How to Live With a Messy Person (or a Neat Freak) Without Being Annoyed

Illustration: clean woman, messy man
Photo: Shout

Recently I was running to answer the phone in my bedroom, but I never made it. Why? Because I tripped on the giant mound of clothes my spouse 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.

I'm neat. Correction: fanatically tidy. My husband, on the other hand, 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 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.

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.

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 6-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.

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 three experts who could try 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).

Meeting of the Minds

It turns out my edginess sparked by mess is not imaginary. Darby Saxbe tells me her scientific research has shown that a cluttered home can disrupt a person's level of cortisol, the stress hormone. "One of the things that make people have a physiological stress response is feeling a sense of overload," she says, "and clutter is a nagging reminder of things that are left undone."

On the other hand, Saxbe has found that, for others, a surfeit of stuff offers security, memories, and even pride. In other words, one person's detritus—Tom's old concert ticket stubs come to mind—is another's treasure.

So the first step toward marital harmony, says Julie Morgenstern, is to understand each other's perspectives. "Focus on the person and not their stuff," she says. She tells me to have Tom walk me through the house, without comment or criticism from me, and explain why his systems, as bonkers as they might seem, work for him. "If you ask for a tour in the spirit of seeing it through his eyes, it will change your relationship to the situation," says Morgenstern. "You will understand that he simply views his stuff differently than you do."

It never occurred to me that there could be logic behind his habits, not just laziness. Tom points out that the various paper skyscrapers on his desk are needed every day for research. The closet where he keeps his five bikes is chaotically bursting, but he shows me that he knows where every item is. Boxes are stacked by the front door as a visual reminder to take them to the post office. (Even though, after a few days of non-action, I end up being the reminder.) He even provides a semi-credible reason for the suitcase that, one week after the trip, is still not unpacked.

His explanations dial down my irritation a tad, and his suitcase rationale actually makes me feel empathy. "So he does have a methodology—it's just not the way your system operates," Morgenstern explains.

In the same spirit, I ask Tom why, after he makes a sandwich, it looks as if our refrigerator has exploded. "Forgetting about the prep things," he says, "is like a form of what psychologists call 'inattentional blindness': You don't see what you're not looking for." (Tom writes about science and psychology, so he really talks like this.)

Fair enough. But then Morgenstern has me walk Tom through the kitchen after he has barreled through it to make a sandwich so he can see my perspective. "Show him how upsetting it is that his mess costs you time and keeps you from doing what you want to do," she says.

We walk past the scattered utensils, the bags of bread, chips, turkey, and the empty lemonade carton. I point out that because the kitchen now looks like the Gorilla House at the Bronx Zoo, I'm going to spend 10 minutes cleaning, when all I wanted to do was make a cup of tea. Not to mention that when he leaves containers open and wanders off, the food can get stale or spoil—which costs us money. He is abashed. He promises to make an effort to straighten up as he goes.

But just in case, I try one of Gary Chapman's suggestions and ask him, "Would it be OK if I left you a note to clean up, or would you take that as me being your mother?" ("A request is always better than a demand," says Chapman, so asking, and providing options, will boost my chances of results.) Tom is fine with it, so I hang a small note on the kitchen bulletin board that reads, PLEASE CLEAN AS YOU GO.

A Clothes Encounter

One of our most squabble-inducing issues is Tom's bedroom closet: It's stuffed so full that he can't close the door. I've been pestering him to clear it out for the past six months. Chapman suggests an opposite approach: "Don't mention the closet again. He already knows that you want him to clean it out, because you've told him 15 times." Instead, he tells me to give Tom a compliment every time he does another chore, like taking out the garbage or helping our daughter put away Legos.

"But why should I praise him like he's a golden retriever for things he should be doing in the first place?" I ask. Chapman laughs. "I hear you," he says. He explains this advice applies to anyone and is not about bolstering a mate's ego but about establishing an atmosphere of kindness and respect, which is ultimately a more fertile ground for effecting change.

It still feels retro to me. When I grumble that Tom doesn't compliment me on these things, Chapman says that I can't keep score. I just have to suck it up, give approval generously, and wait. "As simple as that?" I ask, incredulous. "None of us want to be controlled," he says. "If Tom is feeling like you really care about him, with affirming words, he's far more likely to be motivated to clean out that closet." And once goodwill has been established, knowing that I want this task done, Tom just might surprise me.

Two weeks into forcing myself to praise my husband, right after Saturday-morning pancakes, Tom stands in front of the closet, hands on hips, and says it's "time for a rethink." Then—this sounds too easy, but it's true—he cleans it up. He tosses ancient T-shirts, arranges sweaters, and thins out duplicate items, like four camping headlamps.

Digging out his closet took most of the day, but he did it all. I asked Tom later if he had noticed that I was pouring on the compliments. He hadn't.

Sigh. Well, it worked, anyway.

Managing the Mess

Energized, I consult Saxbe on another perpetual skirmish: I like to wash the dinner dishes immediately, while Tom prefers to "let things soak." It's not until right before bed, when I'm fully enraged, that he ambles over to put them in the dishwasher.

