The topic of getting messy spouses to clean up always comes up at presentations I give to family groups. It can be so frustrating to live with someone who is making messes as quickly as you are cleaning them up! But at the same time, nagging at him or her to tidy up just sows anger and resentment in a marriage — anger on the messy spouse’s part because he/she feels like you are treating him like a child, and resentment on your part because you feel like you have to “parent” your spouse.
Here’s the thing: Everyone has a standard of tidiness for their house, which is reflected in their house’s appearance on any given day. This is the state you keep your house in when you are sticking to your regular cleaning routine and following your usual organizing habits (or lack thereof.) This is the state that feels most comfortable and most natural for you. You’ve lived in this state all your life, as reflected in your room as a kid and your dorm room as a college student.
Suppose we turn this state into a number on a tidiness scale. One equals squalor, the absolute messiest, disorganized state you can imagine. Ten is the neatest, most Martha Stewart-esque state you imagine. Where do you fall on the scale on an average day? Where does your spouse fall?
Maybe you are a 7 on the scale, but your husband is a 4. Maybe you would like your husband to be more organized, to put things away more often and to generally be neater. By asking him to come up to your level, you are asking him to step out of his comfort zone and live in a state that is unnatural for him. Likewise, if he wonders why you spend so much time cleaning and wishes you would just “lighten up” and let it go, he’s asking YOU to step out of your natural state.
Who wants to live in an unnatural state in their own home? That’s why trying to get someone to change is so difficult, and why you will be met with so much resistance. Messy spouses have to decide for themselves to change their living standards, and this will only happen once they see the benefit to them.
In the meantime, I strongly recommend letting the messy spouse have a space to him- or herself that can be as cluttered as he or she would like. Maybe this space can be a craft room or garage or spare bedroom. Agree that the public spaces like the living room, dining room and kitchen will be kept neat. That way you get your natural state reflected in part of the house, and your spouse gets his or her natural state reflected in the other part of the house.
And one more thought on this topic: Sometimes when the messy spouse sees how nice and clean your space is and how much more functional you have made it with your organizing efforts, he or she is inspired to work on his or her own space. It’s a great thing when change can occur without you saying a word.
Readers, what are your best tips for coping with a spouse that is messier or neater than you are? Share them in the comments below!
In our house, I pick my battles carefully, and when I bring something up my husband knows that it means a lot to me, so he’s more willing to compromise or “give in” easily. I have requested that he put his laundry in the basket, and usually it happens. Any that end up on the floor (on his side of the bed), I leave there, and when I’m heading down to do the laundry I ask him if there’s anything he needs to add. From the other side, when I get busy and the house gets messy, he’s never hard on me about it, and once in a while will even pitch in silently…
I guess my advice would be to pick your battles, decide what you can live with and what you can’t, and to be forgiving and sensitive.
Jo, I love this advice, esp the part about picking your battles. If you are the tidy spouse trying to get your messy spouse to clean up, I think narrowing in on one or two areas they can fix (e.g. putting laundry in a basket) is certainly going to be more effective than complaining more globally about it. Thanks for reading and for your thoughtful comment.