Our house is so messy my husband's threatening to leave

I hate to clean and so does he. Are we crazy?


Cary Tennis
January 17, 2008 4:50PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

My husband, two young children and I live in a small split-level house. My kids and I live upstairs; my husband lives downstairs. I've always been a slob. I like a clean house, but I work full-time and attend to the needs of the kids, and I have neither the time nor the energy to devote to housecleaning. My husband also works full-time and also hates cleaning. He never cleans upstairs (or downstairs, for that matter). He has issued an ultimatum: Let's clean up the house, or I'm leaving. However, I still can't bring myself to clean.

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I believe one of the following must be true: A) I am a truly hopeless slob and no consequence is serious enough to motivate me to clean; B) I'm suffering from clinical depression and am incapable of completing simple tasks; C) I'm filled with resentment because my husband believes that any mess the children make is my responsibility to clean; D) I keep "my" part of the house unpleasant for him to be in because I'm exhausted by work and the kids, and I don't want to attend to someone else's needs; E) All of the above.

The house really does get quite dirty sometimes. (Not "health-hazard" nasty -- just "oppressively cluttered and unpleasant to live in" dirty.) My husband truly believes the dirty house is the root of our problems. I think it may be a symptom of something larger, and I believe we need some kind of counseling. What do you think? Am I just lazy, or is something more going on here? Is this just my problem, or do we need to do some troubleshooting? Thanks for the perspective.

Not a Neat Freak

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Dear Not a Neat Freak,

Here is one way this could go:

What is this junk you left in my chair?
It's not your chair. It's our chair.
It's where I sit.
I sit there too.
Well, anyway, here's your junk.
It's not my junk. It's our junk.
I don't see any of my junk there.
Well, your junk is there too. It's the mail. They bring it every day and I put it on this chair.
Well, I just don't like stuff on my chair.
It's not your chair. It's our chair.
It's where I sit.
I sit there too.
Well, anyway, here's your junk.
It's not my junk. It's our junk.
I don't see any of my junk there.
Well, your junk is there too. It's the mail. They bring it every day and I put it on this chair.
Well, why didn't you say that?
I did say that.
No, you didn't.
Yes, I did. I'm saying it again. In fact, we're saying the same stuff over and over again.
Well, why don't you just not put junk on that chair?
Well, why don't you just make a space for the mail like I asked you to?
All right, that's it. Let's get divorced.

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That's one way you could go with this. Or you could clean the house.

You could schedule two hours a week to clean the house together.

Or if you don't have two hours a week each to spare but you do have $50 or $100 a week to spare, you could hire somebody to clean the house. One or the other. If you've got the money to hire somebody, hire somebody. If you don't, schedule two hours a week to clean the house together.

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I know it's hard. I'm not a neat freak either. I know how maddening it can be. To live in a messy, dirty, disorganized house day after day can feel absolutely mind-blowingly devastatingly depressing and hopeless, plus itchy and sneezy.

It won't go away on its own. It will just make your relationship worse.

The need for control over space leads to the need for control over a person. You see that person as an obstacle to your need for space. Get out of my chair. Take that magazine. You left this on my table. What is this doing here? You forget that this is a person you love, that you like to be with.

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I personally love that question: What is this doing here? How can you answer a question like that?

And how can we speak more honestly about what's going on with us and our irritation? You sit down on a chair and the table in front of you is covered with magazines and you want to brush all the magazines to the floor. That would feel really good. But what are you feeling right there? You are feeling frustration, irritation. What if we were to say, Wah, I'm feeling frustration and irritation! Wah! Then you're just naming what you're feeling. You're not battling with anybody.

That sounds a little silly, like therapy-speak. But what I'm saying is our irritation over space can easily spill over into irritation with another human being without our realizing it.

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Basically, you and he need to clean the house. Either schedule a cleaning person to come or schedule you and your husband to do it. As to the questions you ask, and so forth, it all could be true. But until you clean the house you won't really know.

We do it Saturday mornings. Every Saturday morning we clean the house for two hours. And now the house is clean. Amazing. You just get up in the morning and get a bucket or broom or whatever and start in. It's easier to clean first thing in the morning. Like you're not breaking off from another activity; it doesn't feel like a sacrifice. And you know it's on the schedule so it's just like going to work or something. And also it's both of us doing it so there's not one person going grrr, I'm cleaning and she's not, or vice versa. We're both doing it.

But your house itself may present obstacles. For instance, our house is an old 1920s house and the interior paint and flooring were in very bad shape. It was dirty. It was dirty even when it was clean. You could clean it but it was still dirty. And there were carpets that were disgusting. So when you would clean you would get allergies. It would stir things up. You couldn't clean the place. Cleaning was useless. We either had to move or remodel the house. So we remodeled. It was expensive and difficult but now at least it's possible to clean the house.

That is, admittedly, an extreme solution. And yet it worked. The lesson for you is that you may find you can't clean because you need work done on the house; you may need painting; you may need the floors done; you may need storage units for your stuff; you may need to approach it as a wholesale organizational project. But it is worth it. I actually sort of enjoy cleaning the house now. Before, it was like I was mad at the house and the house was mad at me. Like the house didn't deserve to be cleaned. Like the house was spitting in my face. It was laughing at me. But then we got carpenters in to tear out the walls and sort of intimidated the house into submission. We battled the house and won. Now it meekly submits to regular cleaning.

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The main thing is you have to begin. Keep at it. Make it regular. And don't get divorced over this. If you're going to get divorced, get divorced over something really good. Like if you find out he is secretly supporting triplets he fathered with a Russian countess, or if you decide to run away with a rodeo cowboy, then get divorced. Don't get divorced over the housecleaning. Just clean the house.


Feeling dirty and disorganized? Here, have a nice clean book!


"Since You Asked," on sale now at Cary Tennis Books: Buy now and get an autographed first edition!

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