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When Partners Have Different Levels of Cleanliness

How does a couple coexist peacefully when their tidiness does not align?

Key points

  • The cleanliness of a person's home can affect the level of stress they experience, according to one study.
  • Because individuals define cleanliness differently, partners living together need to discuss in detail how they expect the house to be kept.
  • Even if a couple's habits and desires regarding cleanliness are incompatible, being mindful of the needs of the other partner is key.
Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels
Source: Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels

The cleanliness of a home can have implications for the way a person feels and the way a couple relates. Saxbe and Repetti (2010) analyzed the way in which people discussed their time at home and found that women who described their homes as being cluttered or feeling unfinished had more depressed moods over the course of the day than women who described their home as restful and restorative. Additionally, those who viewed their home as cluttered had higher levels of cortisol (a stress hormone). Therefore, the way we feel about our home can affect us both psychologically and physiologically. So how might this affect relationships? Let’s examine a hypothetical couple, Pam and Jason.

Pam and Jason have been together for two years and recently moved in together. Pam is extremely neat; everything has its place, the living space is immaculate, and mess is not tolerated. Jason, on the other hand, considers himself to be messy. He doesn’t mind letting the dishes stack up in the sink or having the clothes create a pile on the floor. He will eventually get to cleaning, just not now. Upon moving in together, their different views created a bit of friction. So, what can they do to coexist peacefully and feel comfortable in their new, shared living space?

Discuss what cleanliness means and how it affects you

Being clean, or neat, means different things to different people. For example, it may mean that everything has a specific place, that visible spaces appear tidy even if the closets are stacked with stuff, or that anything goes unless you have someone over to visit.

Additionally, you may need to discuss what specifically you are referring to if you talk about the messiness of the house: Is it piles of clothes, dishes, papers, etc., or is it dust accumulating on surfaces? Are you referring to the shoes lined up at the front door or the mail being left on the kitchen table? Don’t make assumptions about what your partner is referring to. Instead, have a detailed discussion about what being clean and neat means to you and which areas you are referring to. Research by Carlson, Miller, and Rudd (2020) has shown that one of the links between the division of housework and relationship satisfaction is the communication between partners.

Furthermore, be sure to explain how the cleanliness of your house affects you. Going back to the aforementioned Saxbe and Repetti (2010) study, the cleanliness of the home can affect the level of stress you experience. Be sure to tell your partner if the way the house is kept is interfering with your functioning and/or causing stress. It is possible that your partner sees their habits as no big deal and views the need to clean as a chore with no real purpose. By letting your partner in on your experience, they are more likely to understand and empathize with you.

Research has also shown that feelings of frustration can arise between partners as a result of an unequal division of labor and the perception of unfairness in the way in which chores are distributed (Charbonneau, Lachance-Grzela, & Bouchard, 2021). This is complicated to predict as each partner may view the household chores and the need for chores differently.

Allow each partner to have a space to keep as they like

If you each have an in-home office space or desk, allow one another the freedom to maintain it in the way that each person wants. If your partner wants to keep their drawers or nightstand messy, that is their choice. There may be a method to their mess, and even if not, it’s where they keep their personal items, so the organization (or lack thereof) is up to them. If they want to cover their desk with knick-knacks, let them. What you may view as clutter, they may see as decoration. Give one another the freedom to maintain a personal sanctuary in whatever way each person wants.

Even if your habits and desires are incompatible, being mindful of the needs of your partner is key. If you are both willing to bend a little—Pam being a little less strict when it comes to things being cleaned immediately and Jason cleaning up after himself a bit more—you will be able to live together in harmony.

References

Carlson, D. L., Miller, A. J., & Rudd, S. (2020). Division of housework, communication, and couples’ relationship satisfaction. Socius, 6, 1-17.

Charbonneau, A., Lachance-Grzela, M., & Bouchard, G. (2021). Threshold levels for disorder, inequity in household labor, and frustration with the partner among emerging adult couples: A dyadic examination. Journal of Family Issues, 42(1), 176-200.

Saxbe, D. E., & Repetti, R. (2010). No place like home: Home tours correlate with daily patterns of mood and cortisol. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(1), 71-81.

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