Whose mess is it?
May 4, 2012 7:33 AM   Subscribe

Cohabiting couples, how do you handle the housework? Is there a clear distinction between your mess and their mess?

This could get long. Thanks for reading.

My girlfriend bristles at the thought of tidying up things that aren't explicitly hers, preferring to focus just on her own stuff. This works OK when we are both at home at the same time, working on cleaning the apartment at the same time. She wishes I would respect her boundaries more by focusing primarily on my own tidying up. We continually butt heads about this.

I don't deliberately leave my messes around for anyone else to clean up, and I don't think she does either. But at the same time I'm not opposed to tidying up things that don't belong to me. I feel this way because we share our living space. It doesn't make much sense to clear only half the dishes off the table, or empty half the dishwasher, or make half the bed.

To give a recent example, I came home one evening to find that I had left my bath towel from that morning on the bed, where I had sat while getting dressed. She had been home for most of the day, and had taken a nap earlier. My first thought was to feel dumb for forgetting to hang up the towel myself because I don't like mildew on my sheets and I'm sure she doesn't either. My next thought was why didn't she hang it up instead of napping on the bed while there was a damp towel on it? If the tables had been turned, I would have instinctively hung up her towel before climbing into bed. No big deal, as far as I'm concerned.

I presented a hypothetical to her last night by pointing to a coffee table that had on it an empty drink can of hers, an empty glass of hers, an empty drink can of mine, a magazine of mine and a camera of mine. I asked her what she would do if I wasn't home for whatever reason, and some friends were coming over to see her. She said she'd take her stuff to the trash and leave my stuff there. I understand her point about not wanting to make assumptions about what I intend to do with the camera or magazine. On the other hand, only cleaning up half of the coffee table draws attention to the untidy half and specifically to the stuff that isn't hers. It strikes me as a little passive-aggressive, honestly.

She grew up with an underfunctioning/overfunctioning paradigm with one of her parents, and she sees tidying up more than just her share as a form of overfunctioning. On the other hand, I see it as simply functioning as one half of a couple. But I could have it all wrong. Ladies and gentlemen of the Ask Me, I'm just a caveman.

Maybe some helpful background: We've been together for a year and a half, almost. She's divorced. I've never been married, and this is my first cohabiting situation (she moved in in January.) The previous man in her life was her husband for seven years and they lived together for five years prior to that. She's in therapy herself, and we are both in couples counseling because we've wanted to be proactive about addressing problems before we get married.
posted by emelenjr to Human Relations (49 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
You always clean up after yourself. If you are together doing something, you tidy up together. If the other person forgets, you tidy up after them.

It's likely your partner is tidying up thing you do not know about, just as you are tidying up things she does not know about.
posted by devnull at 7:37 AM on May 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

Everyone has their own rules for this kind of thing, and these rules have their own inherant logic.

Although, this particular outsider is leaning more towards your logic than hers, if that helps; I can respect wanting to leave your partner's stuff alone, I can even forgive it as a passive-aggressive thing, but being so set on the issue that you take a nap on a bed has a damp towel on it is....well, it's something I would see myself making an exemption in such a policy for.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:37 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

There's no right answer to this question, though I agree with you, for what it's worth.
posted by smorange at 7:42 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I basically clean the house- otherwise it wont get done. Ive tried leaving only his stuff there (or putting his messes ina big pile) when im feeling resentful about having to clean up his shit all the time, but he just ignores it. Maybe her ex was a pig and she got used to being passive-agressive about cleaning.
To be fair, my boyfriend does all the cooking and bug killing. And will clean the toilets after I ask him 20 times.
I think her answer to your hypothetical was strange.
posted by KogeLiz at 7:43 AM on May 4, 2012

One of the interesting things about living with another person is finding out what things do not come to them naturally. My husband (whom I love, dearly, my dream man, truly) seems incapable of fully rinsing all his toothpaste foam down the drain after he brushes the teeth. Is this because he has already taken his contacts out and can't see it? Or is it something more sinister? I don't know, but running the tap for a few extra seconds doesn't really bother me. He picks up the slack on things I am incapable of doing (like picking my PJs up off the floor of the bathroom in the morning and taking them back to the bedroom). Maybe she'll never be the one picking up all the empty cans, maybe that'll always fall on you. Ideally, whatever work is split between the two of you will balance out so neither party feels they work too hard. How exactly things are split is entirely up to the two of you.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:44 AM on May 4, 2012 [12 favorites]

People have different ideas about this stuff but in our house whoever can do the task, does the task, so if I have time in the AM before I leave, I do the morning clean up. If Mr. Llama has time, he does it. If no one has time, the first person home has the responsibility for making sure the second person home doesn't have to confront the morning's mess.

If the evening person can't do it because they got home and had to answer six work emails, the person arriving isn't a jerk about the mess and we both clean up together. We have shared values about how tidy things need to be, and we agree on what the basic set point is.

Your girlfriend's method, valid as it is, sounds exhausting.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 7:46 AM on May 4, 2012

Short answer: In my house no, there is no "your mess" and "my mess". It is "our house", filled with "our stuff", making "our mess".

