How to Live With a Messy Person (or a Neat Freak) and Not Go Insane

Photo by Shout

Recently I was running to answer the phone in my bedroom, but I never made it. Why? Because I tripped on the giant clothes mound my husband had deposited by the side of our bed like a termite nest. As I was going down (clipping a teetering pile of books on his nightstand), I was at least grateful that the mound held a week’s worth of castoffs, because it broke my fall. But my rage built as I struggled to extricate myself while the phone rang and rang.

I’m neat. Correction: fanatically tidy. My husband, Tom, is a human typhoon who leaves a trail of debris in his wake. If it were up to me, I’d live in a pristine, minimalist dwelling. Tom’s reply is—oh, I’ll let him tell you.

[Tom: “There’s an easy way to achieve that dream: by committing a crime and going to live in a jail cell.”]

Tom claims he thrives in mess and finds comfort in his piles of periodicals and papers. He drops his clothes on the floor wherever he happens to take them off.

[Tom: “That’s a temporary storage solution.”]

Meanwhile, I get physically uncomfortable if our small Brooklyn apartment is the least bit out of order. I’m the sort of twitchy person who leaps up before dinner is over to start cleaning. I also can’t fall asleep until I feel that the house is perfect.

[Tom: “I have a pretty low bar for the house being "perfect": The carbon monoxide alarm is quiet, there’s nothing scurrying or making me itch, and the ice cream isn’t left out.”]

Our dynamic was never ideal, but when we were first married and I commuted to an office, it was doable. Now we both work from home (we’re writers) and have a child. Our squabbles about mess have intensified, threatening to become battles. Not the sort of thing we want our six-year-old daughter to witness.

A few weeks ago, when Real Simple called and asked me to delve into our struggle for a story, I eagerly agreed.

[Tom: “I less eagerly agreed.”]

We were in serious need of guidance: How could we move from power struggle to compromise? How do you motivate a deeply ambivalent spouse to do chores? When do you take a stand on something, and when should you let it go? So I called upon three experts who could try to help us reach a resolution. Julie Morgenstern is a New York organizational consultant for Fortune 500 companies and the author of books such as Shed Your Stuff, Change Your Life; Gary Chapman, Ph.D., is a relationship counselor and the author of the vaunted 5 Love Languages series; and Darby Saxbe, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Southern California who has studied the effects of stress from clutter.

First my husband and I e-mailed them all a description of our issues and challenges. Then, in separate phone calls, each pro gave us feedback and tips, and crafted a strategic plan just for us (that can work for anyone).