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.

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 is not 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 spouse repeatedly leaves dirty dishes strewn about the living room your frustration has very little to do with dirty dishes. You’re upset because you believe (s)he 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 doesn’t care one bit if the 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.


This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

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

  1. posted by Jasi on

    Great post. I totally live by #5. My need for clear surfaces is my fetish so I work to support it without demand from house mates. Works out better this way.

    And you’re right- most people are sort of indifferent to how orderly or disorderly their living arrangement is. Works to our advantage. 😉

  2. posted by Shanel Yang on

    These tips are great and sound like they’d work for any difference of opinions, not just mismatched organized couples! Thanks for laying it all out for us!

    My boyfriend likes to leave his shoes and jackets in the living room. He had excuses for why he did this (leather shoes need to be aired out, he might use the jacket later that day, etc.). Instead of nagging him, I let it go as long as it didn’t bother me too much. Then, when it did start to bother me more, I employed your Tip No. 4 to great effect. I simply put them away myself without any ceremony and as cheerfully as I could. I can only imagine that he started to feel guilty or silly about continuing to leave these things out for me to put away because he changed his habit shortly afterwards. Problem solved without any further discussion! He does the same for me when I leave stuff out, and I always thank him and quickly return to being more tidy myself. This method has worked beautifully for 2 1/2 years so far!

  3. posted by infmom on

    When my husband was growing up, family life was centered in the kitchen. It was a huge room and suitable for gatherings. So to him, a “clean house” means a clean kitchen.

    In my family the gathering place was the living room, so to me, a “clean house” means a clean living room (our kitchen is too small for two poeple to stand around in, much less gather or work). I don’t mind working in a kitchen with Stuff on the counters. But if my husband’s going to cook he feels compelled to wash every single dirty dish first (we don’t have a dishwasher; no place to put it in our closet sized kitchen circa 1930).

    He simply does not see piles of junk in the living room and his habit of piling up stuff he’s going to get around to reading someday drives me nuts. I can work just fine whether the kitchen is immaculate or cluttered and I’ll wash enough dishes to fill the drainer and then leave till they’re dry, whether or not there’s more that could be crammed in there. He thinks I should keep washing till the counter is clear even if the stack in the drainer is defying gravity.

    Our 36th anniversary is coming up in September so I suspect there’s no chance we can get this incompatibility straightened out any time soon. Although I’ve put my foot down and told him he can only use ONE tray table for stacking up unread magazines from now on. 🙂

  4. posted by Carol on

    My husband does not mind clutter. In fact he does not even see clutter. I love clear, uncluttered rooms. We’ve been married for 42 years so have worked out our own system which seems fine for both of us.

    He works at home and his office is a mass of papers piled high covering the surface of two large desks. He can find anything he needs in any pile, which amazes me. I never even make comments about his office since that’s his space. He’s also in charge of the garage which is a cluttered array of every tool, etc. we’ve accumulated in 42 years.

    The other five rooms of the house are clutter-free due to my diligence. I know (from observing his parents’ house) that he probably doesn’t even see the things he leaves around. I don’t mind cleaning up his clutter because he does so many other things to help out. For instance, if we have company he does the dishes and cleans the kitchen. Then I finish cleaning the kitchen of the things he hasn’t “seen”. He appreciates the clean counters because he does much of the cooking but I know that left to his own devices the counters would be covered with clutter. I think that if one person is working at keeping clutter to a minimum and at times picking up after the other then the other can fill in other places.

    I think that resolving other issues in a marriage or partnership is an absolute prerequisite to resolving this one. Don’t let other issues play themselves out around the issue of who should pick up this or that thing. The commitment to having a loving marriage/partnership involves continual work on division of labor.

    Great post, really made me think, thanks.

  5. posted by Mojaddarah on

    My boyfriend has really bad ADD and I’m a neat-freak! I must also admit that I am somewhat judgmental about cleanliness and organizationg. I deal with the problem like this:

    1- Limits on the relationship. It’s ridiculous to think I will ever be able to tolerate his mess (I may change in the future, reading this post makes me think I could), so we simply will not move in together. I don’t find this an impediment to an intimate, caring relationship when one is already in middle age with kids, personal history, and careers already developed.