That doesn't mean it's the right answer for you. If you're continually butting heads about it you should talk to your partner and come to a compromise you both can live with. In general I think it's unlikely that you can convince someone that they're "wrong" about something like this and coming up with workarounds for these minor incompatibilities is important to successful cohabiting.
posted by ghharr at 7:46 AM on May 4, 2012 [7 favorites]

Does she have a history of living with someone who did not do their share, and "accidentally" left stuff for her to do?
posted by jeather at 7:47 AM on May 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

Do you think it's passive-aggressive? As in, does she look at the towel and attribute it to some wrong on your part and then make an active attempt to not move it in order to prove some point? Is this part of a pattern of petty score keeping?

If not, just accept this as a quirk. Try not to see it as a character flaw, or passive-aggression, even when taking a towel off the bed is the obvious thing to do. This seems like something that may evolve over time of living together, and getting in tune with each other domestically. If this is part of a pattern of pettiness, you're in the right place already with couples counseling to sort it out. I'm way, way more on your end for the record.
posted by Katine at 7:48 AM on May 4, 2012

We split things up differently; for example, she does all the dishes, and I do all the laundry and most of the grocery shopping. So, she does all of my dishes, but I do all of her laundry. This works well for us.
posted by insectosaurus at 7:49 AM on May 4, 2012

Have you ever seen a sword being balanced? If you try to do it in the place -- the middle -- it won't work and the sword will fall off and you will lose a toe. Figure out where the center of gravity is, and it stays even though your hand is nowhere near the middle.

That's how this works. You need to figure out where the balance is for housework between you two, but it isn't necessarily a 50/50 split. You might have to do more of the cleaning, and she makes up for it in other places where you do less work and she does more. An equal partnership means equality overall, not in every single aspect.

In our house, my girlfriend does (sigh, much) more of the cleaning because of a number of reasons. This is balanced out elsewhere. However, she'll say something like "I need you to do this pile of dishes" or "I need you to clean the entire living room" and so on and I will do the pile of dishes and clean the living room. That's how we do. Other couples I know are in constant-tidy mode. Others have just one person clean and the other doesn't, at all, ever. Different things work for different people for different reasons.
posted by griphus at 7:51 AM on May 4, 2012 [14 favorites]

"If you try to do it in the obvious place..."
posted by griphus at 7:52 AM on May 4, 2012

Does she feel you are more messier than she is? So "sharing" housework means she is cleaning up after herself and you and reducing your burden of housework. There is the traditional gender responsibiltiy that she may be deliberately working against, or as mentioned above, she may be bringing baggage from prior relationships and is setting her boundaries firmly since housekeeping is such a contentious issue in so many relationships.

She may need to have firm boundaries now and relax after living together for a while. Are you butting heads because she complaining about your mess or are you butting heads because you are coming home to your morning mess and are surprised it is still there?
posted by saucysault at 7:53 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

She said she'd take her stuff to the trash and leave my stuff there.

That's strange and unhealthy to the relationship, IMO. Either ya'll are in it together or ya'll aren't. She isn't, on this issue. She's needs to figure this issue out and work on it, otherwise it'll became a wedge between you.

Stay in counseling and keep talking.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:54 AM on May 4, 2012 [9 favorites]

I agree with you. In my house, both my husband and I clean up both of our messes. That being said, on occasion one of us may act the way your girlfriend does.... usually that is a clear signal that the other person is not pulling their own weight in the cleaning department. It only happens from time to time though.

In your case, perhaps either you are not pulling your own weight with the cleaning, or else her ex-husband had a tendency to not clean up his own messes enough?
posted by barnoley at 7:55 AM on May 4, 2012

Everybody kinda works this stuff out as they go along and develops their own rulesets.

Some people divide chores discreetly and assign things in the style of "well, I hate taking out the trash and you don't mind it, so you take out all the trash forever, but you hate cleaning the bathroom and I don't mind it so the bathroom will always be my responsibility." That sort of thing is what has worked best for me in the past, and then bigger jobs get accomplished together, or on a case by case basis. This presupposes the mindset that basically everything within the living space is both mine and my partner's, with the caveat that anything that needs to be moved and isn't something personally my own or *obviously* trash can't be thrown away, simply moved somewhere else if it needs to be. You end up with sort of landing spots for each other's things (normally this ends up being our computer desks) so stuff like your camera and magazine can be dealt with by the appropriate person later and not be in the way.

Other people do the "yours, not mine" approach and I find it utterly exhausting. How am I supposed to keep track of whose glass is whose? I'm just gonna do all the dishes at once, man. Perhaps your girlfriend sees cleaning up after you to be an invasion of your privacy and space? Have you told her that you would be okay with her moving your things around, or even something like rearranging furniture? When I've lived with people who have similar mess-handling styles to her, yes there has been passive-aggression backing it because I'm an incredibly messy person, but there's also been a big chunk of their not being confident enough in our relationship to be what they see as proprietary over things that are not completely their own. Whereas I'll just come in and stomp all over people's stuff and make myself at home, they are having the opposite problem of feeling unwelcome in their own space.
posted by Mizu at 7:55 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I believe ridiculous attitudes should be called out whenever presnted.

