What do you do when you have different standards for housework?
It’s Monday, the day that I usually try to tackle a reader question, and today I want to talk about what to do when you’re a little messy and he’s a neat freak.
But before I get to that, I’m excited about April! I’ve decided that this month I want to focus on small, practical things that we can do to feel closer in marriage. I want to get down to the nitty gritty and the practical, and I think it’s going to be a very HOPEFUL month! Honestly, most things in marriage can be solved if we tackle them early enough, before they get too huge. So that’s what we’re going to do over the month of April, but that’s also what we’re going to do today with this question.
I’ve actually talked about the messy/clean dynamic before, but I thought it was a good one to rerun because it’s such a basic problem so many people have, and we can learn some important marriage principles from it. So here was the question:
I have a really hard time cleaning, I hate it and my definition of clean is more like tidy. Even that, though, is a stretch for me. When I was living at home I used to fight so hard with my dad because my room was always a disaster and many times it trailed out with me. Even at work, I am messy as I go about my business but I clean everything up at the end of the day.
Once my husband and I were married, I would pick up after both of us. I was constantly picking up his dishes and socks. So many socks. Doing our laundry, cooking our dinners… Everything that I figured would make him think I could be a good house wife. But that’s not me. So when my husband would travel on business, I began living in my house the way I normally would. It never really got to the point that I thought was terrible but when my husband would come home on the weekends I would make a mad dash on Friday to clean the house because I knew he would freak out. With my limited time however, it never really got “his clean”.
Now we are having it out because he is home and gets to see that my daily routine doesn’t really include cleaning. He’s really upset by this and wants me to clean more, but I don’t feel like that’s me. And we can’t seem to come to a compromise. I think it’s my house, too, and I need to be allowed to set some of the standards. What should we do to get past our conflict over housework?
I asked the question of how this couple can solve this a while ago on Facebook, and lots of people left some really helpful comments. One theme that was repeated a few times was “hire a maid”, and this can be a good solution for some. Personally, I tried the maid route at one point and it never worked. Maids come to clean, not to tidy, and if you have stuff lying around, they can’t do their job. So before the maid arrived, I had to massively tidy. It was more work for me than not having a maid! And tidying takes way longer than cleaning. Cleaning is not the problem; it’s keeping things in their place, especially when you have kids. And I also wanted to make sure my kids grew up knowing how to clean. So a maid isn’t always the best plan.
But I think the reason that a maid can’t always solve the problem is that when we’re having conflict over housework, there’s actually something bigger going on, and it’s this:
Most conflicts in marriage aren’t about the issue itself. They’re about the question: do you really love me? Do you value my opinion? Do you care?
When Mr. Clean Marries Mrs. Messy: How do you find compromise? (Hint: The key is to realize that what you’re fighting about is NOT REALLY WHAT YOU’RE FIGHTING ABOUT):
In a recent podcast, I discussed conflict in marriage, and the different forms it can take. Typical conflict resolution often doesn’t work because the problem is often not what we think it is (You can check out that podcast here). In this case, the husband wants to know, “do you care what I think about the house enough to leave your comfort zone“? And the wife also wants to know of the husband, “do you care what I like enough to leave YOUR comfort zone?” So it’s hardly surprising that they both dig in, because the issue is not how tidy the house is. The issue is, “do you care about me enough to change?”
That’s what a marriage is all about: it’s a give and take, and adjusting to one another, and finding a new way of living that works for both of you. But when we’re first married we’re often really insecure about that. We want to know that we matter. And the thought of having to change or do things “his way” is very threatening because it feels like he doesn’t love me for who I am. And this is just “who I am”.
Here’s the thing, though: when you married, you promised that you would now be “one flesh”. That doesn’t mean that you cease to exist, but it does mean that what he wants needs to be important to you now, too. And we are called to consider others interests ahead of our own (Philippians 2:4).
So if your husband isn’t happy with the home, that should matter to you, because HE should matter to you.
I actually wrote in The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex about a very similar situation that my husband and I faced. I said:
When my children were six and four, I was very active with them. We ventured out to the library twice a week, to playgroup once a week, to women’s Bible study, to friends’ homes. We had other children in our home. We made crafts. We baked. Our home was fun, but it was also always a complete mess.
One day Keith sat me down and told me he was sick of coming home to a disaster in the living room. He could handle the basement being a mess; he could even handle their rooms or the bathroom being a mess. But he just wanted to open the door and see an inviting house.
I did not take that very well. I think the words “maid” and “Neanderthal” escaped my lips. But looking back, I can see how I was telling him, “I know what’s best for the kids; I’m home all day; so you need to bow to what I say.” My husband was not the kind who would retreat, for which I am eternally grateful. But I can see why many in his situation would. He was being told that his opinion didn’t count for anything, and that while he wanted a place in this world that reflected him, I was more interested in what I envisioned for the family.
Ladies, if you have already walked down the aisle, remember: he is your husband. His opinion about how the household functions matters, even if you’re the one who primarily cares for it. If something is important to him, it should matter to you. Some men retreat simply because they get the impression that they aren’t wanted, and so they try to carve out a place in the world where they can escape. Before blaming him for running away emotionally, ask yourself if you have done anything to push him out. And if you have, maybe it’s time to ask his opinion and start honoring it again.
If you’re always in fighting with your husband about housework, take a deep breath and think of this in its wider context. Should your husband’s opinion matter? Do you want him to feel like this is his home, too, or do you want him to retreat elsewhere?
If you married him, you made a promise that he mattered. So do something about it!
I’m not a naturally neat person, but I’ve learned how to put little habits into my day that make things work more smoothly. After my shower I make the bed and throw a load of laundry on. I keep the piles of papers on one place in the dining room, and clean off the kitchen counters, living room surfaces, and dining room table. When the girls were younger, every evening before dinner we would do a 15-minute tidy up (it’s amazing how much you can get done in 15 minutes). Honestly, if you just stick to little things throughout the day, the house will not get impossible.
Here’s another idea: Come up with your list of “my big 5 things”.
Each of you decide what 5 things will help you each feel like it’s home–the 5 areas he most wants tidy, and the 5 things you most need to be able to do.
Ask your husband which areas he really, really wants tidy. Maybe the front hall matters to him because it’s the first thing he sees. Maybe he just wants to see a tidy kitchen, or a living room without toys in it. Uncover what’s the most important, and then make sure to honor that. It doesn’t need to be onerous. And it’s just showing him that you value him, that you want him to feel at home when he is at home, and that you’re willing to go out of your way to make sure that he does.
That’s a good message to send to your husband. It keeps you on the same page!
And you can share your own top 5 ideas, too. That’s a method that I shared in 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage, and it does help each of you honor each other.
Are you PeaceKEEPING or PeaceMAKING?
With conflict over housework, as with most conflicts, remember that the reason for the conflict is usually not the thing we’re fighting about; it’s the search for the answer to that central question, “do you really love and value me”?
If we can see that this is really the issue, perhaps we’d have an easier time compromising and reaching out.
Now, what advice do you have for us today? Leave a comment and tell us how you’ve resolved difficult things!
Mental Load/Emotional Labor Series:
- How Emotional Labor Series: How Mental Load Affects Marriage
- The Fair Play Solution: Conception, Planning, Execution
- The Emotional Labor Series: How Do We Decide Our Standards?
- The Emotional Labor Series: How to Eliminate Nagging for Good
- Mental Load Example: The "Let's Go to the Beach" Saga
- The Emotional Labor Series: Why The Daily Grind Needs to Be Shared
- The Emotional Labor Series: Why Everyone Needs Time to Themselves
- PODCAST: What is Emotional Labor?