    2- Cheerfully clean up in my own house, relax and let him take care of me in his (I’m not going to let slide anything unsanitary, though. like not washing his hands after handling raw meat).

    3- Ask him to pick up things that is unsanitary or detrimental to house – i.e., wet washcloth I brought him for his eye needs to be taken to the laundry immediately. He doesn’t seem to mind and I feel he can respect me by acting on legitimate concerns.

    4- Spend more time on his boat, which he keeps in ship-shape. I guess the small space helps him understand the need to stow things. He wouldn’t even let me bring a swimsuit to keep on board!

    I do nag him (as I said, I am somewhat judgmental about this). He had a rental unit he lost interest in fixing up, and lost almost 10 months (and $12,000 in rent) before he finished the job and rented it out. This really bothers me! I’m not good at letting things like that go. Advice appreciated.

  6. posted by Liz on

    My boyfriend isn’t purposely messy but I think he just “forgets” things like pushing the TV back again the wall when he’s done installing a DVD player. We’ve both come to the conclusion that we’ll do the tasks that the other doesnt like to do. For example, I don’t like dirty dishes in the sink so I don’t mind washing dishes to keep the sink clear. In exchange for washing his dishes when they pop up, he empties the dish drainer, which I hate doing. I also don’t mind doing laundry if in exchange he’ll keep his clothes from building up in piles around the house.
    I think for us it works to have a give and take system where each part of a total chore is divided up equally.

  7. posted by Anne on

    Eighteen years! 18!!
    I am the obsessivie decluttering maniac, and my husband has been the one “I can’t find ”
    For the first few years I volunteered to help…nada
    this year, after 18 years he came to me and asked me to help him organize!!
    I jumped for joy and then we dug into his office…knowing him so well, I knew he had to see his stuff, so we made visual places and we have done some adjusting, but it works!
    But for many of our past years, things were lost and found way past the time needed.
    Keeping my opinions to be kind is the best!
    He is getting better!

  8. posted by DJ on

    I find it funny that a person who is tidier is advised to just totally clean up after the messier person.

    Why is it that the messier person can’t have just a bit of respect and courtesy for the tidier person and keep a few areas clean?

    Why is that expectation out of line?

  9. posted by Sara on

    “If you’re the one who prefers a more orderly home, prepare to take on full responsibility for cleaning up after the other person.”

    I just don’t see that as a fair or permanent solution. Maybe most people feel differently, but I quickly begin to resent it when I am shouldering a disproportionate amount of the responsibilities. Maybe I just need to find a boyfriend who feels the same way that I do about order instead of the messy man I love.

  10. posted by E! on

    “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. ”

    I disagree. In that situation, you are making your partner responsible for your feelings. It’s not her fault that her actions (leaving dirty dishes around) make you ASSUME things (she doesn’t care about the cleanliness of the living space) and then get hurt feelings based on your ASSUMPTION.

    In my experiences living with a filthy pig, what got the best results was NOT assuming what he thought or felt based on where he left his dirty socks, but focusing on the behavior you want changed. You can certainly say “When you leave dirty dishes on the coffee table, it makaes me feel like you don’t care about our house being clean,” but then go for the solution of THAT PARTICULAR ACTION/BEHAVIOR, not psychoanalysis of the ‘deeper problems’

  11. posted by Gretchen on

    Thank you! I am currently dealing with this very problem (I’m the messy one). It’s not that I don’t care, it’s just that I never really learned how to have systems. I am moving in with my former Marine boyfriend – needless to say this has been a BIG discussion issue.

    Do you have any triage advice? We’re going to move into my house and I don’t know where to start.

  12. posted by Angela on

    The best solution we have found (I have been clean and organized for 6 months now- still a newbie in this world and my husband is a total mess) is to have SYSTEMS and HOMES for everything. When he comes in with his bag, papers, etc. there are logical places where these things always go everyday. The hard part for us was decluttering and finding places to put everything that was left. Now it has become a mindless habit to put things away where they go. It is worth it when you need to find something and you always know exactly where to find it.

