You love your partner, but you don’t love their mess. In honor of Valentine’s Day, we’re talking about what you can do when your partner’s mess is making you see red.
The saga of the phone pouch
For a period of months, a phone pouch (basically a fanny pack that holds your phone when you go running) caused a lot of strife in our home. I’d originally purchased it for hiking, so I kept it in a closet with other hiking stuff. But then Bill started using it for actual running, which he did 2-3 times each week. Suddenly, this ugly lime green phone pouch started showing up in random places around the house.
Every time I found it on the kitchen counter or the back of a dining chair, I stashed it (I mean, it’s really ugly). It didn’t have a new home, so it ended up in a different hiding place every time. As a result, the five minutes before he went running turned into a whole back-and-forth of where is’s, and did-you-check’s, and so on. I usually found it pretty quickly, but we were both miffed about the whole thing. He wonders why I have to move stuff, and I wonder why he can’t put the damn thing in a place that’s not the middle of the kitchen. But guess what we didn’t do? Talk about it.
And then one day I just accepted the fact that if I try to conceal the thing, we will not ever remember where it is. We are both visual people, and if we don’t see our stuff, we forget it exists. So now it lives in the entryway on top of the shoe bench, where we keep other outdoor accessories. It’s partially visible, so Bill hasn’t had to ask me where I put the thing in months. And when he does leave it draped over a chair to dry out after a run, I know where to put it away when it starts to bug me.
It’s not you, it’s me
I don’t care if you’re married or just living with your significant other, this experience is universal. And it has two root causes:
One, organizing systems have to work equally well for every person who uses them (if an organizing system is inconvenient, hard to remember, or too complicated for at least one of the people, it won’t get used consistently).
Second, sometimes one person simply cares more about how the house looks than the other person. That’s not to say that my husband is a slob, or has no regard for the state of the house — not at all. But it does mean that a small thing like a lime green phone pouch is impossible for me to ignore in an otherwise tidy space. I find both joy and a sense of calm when a room is clean and everything is put away. He appreciates a tidy home, but a few out-of-place objects don’t bother him nearly as much as they bother me. And that’s totally fine and normal.
But when you perpetually feel like you and your partner aren’t on the same page, it can be really frustrating. Especially if you are the one who “cares more”, you probably feel like you’re doing most of the housekeeping work. And every time your partner leaves a sock on the floor, it feels like a personal affront against you and your hard work. I get it, I really do. Later on we’re going to dig deeper into these feelings, and discuss the role they play in discord at home.
It’s not about the quantity
But before we dive into solutions, let me define “clutter.” They say we Millennials are generally less interested in buying “stuff” than previous generations. The reasons for this aren’t relevant to this post, but I want to clarify that you don’t have to be knee-deep in piles of your partners’ useless crap to feel frustrated by clutter.
Because “clutter” doesn’t just mean “too much stuff.” Clutter also refers to “any object that is not put away in its proper home.” Cassandra Aarssen (more on her in a bit) refers to this as “lazy clutter,” and I’m willing to bet that this is a way more common issue for couples.
When we define clutter this way, it highlights the necessity of each and every item you own having an assigned home. And when this lazy clutter is a continual problem, it means your stuff either doesn’t have a home at all, or its assigned home is inconvenient, forgettable, or too complicated. Because if it’s not easy to put away, it won’t happen.
The tough part for couples is that “easy to put away” can mean vastly different things. For some people, it’s a no-brainer to open up a closet and hang their coat on a hanger inside. For others, that’s way too many steps, so the coat ends up on the floor.
If you prefer visual simplicity, my office shelf probably gives you heart palpitations. Clearly, I’m a visual abundance lover.
Unique, just like everyone else
Cassandra Aarssen, professional organizer, author, and popular YouTuber, saw this issue with so many of her clients that she developed a framework for figuring out your individual “organizing personality type.” Her categories are all about abundance versus simplicity:
You prefer either:
- Visual Abundance (seeing your stuff: open shelving, transparent storage)
- Visual Simplicity (completely clear surfaces, closed storage, opaque containers)
You prefer either:
- Organizational Abundance (many, detailed categories)
- Organizational Simplicity (fewer, broader categories)
Her company is called Clutterbug, so she names each personality type after a different bug (it’s very cute!). Find out your type here.
The thing is, we are what we are, and our best bet for success is to tailor our organizing systems to match our personalities and inherent traits. I’m sure you’re starting to see where this is going…what if the person you live with has a completely opposite style to yours? Clutter frustration is almost inevitable because your very definitions for clutter aren’t the same. So what to do?
Visual simplicity: no labels, no clutter, no problem.
