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How to “Marie Kondo” your personal relationships

You’ve already cleaned house and now you want to clean up your personal life. Here’s how you can apply the KonMari method to your relationships.

How to “Marie Kondo” your personal relationships
[Photo: courtesy of Netflix]

If, like many Netflix subscribers, you’ve watched Marie Kondo’s show, you may have been driven to purge your worldly possessions. Now that you’ve renounced consumerism (for the time being), perhaps you’re itching to declutter other parts of your life that don’t always bring you joy.

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Cleaning out your closet is well and good, but it’s also important to take stock of the people and relationships in your life, according to therapist and friendship researcher Miriam Kirmayer. “Relationships should add value and meaning to our lives,” Kirmayer says. “We know from research that the quality of our relationships is really intimately connected with the quality of our lives.” The people you surround yourself with–and your relationships to them–can inform your physical and mental health, overall happiness, and even productivity and success at work. With that in mind, here are some things to consider if you’d like to KonMari your personal relationships.

Remember that relationships don’t always spark joy

The KonMari method can be a useful lens through which to evaluate relationships, but Kirmayer warns against being too hasty. “Unlike objects or a piece of clothing, relationships are dynamic,” she says. “They’re fluid; things change based on our moods, the day, or our life circumstances. So drawing conclusions from one moment in time or one situation, and deciding to cut people out of our lives, doesn’t really make sense the same way it does with inanimate objects.”

Instead, assess the full spectrum of your relationship. “Think about the emotional experience as something that occurs over time,” Kirmayer says. “Overall, things should balance out–there should be a net positive.” That’s where using joy as a metric can fall short. A meaningful relationship may not always bring you joy–say, when a friend is supportive during a difficult time–and a relationship that does spark joy in the moment may not be meaningful. If you hold every relationship to Marie Kondo’s organizing standards, you might overlook or dismiss a relationship that is worth your time. “There can be real value and intense moments of connection even in the lowest of lows,” she says. “Few people would say those kinds of experiences bring them joy. But they certainly add meaning and value to our lives.”

When it comes to romantic relationships, identify whether any anxiety or uncertainty you feel is specific to the person you’re with or is something you’ve felt in previous relationships, too. Perhaps the root of the problem is that you struggle with commitment and intimacy–or that you can’t recognize when a relationship does “spark joy” because it isn’t a familiar feeling. “If you’re noticing this is a pattern that has come up in previous relationships, then potentially the best way to work on it is to work on yourself, as opposed to cutting this person out of your life,” she says. “If you’ve felt secure in your past relationships and this hasn’t been an issue, but there’s still this nagging feeling–then maybe it has more to do with the person you’re with.”

Learn to set boundaries

Unless a relationship can truly be described as “toxic,” Kirmayer believes it’s rare that you need to wholly KonMari someone out of your life. “Rarely are we in a situation where we need to make a decision then and there,” she says, “unless our health and safety is at risk, or if we experience some very drastic betrayal and the trust is just irreparably shattered.” By and large, it’s important to take the time to figure out what you really want, and how you want someone to be in your life–which can also depend on whether the relationship is romantic or platonic.

“The reality is there’s no right or wrong way to cut somebody out of your life,” Kirmayer says. “There are lots of shades of gray. It doesn’t have to be so black and white when it comes to the relationships in our lives.” Often that can mean setting boundaries rather than excising someone from your life altogether. When a friendship has turned “toxic” in some form–say, because you get into it over politics–one coping mechanism Kirmayer recommends is mutually steering clear of topics that are “triggering or lead to conflict.” The same might apply to family relationships, which might be hard to sever completely but can be more tolerable if you establish clear boundaries.

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It’s also natural for people to drift over time, so most people tend to tighten their circle of friends as they reach their mid-twenties. If that also means that you need to pare down your social agenda, Kirmayer stresses the importance of clearly conveying that when you cannot make it to an event, it isn’t necessarily a reflection of your relationship; in fact, you may need that pause to invest more energy into your friendship or relationship. “It’s so cliche, but at the end of the day, communication is the basis for any kind of healthy relationship,” she says.

That said, some people also remain in relationships that simply aren’t working–and wouldn’t pass the Marie Kondo test–simply because they’re afraid to put themselves first. “It’s a reflection of how we feel about ourselves–whether we’re willing to put our own sense of well-being ahead of what we think is ‘right,'” Kirmayer says. If you find yourself stuck in a group of friends or relationship, the issue may not only be that you don’t want to hurt anyone–but also that you don’t recognize you can prioritize your own feelings. “We fear being selfish,” she says. “So to a large extent, it is a matter of saying I’m worth it, and if I’m not getting what I need out of this relationship, then chances are my friend or partner aren’t either.”

Show gratitude

One KonMari-ism that Kirmayer flags as easily applicable to your personal relationships is showing gratitude. On the show, Kondo shows some people how to thank even inanimate objects as they dispose of them. “It helps to be grateful for the people we have in our lives, and making an effort to notice when we do feel that sense of closeness and joy and meaning can really add value,” she says. “But it can also make coping with a breakup of any sort a lot easier, when you can adopt a perspective of ‘it wasn’t meant to be,’ or ‘it’s not working right now, but I’m still very appreciate of the memories we created together.'”

If sharing that gratitude out loud feels uncomfortable, Kirmayer recommends putting pen to paper–in a gratitude journal, for example–or mentally making note of the people and moments that well, spark joy for you. “It could start off as almost this exercise in noticing or being mindful,” she says. “Just make an effort to pay attention and bear witness to the little things that happen around you that add meaning, value, and joy.”

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About the author

Pavithra Mohan is an assistant editor for Fast Company Digital. Her writing has previously been featured in Gizmodo and Popular Science magazine.

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