  13. posted by Molly on

    My girlfriend loves the house to be clean. I used to not care a bit, but, having lived with her for over a year now, I am beginning to get more sensitive to it. I think the key is for the more organized person to recognize the different priorities of her/his partner and for the messier of the two to realize that with just a bit of effort, cleaning is not the most onerous task in the world. I actually get great satisfaction from straightening up. Granted, the energy for this comes in sadly short bursts, but I’m getting better!

  14. posted by Ann - One Bag Nation on

    I was never so happy as when I lived with a boyfriend who was a neat and clean freak! I was a working student, and he did all the housework – I loved it!

    Although my husband’s clutter makes me nuts, I can’t really throw stones because I’m not much better. I am, however, trying to do something about it – thus my blog.

  15. posted by molly #2 on

    My husband is totally messy and I am a neat freak. The point above about nagging is spot on! I never nag because one of the reasons I left my ex-husband because of the constant nagging (soul crushing!!). Nagging will destroy a relationship.

    Basically, we had to meet in the middle on our definitions of clean. I had to lower my standards and he had to raise his. We also hired a cleaning service to come every other week. Life is grand now!

  16. posted by Sarah on

    Eleven years together, coming up on 7 years of marriage. We’re both probably OCD, but about different stuff. I care more about the overall house being orderly and tidy, where his concern is more with individual posessions staying in mint condition for as long as possible. For instance: DH leaving his shoes in the middle of the floor drives me bananas (especially since he asks me not to move them since “I know where I left them, but have no idea where you would put them!”).

    OTOH, he’ll freak if I put the slightest bend in one of his book covers (we’re not talking about cracking spines here, just opening them “too wide”). Let’s not even get into the decontamination procedures involved if I want to read one of his comics… That said, He has piles of whatnot everywhere in his office, but he knows where everything is even though I couldn’t function in that space.

    Basically, I need a workspace to be as clear as humanly possible, with all my items stowed out of sight. He prefers being able to see as many of his things as possible, so he knows where they are. Long story short, we’ve compromised on the shoes (I move them to the fireplace hearth, which is convenient but off the floor and “reads” like the place is cleaner), I take extra care with his books, and we pretty much split the cleaning chores down the middle (I do a bit more, because I get home earlier and have slightly higher standards).

    We’re still debating the cleaning service thing–we like the idea of offloading the less-than-weekly cleaning chores to a service, but we’re both miserly little cheapskates who loathe the idea of another monthly bill. Generally, we accomodate the other’s various neuroses as best as possible without being doormats, which is as good a description of a healthy marriage as any I can think of. 🙂

  17. posted by Catherine on

    My husband hates clutter, but doesn’t know how to actually *clean* a surface to save his life. I’m okay with clutter (in piles, to a degree) but cannot stand dirt. So occasionally he goes and cleans out all the clutter, and I do the same with actually scrubbing and cleaning surfaces.

    Together we = one clean person.

    The one thing he does that drives me nuts is that he leaves dirty dishes in the sink. It’s only 8″ over to the dishwasher for goodness’ sake! This habit has been compounded by a new, super-deep sink, so he can’t see his dishes as “clutter” when he walks away. Grr.

  18. posted by deneph on

    I’ve evolved over the years–from the typical teenage slob to the “clean clothes on the floor twentysomething” to my current thirtysomething self who looks proudly at the CDs in alphabetical order, the labels on my drawers, and the organized cabinets. My current partner was already pretty neat and organized himself (as a lifetime NYC resident he can’t sleep if he hasn’t cleaned the kitchen to avoid unwelcome visitors). In those few instances where his habits didn’t jive when we moved in together (shoes left in the middle of the room), I did a few things:
    1. I explained my past. Previously, I lived with a clutter prone slob and it contributed to my unhappiness. I’ve shown my new partner pictures of how the ex lives so he understands why I’m a little more picky now.
    2. I’ve made it clear that it’s me. Shoes on the floor (or worse) does not make my partner a bad person or a bad partner. When he moves his shoes, he’s showing consideration for me–and I acknowledge that. By not judging him, he’s more likely to put the shoes away.
    3. I’ve made sure he’s welcome. The reason the shoes went in the middle of the floor? He didn’t have a place for them. So, we went to Ikea, got him a great shoe cabinet, put it together, and since then, we haven’t had an issue. Just like cats and dogs, people “mark” territory–especially if they feel like they’re a guest in the other person’s house. If it’s both people’s home, there’s no need to mark territory.
    4. I chilled out. A deep breath can work miracles.

