Partners in grime
Organization expert offers some neat
thoughts about living with a messy companion
By Harriet Schechter
Sharing your life with the one you love can bring days of joy and
nights of passion. It also can mean fights over who left the laundry
to mildew in the washing machine and who discarded that pile of old
newspapers that "weren't read yet."
This is especially true for couples who are "organizational
opposites": One is a mess magnet; the other has tidier
When you have radically different housekeeping styles, it's
difficult to maintain both a reasonably well-ordered home and a loving
Difficult – but not impossible.
Take it from me. I never set out to marry the most disorganized man
in the world. It was just coincidence – or karma – that we
happened to meet right after I had decided to become a professional
organizer. That was more than 17 years ago, and we've been happily
married for 13.
If you're wondering whether I've been able to "organize
him," the answer is – not exactly. (Of course it would be a
different story if he were my client instead of my husband.)
Early on in our relationship I realized it was unrealistic to
expect Henry to change his extremely "casual" organizational
style, and I accepted that he probably never would. Learning to accept
instead of expect is not an easy process, and there are times I still
struggle with it.
Yet this process has proved to be a crucial building block of our
marriage. It also turns out to be the first rule that marriage
counselors and therapists recommend.
"All too often, couples go into the relationship expecting to
change the other person, crossing their fingers and hoping their
partner will become neater and better organized or not so
uptight," explains Elayne Savage, a relationship and
communications expert and author of "Breathing Room: Creating
Space to Be a Couple" (New Harbinger).
"These unrealistic expectations are a form of magical thinking
which often leads to disappointment."
Savage says that it's important to respect your partner's different
style of doing things.
"Neither style is right or wrong, it just is," she
asserts. "If you can practice some tolerance for differences,
some flexibility and compromise, you can be more accepting."
This is a very good thing to keep in mind when you feel like
screaming after finding, for the thousandth time, your spouse's dirty
clothes discarded on the floor – right next to the laundry hamper.
What often helps is to think about all the things you love about
your mate, which, it is hoped, are more plentiful than his or her
less-lovable habits. I tend to remind myself that the traits I love
about my husband are part of what make him messy.
Henry is very easygoing and good-natured, and messiness – his own
or anyone else's – doesn't really bother him. I like to say he loses
everything except his temper and his patience, but since those are the
only things I lose, it balances out.
So early on in our marriage, I decided to accept (again, that
important word) that having a well-organized, neat, clean home was
important to me, but not to him. What this means is, since he doesn't
really care how tidy the inside of the house looks, it makes no sense
to expect him to feel otherwise.
Therefore, why waste time and energy nagging, arguing, threatening
or begging? I'd rather pick up after him than harass him (although I
admit that on occasion I do both).
Neither of us, however, wanted me to end up feeling resentful for
being a one-woman clean-up squad. So we had to figure out how to share
the load in a realistic way.
"There is a line of respect concerning order in the house
which the messy person needs to understand is very important to the
neater one," says Sandra Felton, author of "When You Live
With a Messie" (Revell).
"It is seldom that both will have exactly the same standards
That's why it's crucial for couples to discuss their expectations.
"Communication early on is super important," notes
Felton, who also happens to be the founder of Messies Anonymous (www.messies.com).
"It may be good to do it in writing so it's clear."
Sharing the load
Communicating our needs and putting them in writing certainly worked
for us. Here's how we did it.
First, I created a list of ongoing household chores so we could see
how to divide them up according to what each of us is most inclined to
do. Then we went over the list together. [Checklist is provided in
a sidebar of the print version of this article]
It turned out that the things I don't like to do (such as taking
out the garbage, gardening and car maintenance) are tasks that Henry
doesn't mind doing. Likewise, the things he would rather not do –
like laundry, housecleaning and keeping things in order – are chores
I'd rather take care of. (It's almost embarrassing to note how
old-fashioned our division of labor is.)
Then there are the tasks neither of us prefers – cooking, doing
dishes, running errands. We agreed to share or alternate these.
Couples who aren't able to divide the chores equitably might
consider hiring a housekeeper. Don't automatically assume that this is
beyond your means.
In "A Housekeeper Is Cheaper Than a Divorce: Why You CAN
Afford to Hire Help and How to Get It," author Kathy Fitzgerald
Sherman shows that hiring help can be not only an effective
time-management tool but also the best economic decision for a family.
