Organize & Clean

You’re Messy, They’re Tidy? (Or Vice Versa?) Five Ways to Find a Middle Ground

published Apr 27, 2017
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I once lived in a London apartment with five other girls, one of whom made “fudge” once a week: marshmallows and chocolate chips melted in the microwave and spread into a baking dish. The girls would come home punchdrunk on cheap vodka and British accents and hack at the congealed mess with forks, fingers, whatever. These dishes sat in the kitchen for weeks, faux-fudge finding a home in a plastic bowl, a wok, whatever was clean, until it wasn’t clean, none of it, and I lost my mind a bit and piled all the dirty dishes and orphaned socks and dog-eared books in front of the door of the offending roommate while she slept and then didn’t speak to her for the rest of the three-month stay.

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I’m a clean person, is what I’m saying. I have tortured many roommates with my vigilance, and I am now living with my partner, a guy whose cleaning habits could best be described as “curiously inept”. Chances are that we will all, at some point, co-habitate with someone whose habits differ from our own. One of us will be tidy; the other an urban garbage possum, marinating in their own filth. In all major relationship studies, “household chores” consistently ranks as one of the most common sources of resentment; it is also, anecdotally, the reason for the majority of fights between New York City roommates. It’s the price we pay for companionship.

So: here are five ways you can bring more mellow to your household labor riots.

  1. Understand the real fight. “Our expectations of what a home should look like are shaped in childhood,” says Dr. Amie Gordon, a social-personality psychologist researching romantic relationships at the Center for Health and Community in San Francisco. We approach our spaces in ways that are layered, nuanced, and emotionally-loaded, and our reactions to the realities of someone else enacting their own desires in and upon them can be primal. “It is our natural instinct to say, This is my house, this is how I want it, but we need to learn to shift perspective to, This is my partner’s house and this is how they deserve it,” Gordon tells me.
  2. Define your space. Create a space in your home that is yours and yours alone. This doesn’t have to be a room — it could be a bedside table, a corner bookshelf, a display case. “My husband is very minimal; accessories stress him out,” says Gordon. “I thrive in an environment that is more artistic.” It’s rare that two (or more) individuals will have identical aesthetics or preferences, so as much as possible, let each person manage and maintain a space — a refuge of sorts — that is wholly theirs.
  3. Count your blessings. “We’re really good at seeing everything we do, and pretty bad at seeing everything our partners do,” says Gordon. “If you ask couples how much time they put into household chores, each partner will state an amount that always adds up to more than 100%.” In other words, we’re way more likely to resent the work we do than appreciate the work our partner or roommate does. It requires a bit of mental acrobatics, but try to train yourself to recognize that work, however small. Gordon also encourages taking stock of what you’re gaining in your trash possum. Sure: if I didn’t live with my partner, my space would be gloriously monastic — I would also be terribly lonely. The way my partner (and former roommates, for that matter) enriches my life far outweighs the annoyance of having to follow him around to pick his pizza toppings off the floor.
  4. Write it down. I have a friend who swears by a relationship contract. It covers everything: money, family visits, sex — and chores. Intense, yes, but this specificity can be a touchstone in moments of conflict. Says Gordon: “Research suggests that finding clear objectives — not just, I need you to be neater, but rather, Let’s find the three things that are most important to me to make it feel neat — makes these kinds of interactions far more successful.” Uncertainty is also fundamentally destabilizing. If you know which responsibilities are yours and which are your partner’s, it should be easier to manage stresses. “If you know that on Saturday morning the trash will be taken out, you’re far less likely to get worked up about it,” Gordon says. Bonus: a written document also makes it easier to see and assess the balance of work, to make sure no one person is taking on significantly more than the other.
  5. Get help. Pretty much the first thing my boyfriend and I did after making the decision to live together was hire a neighborhood cleaning woman. She comes every other week for two hours. Yes, it’s an extravagance, but we also knew that without it, I would end up taking on most of the cleaning, and we’d be kicking off this next phase of our relationship on unequal footing (one that, most frustratingly of all, falls clearly along gender lines).

Finally, remember that in matters of the home, there is no moral high ground. “People assume that the messy person is wrong, that they aren’t pulling their weight,” Gordon says. “But everyone deserves the environment they want.”