When Your Messy Roommate Is Your Spouse

When my now husband and I moved in together, we went through the common growing pains that all newly cohabitating couples face. On top of that, I moved into the condo that he owned, so it took some time for the space to feel like it was mine too. Thankfully he was agreeable to me redecorating all the rooms (except for his office, which I didn’t even try to touch) and rearranging or replacing the minimal furniture that he had with my own. We still had frequent arguments about house management, which we started to refer to as “roommate fights” since we wanted to disassociate them from any of our deeper relationship conflicts. Most of these roommate fights were over things like his lack of use of the dishwasher or me being annoyed about having to pick his dirty socks up from the bedroom floor every morning. To most people, these are petty reasons to get upset. But for me, to have to deal with them seemed like a waste of my time. I was annoyed that I had to put things that he left out back in their places. Why was it that my time was less valuable than his? Why did I have to spend it cleaning up after an adult other than myself? Every day those questions would weigh heavily on my mind. I was offended every time I came home from the office and had to load dishes he used during the day (he worked from home) into the dishwasher that was literally less than a foot away. In our wedding vows, I tried to approach the matter with humor: one of my promises was to always be the dishwasher’s strongest advocate. I mean, it’s a genius invention – it hides your dirty dishes and then washes them en masse when you need it to. All you have to do is actually PUT DISHES IN IT.

Sidenote: we bought a house last year and just remodeled the kitchen. We lived without a dishwasher for 10 months (the previous owners apparently didn’t see a need for one) and now have this beautiful, state of the art, quiet appliance that reduces my kitchen workload by at least 50%, and my husband has barely experienced its magic firsthand.

One time, in a moment of desperation, I even borrowed a method from my days as a Kindergarten teacher to combat the messiness: I started putting things my husband left out into a box. When I did this with my students, they would notice immediately when a toy or learning apparatus they loved was unavailable. They had to do a task that helped with the organization of the classroom to get the items back in the mix. It worked well on 5 and 6 year olds. On a 37 year old? Not so much. I didn’t expect him to do a chore to get his belongings back. I was just trying to make a point and show him how much crap he left around the house for me to deal with. He didn’t notice anything for about a week, until he was looking for a winter hat (all of his hats had made it into the box by this point). 

I eventually realized that even though his messiness was the catalyst for my anger, I was choosing to make it an arguable offense, and that didn’t feel good. I was constantly criticizing him because his standards of home organization and cleanliness were different from my own. I was picking fights, and even though they were “roommate fights”, they were affecting our relationship and slowly chipping away at our domestic bliss. The messiness made (and still makes) me anxious. I get stressed out by disorganization, while my husband has a high tolerance for it. 

I decided to reach out to friends who consider themselves the “Pig Pens” in their relationships with a list of questions to see how they felt about being committed to “Neat Freaks,” ’til death do they part (I don’t condone name-calling, by the way, but in this case it will make things easier to follow). I learned some great stuff while reading their responses. It made me have more sympathy for my husband and I was relieved to find I wasn’t the only anal retentive better half out there. Here are some of their answers . . . 

What habits/tendencies does your neat partner have that frustrate you when it comes to maintaining your home?

“Lofty expectations and the very idea that everything has its ‘right’ place when often this designation is arbitrary and not discussed.”

“She often will put something away that I’m in the process of using, so when I turn around to get it, it’s gone. She also makes snide comments about how much of a mess I make when I cook. It even gets to the point where she tells me she can’t be in the kitchen while I cook.”

“What frustrates me most about his neatness is that it makes little sense to me. The garage, basement, liquor cabinet are in perfect order, yet his mail can pile up for weeks unless I take care of it.”
 

What habits/tendencies does your partner have that you appreciate when it comes to maintaining your home?

“I like the look of a tidy house, so it’s nice that she has higher standards than I do.”

“I appreciate that she has good ‘house hygiene.’  Things get disinfected regularly. I personally am a hygienic person, so I can appreciate that. “

“He generally knows where everything is – extra batteries, extension cords, my sunglasses.”

 

Name at least one way your partner reacts to your disorderliness and/or messiness: 

“Anger! My clothes and shoes laying around the house is our number one source of tension.”

“She sometimes does this passive aggressive thing where she tells the dogs how ‘their mother is messy.'”

“He has no problem verbalizing his frustration. He mostly gets upset with the state of my car and the constant piles of laundry that I move around our bedroom.”

 

How often, on average, do you have arguments with your partner over your home’s cleanliness/orderliness? 

“Multiple times a week. It’s the main source of arguments in our house, exacerbated by having at toddler.”

“Weekly.” 

“Weekly, for sure. Some part of the house will overwhelm him and we will talk about what we can do to resolve it and make it a more livable space. For example, more baskets for organization, a designated spot for just winter items, a better way to store my seasonal shoes. These are actual conversations over coffee and tea in the morning.”

 

Have you, with your partner, come to an agreement regarding cleaning schedules, responsibilities, or any other type of compromise that is helping solve the issue of your different approaches to home management? 

“We have a cleaning service that comes twice a month which really helps. We treat tasks as needed, and I am really trying to keep our counters and tables clutter free!” 

“We just hired a housekeeper who will be coming every other week. Hopefully, that will keep the snark factor to a minimum. Her ‘love language’ is acts of service, so I know that if I want positive reinforcement from her, then I can clean the house.”

