When two partners have different ideas about clutter and cleanliness, trouble could be ahead.
Paul and Denise had spent two months happily dating and getting acquainted. He liked the way she helped him laugh and loosen up. After all, Paul would admit his parents were picky, persnickety types, and those qualities had rubbed off on him.
As for Denise, a fun-loving and carefree soul, she liked Paul’s reliability and responsibility. He always had things organized and under control, which she rarely did. Then came the moment when reality reared its ugly head. Denise planned a special date, where she would pick Paul up at his condo and serve a fancy meal at her place. The car was the first sign of brewing trouble. Unlike Paul’s gleaming, spotless ride, hers looked as if it had been lived in for months. Grimy on the outside, grubby on the inside. Paul glanced at it with obvious alarm. Arriving at her apartment, Paul looked around and immediately thought of the TV show “Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe.” He saw magazines piled high, a desk stacked with papers, and carpet in need of vacuuming. “It was eye-opening, to say the least,” Paul said. “I saw my future with this woman—and it was cluttered and unkempt.”
But let’s not be too hard on Denise. She insists Paul was finicky and fastidious to a fault. He was, she said, the kind of guy bothered by specks of lint and the random smudge on a windowpane. She grew tired of his judgmental comments about her “slack standards.”
Paul and Denise may be extreme in their differences, but many couples run into this dilemma. Everyone has a certain comfort level with clutter and tolerance for untidiness. To some people, these things matter greatly; to others, not so much. If you notice potential conflict over cleanliness in your relationship, consider these thoughts:
Don’t avoid it. What may be easy to overlook in the blissful days of early romance becomes a big problem over time. Plenty of married couples argue endlessly about how to keep house, organize their stuff, and maintain their living space.
Do unto others … This means taking a hard look at your own tendencies before passing judgment on someone else. Maybe your reaction to a messy partner is over the top. Perhaps your response to a picky person is too strong. When tension arises, it’s wise to examine where you might be contributing. Maybe it’s you who needs to lighten up—or tighten up.
Determine where you are on the messy-clean continuum. Suppose there’s a cleanliness scale between 1 to 10. If one partner is a 4 and the other a 6, they may find some minor irritations, but will probably learn to cope. But the farther a couple gets on the scale, the more disagreements and frustrations they’re bound to encounter. The idea is not to judge or criticize the other person—the idea is look honestly at your degree of difference.
Decide if you are each able to change and compromise. Every enduring relationship involves areas of give and take. Can each of you negotiate and find middle ground?
Caution: Making plans for a long-term relationship with someone you assume will change is a recipe for trouble. Sure, people grow and improve, but you should not base your future happiness on the assumption that your partner will be able to (or want to) change enough to satisfy your wishes.
Compatibility on key issues is a strong predictor of relational health. If messiness versus neatness is important to you, candidly appraise how well matched you and your partner are in this area.