  19. posted by PK on

    Just want to let you know that your “zen shorts” link above is broken. I found it on amazon. Great Post!

  20. posted by Bobyn on

    I think there’s definitely levels of degree between the annoyance of dirty dishes in the sink and systemic, unrelenting clutter of a home that can divide two people. When I got married and moved into my husband’s house, I felt overwhelmed to the point of claustrophobia by his ‘stuff’. There were literally huge piles of things everywhere. You couldn’t even see much of the furniture. Obviously I had seen it before while we were dating, but having to actually live in that space was extremely frustrating. It couldn’t be cleaned up in one weekend. It took me a while to figure out why I was angry all the time…it was the stress of seeing all his clutter everywhere, plus my stuff was everywhere as well because there was no room for it. I daydreamed about running away and moving back to my old apartment.

    I can’t agree more with Erin that if you are the neater person, you need to come up with systems that will work and implement them yourself, rather than begging your partner to change. For example, my husband is emotionally attached to many collectible type items and did not want to give them away, even though they were buried under piles of stuff or moldering out in the garage. He did finally agree that if I can sell things on Ebay and we make some money, he is more willing to let them go. I have to do all the work, but at least the stuff is slowly trickling out of the house. I went through all his mounds of paper and sorted them by subject for keeping and tossing, gave him the box of ‘toss’ items and let him have the final review. I did all the initial grunt work but now we have a low maintenance filing system.

    It amazes me how people can make great couples although they can differ so much on one issue. It’s been three years so far, but slowly the house is starting to look much better and I’m not so stressed out.

  21. posted by Christine on

    I have to disagree with #4. The tidier person should not have to take on *full* responsibility to clean up after the messy person. I’ve tried it before, being as cheerful as I can about it. The result: I ended up resenting my partner even more for his messy habits and muttering spiteful things under my breath while I was cleaning.

    I think a better option is to either deal with the clutter if it’s something small and doesn’t bother you *too* much, pick up the item and instead of putting it away, you put it in a designated space that the messy person is in charge of, or simply ask the messier person if they can please pick up said item.

    It’s the same with children – the parent shouldn’t be cleaning up after their child all the time, but teaching the child to be helpful and productive by picking up after themselves (and I’m not trying to compare my partner to a child, I’m referring more to the act of teaching someone to be responsible for their possessions).

  22. posted by Jenny on

    I live with my sister, who is messier than I am. The clutter in her bedroom has bother me for a long time, but this weekend she came up with a brilliant solution: pay me to organize it for her! She gets a clean room and I get the satisfaction of making order out of chaos, but I don’t resent doing all the work because I’m making money.

    The main cause of my sister’s clutter was not having any systems in place and never having set up a place for everything (e.g., no place for dirty laundry = laundry all over the floor). I’m hoping that she’ll maintain order now that I’ve set everything up for her. But if not, maybe I’ve found a regular source of supplemental income in cleaning her room!

  23. posted by Bri on

    Thanks for an interesting post. My husband and I have only lived together for two years, but in that time we’ve definitely established some ground rules for how to manage keeping a house in relatively good order. With a very furry dog and a cat in the house, I can’t say that it’s immaculate, but it would only take me about 10 minutes to make the house ready for visitors.

    Because my husband moved in with me, I already had everything in the house where I wanted it. I think he felt that he didn’t have any place to call his own, so his stuff just stayed wherever it landed. It didn’t really bother him that much, but it drove me crazy. A thorough purge of stuff from both of us helped make sure he had enough space for all of his things. Because we both got rid of a lot of stuff, neither felt we were giving up too much and no one’s feelings were hurt.