“There is no set cleaning schedule. We tried that and it failed miserably. It took a lot of work for us to get to a place where we function at a comfortable pace. We went through a rough stage where I felt like I was living with a strict parent and he felt like he was living with a rebellious teen. We didn’t start our lives together until we were 33 years old. Our habits were pretty well-formed. We now try to listen to each other, respect what each of us needs in terms of organization and cleanliness and work on it. I know what his pet peeves are and vice versa, so we are conscious of those. We also lived in a two bedroom condo with two babies for almost two years. That was like ‘make it work’ bootcamp. It had to be clean and organized or we would have drowned in dirty diapers.”

 

Some trends that I got from these responses are: being orderly is a desirable trait in one’s mate (Neat Freaks for the win!); Neat Freaks tend to respond with anger to disorganization which leads to frequent arguments (Neat Freaks for the loss); and that to Pig Pens, Neat Freaks’ habits don’t always make sense. 

My epiphany after thinking long and hard about all this is: the difference in home management between partners’ approaches is just that – a difference. Neither person has a “better approach”. But both people can make efforts so that the difference isn’t so stark and detrimental to the relationship. Here are some tips that I have for both Neat Freaks and Pig Pens:

  1. Neat Freaks: Practice patience, and don’t take Pig Pen’s habits personally. They aren’t leaving things out with the intention to make you mad. They don’t have the same sense of urgency to put things away as you do. So be patient. My husband answered the same questions above for me, and his answer to #1 was that he found my hyper vigilance to be annoying. Try to scale back a little on your responsiveness, especially if you think your response at that moment may cause unnecessary conflict. If their items are laying around and its bedtime, or the next morning, maybe ask your partner if they still need them out. If they say no and don’t start putting them away, do what you do best (i.e. tidying up) but do it while they are physically present, and make sure what you say (or how you act) doesn’t resemble criticism. This should hopefully respectfully remind them to tidy up the items. Or, they will see you taking care of putting their items away on a regular basis and realize how much time you are devoting to picking up after them, and will start to jump in so you don’t have to. 
  2. Pig Pens: Realize that while you don’t mean to upset your spouse, that your habits do. Cleaning up after yourself may be something you don’t feel like doing, but if you don’t feel like doing it, don’t expect your partner to want to either. You yourself probably prefer a clean space over a messy one. As a mess mounts, so does your partner’s anxiety. You’ve committed yourself to someone who is sensitive to disorder, and you have to be sensitive to their needs. Scan the room that you are about to leave – are things that you just used back where they need to be? A small amount of time making sure they are can make a huge difference in Neat Freak’s satisfaction in your relationship. Trust me on this one. 
  3. Both: Communication and compromise are key. Talk about what upsets you with your partner, using your good old non-accusatory “I statements” (as in, “I get upset when I see a bunch of dishes in the sink,” and not “You make me angry when you don’t put dishes in the dishwasher”). Figure out something you can both do every day that will help the situation and stay committed to it. What works for my husband and me is to do what we call a “clean sweep” before we go to bed. We take 5-10 minutes to just go around the house and put items away or do spot cleaning in the kitchen, our most-used room. We may not get to everything (although you’d be surprised how much can be done when two people clean at the same time with focus), but it makes for waking up to a tidy-ish house every morning. And those 5-10 minutes aren’t overwhelming to my husband who likes cleaning way less than I do. Is having a cleaning service doable with your budget? We went without one for months to save money, and then decided that the cleaning service was actually helping to save our marriage, so we cut down on other costs in order to have one come monthly. This has been especially helpful since our son arrived last year because we don’t have much time to deep clean the house. In the days before the service comes, there’s a tangible excuse to declutter the house so the cleaning experts have an easy time getting surfaces sparkly. 
  4. Both: Do a kinder variation of the Kindergartner box idea. Is there a spot in the house for Pig Pen where they can drop stuff and have it be considered “off limits” to Neat Freak? This could be a kitchen drawer, a storage bin in the corner of the mudroom, a bedside table. This will help Pig Pen feel like they have a sacred space Neat Freak can’t freak out over.
  5. Both: Practice gratitude. Neat Freak may often feel like because they are doing most of the daily housekeeping tasks, Pig Pen just assumes they’ll always take care of it. This makes Neat Freak resentful. That resentment gets stronger if Pig Pen doesn’t at least sometimes thank them for doing the dishes, or putting the baby’s toys away, or unloading the dishwasher. There are a lot of small tasks that Neat Freak does that may go unnoticed, but those tasks still take time. But, Pig Pen is often the one who does the larger scale projects. So while Neat Freak spends, say, eight hours a week keeping the house in order, Pig Pen may spend a similar amount of time drywalling the garage or hanging new blinds or doing yard work. Remember to thank one another for each other’s contributions so that you both feel appreciated. Whenever I start to feel resentful as a Neat Freak, I remind myself how much my husband contributes to keeping up the home in other ways than the daily grind, and I become more grateful for him. 

I feel like this respondent’s answer sums it up well:

Marriage is hard. Keeping a home is hard. I didn’t realize that so much of my life would be devoted to talking about and choosing organizational baskets from Pottery Barn. But, it keeps our house happy and healthy and that’s all I want for our little family. 

Do you have any other tips or best practices that help you avoid arguments over home management? Please share away! 

Here’s to a happy and healthy home. As a wise Benjamin Franklin once said: “A place for everything, and everything in its place.”

Clean kitchen

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