The answer she gave along with the towel-on-the-bed episode are ridiculous answers and attitudes. I wouldn't take this head on, but seek a workable resolution confident that you are right, and she is in the wrong.
posted by Kruger5 at 8:00 AM on May 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

Here is a good rule to follow- If the mess bothers you, then clean it up.

Do what you need to do to be comfortable without dictating to her what she needs to do. Eventually she may feel safe enough in the relationship to act more 'normal' but until then, you will need to either accept her quirks or move on. You can't change someone by telling them they have to change.

From what you have described, she may have been in very controlling relationships prior and this may be her way of staying balanced and an individual.

I would just pick up her dishes at the same time that I was picking up my own and not say a thing about it.
posted by myselfasme at 8:01 AM on May 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

Hi, I am (or was) your girlfriend, and my husband is you. It's only been since January? Give her some time. It was a HUGE adjustment to go from "yours and mine" to "ours."

I felt like if I gave an inch, he would take a yard, so if I started cleaning up after him, he would expect me to do that all the time and never take the initiative on his own. I was afraid he'd get progressively messier. This wasn't true, but it was my fear. I would focus on allaying that fear, first of all. Was she expected to clean up after her husband? I can see how that would make her fearful and resentful.

Look at your family histories. His family is very generous and it's completely natural for them to give unconditionally. They're very informal. My family is more formal and has a set etiquette around gift-giving. If I were to ask my parents for money, I'd have to explain the reasons. His parents would just say "here you go" if it were possible.

Anyway, I ended up with a strict sense of "this is yours and this is mine" and that was very hard to overcome. I got through it with his patience and generosity. We also had (and still have) cleaning days together, where we each take rooms and clean up regardless of whose stuff is in the room.

This is almost definitely fear, so I wouldn't write it off as selfishness if she's otherwise a good person. Address the fears. Don't approach it from a moralistic point of view either - you're not a better person than she is because you pick up the dishes she left in the living room. You just have different histories that made you different people.
posted by desjardins at 8:02 AM on May 4, 2012 [10 favorites]

We have cleaners who come in once a week, thank fucking god. I do all the laundry, he does all the spot cleaning, we both cook and we both wash dishes. He is a neat freak and I'm a mess.

Messes with a clear origin, and with components that have a home, he will put away. Messes that do not have a clear origin or a clear home, he takes, wholesale, and deposits in my office. My office is my domain and it is a zoo, not in any small part because piles of magazines and books and tchotchkes end up in there when all I wanted to do was to read Urban Farm in the living room, dammit.

It drives me bananas, but clutter drives him bananas. He will grab things from a surface and put them in the first available drawer, never to be located again. That's how the scratch tickets his parents gave us for Christmas ended up in the spare bedroom linen chest. I'd rather, much rather, that he just leave my shit alone and either told me it was bothering him right that minute or finally fucking figured out where, say, my socks go.

Of course, the real solution is for both of us to meet each other in the middle. For me to make fewer messes and for him to unclench about the magazine left open on the couch. We have cleaning days on the weekend, where we will organize everything in sight, together, and that works out pretty well. Individually though? Forget it. And I love him very much, and he loves me, we just have very different definitions of tidy.
posted by lydhre at 8:04 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I do not put my wife's important stuff AWAY for her, but if I am tidying up, I will set her stuff in a place for her to grab. For instance, if she leaves some work papers out for a couple days and it is obvious she just hasn't put them away, I will stack them neatly and put them on the corner of the table. If she left dirty dishes out, I will take them to the dishwasher. If she leaves dirty clothes on the floor, I will put them in the hamper. If she left a bracelet out on the couch, I will put in an obvious place for her to see, so she can put it where she likes.

In summary, I will clean up dirty stuff and obvious stuff. If something belongs in a location (like an ironing board), I will put it away. If it is something that only she knows where it belongs or she has a preference how it is placed, then I just tidy it up.

She does the same for me.

Your girlfriend sounds exhausting with the fine division of labor.
posted by LeanGreen at 8:05 AM on May 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

Do you think it's passive-aggressive? As in, does she look at the towel and attribute it to some wrong on your part and then make an active attempt to not move it in order to prove some point? Is this part of a pattern of petty score keeping?

Oh, god, this was totally me. My thought process (when we first moved in together) would have been "Why can't he just hang up the towel? How lazy. Does he expect me to do it? Well, fuck him, I'm not going to hang it up either."

This was almost always a symptom of another gripe I had with him, namely that I felt unappreciated (this wasn't true, but it was how I felt). If this is what's going on, she needs to feel safe telling you what she's really upset about. That can be worked out in her individual therapy or in your couples therapy (preferably both).