    Another thing that has helped us with the integration is designating the office as his space. He can keep it as messy or as neat as he wants as long as there aren’t dirty dishes left laying around. I helped out initially with organizing cables and other supplies, but over the past year, I’ve noticed that he is unconsciously straightening up the office a little more every week. He’s almost come up to my OCD level of cleanliness without me even saying anything! Honestly, I think this is nothing short of a miracle.

    The other thing I do is pick up one or two things every time I walk through the house and put them away. Because it’s only a couple things at a time, it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it really helps keep the things he “doesn’t see” from driving me nuts. I don’t feel that I’m constantly following behind him cleaning up and he doesn’t feel like I’m nagging him about stuff that only I care about. It’s as close to win-win as I could hope for.

  24. posted by Mary on

    I was the slob – there was no way my husband could take full responsibility to clean up after me. There just wasn’t enough hours in the day. I got inspired to learn how to be neater after he took me in his arms, held me close and begged me to help him make the house our home. Flylady.net did the trick .. and it wasn’t that I was lazy – I just didn’t know how.

    I think the biggest thing I learned was that it’s easy to clean things that are clean … so you declutter, clean and then slowly build routines that keep clean things clean.

  25. posted by P on

    I did the #4 Suggestion before and ended up hating the guy and then myself for doing it. Gotta watch that one. When it comes down to it, you can only hope that they care enough to notice that something matters to you, and its causing you distress. If you bring it to their attention, try to provide ways to help make it easy to be less messy, and they still don’t seem to be even making a small effort…well…its time to leave. A relationship is about give and take–not one person giving up their wants up completely and the other not giving something in return at all.

  26. posted by P on

    Or you could just buy two Tumbleweed Tiny Houses and live side-by-side! I’ve heard that some couples are not good roomies, but are great and romantic neighbors!

  27. posted by Kevin (ReturnToManliness) on

    I really liked this post. My wife and I are mismatched and this article is going to help tremendously. We both have the same goal in mind which really helps, but we definitely have different methods and thoughts on how to get there. The fact we love each other so much saves us a lot, but this article will help us out with the several arguments that arise over the way to get to the finish line. Thanks

  28. posted by Rae on

    Great post, Erin. It’s helped me to look at my house (and my husband) in a whole new way.

    @ Catherine – your “Together we = one clean person” comment made me laugh out loud! Love it!

    @ Mary – Your husband sounds like a doll. I love that he found a kind, caring way to approach the subject with you.

  29. posted by Stephanie on

    When I moved in with my new husband 4 months ago, he was living with two other guys and none of them were particularly clean or organized. I made it a mission to clean up the apartment and keep it that way. What I didn’t realize is that he had gotten comfortable with things being a certain way and when he got home and saw all his stuff moved around we actually got into a fight! It took me some time to realize that he needs to be a participant in setting up any new systems. He may not always be as enthusiastic as I am, but talking things over and making him part of the process has made for a much better transition into an organizational situation we can both live with happily.

  30. posted by Paul on

    My biggest problem is that my partner works at home all the time, while I work away from home 4 days a week, staying in a small apartment near where I work for 3 nights every week. And I hate coming home to a messy house. But because my other half is working on our business, and is a workaholic (often still at the desk) there seems to rarely be time to tidy up the house before I get home. Some weekends I just grin and bear it, but every couple of weeks at least it just gets to me to the point where I don’t get things done which need to be done, because I spend a large chunk of weekend cleaning up. In fact sometimes I feel like I’m the cleaner who comes in at the weekend…

    But if I mention it my other half gets first defensive, then aggressive, then depressed about it. So I have to just get on and clean the place up, which then causes further friction because I’m not working on things for our business which desperately need to be done (e.g. website updates) – but I just cannot concentrate in an untidy environment, so those things wouldn’t get done anyway.

