My partner is messy …

My partner is extremely messy. I have been able to tolerate it for awhile, but now it has gotten out of control – piles of dishes in the kitchen and packaging & papers stacked in our living area.  Every time I bring it up she gets defensive.  For a few days after I bring it up, she spot cleans (begrudgingly, because at the same time she is irritable towards me).  I’m afraid she resents my repeated requests for a pleasant shared living area.  Any suggestions?

Rob’s Reply:

Yes, different preferences about cleanliness are a common challenge in romantic relationships.

Your preferences for a clean environment are reasonable.  Some keys to a successful approach are related to how you perceive the situation and how you choose to raise it with your partner:

  1. Self-Compassion – a great place to start!  Consider acknowledging to your self that your preferences are valid.  It might sound something like “I like living in a clean environment.  It feels good.  It is reasonable to want a clean living area and to request support to make it happen.”  What do you notice in your body after you validate these preferences? 
    Both you and your partner want to feel comfortable sharing your preferences about everything.  Avoiding this difficult conversation will most likely lead to living in an environment that you do not enjoy.  Over time, it may lead to feelings of resentment in you, either for giving in on this item or for taking on more of the cleaning chores than you feel comfortable with.
  2. Any judgments of your partner? – A second step is to consider any judgments you have of your partner.  In your question above, you called her “messy.”  That’s a judgment.  Coming from a place of judgment will color how you share your preferences with her.  What you describe as her “defensiveness” around the subject could be influenced by the judgment she senses in your tone & body language.  Defensiveness can be amplified by echoes from past conversations with you and others in which she may have heard things such as “What is wrong with you?” or “Are you a pig living in a barn?”  What changes in you if you are able to view the situation as differences in preferences, rather than as a right and a wrong way to live?  Possible in this moment to connect with some compassion for your partner?
  3. Focus on what you do want – Couples often talk about what they don’t want.  In this case, it might sound like, “I can stand this mess anymore.” If the situation is upsetting and it has been brewing for a while, it is understandable that you may be inclined to focus on sharing what you can’t tolerate any more.  At the same time, partners are more receptive to hearing what you do want:  “Living in clean, organized spaces makes me feel good.  Inviting friends over is important to me and I would like our home to be ready for visitors at any time.”
  4. Be Creative – During the conversation it is helpful both (i) to retain a focus on your preferences (in this case for clean shared living areas), while at the same time (ii) being very open to the possibilities for how to achieve them together. 
    A common mistake couples make is leading with a proposal for what to do about something, such as “You need to clean up your dishes and papers in the living room.”  Sounds like it might be one of the tactics you have been using.  Maybe out of a sense of obligation, your partner tidies up a bit in response to this immediate demand, but it does not resolve the issue at its root.
    It can be more helpful to get clarity on what’s important to you both and then collaborate on how to make it happen, such as “Living in clean, organized spaces is important to me.  How do we make that happen?”  From that space of openness and flexibility, you and your partner may co-create many creative solutions.  There are a large number of possibilities, and only the two of you know what may be a good fit for you – for example, opening packages in the basement near the recycling bin, placing a box near the entryway for incoming mail, etc.
  5. Be Specific – Sometimes what creates misunderstandings in couples are different definitions of concepts such as “clean.”  You say “I’d like a clean living area.”  Your partner responds “It is clean.”  Once you state your preference for a “clean” living area, a next step is to go further by stating what a clean environment means to you, such as “no piles of paper on the coffee table”, “no dirty dishes out on the kitchen counter or in the sink”, “no stacks of boxes in the family room”,  “surfaces free of crumbs and wrappers”, etc.
  6. Support Each Other – Once you arrive at a mutually-agreeable proposal for how to collaborate on this item, it may take some time and additional refinements to dial it in. 
    A common pitfall is when the partner who made the request encounters a “mess”, they may feel exasperated and say something such as “I knew you would not live up to the agreement.” It is helpful to stay curious in these situations and, rather than blaming your partner, to focus instead on what you both can do to support each other.  A potential good place to start is by stating the facts of what you are noticing right now followed by an open-ended question, such as “I am noticing there is a stack of boxes in the entryway.  What’s getting in the way of our approach for handling packages?”  Identify what’s getting in the way and then work together to modify the approach to address it.

Best wishes!  I hope that some of what I shared is helpful to you …