Now I can say to him "Hey, it upset me when you were playing your iPad game because I didn't feel like you were listening to me and it was an important conversation" and we can deal with that and I can hang up his towels.
posted by desjardins at 8:13 AM on May 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

The right answer also depends a bit on your relationship. For example, I've definitely taken her approach when living with roommates, where the main thing is to be considerate of the other person but sort of living separate lives as well (and some amount of staying out of each other's way). However, I presume that your "cohabitation" is some form of trying to have a shared, not merely a parallel, life, and that means starting to view all housework as "family work" that can be divide in any number of ways. I mean, is she laundering only her clothes? Cooking separate meals? If not, then this feels like part of the same continuum, and she might want to reconsider her frame of reference.

On the other hand, parental problems run deep. If there's some central defining aspect of that conflict that she is continuing to wrestle with, then drawing this line may be less about passive-aggressiveness toward *you* than about defending her own rights against the encroachments represented by her parents, and it may continue to be important to her (and a hot-button issue to some degree) for a long time. If you are generally low-friction in other parts of your lives, this might be something you just need to learn to work around, preferably by figuring out a way to view it as an endearing quirk (or at least an elicitor of sympathy rather than frustration) that you shake your head about wryly as you hang up the towel...
posted by acm at 8:16 AM on May 4, 2012

My question was, why are you getting up from the couch and leaving an empty soda can behind? And then I realized that my boyfriend does that sometimes, and I just pick them up and toss them when it happens. And I abandon half empty water glasses everywhere in my constant mission to remain hydrated. And he collects them and dumps them out.

This works for us, and as has been said above, may not work for you. What matters here is that what is happening is not working for you.

Your choices, as I see them, are find a way to make her style work for you, or bail on the relationship. You seem to be looking for option C, convince her (through consensus) to change her outlook on cohabitation chores.

And in all likelihood, that is just not going to happen. If it does, I'll give you a donut.
posted by bilabial at 8:31 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

My boyfriend has a set of handpainted wine glasses which are very pretty, but which totally make me anxious. A couple weeks ago, we had dinner and I had a glass of wine with my meal. Afterward, I rinsed (but didn't wash) the glass, and left it alone in the sink with a handful of other little glass dished that we had used for dessert.

The next day, we were talking on the phone and he said something like, "It makes me crazy when you leave your glasses for me to clean. I just hate being expected to always take care of something I wasn't responsible for." I was totally caught off-guard. Because, I actually do clean up after myself (and in the process tidy up things of his). This glass is a HUGE exception to my rule because it is handpainted and there is a horror story that he's related about his sister breaking a vase of his which I'd like to avoid ever replaying. (Okay, so I realize that's ridiculous of me. The vase cost $3000. The wine glass can't possibly cost that much. But I'm a klutz, and I will break wine glasses at every possible opportunity. I just know it is a Danger Zone for me.) I think the key was "being expected to always take care of something I wasn't responsible for." Good. Duly noted. The annoyance level of the task is not the key. The responsibility for the task's existence is the key.

We're moving in together in a couple months, and I don't really know how we'll handle the division of labor. He currently hires cleaners to come in once every other week. Because my dog and I will now be living in the house, I think that it is possible that we'll need to have them come in more frequently.

Honestly, I think that tidying up the house will probably fall almost completely to me simply by virtue of our schedules. I don't mind this. He works. A lot. And I work a basic 8-5. He's just not around enough for it to be reasonable that he should tidy up around the house for a couple reasons. First, he's just a tidy person. He always puts things where they belong. I hit the front door and begin disrobing, leaving various articles of clothing in my wake. I cook. He doesn't. I've always got various bags - my briefcase, a casual satchel, my workout bag - strewn in various locations. I'm not slovenly. I just sort of... colonize my own space, marking various territories as my own. I always clean up after myself. But the whole a-place-for-all-things-and-all-things-in-their-place thing is just never going to happen for me. Ever. So I'm comfortable knowing that I should probably just take on the housework when we move in together. Also, I think I'd look good in pearls and an apron.
posted by jph at 8:36 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


I grew up in a home where mom kept track of everything and made sure things were always "fair", which meant that nobody would help anyone and everyone would clean up exactly what they messed up. this attitude also translated in money, in the sense that we "loaned" it and mom (a housewife) would send invoices to my dad for money, and would very regularly fight with him over pennies.

When I got moved in with my husband, I took all these unhealthy perceptions of work/money to our household. He was raised in a communist family and had completely different perceptions of work and group effort.

It took a lot of talking, and a lot of loving understanding to get over this. I would feel cheated, offended and anti feminist when I saw he expected me to do things. He felt like I was selfish when I kept track of pennies or only fixed my messes (and sometimes he cleaned them up, only I wouldn't notice!). We worked trough it with love and a lot of honest communication. We sat down, talked and told eachother what a happy future family would look like (I didn't want us to fight over pennies, for example), and we also talked about trust and helping eachother.

Now the only disagreements we have (jokingly) are over who will DO things (let me do it, you're tired from work - no, let ME do it, you had finals this week!). We also take care of OUR money and we make sure the other one isn't depriving themselves to much for saving.

