BRENT STOLLER

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Advice for the Modern Man: The Secrets of a Good, CLEAN Life

Messy House

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(Question has been modified for space and clarity.)

I’ve been married to my husband for over 25 years. He is sweet and compassionate, and I love him very much.

But there is one thing that’s been a constant source of conflict: tidiness, or lack thereof. He does not care about keeping the house neat.

I’ve given up for the most part on him cleaning, but he gets irritated when I try to. When the house is a mess, I get frustrated and anxious, and he finds my anxiety annoying. He also doesn’t want me to touch his piles of stuff, which makes it difficult for me to have clear surfaces. This is especially concerning when we have visitors.

Additionally, when our children were small, he intervened whenever I tried to establish chores. Now, our children are grown up, they live with us and are untidy, too.

At this point, do I just have to live with this?
–Frustrated Housekeeper; Tulsa, OK

When I was a kid, my parents tried to instill a sense of cleanliness in my brother and me.

They’d design chore schedules that required us to straighten our rooms and clear the dinner table and empty the dishwasher.

While these initiatives were initially successful, after about a week, without any real prodding or pushback, everyone would revert to the status quo — my parents reassumed the sponges, my brother and I reassumed our positions on the couch.

And so the cycle went. Neither side had the discipline to affect lasting change.

Yet my parents’ efforts were not for naught. In time, their message seeped into my subconscious, shaping the way I prioritize organization and the level to which I value a bottle of 409.

Somehow, I grew up to be a neat freak.

Actually, that’s overdramatic. There’s just not a term for someone who prefers cleanliness over clutter. I’m not obsessive, but I now do chores as if my allowance depended on it.

I make my bed. I vacuum. I empty trash cans and pull the garbage can to the curb. And like you, I do what I can to create a house filled with clear surfaces.

This can be a challenge, because also like you, I married someone who is not like me.

My wife, Emily, is smart, beautiful and successful. She has an incomparable smile, a contagious laugh and a bottomless capacity of compassion. She’s pretty much perfect.

But she is not neat.

It’s here she’d insist I specify that while she’s messy, she is not dirty. And rightfully so, because there’s a difference.

“Dirty” is a kitchen full of crumbs, or never scrubbing your shower’s floor, or letting spaghetti-sauced plates sit unwashed in the sink.

“Messy,” on the other hand, is the absence of tidiness. As Merriam-Webster’s dictionary explains, it’s “lacking neatness or precision.”

That’s Emily.

When she cooks (and she’s fabulous), she cleans the pots and pans, but she doesn’t put them away, making our counter look like a clearance display at Bed, Bath & Beyond.

When she returns from a trip, she leaves her belongings unpacked on our bedroom floor. Most people consider living out of a suitcase to be a hassle; Emily does it despite her closet being 17 ½ feet away.

And when she comes home every night, she drops her keys, purse, sweater, (junk) mail, water bottle, coupons pulled from under her windshield wipers, workout bag and whatever else she’s accumulated in a heap on the dining room table.

So I couldn’t help enjoying a knowing laugh when you mentioned your husband’s piles of stuff.

Thankfully, Emily and I are respectful of each other, and we both are self-aware. She recognizes she can be too messy, I recognize I can be too anal.

This allows each of us to give a little, which allows us to happily coexist.

You and your husband can do the same.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

1) Accept

“Pick your battles.”

“Marriage is about compromise.”

“Love is blind.”

Choose whatever marriage cliche you’d like, but after 25 years, you know as well as anyone:

There are some things you have to accept.

For instance, I’m an irrational Texas Longhorns fan, and Emily knows to:

A) Not schedule social engagements that conflict with kickoff.

B) Not talk to me about anything but the game during the game.

C) Talk to me about anything but the game after a loss.

I’m sure she wishes she wasn’t married to an 8-year-old. But luckily for me, she’s accepted my fandom as the cost of doing business.

It might be time to do the same with your husband’s messiness — not because it’s right (more on this later), but because it’ll make your life easier.

2) Appreciate

“He is sweet and compassionate, and I love him very much.”

“He does not care about keeping the house neat.”

Those are two opposing sentences you used to describe your husband. Both are charged with your emotions, and both are true.

But which do you want to focus on?

I say this not to invalidate your frustrations, but as a reminder to not let his sloppiness obscure your perspective.

Yes, your husband is messy, and no, that’s not fair.

But the more you can concentrate on his good qualities, the more his piles of stuff will blend into the landscape of your happy marriage.

WHAT YOUR HUSBAND CAN DO

1) Listen

Just because he’s not lying to you or cheating on you doesn’t mean he’s not disrespecting you.

Set aside the details and consider what’s going on:

He’s doing (or not doing) something that bothers you. Yet he’s unwilling to listen to your concerns or change his (in)actions.

That’s a problem.

It’s easy to joke about the comedy of living with someone. And yes, there are concerns that outrank tidiness on the marriage hierarchy.

But this is important to you, meaning it should be treated as such by your husband.

It doesn’t matter that this is how it’s been for 25 years. That doesn’t let him off the hook. He needs to hear you out, and at the very least, validate your feelings. And if he’s as compassionate as you say he is, he’ll figure out a way to modify his behavior.

In other words, it’s time he reconsiders another marriage cliche: Happy wife, happy life.

2) Localize

Emily’s stuff is relegated to two places: the dining room table, and her side of the closet. While a pair of boots may occasionally be left at the foot of the couch, she’s declared these spaces her designated drop zones.

It’s one of the most considerate things she’s done.

By localizing her piles, it not only restricts the extent of the mess, it allows me to relinquish control of those areas. Those are her spaces, and they’re outside my jurisdiction. What she does with them is not my concern. (Although I could do a better job of letting go.)

The more your husband can contain his piles, the less you’ll worry about them. And the easier it’ll be to camouflage or close the door on them when company arrives.

WHAT THE TWO OF YOU CAN DO FOR YOUR CHILDREN

Your adult children live in your house and refuse to keep it clean?

I realize this is the work of their father, but that is unacceptable. As long as they’re under your roof, they need to adhere to your Laws of Lysol.

If your husband is unwilling to do anything else, surely he can get on board with this:

1) Put their asses to work.

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This article originally appeared on the Good Men Project.

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