Sunday, September 10, 2006
Dismaying Story #50: Standards of Tidiness
I'm a purger of things. I dislike clutter in all its forms and absolutely can't stand having knick-knacks and odds and ends littering my house. My husband on the other hand is a hoarder. He is constantly holding on to things "just in case" or for future use. This drives me batty. I have often told him that I don't mind if he keeps things so long as he doesn't come asking ME where they are at a later date. If he were willing to keep his stuff organized and neat I wouldn't complain but the mess of his "areas" (i.e. basement, garage, his desk) makes me want to pull my hair out in frustration. Any tips on how to get him to straighten it up?
Signed, Anti-Clutter Bug
This is a common problem in many homes. The two of you have different standards for what you consider to be neat and tidy. You mention the mess in "his" areas, so I assume much of the house is kept to a higher standard of tidiness, one with which you are more satisfied. Yours is a typical scenario -- the person with the higher expectations makes sure most of the house is livable and the other spouse has their own domain where their rules hold sway. You don't consider this to be a complete solution, though.
Your view seems correct to you; cleaner is inherently better and messy drives you batty. The cost (i.e. your effort) involved with keeping things neat is well worth it to you. Likewise you'd rather replace an item once in a blue moon (another slight cost of your approach) rather than keep things "just in case."
You should realize, though, that his approach also has costs and benefits. He doesn't have to worry as much about whether he is throwing something out that he will need later. He gets his areas to the point where they are "clean enough" for him, and the extra effort involved in organizing further doesn't seem worthwhile. Balancing that off are the costs of knowing this bothers you, having to hunt for things and living with more clutter.
These two approaches both involve tradeoffs. You both balance the cost of the effort against the satisfaction you gain from a certain level of tidiness. The difference is where that balance point is for the two of you.
This is not that much different from other potential conflicts within a marriage. You want a soft bed, he prefers a concrete slab. You'd like to spend as you go, he'd rather save for a rainy day. Neither person is right or wrong; you simply have different preferences.
The keys to resolving such conflicts are communication, recognition and compromise. You have already made it clear to him what you want, so it sounds like you have a good start on the communication. Do you recognize, though, that his approach also has merits? I can almost hear you gritting your teeth while you read that, and I understand, I truly do, because I am like you; I clean by filling garbage bags. Still, if we are to be fair, we must recognize that not everyone will share our preferences. From the flip side, does he recognize how much of an irritant this issue is to you?
It sounds to me that the two of you have already worked out a compromise. Much of the house is your way and a few areas are his. You would prefer the compromise to be "everything should be my way." But is that really a middle ground?
You should realize that the "messes" in his area are not messes to him. This is his optimal level of cleanliness when balanced against the effort to go further. You do the same thing, just at a different level. When you stop cleaning, couldn't you go further, sanitize more deeply? While it is understandable that his "messes" irritate you, you are asking him to put up with the irritation of extra effort that seems excessive to him.
On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with asking your partner to help out around the house, to fix a problem for you. The key is to find a balance that works as well as possible for the two of you.
I have no way of knowing if you already have a good balance or if he should pitch in more. My point is you should consider other compromises besides simply getting him to adopt your standards fully. Can the two of you agree to work together and do a periodic purge of his areas? Could he limit his messes primarily to areas where he can close a door so you don't have to see them? If the basement is a large area in your home, could he agree to improve that one trouble spot somewhat?
Finally, the "how to" issue you asked about. You should have a calm discussion where you both lay all your issues on the table and then jointly decide on a solution. I suspect you could help him to feel cooperative by acknowledging that his position has merit, then follow that up by explaining why it still bothers you. Talk about how imporant this issue is to each of you, as that may influence where you end up. Discuss the relative merits of a number of options. When two people care about each other, this approach almost always results in a compromise that works.
All the best,