Talk to your girlfriend. Ask her what kind of relationship she would prefer to have. A trusting, loving one where she knows you are looking out for her, or a suspicious, paranoid one where she will always wonder if they are taking advantage of her?
posted by Tarumba at 8:46 AM on May 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm very much of the opinion that 'if it bothers me, I'll just pick it up.' I'm about to willingly cohabit with a lovely, conscientious and clean man who has a far higher tolerance of general clutter. Thus, I am preparing myself for the inevitability that we will split chores evenly (washing up, toilet cleaning etc), but I will probably be doing more of the general 'clearing crap away' because I like things neat and ordered.

So, I don't really mind that my cohabitor has different standards and habits to me, as long as nothing grows mould. If anything does bother me, I deal with it instead of engaging in passive-aggressive nagging.

However, the whole

She wishes I would respect her boundaries more by focusing primarily on my own tidying up.

thing would bother me. I know that having other people do your chores can make one feel judged, but seriously - you're not allowed to tidy the space you're living in? Maybe, as a compromise, you could ask her to allow you to tidy up as much as you like, as long as you don't berate or nag her when she leaves the mess she didn't create? Or would the imbalance of that annoy you?

bilabial: And I abandon half empty water glasses everywhere in my constant mission to remain hydrated.

My fella always pours himself full pints of (strictly room temperature, filtered) water and never finishes them - drives me insane!
posted by dumdidumdum at 8:46 AM on May 4, 2012

I have a roommate (not romantic) who does this with dishes. If I'm doing a load of mine in the sink, I'll throw his spoon and bowl in - it's not that much effort for me and the counter gets completely cleaned off. He has never, in over a year we've lived together, washed a single dish of mine. I'm talking a mug I left on the counter before leaving on vacation for four days, sitting alone and unwashed when I returned.

Turns out? This drives me crazy.

So, you're not alone with these things. I like chores to be 'completed' (like taking out the trash involves putting a new bag in) but he just does his stuff. Neither of us are right and I'll live with things because it's just temporary. Of course, when I move in with my bf, we'll have a discussion about this and agree on a plan of action.
posted by hydrobatidae at 8:48 AM on May 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

My wife is one of those people who seems to unconsciously* create clutter in her wake, while clutter kind of drives me nuts. Over the course of 12 years she's definitely made strides towards being less messy, but I still do the vast majority of the straightening up around the house (but she does 95% of the cooking, so that's cool). We seem to have settled into a routine wherein she leaves things lying around, I gather them into orderly piles and when the piles reach a certain height she puts them away.** It's not perfect, because sometimes I do get annoyed, but on the other hand I've learnred to accept that it's usually not that big a deal, certainly not worth getting upset over. And I have my own occasionally annoying quirks that she lets slide sometimes, I am sure.

Part of her problem with clutter and housework was that in the past she hated cleaning up so much that she would wait until her apartment was a total disaster before she did anything. And by that point, cleaning up was a huge, stressful job, so she'd hate every minute of it and the cycle would repeat. So, the key is to not let it get to that point. We've tried a few different approaches over the years, but the one that seems to work the best is; every day both of us do 15 minutes of cleaning/tidying up somewhere in the house. Doesn't matter what you do, just as long as you do something for 15 minutes (doing the dishes doesn't count). It's not a huge time investment, and it gives you the flexibility to switch between regular jobs (like sweeping the floor) and stuff you only have to do once every so often (like, say, cleaning venetian blinds).

* an example; sometimes when she gets undressed at the end of the day she just drops what she's wearing on the bedroom floor. Result; at the end of the week there's a pile of clothes on the floor and she seems honestly surprised about it. Her: "I don't know how this happened!" Me: "I know exactly how it happened."

** interestingly, I've learned that my parents (who have been married for 45 years) have the exact same dynamic going on.

posted by The Card Cheat at 9:00 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't generally clean up other people's stuff and I don't particularly like it when they clean up my stuff. Luckily, this has never been a relationship or living situation problem.

There are certain grey areas - I'll pick up other people's glasses or plates, but not their mail, clothes or books.

My various reasons:
- Need to keep cleaning manageable - focusing on my own stuff gives me an endpoint rather than and endless trail of other people's stuff
- Past experience with tidying others' stuff, forgetting where I put it and having it be de facto lost
- Dislike of mission creep - I've been in living situations where I became the cleaning lady. If I start cleaning everything once, it's very difficult to get people to understand that I cleaned everything just that once and they still need to pitch in.
- I know I get stressed when I start feeling responsible for other people's stuff

I dislike having my stuff cleaned up because loss and breakage often result.

The people I live with and I have very different methods of handling bills, general mail, laundry, all that stuff. It's much easier to focus on my own stuff than to get all stressy about sussing out others' methods, or frustrated because of how someone handles his wash.
posted by Frowner at 9:07 AM on May 4, 2012

Also, I tend to keep a tight mental focus - I don't think "aha, here's a towel, perhaps this once I'll pick it up, but I won't sort my housemate's mail". I really don't "see" other people's stuff unless it's dangerous, smelly or likely to get broken where it is.
posted by Frowner at 9:08 AM on May 4, 2012

Wow, I would murderize your girlfriend. (Your mileage my vary. Also, do not murder your girlfriend. There is a reason she behaves this way. That reason is not that she hates you, even if I would see it as that if I were in your shoes.) So:

Cohabiting couples, how do you handle the housework? Is there a clear distinction between your mess and their mess?