RISE above your differences
I’ve outlined a 4 step process to work through your feelings, figure out your needs and expectations, collaborate with your partner, and implement solutions that work for you both. Quit nagging, making sarcastic or passive aggressive comments, and bottling up your frustrations. Instead, commit to finding a productive way to improve your home and relationship.
It’s easy to get stuck in unproductive and harmful thought patterns when someone’s not meeting your expectations. But this is a partnership with another adult, and you cannot impose your will on them. Start by opening your mind to different perspectives.
- their lack of compliance isn’t a personal attack on you (if it is, I’m very sorry. Please see a marriage counselor);
- just because an orderly, tidy, clutter-free home is very important to you, it may not be a priority for them;
- everyone has different expectations for order, standards of cleanliness, and tolerance thresholds for physical clutter;
- your way is not the only way, nor is it the best way. People organize differently, and there is no right way.
Once you accept the fact that your partner sees things differently, you can open yourself to a productive dialogue. But before approaching your partner, dig in a little deeper and gain a better understanding of your thoughts, feelings, and motivations.
- the story you’ve been telling yourself about why your partner doesn’t do their share (“he’s just lazy”; “she doesn’t care about me or our home”; “he doesn’t even see the problem”) and articulate how it makes you feel (overworked, stressed out, unloved, frustrated, baffled);
- why you want an orderly/tidy/clutter-free home and how it makes you feel when it is; how does it make you feel when it’s not?
- what your expectations actually are; What does “organized” mean to you? How clean is clean? What do you see as clutter? What areas or rooms bother you the most?
- your unique organizing preferences. To gain helpful insights, as well as language and visuals you can use to illustrate your preferences, take the Clutterbug quiz
Now that you’ve given yourself space to process your feelings of frustration or resentment, as well as taken the time to define and articulate what you actually want, it’s time to sit down with your partner. Ask them to set aside 30 minutes so you can…
- the fact that having a clean/tidy/clutter-free home is very important to you, and how it makes you feel when it’s messy or cluttered. Speak as calmly and clearly as possible, and don’t make it about what your partner is or isn’t doing;
- your definition of “clean, tidy, and clutter-free”; this is the time to articulate your vision of what order actually looks and feels like. Then, ask them to share their thoughts about the same;
- what you learned from the Clutterbug quiz about your own organizing style. Explain that people organize differently, and that you’d really like to know more about their style so you can collaborate on solutions that will work for both of you. If they’re willing, have them take the quiz.
Hopefully you listened to your partner’s thoughts and feelings in addition to sharing your own. Using the insights you gained from the discussion and their quiz results, it’s time to…
- which areas of your home are causing the most issues or frustration. Make individual lists, then compare them against one another’s;
- the areas that you both feel need the most improvement and discuss options for creating mutually acceptable systems there;
- ways you can both contribute to maintaining order in your home. If you truly are doing the majority of the housework, ask for help.
RISE to the occasion (see what I did there?)
By starting in an area you both use frequently or want to improve, you create buy-in with your partner, which will help motivate them to tweak their habits for the better. This collaborative process also gives you both the opportunity to explain your expectations and feelings in a much more productive way than persistent nagging or making passive aggressive comments when you’re frustrated in the moment. It also brings to light the inevitable differences of opinion, which can only be addressed once you’re both aware of them. Finally, this gives you a platform to ask for help in service of improving things for both of you.
Now, I’m not a couples’ counselor or an expert on having difficult conversations. Ultimately, you know your partner best and can tailor your approach to fit their style. But don’t assume they already know how you feel and what you expect (even if you think they should). Because if your approach so far has been to talk at them, rather than with them, I can almost guarantee your words were going in one ear and out the other.
You have to engage with your partner and give them opportunities to share their thoughts, feelings, and expectations as you’re talking. Make it a discussion, not a lecture. The whole point of this is to make both your feelings known so you can work toward a mutually acceptable solution. You can’t do that until you know their thoughts and feelings too. Respect their opinions, just as you expect them to respect yours.
Tips for combining styles
When you’re living with someone who doesn’t share your organizing personality, compromise is key in shared areas.
Those who prefer visual simplicity get stressed out by too much visual noise. But visual organizers legit forget where things are if they can’t see them, which stresses them out. Bridge the gap with labels. Pick out matching opaque containers, and affix pretty labels to them. Visual simplicity lovers will appreciate the concealment and uniformity, and visual abundance lovers will still be able to tell, at a glance, what’s inside.
Containers all match and conceal what’s inside, but labels immediately tell us what’s in each bin.
