He’s Messy. She’s Tidy. Let’s Call The Whole Thing Love.
Finding ways to appreciate the spouse who is neater or messier rather than convert them into another version of you.
by Eunia Lee, LCPC
Some marriages are made up of two generally tidy people.
Books alphabetized by author, clothes stored by color and type of fabric, and dishes and glasses neatly arranged may be the norm in their living space.
Other marriages are made up of two generally messy people.
Several books and papers precariously piled up, dirty dishes accumulated in or near the sink, and mismatched socks left on the floor may be commonplace in their living space.
Sometimes two people in a relationship are quite similar in their need for tidiness, but most times each person in a couple will fall at a different place along the spectrum of tidy and messy. And this can lead to tension, conflict, resentment, hurt, or anger in the relationship.
People who tend toward tidiness generally function in this way: When their space is tidy, they feel at peace, and can think straight. Items out of place are nagging eyesores to them – they feel distracted and uneasy. This is why they pick up and straighten items as they go. When their space is cluttered, their minds feel cluttered. So it’s important to them to have a neat work and living space. Perhaps while they are relaxing, they allow their space to get slightly messy for a time, but it will not stay that way for long.
For those tending toward messiness, items out of place do not bother them. Much of the time, they don’t even notice. My husband (who tends toward tidiness) has apologized to me (who tends toward messiness) on various occasions about a mess he’s made and plans to clean. And my response has often been, “What mess? I didn’t even notice.” While every now and then, those tending toward messiness may launch into a tidying spree, they generally have a high tolerance for items that are “out of place.”
When these people with these two different styles come together, consideration and communication become very important. If this issue is not handled well, a destructive pattern of anger, criticism, distance, and resentment can emerge.
Our pastor met with my husband and me for pre-marital counseling. During the course of our counseling, he said:
“I tend to be tidier than my wife. I like to keep my desk neat. But when I look at my wife’s desk, it’s not that neat. Then I tell myself that her messy desk reminds me that she is with me. I’d rather have her with me and have her desk messy than not have her at all.”
This comment demonstrates a greater appreciation for his spouse than for tidiness. And this can be hard for a generally tidy person, because messiness can elicit visceral reactions. To love your spouse more than tidiness in the moment means either enduring a cluttered space longer than you normally would and/or communicating your needs with gentleness and patience.
A different type of challenge presents itself to a spouse who is not bothered by a lack of tidiness. Living with someone who wants a tidier space means building new habits that are purely for accommodating and loving the spouse. It does not mean you are tip-toeing around and living on edge, cleaning up because your spouse demands tidiness. It means choosing to clean more than you normally would as an expression of love and consideration for your spouse.
Neatness and messiness are not generally issues of right and wrong.
They are matters of personal styles and tendencies. Therefore, each couple’s home must represent well both partners’ styles. The process of bending and adjusting in order to allow for a style that is different from your own presents an opportunity for growth. As you engage in this process of change, you will become more skilled at loving your spouse in your day-to-day interactions. The following are tangible ways that you can demonstrate care and appreciation for your spouse who is more or less tidy than yourself:
For those tending toward tidiness:
Avoid negative labels and a judgmental attitude – for example, avoid thinking “He’s so lazy!” or “She’s a slob!”
Avoid mind-reading or making assumptions – for instance, avoid thoughts like “He wants me to clean up after him!” or “She doesn’t care about her things, or me!”
Avoid negative communication patterns such as nagging, speaking harshly, or holding in your frustrations until you blow up.
Be patient if your spouse forgets to address your need for tidiness. Remember that tidiness is not as automatic and natural for your partner as it is for you.
You must love your spouse even more than you love tidiness. This means you must demonstrate gentleness while you communicate with your spouse about your needs and preferences.
When you live with a messier space than you ideally prefer, it’s a practical expression of love for your spouse.
For those tending toward messiness:
Avoid negative labels and a judgmental attitude – for example, avoid thinking “He’s a control-freak!” or “She’s too obsessive!”
Avoid mind-reading or making assumptions – for instance, avoid thoughts like “He’s trying to control me!” or “She’s trying to turn me into a robot!”
Be empathetic. Your spouse actually suffers more than you in a messy space.
Make being tidier important to you because it is important to your spouse.
Periodically ask your spouse about areas of the house that need more tidying. It will be on your partner’s radar more than on yours.
If you have a smart phone or a similar device, set weekly or daily reminders for yourself to clean up and tidy the house. You can also use post-it notes (placed somewhere neatly, of course).
Make a habit of doing at least one small tidying project around the house daily.
You must love your spouse more than you love keeping your old routines. This means building new routines that don’t come naturally to you.
When you regularly tidy your space more than you usually would, it’s a practical expression of love for your spouse.
Sure, it would be easier to live with someone who is more like yourself. However, such differences present opportunities for personal and relationship growth. When you are stretched toward increasing consideration, patience, and empathy, you are becoming partners who are more skilled at loving each other.
And that is a goal worth working hard for.