I cannot stress enough the benefit of a weekly (or twice-weekly!) cleaner in a household in promoting quality of life for everyone involved. I know for some people this obviously isn't possible, and also some people just don't think it's possible, but the calculation of your time in dollars is an important thing to do when assessing this.

That is largely how we deal with the division of cleaning labor: professional help.

But then there's all the other stuff.

• He makes piles of paper. It makes me insane. There are only so many ways that I can say "HEY guess what, ALL YOUR BANK STATEMENTS ARE ONLINE NOW?" Nope. Piles and piles. Guess what? That is what he does.

• I have never, ever done a load of laundry myself. Like not since the 90s. Can you imagine living with me? I am a monster.

• I cook things and leave everything I used strewn around the kitchen. I'm a slob.

• He tosses his clothes on the floor before showering and then leaves them there for days. What a pig!

• I have far worse habits than this. (Mainly involving ashtrays.) I'm a horrorshow.

The point here being: any two humans living together usually have EXTREMELY divergent thoughts about housekeeping. It is amazingly easy to have conflict about this.

But it's also extremely wonderful when you can both say "I am like x, and y is what is important to me, and z is what I do not give a damn about or do not even notice." It's also important to say and remember that "I am not having 'bad' habits in order to hurt you." Me being messy, say, may be selfish, but it is not selfishness in service of being mean to anyone else. And I remember what I've been told is important to my partner, and try to keep up on those things.

With any luck, there will be some matching up of ways to complement each other, and then make a few compromises, and then you get a professional to deal with the rest.

In the end you will find there is NO room for selfishness, bean-counting and resentment in a pair of people living together. It just cannot be.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 9:22 AM on May 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's been discussed on the green before, but perhaps if *both* of you could get into the habit of improving the room before you leave it--picking up one or two things, or emptying a trash can, or hanging up a shirt--you could get around some of the my mess/your mess dynamic and focus on the joint project of making your space more comfortable for you as a couple.

[That said, I'm the one that picks up everything in the house. My mess, your mess, their messes, our messes--doesn't matter, the work needs doing. Picking it up gets it done. Resentment doesn't. HOWEVER, I do expect my husband to be responsible for the Really, Really His stuff, like hunting and shooting gear, and do I get pissed when the safety vests end up crumpled on the floor or tacti-slings are still hanging up on chairs. That shit? After several weeks, I throw it into the bottom of the Closet of Despair. Dude, if you have time for your hobby, you have time to put it away when you're done.]
posted by MonkeyToes at 9:24 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I just wanted to drop in briefly to say these responses have been helpful to read. I wouldn't say I came in here looking for consensus. I was actually expecting the opposite. Given my relative lack of relationship experience compared to the woman I love who lives with me, I'm kind of surprised that more people haven't been telling me I don't know what I'm talking about.

I really like two ideas mentioned here so far: myselfasme said ..."if it bothers you, clean it up." I can get behind that, as long as it doesn't devolve into one of us leaving messes for the other one to clean up. The other one I like is the young rope-rider's suggestion of a tidy-free zone. We already do that, sort of, considering my girlfriend has an office/dressing room to herself.

There being no correct answer, I don't want this to become too much of a chatfilter situation. But reading about your own living situations is helping me formulate how I want to present some possible solutions to my girlfriend.
posted by emelenjr at 9:25 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Huh. I can totally understand this dynamic, and can also understand where your girlfriend is coming from (though from a slightly different background).

My partner comes from a huge family, where everything (meals, cleaning, etc) had be planned out and executed as a team effort, otherwise...how could his mom have gotten so many kids fed in one meal? Tons of things were done as a collective, and the kids had to share a lot of toys and resources, because it probably would have been too expensive to buy things individually for each one (I mean, they had their own stuff, but why buy eight lego sets? That's a mountain of legos getting everywhere and underfoot. So they had to share from a collective set of three or four or whatever).

I came from a small family, where it's a lot easier to track whose mess was left where. Also...I had a parent who was, um, dysfunctional, so said parent refused to share items (if said parent bought a loaf of bread, the loaf of bread was for said parent, only!) and refused to pick up the mess of others. And if those messes weren't cleaned according to said parent's standards, s/he would go...insane. Like, crazytown screaming and other nutty things.

Anyhow - living together, I have to remind myself that it's, like, okay to share with my partner, and I will say that my first impulse is to only attend to my mess, not his - mainly out of a reactionary thought that if I touch his stuff, bad things will happen. He approaches the house as a socialist environment, where the stuff inside is our stuff, so we just clean or eat or work on whatever, never mind who bought the bread or left the mess behind.

So, I can totally understand where your girlfriend is coming from. And I don't necessarily think my initial impulse is selfish; it makes sense based on my experiences and background.

