If you are naturally tidy and your partner is on the messy side, it’s time to take relationship-saving action—pronto.
Opposites attract—it’s true—but that doesn’t always make life easy. If one of you is a neat freak and the other, well, less so, resentment can soon start to simmer. Before you know it, the wet towel on the bed, those discarded socks next to the laundry hamper or that ever-present clutter by the front door can tip you over the edge, leading to an overreaction that leaves your partner wondering why such a little thing should matter so much. Fortunately, there are ways to stop your housekeeping peeves from reaching the boiling point—but they may be a matter of meeting your other half somewhere in the middle.
“It’s not surprising that housework is one of the top four or five things that people argue about,” says Relationships Australia practice leader David Roberts. When two partners are often both working and busy—and perhaps juggling parenting responsibilities too—talking through housework expectations is vital for a harmonious household, he says.
“Couples with different backgrounds can often have very different expectations, and so the ability to communicate well and without judgment in the discussion is really important,” Roberts says. “Poor communication, along with finances and infidelity, are among the top reasons for divorce, so open discussion and exploration are vital.”
1. Divvy up the responsibilities.
Be sure to split the jobs up evenly. Photo: Hunting For George, original photo on Houzz
One benefit of living with a potential life partner before marriage is getting a sense of how he or she lives, as the honeymoon phase mellows to a warm glow and you both start to relax and be your true selves. If you notice a marked difference in standards when it comes to cleaning and tidying up, now is the time to decide how high a priority housekeeping is for you—and to have an honest conversation about how the chores will be assigned between the two of you into the future.
“Housework touches on what have historically been fairly entrenched gender roles, which are changing rapidly,” Roberts says. “Because these roles are changing, they need to be explored and negotiated with those involved. When this is done successfully and the agreements kept, this can further strengthen a relationship.”
Tip: Begin conversations with “I feel” rather than “you always.” Attacking people for their behavior is rarely as effective as a calm conversation coming from a place of respect.
2. Honor your differences.
Figure out your partner's cleaning deal-breakers. Photo: Klopper and Davis Architects, original photo on Houzz
Sometimes one person’s idea of clean is dramatically different from another’s. Although one partner may feel more comfortable with a bit of clutter around, the other may not be able to relax unless the home is completely in order. Listening to your partner talk about how he or she prefers a space to look and feel can help bridge the divide.
Tip: Talk through what “tidy” means to each of you and which areas of the house you value as no-mess zones. You may love a tidy kitchen; your partner might love a dining table that’s completely free of clutter. Voicing what matters to you in a non-accusatory fashion raises awareness far more effectively than passive-aggressive sighs and eye rolls.
3. Identify the real issues.
Acknowledging your own shortcomings isn’t always easy or pleasant, but it’s necessary if living with your significant other in relative peace is your goal. It can also be helpful to analyze the real reason why you might be upset about your partner making a mess or failing to help out enough when it comes to general household chores. Is it the mess itself or the lack of respect you feel as a result? Does the pile of bills you see when you walk through the door each day bother you because of the mess or because it triggers a feeling of panic about your finances?
“Housework can be just the tip of the iceberg in what an argument is really about,” Roberts says. “Beneath the surface there may be power imbalances, value differences or general dissatisfaction with a relationship.”
Housework is very visible, and it can represent how much someone cares about the home and the others who live there. “Unless a couple has good communication skills and can really talk about their expectations in terms of roles, it will certainly exacerbate deeper issues,” Roberts says.
Tip: Get real about how reasonable your demands are. If you like the towels folded after a shower just so, when they would dry just as quickly slung over the bar in a more casual fashion, it may be time to let that one go. Especially if your constant mention of it is starting to drive your partner nuts.
4. Compromise on cleanliness—not hygiene.
It's all about focusing on your family's health. Photo: Form Design Ltd, original photo on Houzz
There’s a difference between tidy and clean, and it comes down to hygiene. If your partner is more naturally messy than you are, consider meeting in the middle by relaxing your attitude a little about the clutter on the condition that your partner lifts his or her game when it comes to cleanliness. Sparkling, germ-free kitchen countertops, for example, make sense to prevent illness in the family, so a no-bend rule about this is reasonable—if you make a mess, you clean it up straight away. The same goes in the bathroom.
Tip: Discuss which rooms should remain in a state of tidiness and which can get a little messy (more meeting in the middle is required if you’re the neat freak of the family). You may decide that shared rooms need to be tidy, but other rooms less so, for example. Or that the formal living room is to remain tidy, but the family room can be a little more relaxed.
5. Don’t expect miracles.
People don't change overnight. Photo: Brickworks Building Products, original photo on Houzz
Expecting a dramatic turnaround in your partner after you’ve voiced your concerns is pretty unrealistic—implementing lasting habit changes isn’t easy for any of us, no matter how strong the motivation—so it pays to think laterally when solving the problem. Could you outsource some of the household chores to a cleaner or have the cleaner come a little more often? Could you assign each of the kids to simple daily and weekly tasks to share the load—even wiping down the table after meals and emptying the dishwasher can make a difference. If it’s just the two of you, could you relax your rules around how often chores need to be done to reduce the burden on both of you?
6. Make do with less.
Some houses are easier to keep clean than others, and it often comes down to how much stuff you have. The less you have, the easier it is to dust and tidy up.
Tip: Tackle one room at a time, sorting unwanted items into piles to throw away, donate or sell. Keep only things you still love; don’t get sucked into keeping gifts out of obligation or because an item cost a lot.
7. Boost your home’s storage capacity.
Storage space is key to minimizing mess. Photo: Woods & Warner, original photo on Houzz
When there’s enough space for everything in your home to be put away, a tidier-looking home is guaranteed. This is particularly important in shared bedrooms. Ensure that there’s ample storage space for each of you, and acknowledge that one partner may need more than the other for clothes, shoes or hobby and sports equipment.
Tip: Giving your partner the lion’s share of bedroom storage space is an opportunity not only for you to show off your generous side, but also to make your partner feel seen and heard—a rare and precious gift.
8. Put things into perspective.
Weigh the frustration involved in repeatedly raising an issue that never seems to be done versus solving said issue yourself. If your partner keeps leaving shoes by the front door when you’d like them to be put away, consider picking up the shoes, taking a breath and putting them away yourself. It will take all of five seconds and, if you can learn to do these little things cheerfully rather than with resentment, your stress levels will plummet. And one day, your partner may just start remembering to put those shoes away!
Tip: Practice gratitude. Focusing on the negatives rather than on the great things about your partner is a recipe for disaster. After all, no one likes being scolded, resented or nagged. If being positive doesn’t come naturally to you, start small. Compliment or thank your loved one once a day to begin with and build from there. You may be surprised by how quickly you start to notice other wonderful things you may have missed and by seeing the same attitude shift start to take shape in your partner.
Written by Joanna Tovia for Houzz for Working Mother and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.