    Maybe the solution is to get someone in regularly to clean the place, but at present we just don’t have the cash available for that – that’s why we have a business and I have a fulltime job as well!

  31. posted by S on

    Um, no offense, but the idea of a cleaner partner having to take full responsibility for the messier one is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. If it bothers you in the first place, what makes you think that turning the other way, plastering a smile on your face and taking extra time to clean something that could have been easily taken care of by your partner?

    Let me tell you, I tried to do that for a year and I was so stressed by the end that I developed some health problems. I never had any free time it seemed because I was constantly having to clean up after my husband.

    To be in a happy stress-free marriage, both partners need to compromise which is FAIR. Why should only one person have to make sacrifices when it’s a PARTNERSHIP. I’m not doing everything for my husband, and I don’t think I should have to. I already make all his meals, do his laundry, schedule his appointments, and everything else, so what, I should have to pick up his pants off the floor everyday so I won’t make waves??

    Give me a break. Bad advice.

  32. posted by Michele on

    Cleaning up after your messy partner with a cheerful, silent smile is for Stepford Wives. A respectful partner would work work to clean up their act — literally — once they found out that their messiness caused so much grief.

    Dealing with a partner who is less or more neat than you is a two-way street. Both parties need to come together and work on the issue. One party should learn to accept more messiness than they like, and the other should learn to clean up beyond their usual tolerances of cleanliness. For one or the other partner to grin and bear it isn’t healthy for oneself or for the relationship in the long term.

  33. posted by verily on

    I’m mismatched with a packrat roommate. I just take it in stride. Most of her clutter is confined to her rooms and the garage. Though the garage annoys me, it’s not a room I normally see daily, so I just let it go… And occasionally drop hints that she ought to go through it and clean it out.

  34. posted by Paige on

    I’d like to see a similar post about dealing with family in general, since you can’t choose to not live with them like you can a potential mate. I’m a teenager, and I’ve found it much harder to declutter my own space when the rest of the house is FULL of clutter. I don’t have much control over it though, because I’m the kid, not the parent.

  35. posted by Zora on

    I recently rented out my spare bedroom to a university student. Remembering the years of unhappiness I had experienced with messy roommates in the past, the fruitless wrangling over undone chores, I decided that I would do the major cleaning and simply ask my roommate to pick up after himself.

    Over the 9 months that he lived here, he got dirtier. I don’t think it was even a conscious process. He left bacon grease on the stove or toothpaste on the bathroom mirror, and it disappeared. He had no feedback (grease building up, mirror covered with spatters) to let him know what he was doing. He got worse and worse at cleaning up after himself.

    I don’t think that “cheerfully do it yourself” works very well.

  36. posted by Laura on

    I’m very offended by #4. For generations, our society had just such a system in place — women cleaned up after men! In the modern world, in partnerships of equality, both people have to take responsibility for making a household work.

  37. posted by Tina on

    Not to sound cheesy, but it’s about being a team and working together. If something bothers you, it’s definitely worth talking about and trying to find a solution that is a compromise.

    My boyfriend and I are working on fitting all of his stuff (and my smaller amount of stuff) into a new apartment. It’s been a challenge but we talk about it a lot, which helps. The hardest part is prioritizing all of the projects that we have going on. IMO, the “us” projects should come before our personal projects.

    Thanks for the post!

  38. posted by jocelyn on

    While I agree that it’s not healthy to be a doormat for a messier partner, I don’t think that’s what the post is talking about here. I think they are referring to matches where cleanliness differences stem from personality differences and differences in family culture (expectations of what a home feels and looks life). If my husband were to leave his clothes and dishes around, I wouldn’t clean that up after him because I am not his maid. But his system of organizing IS different than mine (he can keep track of a lot more things and in a much more ad hoc way than I ever could) and it happens to be one that looks less picture-ready than mine does. I don’t organize his stuff for him or expect him to conform to what I like anymore than he could demand I stop using a file cabinet. The house should look like we both live there. We should both feel at home there. It’s not as if it’s my house and he’s just a guest.