Saxbe says I need to loosen up my time frame. "If you give him ownership of the dishes, and he can do them in whatever time frame he wants, then you don't have to be actively stressed that they're in the sink," she says.

But this brings on some twitching, so I take Chapman's advice and tell Tom that I'm not going to nag—I'm just going to trust that after he has let the dishes soak, he'll follow up and put them away by, say, 10 p.m. He agrees.

Meeting in the middle is the key to managing our dynamic, say all three experts. They tell us that one of the most important things we can do is to let go of the thinking that either one of us is "right." So I hold my tongue when Tom doesn't take out the recycling I've left by the door when he takes our daughter to school.

I ask him if he feels any annoyance that the task is still hovering over him. He admits he does, and says he feels better when he is on top of tasks but finds it just too tough to stay neat.

Working toward a détente, Morgenstern has us pick no-go areas, where Tom can slob out and I get to be immaculate. He claims his bedside table, desk, and bike closet; I claim the kitchen counters, dresser tops, and bathroom cabinets. She also has us contain as much of Tom's flotsam as possible.

To quell his habit of dropping everything at the front door when he gets home, for instance, we hang hooks for his coats and bags and put a covered seagrass bin by the door to dump everything else in (papers, books, sunglasses). I'm still irritated knowing there's a mishmash of stuff in the bin, but covering it with a lid is helpful: If I don't see the mess, it doesn't trigger me.

Breaking the Cycle

We then move on to the laundry—impetus of many a clash. Tom is a cyclist who generates mountains of sweaty exercise clothes, so he's in charge of the wash. The problem is that he lets the bag swell before he deals with it—and by the time he has, I tell Morgenstern, the clothes have basically turned to mulch.

For fraught situations, she likes to have clients ask themselves a question to gauge if it's worth the ire: What does it cost you? "Like, with the laundry bag," she says, "what does it cost you, other than your obsessive need to not have it pile up?" Well, it reeks, I tell her. Also, at a certain point, I run out of underwear.

"Right. So those to me would be legitimate reasons. Whereas if you're thinking, I hate to see something pile up when it could be getting done, that's emotional. That's a thing where you have to take your eyes off the stuff."

Morgenstern suggests we swap our ever expanding bag for a "beautiful hamper that's smaller, so it fills faster and has a lid to contain odor." Then she asks Tom if there is anything else that bugs him about laundry, and he says "matching socks."

"Oh, the biggest obstacle," she says. She suggests that we get socks all in one color to eliminate the matching task. "Unless your whole thing is 'I wear cool personality socks,' just screw it," she says. "Who cares?" We don't. So we ditch our socks, hop onto Amazon, and order black ones for him and gray for me. (Our daughter gets to keep her animal-festooned "personality socks.")

Terms of Agreement

The progress is promising, but there's still another source of bickering we haven't tackled: Tom's habit of losing his keys at least a few times weekly. I point out that he is not so easy-breezy when he's running late for a meeting.

As Charles Duhigg noted in his book The Power of Habit, to change a habit you have to make a new habit. Morgenstern suggests getting a pretty container and putting it by the spot where Tom most frequently tosses his keys, which is a table by the couch. I find a little leopard-print bowl with a gold rim on One Kings Lane. The plan doesn't work. So we buy the TrackR Bravo, a $30 coin-size gizmo that you attach to your key ring so you can quickly hunt it down with your phone. His phone basically grows out of his hand, so no chance of loss there.

As for me, Morgenstern says I need to get a handle on my endless tidying. The point of staying organized, she tells me, is to free up my time so I can spend it doing the things I love with family and friends. Instead, it seems I devote way more time to cleaning and straightening than I do to having fun.

Saxbe agrees. "If your need to clean is interfering with things you enjoy, that's maladaptive, meaning it stops working for you," she says. "In which case it's time to rein it in." Now, when we're playing a family game of Monopoly and I'm tempted to leap up and put something away, I ask myself, "Can I stay in the moment instead? Can it wait? Do I need to do it at all?"

What Tom and I learned pretty rapidly in this experiment was that, as Chapman puts it, "either your spouse cannot change, or for some reason, they will not change. That's when you'll have to realize that it's not any great crime that there are stacks of paper all over your partner's desk. It's not logical to you, but it works for him."

So I've stopped harping about Tom's messy desk. Instead, I ask him (instead of commanding him) to end every workday by at least squaring the piles into tidy stacks to give the illusion of neatness, and to stash loose work detritus in a cabinet with the door closed. And I now ask myself, "What does it cost you?" multiple times a day. This ingenious little phrase delivers instant perspective. We still have our disputes, but we really try to see things from the other's point of view.

And I have begun to get that constantly patrolling the wastebaskets to see if they need emptying is not much of a life. Do I want to live in a showroom, or do I want to live in a home? Instead, I try whenever possible to adopt Tom's philosophy of life, which appears to be "Let it soak."

Jancee Dunn is the author of the advice book How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids.

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