattes or do odd jobs so you stop living as a second-class citizen to two stolen garden gnomes, 17 partially filled shampoo bottles, and all the rest.
University of Chicago law professor Lior Strahilevitz said that the law typically regards a situation like you've described as "gratuitous bailment," legalese for a person's temporarily holding someone else's property without benefit or compensation. He suggests that your boyfriend send several emails and texts and leave phone messages telling the ex that she needs to pick up her possessions from the storage facility "within a reasonable amount of time." (What that would be varies by jurisdiction.) I suggest that you also photograph her stuff and document all the steps you take. According to Strahilevitz, your boyfriend would be wise to hang on to small valuables, like photos and fine jewelry, which aren't a menace to store. But, he says, "donating or disposing of the furniture and junk after a few months in which emails and calls ... asking her to remove the property were ignored probably would not constitute gross negligence," a scary legal term that merely describes being really careless with someone's property.
Although, at the moment, one woman's trash is another woman's trash, the prognosis looks good for that "another woman" no longer being you. Personally, I'm picturing the winning bidder on Storage Wars dreaming of abandoned art treasure in her unit and finding it — from Rodin's little-known "garden gnome sitting on a toilet" period.
Got a problem? Write Amy Alkon, 171 Pier Ave., #280, Santa Monica, CA 90405, or email email@example.com (advicegoddess.com). Alkon is the author of I See Rude People: One Woman's Battle To Beat Some Manners Into Impolite Society.
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