    It’s like that great quiz they had on here about how to organize office space: he’s completely auditory and I’m entirely visual. No reason for either of us to change for the other.

  39. posted by Jennifer, Snapshot on

    I’m the one with the higher clutter tolerance. After being married 15 years, my husband and I deal with it pretty well. I know when the level is reaching his breaking point, and my strategy is to play offense.

    I will call him or email him at work and say, “I know that the house hasn’t been picked up in a while. I’ve been busy. I plan to straighten up soon.”

    That way he knows that I’ve noticed and plan to rectify it.

    He doesn’t expect me to do everything, but I usually make the mess, so I should clean it up 😉

  40. posted by Erin Doland on

    To respond to everyone who has issue with #4 …

    If you harbor resentment about cleaning up after your house partner, then don’t clean up after her. Only go for option #4 if you’re 100 percent okay with it. Some people actually enjoy cleaning (honest), so this is the option for those people.

  41. posted by Erin Doland on

    Oh, and the Zen Shorts link is fixed. Sorry about that.

  42. posted by Karen on

    Article was interesting, but didn’t address my main problem.

    My husband and I have been married 19 years and we are mismatched. It’s like once he sets something down, it disappears for him. He honestly no longer sees it. Once, he used a tool of mine on a business trip, didn’t return it, and when I asked about it, he swore that it didn’t exist. I found it two years later in a box in the basement with a bunch of leftover parts from the job. He’s hopeless. Nothing I do will change him, no system will make him better, and my ability to pick up after him (without wanting to kill him) is limited.

    So, here’s my question, how do I let go of my anger and resentment, accept him as he is and live with him?

  43. posted by Kristina on

    I have tried all of the above…13 (really 15 years later), I haven’t reconciled and I can only divert my anger and distress for so long. My problem is that living with five other family members who leave most of it up to me causes a situation in which I can never catch up. I love to have company and entertain, but I am ashamed to even let neighbors in the door because of the smell and the danger of tripping. Bills and taxes are a nightmare…lost mail…constant ugly surprises-I can’t even track it all, let alone keep up with my paying work because of the constant chaos. We can’t afford cleners-and when we unwisely splurge, they generally quit or don’t call back, because it is the most disgusting frustrating job in the world to try to clean up after us. On any given weekend I can spend two 12-18 hour days cleaning and never get to the bottom of it. I am not a neat freak or perfectionist-I am overwhelmed. I don’t know where to find or afford the right kind of professional help. Help! 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…

  44. posted by e y on

    to kristina,

    to all the mothers in the world who untiringly and unceasingly pick up after us messy kids, i salute you!

    someday your husband and children will realise that it’s driving you up the wall and maybe change their habits a little!

  45. posted by laura on

    I have this problem. I am the clean one. Well, I let things go occasionally, and then I clean. But I always have a system of organization. I don’t mind doing the CLEANING, but my partner and I just moved into a new home and while my stuff has a place, his does not. We’ve actually had conversations about it. Not fights, we communicate very well. He just doesn’t believe in my mentality of a place for everything and everything in it’s place. He truly doesn’t agree with that statement! What can I do?

    @Kristina: In all seriousness, maybe you should write to Oprah.

  46. posted by eden on

    Number 4 is insulting. Plus it is self defeating b/c in all likihood the messy person will only get worse.

    Like many other people have said, it is a partnership – for *all* relationships. You have to sit down, talk about it, and arrive at a documented compromise. If the other people/person isn’t willing to compromise it is not a healthy relationship. If either party isn’t willing to compromise it really does mean ‘I don’t care enough about you to even try to change to make you happier.’

    My number one parenting tips is to never, never, ever clean up after and do chores for your kids. My husband’s parents never made him actually clean up after himself. Now, he has no idea how to even start cleaning a room. Our chore list is detailed enough to list all of the surfaces that need to be dusted.

  47. posted by Erin Doland on

    @eden — As was stated in the article and then clarified again in the comments, #4 is only an option if the person feels no animosity toward cleaning up after the other person. If you feel animosity, then don’t do it. Some people actually LIKE to clean. I am not one of these people, but I have been told by my psychiatrist friend that they exist. It isn’t insulting that someone likes to clean up after others, it’s just his or her preference.