Fellow micro-organizers, relax
I’m a typical micro-organizer (a Bee, if you took the quiz), so if I can do this, anyone can. Chillax on the categories! While I’m a textbook over-sorter, I have noticed over time that even I can’t keep up overly-complex systems. Again, the goal is not perfection. The goal is to be able to put things away as effortlessly as possible and then find them the next time you need them. And if you live with a macro-organizer, they will never be able to stick to your complicated system. It’s just not how their brains work. Keep it broad, and everyone’s happy.
In our utility room, I created broad categories for typical home improvement accessories. “Paint” is stir sticks and trays, “Tape” is every kind of tape that lives in the utility room, “Patch” includes wood filler, stuff for drywall repair, and caulks, and “Protect” is drop cloths, gloves, and protective eyewear.
Who uses it most?
If the visual partner pays the bills and generally manages the household calendar, it’s gotta stay visual. Create a command center with a bulletin board, wall calendar, and dry erase board for tasks or notes so nothing falls through the cracks. If the non-visual partner manages most of these tasks, you can get away with opaque baskets or table top filers for papers, and the calendar on your phone or in your planner.
A room of one’s own
In spaces that aren’t shared (office/desk, separate closets, craft spaces), you do you. Organize the way you want, and let your partner do the same. Don’t interfere! Respect their stuff, and they’ll respect yours.
Tips for maintaining it
Make a plan
Once you’ve established mutually acceptable organizing solutions for your shared areas, make sure you agree on maintenance standards. Who’s responsible for cleaning and how often? Will you perform a nightly reset to keep clutter at bay? Is it ok to leave dirty dishes in the sink and load the dishwasher all at once, or does each person need to wash their dishes immediately? Agree on the standards and expectations for the areas that bother you both the most, then agree on how you’ll maintain those standards.
Create “homeless clutter bins”
Again, borrowed from Cass Aarssen. Assign one bin or basket to each family member, and keep in a central location. When you’re cleaning up and clearing clutter, put anything you find that belongs to that person in that bin. That way, you don’t have to figure out where they keep it, and they don’t have to figure out where you put it.
Own your preferences
Accept that if you want your home held to a much higher standard than your partner does, you will need to do the extra work yourself. It’s not fair to ask someone to vacuum every single day if you have no pets or children, and you just like the lines on the carpet. If those lines on the carpet are worth it to you, vacuum your heart out, baby. Just don’t try and impose your excessive standards on your partner.
And don’t fall into the martyr trap. You’re not vacuuming the carpet every single day so your family can have a better life. You’re doing it because you want to, so own it. Do it for you, and feel good about it. (For the record, I do this in more ways than I can list here, so no shame. Just be honest with yourself and fair to your partner).
Say thank you
I know, you probably think they should be thanking you for championing the cause for a better home. But if you’ve seen their behaviors change, they’re probably doing it for you (at least in part). If this was important to them, they probably would’ve been doing these things all along, so be appreciative. Make it a point to recognize and praise their efforts with genuine thanks. And don’t go behind them and redo things that weren’t done “perfectly”; that just undermines your faith in them, which can have a negative impact on their motivation to keep up with the new habits. (Except for the dishwasher….you’re practically obligated to correct a poorly arranged dishwasher).
Change doesn’t happen overnight, so be patient. Reinforce your partner with thanks and praise, and don’t be afraid to speak up (calmly and non-accusatory) if you feel things slipping backwards. It may take a few tries to find the right organizing system that works for everyone, so be flexible and willing to experiment.
When just organizing isn’t enough
If your partner does fall into the “way too much stuff everywhere” category, obviously there’s more work to be done. Hopefully, when you approach them earnestly about how it’s causing you stress, they will be motivated to declutter. However, excessive clutter has emotional roots — and sometimes very deep psychological roots — that may not be swayed by your logical or heart-felt appeals.
Depending on your situation, bringing in a professional that specializes in hoarding disorder, working with ADHD clients, or helping the chronically disorganized will be your best bet. If your partner falls into one of these categories, the best thing you can do is be loving and supportive. It’s not their fault, but they may be unable to take action on their own to improve things. Find an organizing specialist here.
What it’s all about
Most people want the people they love to be happy. But even if you’ve lived with your partner for decades, they’re not a mind reader. You have to clearly communicate your desires and expectations, find out theirs, then work together to figure out your common goals.
Make it easier to maintain by establishing organizing systems that you can both use effortlessly and consistently. Relax your expectations and release your need for perfection — but if you can’t, don’t expect your partner to get on board with your extremely high standards. Do the extra work if it really matters to you, and own the fact that you are doing it because it makes you happy.
Above all, don’t let lack of communication, unaddressed resentment, and perfectionism get in the way of the true meaning of home: A place where you get to spend time with those you love the most.