The book offers ideas for rearranging budgets to make a housekeeper an
Even without a housekeeper, our system works well overall. But with
Henry's uncanny ability continually to turn tidiness into mess, and my
unquenchable desire to transform chaos into order, a good system was
only part of the solution.
The challenge of allocating space – his, mine and ours – still
needed to be addressed.
"In relationships, both clutter and orderliness can easily
become a battle for space," says Savage (www.elaynesavage.com).
"It's nice to have a space of your own to keep it whatever way
makes you happy – and close the door so it's for your eyes
Which brings us to The Pit.
When I married Henry, the first thing I did was excavate his house.
It was stuffed with everything from old newspapers to decrepit
furniture to a variety of mysterious, unidentifiable objects.
I got it all cleared out and organized – except for one small
room that was particularly horrendous. Since I noticed that Henry
seemed rather fond of it, I asked whether he'd like me to help him
organize the room or just let it be.
Much to my chagrin, he told me, "This is the only room that
still feels like me, so it's OK if you leave it alone." Thus was
born The Pit, our fond nickname for the place that became an important
component of our household management program.
Soon I began to notice that The Pit was actually making my life
easier by providing a drop-off point for the clutter Henry inevitably
left around the house. But in order for the The Pit to be completely
effective, we had to establish certain Rules of The Pit:
1. No matter how messy it might get, I would never attempt to clean
up or organize anything in The Pit unless he specifically asked me to.
(Which he never has.)
2. Nothing Henry might leave around the house would get tossed
without his permission, but within 24 hours I could transfer it to The
Pit. (Usually to the floor just inside the door – the only clear
3. The door to The Pit would be kept closed. (However, he could
still be heard rustling around in there, like a large rodent, looking
for whatever he'd most recently misplaced.)
A little respect
Establishing rules together for your household – and respecting
those rules – is a way to show respect for each other. Respect is
important in any relationship, but it can get buried under the rubble
of neglected obligations and broken promises.
This is all too often the case when organizational opposites share
a home. It's common for the neater half of the couple to get so
frustrated that she or he starts discarding the messy one's
"clutter." Unfortunately, this also demonstrates a lack of
respect not only for your mate's property but for his or her feelings.
As Savage points out, "Do you really need to clutter the
relationship even more with hurt, anger and resentments?" Better
to have a discussion (not an argument) and work toward a compromise.
Again, having a space of one's own can make this process easier.
If it's not possible for each person to have a separate room, try
to allocate a small area. Sometimes a closet can work, or a corner of
a room if you use a decorative folding screen as a room divider.
Then again, if your better half has pack rat syndrome, aka hoarding
(a clinical condition related to obsessive-compulsive disorder), not
even a separate house will be enough.
I feel lucky that Henry, despite his disorganized ways, is able to
periodically discard, donate or even sell some of his clutter when it
reaches "critical mess" (the stage after critical mass).
For those who never seem able to let go of anything, behavior
modification therapy is probably the best recourse. The National Study
Group on Chronic Disorganization provides information and resources on
the topic of hoarding and what to do about it through its Web site (www.NSGCD.org).
Fortunately, the condition is fairly rare. It's estimated that less
than one-half of 1 percent of Americans suffer from this disorder.
It's about time
One problem that often goes hand-in-hand with the clutter issue is the
loss of time spent looking for misplaced things, when your spouse
wastes many minutes every day on frantic "treasure hunts."
It's hard not to get angry searching for keys, wallet, glasses or
other frequently lost items. That's especially true if you find
yourself leading the search party for, say, tickets to the special
event you were looking forward to attending but now will arrive late.
My dear disorganized husband had the annoying and time-wasting
habit of misplacing his keys, glasses and various other things at
least once a day.
Fortunately I finally was able to get him to follow one of my best
pieces of advice: Never, even for a second, put a larger object (such
as a newspaper, open magazine, or jacket) on top of a smaller object
(such as keys, glasses or wallet).
Follow this rule and you too will spend less time annoying and more
time enjoying each other.
steps for living happily with your organizational opposite:
to accept the way your mate is and let go of unrealistic expectations.
- Communicate to establish mutually agreeable standards and
divisions of labor.
Give each other space and respect each
Harriet Schechter has helped thousands of people get organized
since 1986, when she founded The Miracle Worker Organizing Service in
San Diego. Now a Santa Barbara resident, she also is the author of
three books, including "Let Go of Clutter" (McGraw-Hill).
Her online advice column is at www.MiracleOrganizing.com.