  48. posted by Desi on

    When my fiance moved into my house we had a long talk before hand about cleanliness and organizing (he’s the messier one). We worked our way through both of our belongings together to make sure there would be room for all his things when he did move in. Unpacking was the same way- doing it together so he knew where things went and I wouldnt be crazy helping him find his stuff later. When it comes to cleaning it’s the same way- both of us cleaning the kitchen, hanging the laundry, etc as it needs to be done. I’ve learned to be a little looser with things, and he’s much more tidy. That being said, I’ve completely given up on his picking up his socks. I tried putting a small laundry basket in the living room (similar to the one next to the washer for the kitchen towels), not washing if they arent put away, hiding them so he can’t leave them in the couch. Now I just put them in the hamper and deal with it. Reading some of the posts about shoes being left in the living room and creating resentment in a relationship… I just dont understand it. When you love someone, it is wholly smelly socks in the couch and all.

  49. posted by Grace on

    I have been married 20yrs and I find it tiring tidy up after my husband and now my two teenage boys who copy what he does, leave clothes around don’t move plates, leave out everything they use. I am so tiried, of the negative energy living like this brings. I want to leave and find a little place that can be kept the way I want for once. I like the idea of living in a house next door!

    Yes, for years I have happily tidied up after all. But I long to have it my way, I feel my family do not respect my desires nor care. When I am away they live happily in a hovel and I am not prepared to live like that. I believe I will eventually leave purely for this reason

  50. posted by Frank on

    I actually feel very uncomfortable in an area that is too clean, too tidy. It drives me nuts. I _want_ items to be out of place, I want the magazines to not line up with the side of the table, I want some general noise about me. Sure, on my own I am an absolute slob, and it could stand improvement. But the problem I tend to have with a lot of neat freaks is that they just seem to assume that their way is the right way. It might be right for you, but it might not be for me. You want to compromise, remember that it is that, a compromise. Not just for you, but also for me.

  51. posted by Robert Dyson on

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

  52. 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.

  53. 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 […]

  54. 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!

  55. 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

  56. posted by W. on

    I’m the minimalist in the relationship, but I’m also the most careless. I tend to walk away from messes (off to do the next great thing!), but minimalism has helped me pare down the sheer number of things that I can make a mess with. The greatest trouble for me is that I’m also the grocery shopper and the mail-getter, two of the biggest clutter culprits for us.
    Its not a perfect system yet, but it is steadily improving.
    My husband on the other hand, is a *bit* of a hoarder – collector might be a more appropriate word, but he’s also a little more fastidious about tidiness. Aside from art on walls, I would say 90% of the items in our home are his.

    It has taken us a *long* time to figure it out (we’ve been living together for 10 years), but the last year has been great, emotionally and practically, simply because we’ve been working together to have the kind of home we both want.

  57. posted by Vicki M on

    My husband is not just disorganized, he also refuses to throw away anything. I am already just throwing things away behind his back and without him knowing about it.

  58. posted by Alice on

    I take a little bit of exception to the “no nagging” rule. If my partner has said, “I will do X” or has agreed to do X, and then does not actually do X, reminding them of their responsibility is *not* nagging. In February, my husband bought a new router. It is now mid-June and he has not set it up. In these 5 months, I have reminded him 3 times about it, and each time he has not done it. My next step is to say, “are you going to do it or not?”

    It is up to the person with the responsibility to say, “I am not going to do this task you want me to do” and not just keep pushing it off.

    The “messy” person has to speak up for their side, too. It is not only on the “clean” person to do all the communicating. If there is a reason the “messy” person has not done something – it does not bother them, they like the way it is, it is not a problem for them – they need to SAY THAT. At that point, the “clean” person can make their case and have the discussion.

    I feel that most articles about clean vs messy puts all of the responsibility on the clean person to do the communicating, which leads to “nagging”, when the messy person should speak up for their side, too. If you’re not going to do something, don’t agree to do it in the first place.

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