To help you handle a messy spouse, we asked couple’s counselors for their best tips.
You have the same sense of humor and taste in music, but, chances are, you and your spouse have your share of differences, too—especially when it comes to keeping your humble abode, well, clean and humble. While differences in organization habits and cleanliness are common among any two roommates, it seems to be a topic of dispute particularly among couples. One study by the University of Chicago found that 35 percent of women said they do the majority of the housework, while the men said they do their fair share.
Whoever is the designated messy one in your house, you don’t need us to tell you how many unnecessary arguments can ensue from a lack of evenness in this respect. To help you handle a messy husband or messy wife, we asked couple’s counselors for their best tips.
Try to see things from your partner’s point of view
It’s so easy to get wrapped up into how a messy spouse affects your day-to-day life without stopping to think about the potential reasons why he or she may not be living up to your expectations. For example, maybe she works night shifts and needs to spend the majority of her days off catching up on rest and social obligations. “When I work with couples I encourage them to try to see things for the others point of view and look at ‘their way’ as not wrong, but different,” says Julienne Derichs, a licensed clinical professional counselor based in Chicago. Her best advice? Decrease the judgment. “It just might be possible that your S.O. doesn't see the mess that you do, so try not to take this personally.”
Write down a list of the things that really bother you
Maybe your messy husband’s terrible folding skills frustrate you, but can you live with it so long as he can handle other chores? Or perhaps you hate that your messy wife never empties the dishwasher, but she is a pro at other tasks? Think in terms of what you absolutely cannot tolerate and certain things that you can either live with or seek out help for (i.e. using a laundry service). “You two are sharing a space and the cycle will continue if you expect the ‘messy level’ of your home to be on your terms only,” says Derichs. In other words, your partner’s opinion matters—whether you are the "neat nik" or the "total slob." The real question is whether or not you can you both work together to set up "mess free" areas of your home.
Schedule a weekly or monthly couples meeting
At first this might sound pointless, especially when you already live together and spend most of your time alongside each other. However, experts point out that a scheduled time each week or month to go over how things are working for the both of you and express, in a calm manner, what you’d like to see change can be far more beneficial than letting your feelings out in a fit of rage when she leaves the dishes in the sink again. “Oftentimes, there are miscommunications and unmet expectations without creating a bit of structure around cleaning,” says Kat Van Kirk, Psy.D., licensed marriage and family therapist and certified sex therapist. “Focus on who has what strengths and chores work with fluctuating schedules instead of letting assumptions build resentments on both sides.”
Establish a process of negotiation
Compromising will never be a one-time incident—you will have to work together and reframe each scenario on a consistent basis to reach situations that are satisfactory to both of you. “If you keep calmly negotiating, bickering doesn't have to escalate,” says Dr. Van Kirk. “It also sets you up to be able to discuss other more challenging topics later on.” Derichs suggests asking your partner to set alarms on his or her smartphone as a reminder to do the chores he or she has agreed to take on. “This way, you don’t have to be the ‘reminder-in-chief’ of your relationship,” she says.
Don’t forget to praise each other
Remember that this is a work-in-progress. The fact that your messy wife or messy husband is making an effort to become better in any capacity is a step in the right direction—and one that deserves praise. “If expectations are too high, the spouse may not be praising their partner enough and therefore there’s positive reinforcement for creating a new behavior pattern,” Dr. Van Kirk points out. “Praise and acknowledgement helps build goodwill and shows that you value each other's needs.” In other words, a short, little “Thank you, hun, for getting those dishes done,” goes a long way!
Consider seeking out help
Many couples resist the idea of a housekeeper at first, but, if you can afford it, it might be one of the best things you can do for your roommate relationship. “New couples tend to be especially eager to prove that they can take care of everything in their household,” notes Dr. Van Kirk. She recommends a housekeeper, even one who comes once a month, to help with the bigger-item areas like dusting and cleaning the shower. “It doesn't have to be weekly—it could be once a month or just for bigger cleaning jobs,” she says. Figure out what works for you both and consider the resources available.
Dr. Van Kirk suggests looking at the bigger reasons behind these habits, starting with your own inclinations. Were you raised to stress out if there were ever dishes in the sink? Does your partner avoid cleaning because his or her parents were too high strung about it? “This can help you build compassion for one another,” she says. Also, there can be gender differences. “Due to more or less integration between both hemispheres of the brain, male brains don't see the detail of needed cleaning whereas female brains notice every speck of dirt,” she adds. “In addition there are culturally assumed roles of what housework men versus women do.” Make this a part of the conversation and get explicit with what the bare minimum of cleanliness should be and follow a chore list need be.