That said: frankly, I think the collective effort makes way more sense and does so much more for keeping the house maintained. I strive to adopt that mindset, and it makes me feel so much better about my living environment, and how we work together on it. The only thing I won't do is move/clean/organize his work stuff - I've told him straight-up that I'm too scared of misplacing important papers, so his work stuff is his responsibility to manage (same with mine).
posted by vivid postcard at 9:36 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hmmm. Here's how we would handle your examples.

Other person's damp towel on bed at naptime: I'd probably be slightly annoyed and just pitch it off the bed on his side. He'd probably pitch it onto mine (not sure what his annoyance level would be.)

In actuality he'd never leave a damp towel on the bed. Not that he's neat by any stretch of the imagination, it's just that his shower routine includes hanging up his towel before strolling naked back to the bedroom. However, he DOES frequently leave a laundry basket full of clothes on the bed which irritates me because I have to move it before I can sleep, and I do toss it off into the clusterfuck of clothing and baskets that obscure the floor on his side of the bed.

Soda can, dishes etc. on the coffee table: If I'm cleaning the coffee table it's because I want it empty of crap right now, and so I clean everything off it no matter whose it is. If he's cleaning off the coffee table it's because he is getting ready to do dishes and he picks up all the glasses, plates etc. no matter who it belongs to, and also goes into the bedroom to get the 8 water glasses I've accumulated beside the bed, and the 4 I deposited on the bathroom counter because I ran out of room on the bedside table.

Personal "stuff": He rarely ever picks up the apartment other than grabbing dishes and trash, so he never bothers my stuff. Never bothers his own stuff either, truth be told. If there's ever a time when we need to get all the stuff picked up (company's coming, usually) then he will pick up my stuff but he'll bring it to me and say "here, do something with this." Occasionally I will pick up the place just because, and I'll put his stuff in one of a few spots: shoes I pitch in the bedroom, remotes and X-box related stuff I put in a basket beside the couch, anything else I put on his catch-all cart in the dining room.

I would find it weird and probably think my partner was being petty if they were meticulous about never ever picking up anything of mine, no matter how generic. I'm glad he doesn't touch my personal stuff though.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 9:41 AM on May 4, 2012

I've lost too many reasonably important items because my husband has assumed they were garbage (half-used theatrical makeup I had borrowed from a friend, packaging with important invoices, etc.)

My answer to this is to have bins in our living room - mine, his and our son's. If there's random stuff in the living room that needs to get cleaned up, it goes into the owner's bin. It's then their responsibility to put it away or throw it out.
posted by Lucinda at 9:41 AM on May 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

I'm definitely more like your girlfriend than you, and have lived with roommates of both attitudes, as well as an ex who shared my views on the topic. The important thing isn't figuring out which way is better, it's finding a solution that makes everyone happy.

What has worked best is everyone making a huge effort to immediately clean up after themselves, so it isn't an issue at all. I haven't had much luck with roommates - I just put up with being bitched at once in a while for not cleaning up other people's messes, and I would (internally) eye roll and ignore it. And the people with your views cleaned once in a while and put up with it. With a partner you can generally get more flexibility/cooperation though.

Splitting up chores in advance also helps avoid the whole issue - if one person always does dishes, one person can always clear the dishes away, etc. Also, the old saying about both partners needing to do more than 50% of the work applies here - it's easy to underestimate the work your partner does when you don't see it!

(if you're looking for more of an understanding angle than a solutions angle, I can tell you that it drives me crazy to pick up other people's mess and makes me resent them for making me clean up - probably because cleaning up after myself is hard enough. And I also feel guilty if someone picks up after me, for the same reason. )
posted by randomnity at 10:02 AM on May 4, 2012

It did occur to me that our collective effort would probably break down if I were a neatnik and he were extremely messy. As it stands, we're both equally...messy, so it pretty easy to coordinate and handle.
posted by vivid postcard at 10:02 AM on May 4, 2012

My husband would probably leave a wet towel on the bed, but that's because he's kind of thoughtless about messes; he'd be just as likely to leave his own and nap with it there as mine.

However, he has no problem cleaning up messes to which I contribute, and vice versa. And really, I don't understand how division of labor can possibly work long term here unless you have separate bathrooms, separate kitchens, and never own pets or have kids. Who scrubs the toilet? Who washes the kitchen floor? Who scoops the cat box? Who washes the sheets on your bed? These are all communally "owned" messes and the idea of ownership over that kind of thing breaks down when you're really occupying the same space as someone. Her method seems impractical to me, to say the least.

Also, I learned a trick on metafilter that's been kind of amazing for my marriage: every once in awhile, for no reason at all, you do one of your spouse's "chores"--washing the dishes or cooking dinner when it's not your turn. My husband and I both do this and have found it a great way to emphasize the importance of the other partner's happiness. Her method seems overly rigid and rules based and kind of eliminates the possibility of doing stuff just cause it's the nice thing to do.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:10 AM on May 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

Here is a good rule to follow- If the mess bothers you, then clean it up.

This only works if your tidiness standards are remotely similar. There is no mess so big that it bothers my SO.

