There's No Solution If They're Messy and You're Clean

I've tried it all, and there's no solution if you're part of a couple that's got one clean person and one messy person. Your home will always be the battlefield on which you will wage your cleaning war.

July 02, 2018

I can say with a fair degree of certainty that my husband tricked me on my first visit to his apartment. His place was small and as neat as it could possibly be for two early 20-something male roommates. The black and gray futon was clean and upright. The Ikea dining table used as a desk had a word processor and some books and papers on it, just like a workspace should. All the video games and controllers for the Sega were put in their place. The coffee table was free of crumbs and dirty dishes. Any unsuspecting person would assume that this was the home of relatively tidy people.

It was a lie!

My husband is a messy, messy person but he didn't want me to know it on that first visit, so he tricked me by cleaning. He really inhabits the cluttered and careless, intelligent and creative paradigm pretty well. Apparently he's always been this way. Even his kindergarten teacher noted to his mother that he was kind and smart but "needed to work on his organizational skills." He still does.

Doesn't she look frustrated? She's probably got a messy spouse.

Photo by: ©


Doesn't she look frustrated? She's probably got a messy spouse.

Listen, I'm no cleaning angel. I was a supremely messy teenager, but my chaos was limited almost exclusively to my bedroom at the behest of my parents. And when my room got too bad, my mother would insist that it be cleaned. As soon as I had a roommate in my college dorm, I instinctively became a much tidier person. I assumed (rightly, I'm pretty sure) that no one else wanted to live with my mess. And as an adult, nothing brings me more peace and calm than a neat and clean home. I will quite literally breathe a sigh of relief as I sink down into the sofa in a tidy living room.

I'm not trying to win the "Should one be messy or clean?" debate because I think the answer is obvious. Sorry, love, but doctors even agree that clutter is stressful. Dr. Sherrie Bourg Carter at Psychology Today says that it, "bombards our minds with excessive stimuli (visual, olfactory, tactile), causing our senses to work overtime on stimuli that aren't necessary or important." (I've never felt more understood by a doctor.) My husband's brain, however, does not react the same way. And maybe that makes him a more evolved person than I am. Maybe his brain can handle an amount of "stimuli" that mine simply can't. But whatever our brain differentials may be, after 20 long years of trying to bridge this gap, I finally realize that there is no resolution.

Over the years, I've tried so many tactics to combat his mess and reinforce the clean that I've practically lost count. Here's a few of my major failed strategies over the years:


Not my husband, just an illustrative model.

Photo by: ©


Not my husband, just an illustrative model.

This was probably my first line of defense in the battlefield of our shared home. It's definitely not the most mature way to behave with anyone, let alone someone you love and with whom you wish to continue living. The passive-aggressive tactic involves sighing really loudly when you bend over and angrily pick up the pair of socks that was left under the coffee table just after you finished cleaning. Other plays include loudly washing and putting away dishes. Pots and pans sound the angriest, just FYI.


I'm pretty sure that I don't have to expound on the awfulness of nagging. And I'm definitely not going to defend it. At one point my husband, when he had no idea that I would want something cleaned up, asked me just to ask him when I wanted something done. In theory this is generous and magnanimous of him. In reality, it only led to me nagging him to do something about his clothes mountain in the bedroom. If it didn't get done in what I thought was a reasonable time, then more nagging. I can feel your hatred of me through the computer screen. I hate myself for it, too!

Asking for His Help

Because the nagging works so poorly and is mentally exhausting for all involved, I took the next logical—and slightly more healthy—step of pre-emptively asking for his help. Listen, I get that there's a very thin line between nagging and asking, but it's a crucial one. This technique actually works fairly well if we're both at home when the cleaning needs to get done. It still leads to me being the one who has to delegate and bear the "mental load" of household chores which can sometimes be exhausting. And if he's not home and I am and I want things cleaned up, it's just on me.

Being Messier and Caring Less

farm raised pigs

Free-Range Pigs

I tried being a pig!

Photo by: Image courtesy of La Quercia

Image courtesy of La Quercia

I tried being a pig!

I'd gone through most of our time living together with the assumption that my way is the right way. To my mind a clean home feels better, looks better and is less stressful. But there have been brief little windows of time where I wondered if I was just too uptight. Maybe his way feels better? There have definitely been nights where I was so spent by the time dinner was finished that I left dishes in the sink to tackle the next morning. When my kids were babies and I'd spent a lot of time trying to entertain them and keep them alive, I would most certainly fall asleep with toys scattered across the living room carpet. Maybe I could just accept that it's just nice to not feel the pressure to clean it all up all the time? My husband certainly wouldn’t judge me for it. There have been fleeting periods when I can lean into this mode, but it never lasts. Ugh, maybe I am too uptight?

Recruiting Our Children

Versatile Gray Dresser in Kid's Room

Versatile Gray Dresser in Kid's Room

Not my kid, but this one looks like she knows how to clean up.

Photo by: Stokke


Not my kid, but this one looks like she knows how to clean up.

Once my kids were toddlers and had enough physical coordination, I made a game of tossing the toys into the toy basket. I'd picked up a "clean up" song along the way and realized if I just made tidying up a habit in my children, I could use them as my own personal army of two to fight the battle. It would be three against one. You know who loves getting to use the vacuum? Toddlers. You know who loves to be the one to spray the windows and wipe them down? Preschoolers. I really try to emphasize that you have to clean up after yourself when you live with other people in an effort to make them good future roommates. They don't clear their plates "for me," and don't "do me a favor" by picking up their clothes. They’re doing it for the community that shares our apartment. Success level with this strategy: moderate. They’re still kids after all.

Doing All the Cleaning

Soon after I moved in with my then-boyfriend, my stepmother explained to me in a very been-there-done-that way, that if I wanted something clean, I'd have to just do it myself. This sounds like very old-fashioned, traditional advice. But that's not the kind of lady she is. Not even a little bit. She just understood that the chances of changing someone else's behavior to suit me was fruitless. (I’m excluding children here because they are most certainly trainable.) She's got a very good point. This is a technique that I rely on today. It's the one that brings me the most peace. If the kitchen is messy and I want it clean, I clean it. End of story.

I know that sounds like a solution, and I suppose it is. But really it's just acceptance. I have no magic solution. One of us prefers messy; one of us prefers neat. Living together will always present a challenge. I bet there's probably some sort of cleaning therapy out there that we've never taken advantage of.

Nevermind. I think they call that sort of therapy a housekeeper.

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