What to do if you are organized and your partner isn’t

I have a friend who is a psychologist who specializes in family therapy. One of the reasons I love this friend is because she doesn’t seem to mind my endless supply of psychology of clutter questions. I’ll ask her a question, she’ll think about it for a week, and then she’ll provide me with a brilliant response. Every once in a while, she’ll even throw a question at me (like when she asked how I survive working seven feet away from my husband every day).

A few months ago, I asked her to assist me with constructing a post to help mismatched couples. When I say “mismatched couples,” I’m talking about couples where one of the people in the relationship is clean and organized and the other person in the relationship is messy and disorganized AND at least one of the two people has animosity about the difference. (If no one seems to mind, then the pair isn’t mismatched.) The following advice derives from the conversations we’ve had on this topic since I first posed the question to her. If you’re a part of a mismatched couple, hopefully we can be of assistance.

  1. When considering moving in with someone (romantic or otherwise), a person’s level of order and cleanliness should be part of the equation. Similar to how in pre-marriage counseling couples are asked to discuss finances, living arrangements and household expectations also should be discussed. No one should be surprised six months into a living arrangement that his or her partner/roommate is messier or cleaner than one had hoped.
  2. If you’re already in a living arrangement and are disappointed by your partner/roommate’s level of order, you need to have a conversation. Yelling and passive aggressive behavior isn’t productive and damages the relationship. Having a calm, sincere, and respectful conversation has the possibility of yielding powerful results.
  3. It is good to have ground rules for what to do when frustration takes hold. Here are some productive rules you might consider establishing:
    • No nagging. Treating someone with disrespect is never a good option. Either the person honors what you say the first time you say it, or they don’t. All nagging says is: “I believe you are an idiot and I think I have the right to constantly tell you that you’re an idiot.” No one responds well to that message.
    • No backpacking. Set a time limit for how long after something happens that it can be discussed (like two weeks). If you don’t bring up the frustration within that time limit, you have to let it go. You can’t fester or stew on a frustration. Also, if you’ve already discussed something, you can’t bring it up again. The reason it’s called backpacking is because it’s like people carry around another person’s wrongs in a backpack and pull every wrong out of the bag when there is a disagreement. Don’t backpack, it isn’t fair.
    • Discuss the real problem. If you’re upset that your wife repeatedly leaves her dirty dishes strewn about the living room your frustration has very little to do with dirty dishes. You’re upset because you believe she doesn’t care about the cleanliness level in the living space. So, talk about the real problem and use the dirty dishes as an example of how that lack of caring is expressed.
  4. Often times, the person who is messier than the other doesn’t care one bit if his or her living arrangement is disorderly or orderly. When this is the case, and if you’re the one who prefers a more orderly home, prepare to take on full responsibility for cleaning up after the other person. Happily do the work because you’re the one who gets the sense of joy from an organized space. If a pair of shoes in the middle of the living room floor annoys you, just move the shoes to a location that doesn’t annoy you. The five seconds it will take you to move the shoes are less than the time you will be angry over the shoes if you don’t move them. The children’s book Zen Shorts beautifully addresses this topic.
  5. Maybe the problem is that there aren’t any systems in place to deal with the mess where it happens. For instance, my husband stores his wallet in a valet in our bedroom. I store my purse in a cube near the front door. He puts his wallet in his pocket first thing in the morning and takes it out at night before he goes to bed. I only grab my purse as I’m entering and exiting the house. If my purse were supposed to be stored in a valet in our bedroom, I can guarantee you that it would never be in the bedroom. It would be on the dining room table or living room floor or wherever I conveniently dropped it. So, a storage cube near our front door is the best place for my purse because it’s a storage location that works. Think about how you live and find solutions that meet your actual needs.
  6. Designate “clean rooms” or “messy rooms” in your home. In my family, we insist that all public spaces are clean rooms. This means that rooms visitors will see when they come into our house must be free of clutter. Visitors rarely come into our office, though, so the rules for this room are less stringent. Things can’t be dirty (no food or bug-enticing items), but if objects are left out of order in this space it’s less of an issue. A once-a-week cleaning is more typical in our messy spaces.
  7. Finally, if you’ve tried all of the previous options and nothing is working for you, try seeking outside help. This help can be in the form of a professional organizer or maybe a couple’s counselor. If you’re in dire straights, you want to work with someone who isn’t a part of your relationship and can see it more broadly. I don’t recommend using a friend or family member for this task–if you do, the other person will believe that you’re ganging up on him or her, and that won’t be productive. Also, professional help could be in the form of a cleaning service coming into the house twice a month. Let someone else handle the deep cleaning so that the light work is less of a burden.

If you’re a part of a mismatched couple, what effective strategies have you employed? I’m sure that everyone could benefit from reading your positive results in the comments.

55 Comments for “What to do if you are organized and your partner isn’t”

  1. posted by Robert Dyson on

    Fantastic post, thanks very much. Comments are great too.

  2. posted by Kim on

    @Kristina – someone else has already mentioned http://www.flylady.net – honestly, check it out. She has a wonderful system for doing a little bit at a time, and lots of ways to try getting others to help. I’m currently 7 months pregnant and still working full time (and pooped when I get home), so I can’t keep things the way I’d like – but using Flylady’s system helps me get the important things done, and her principle of “only do what you can” keeps me from overdoing things.

  3. posted by Organize IT Recap: 80/20 Rule And Dieting, Positive Thinking - Practical advice on personal development, productivity and GTD on

    [...] will be publishing a new Clutter 101 post in the near future on that very topic. In the meantime Unclutterer has some very good advice to keep you [...]

  4. posted by Jackie Pettus on

    My guess is that the messy one is also lax about household chores. Instead of nagging,
    sit down over a cup of coffee with them and create a family chore chart and household chore calendar. Print and tack them onto the household bulletin board where they can’t help but see them. Let the bulletin board do the nagging. (Well, OK, you can remind them to look at the bulletin board if necessary!). You’ll find a family chore chart and a household chore calendar online at Habitudes.info. They are stored online. If they “mysteriously” disappear, you can just print them again!

  5. posted by kazza on

    Kristina said – 06/30/2008 “On any given weekend I can spend two 12-18 hour days cleaning and never get to the bottom of it. … I love my kids and my man, but I’ve taken up hiding in my bedroom, because I can’t face it! Surely…there must be a miracle out there…”

    Step 1 – assign small cleaning jobs to your kids and, assuming they’re the age to get an allowance, their allowance is dependent on them doing the cleaning jobs.

    Step 2 – each 5 kids items left in the living room etc after they’ve been told to put it away equals $1 less allowance which they can only get back after one week of being careful of their stuff AND doing all the small cleaning chores you’ve set them.

    They’ll start helping soon enough

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