It’s a basic timeless relationship conflict, but it runs so deep:
Neat vs. Sloppy.
One of you is an organized clean-as-you-go (then go back and tidy) neat-freak, while the other is a slipshod slovenly mess.
This conflict usually goes on for years and leads to endless arguing, frustration, resentment, and all kinds of relationship misery.
I speak from experience, because my wife of 20 years is efficient, meticulous, and clean, while I am a scattered spontaneous slob.
I also speak from experience when I tell you that we have completely solved this dilemma.
I will share how we did this – because make no mistake, until you really resolve it, a major chunk of your marriage (or relationship) is dismal.
Let’s start with the obvious: nobody really likes or wants to exist in a mess – not even us slobs. If we could hire someone to follow behind us and pick up after us, we would –
(EXCEPT for our work areas – some of us thrive when our papers, or materials, or whatever we use to create are scattered all about our studio or office in a private disorder that makes sense to us, that is a living breathing part of our process – but even then we wouldn’t mind a small invisible angel or two hovering around us and straightening up a little, just keeping things from getting too out-of-hand-)
-But that aside –
Nobody likes a dirty kitchen or bathroom, or clothes strewn everywhere; or junk and debris and all the myriad byproducts of living cluttering up our life spaces – nobody!
So then really, we’re all starting out more on the same page than we might think –
But if that’s the case, then why do us slobs get so pissed and resentful when we are relentlessly nagged and harrassed about it?
Look: we don’t want you to nag us, and we don’t want you to pick up after us either. We basically just want that mess to magically go away…like when I Dream of Jeannie blinks her eyes!
– and when that doesn’t happen, we feel…
Well that’s the whole thing: we feel just as lousy and claustrophobic as you do, but even worse, because there is the added self-loathing of knowing that we aren’t taking responsibility for cleaning up our own mess, even though it’s not a big deal at all, but it totally sucks –
Does that sound confused? Delusional?
No, let me tell you about delusional:
Let’s say I, as a slob, come home for lunch, and immediately kick my dirty boots into the middle of the hallway, toss my papers and jacket onto the couch, and dump my keys and coins and some dirty napkins onto the little table – I just created a huge mess, right?
Well, guess what: there’s no mess in my mind, because if I were to scan the scene for a mess to clean up, I would see a totally clean space, because there are the boots that I have to move in a minute, and there’s the stuff on the couch I’m going to pick up, and there’s that stuff on the table that goes in the drawer, so everything is clean and there’s nothing there except the stuff that’s so about to happen that in my mind it’s already happened – but wait there’s more:
It could be too many years of mommy picking up after us (while daddy ignored her or put her down) – but it might also be all those years of mommy or daddy not picking up after themselves, not owning their own lives and emotions, and the formative pictures and voices through endless family and social traumas imprinted on our heart, paralyzing us so we can’t move to clean up because – we don’t know why but we can’t move – or we’re rebelling, because we resent and hate them in ways we haven’t even faced yet, even though we still love them desperately, and now we’re stuck with all these subconscious self-sabotaging conflicting impulses, or maybe we tried to do something good a long time ago and were punished severely, directly – or indirectly, insidiously – and now we hate ourselves but we can’t admit that so we hate you instead and we serve the worst parts of ourselves like a slave and we tell ourselves that we’re big and strong, or weak and worthless–
-Whatever! But the point is that when you when you say holy crap, what’s your problem, can’t you just not make a mess? What are you, five? The answers are actually:
Maybe not, and maybe…
No, I’m not kidding, and that’s just one sketch of an origin story –
There are so many possible psychodramas we have survived that express themselves in how “messy” and disorganized we are, not even mentioning innate strengths and weaknesses – and look:
I’m not making excuses – we are ultimately all responsible for developing the life hygiene of a healthy adult– being clean and respectful of ourselves and others – but my point is that things are more complicated than they appear on the surface –
Let’s give equal time to the fact that the partner who is neat and organized is literally thrown into psychological and emotional chaos by a partner who won’t keep a clean orderly house, because that house is not safe – they can’t think, they can’t function, and on top of it all it’s just gross and suffocating – so they can’t be safe with their partner, the one person who they count on to create a safe space not only doesn’t care about their safety, but actually actively hurts them, sabotages their very wellbeing –
And depending upon their own background, they could be in a lot of trouble – disaster even! – if things are messy….it could mean they are not measuring up, or that the rent won’t get paid, or it could mean the beast that haunted their childhood will come out: the belt or the bitch –
Get the picture? This stuff is deep – it’s beyond rational thought –
It’s not about clean and orderly, it’s about care and safety and love and respect –
So how do you solve it?
You start by understanding two things which are true for both of you:
1) Your partner is not deliberately trying to sabotage or attack you. They are growing out seeds that were planted long before they met you.
2) When the two of you establish a constant state of care and connection between the two of you – the sublime intimacy you both long for – all of these issues will disappear.
Does that mean that the messy one will become a model of hygiene and order? Perhaps…or maybe they will simply get better and better, more conscientious, over time, as their physical actions catch up with their deep sincerity…
Does that mean the nagging control-freak cleaning Nazi will loosen up?
I would say: almost definitely, as the love between you grows and you both feel your hearts cared for in a living way (and as a thoroughbred Eastern European Jew I reserve the right to use the word “Nazi” any time I damn well choose).
I changed – I am so much neater and cleaner and more responsible now. I love caring for my wife’s heart in that way – and I respect myself so much more.
My wife changed – she stopped nagging me, and instead of looking at my messes as conscious communications of how much I (didn’t) love her, she stopped playing the victim and took care of the mess herself – until I decided that I cared too much about her not to vastly improve, even though I still have these weird residual psychological and temperamental blocks that leave some work yet still to go…
But both of us changed because we changed everything else about our relationship – we created a dynamic of constant care and connection and communication that put this other issue of clean vs. messy into a totally different context…instead of it being this giant monster between the two of us, it became a door we walked through together, towards ever-greater care and intimacy….
And when creating that quality of connection becomes your front-and center priority, all the other details – big, small, and even seemingly insurmountable – work themselves out….they dissipate like sand castles in the ocean of the love you create together….
I speak from experience, not fantasy.
And if you sense the truth of this, and want some help with it, you know where to find me.
It’s a basic timeless relationship conflict, but it runs so deep: