Beyond Blame

Freeing yourself from toxic emotional bullsh*t

Varying Degrees of Neatness: A Solution

I'm tidy, my spouse is messy — what can we do?

Dear Dr. Alasko: My wife accuses me of having OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) because I clean up after her. But I clean up after her because she literally cannot put anything away after using it. I know I'm not really compulsive about orderliness but she makes me feel as though any time I clean up her mess I'm acting a little crazy. "I'll get to it," she protests, but never does. This situation has become chronic and comprises the major issue between us that. Do I just have to accept her messiness forever?

Dear Reader: Well, actually, both of you are in a mess — and it's called your marriage.

I can't help but wonder how you reached this degree of mutual stand-off. It seems that you have both developed rigid positions that compete for dominance. Yours is: "I can't stand a mess!" Your wife's is: "I will not clean up!"

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There is hope, however. That hope can be found in your mutual frustration with your inflexibility, the fact that that’s not working well for either of you, and your mutual desire to stay together and build your emotional connection with each other.

I’m making the assumption, of course, that you began your marriage—-your commitment to a life-long relationship—-with a vow to love each other through the many challenges of life. 

In the beginning you were probably irritated by your wife's sloppiness but didn't address the issue in a way that produced results. Here's what you ideally would have said to her back then, and need to say to her now: "Honey, I am committed to you for the rest of my life, as you are to me. Which means we must find a way to live together in ways that don’t excessively impact each other. So, since my personal style is to focus more on neatness, and yours is more casual, how can we reach a compromise that works for both of us? What are your ideas?"

The intent behind these words is simple yet serious: "We're in this together for the long haul. Neither of us can have it all our own way. We need to work together to solve our issues."

Once you both sign on to this approach, your direction is clear: you must compromise. In practice this means that your wife has to say to herself, "I know that my husband will be irritated if I leave these dirty dishes. So I really can wash them and put them away. That's not that difficult to do. And I'm not surrendering my heartfelt principles by washing my own dishes right now instead of letting them pile up." 

And you'd say something similar to yourself. "I know my wife is trying to pay attention to her messes. I don't have to get upset because she forgot this time. I can clean it up for her. Maybe a gentle and loving reminder is all she needs."

These internal dialogues – which reinforce the external dialogue between you about cooperating — are essential to any problem solving process, because no one can have it all their own way, all the time.

You will have to continue these discussions because everyone forgets and tends to return to old (and irritating) habits. But if you do, there’s a great chance that you can solve what now seems to be an intractable problem. 

Carl Alasko, Ph.D. is the author of Beyond Blame (Tarcher Penguin), and like his first book Emotional Bullshit, it has been published in five languages.

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