I do the vast majority of the clean up and he does whatever specific jobs I ask him to. He's really terrible at what to him are non-specific jobs, like "clean the kitchen" but he's fine with very specific ones like "wipe the bathroom floor" and "clean the catbox." If I don't feel like cleaning up, he'll do some if I ask, and the rest of it stays there til I feel like dealing with it.

That said, when we move in together in a few months, we're getting a housecleaner, because me feeling like the mandatory maid will be just a short step to us breaking up.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:11 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

In our household we have "your mess" "my mess" and "our mess." We are both responsible of "our mess," which includes dishes, laundry, and pet messes, and don't scrabble about who does it, though we try to keep it even. So, I do laundry, my partner cleans litterboxes, my partner usually cooks, I usually do dishes, etc. But we don't keep score. If I am sick, my partner does everything. If they are working overtime, I do everything.

Individual messes are dealt with in context. Something like a soda can would not bother me, I'd just put it in the recycling. But an entire closet emptied in the middle of the floor? I'd be asking questions. My standards are higher, but we give each other some slack in both directions--there's a pretty big margin of error.

It sounds like your margin of error is very small. This is something I imagine needs to be negotiated, maybe in a more formal way. My relationship doesn't require it, but some do. Likewise with money, we share some and have some separate, and generally trust each other with it except if something major comes up, which is exceptional, not run-of-the-mill. (I wonder what your finances are like. Are they shared? Completely or just one joint account? Everybody's money separate?)

Every couple has a different style, you just need a system that works for your situation. But these things need negotiating, or I'd worry about long-term stability.
posted by epanalepsis at 11:00 AM on May 4, 2012

Without going into details, I've been where you are, and it didn't work. All I can say is that in the end, given hindsight, it really wasn't about the housework.
posted by kcm at 11:17 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I find the more I let housework/cleaning issues gently roll off my back when I'm sharing a space with a person, the happier I am. The more uptight I get about who does what and who is meeting whose cleaning standards and who made which mess, the crankier I get. I'd rather be happy in a slightly messy place than cranky in a spotless one, personally.

If I want something cleaned a particular way, I do it myself. I try not to set up the other person for failure by imposing my internal standards on them. I make a point to notice if they've cleaned and thank them, even if it wasn't as much cleaning as I wanted. Everybody has off days and needs a slacker break. Sometimes they're the workhorse and I'm the slacker.

Of course, this works best if the other person has the same philosophy.
posted by griselda at 12:11 PM on May 4, 2012

What helps is hiring a cleaner, for just two people it'd be fine to have them come in once every two weeks. This helps take care of all the little things that can be tedious to balance between partners. Everything else is clean up after yourself as you do it. We do have an informal 'the cook doesn't do the dishes' rule. When one cooks, the other cleans the dishes. This presumes the cook is cleaning as the cooking is being done, not leaving a mess of everything.

Seasonally we have the cleaner in for another day to do extra work like outsides of the windows, behind/under heavier furniture, changing drapes, etc.

As for one of us forgetting something, clean it up and ask for it to get handled next time. Neither of is would ever leave a mess lying around just because it wasn't "mine". But we'd both make it a point to ask the other to avoid it in the future.

A key is to avoid making a mountain out of a molehill. Because you just set yourself up for the same excessive treatment, and then further escalation. Life's too short to waste it on that.
posted by wkearney99 at 12:23 PM on May 4, 2012

The cup thing is weird, IMO. I can't imagine using up the amount of mental energy it seems like it would take to keep track of that sort of thing, and in that situation she's cleaning up mess of her own at the same time - and it wouldn't even take any extra effort to clean up yours, I'd think.

I think, for me, one of the awesome things about being in a long term relationship is that there's someone there to catch you if you fall - from bigger things like one person loses their job and the other person picks up the slack financially for a while, to small things like a towel you forget to pick up. If I'm running late for work and I don't have time to put the ironing board away or I'll miss my train, my partner does it when he gets home and never even mentions it. If he accidentally leaves the letter he needed to mail sitting on the bench, I drop it in the post box on my way to school. For us, that sort of little thing is just automatic, the benefits of having two people in a household who are on the same team. We can take advantage of each other's strengths - he's much, much tidier than I am, but he prefers his food to appear magically in front of him without any effort whatsoever, so he prevents our house from looking like a bomb site while I do all the shopping, meal planning and cooking.

Is your girlfriend like this with money and other things as well? i.e, is it just a 'fairness' issue in general for her or does she maybe feel like she has to do a large amount of the housework? I think you're right that attempting to perfectly equally divide individual chores is inefficient at best and often impossible, but her actions maybe make a bit more sense if she feels like you're arguing such in order to get out of doing your part?
posted by lwb at 12:37 PM on May 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

Her attitude strikes me as being common in a roommate situation. If you hadn't mentioned her previous marriage, I would have said she's still getting used to living with other people.

That said, my partner and I have been living together for three years, and it took two of those years for me to feel wholly comfortable cleaning up his stuff. (We also still haven't combined all our books, though I'd be hard pressed to recall which kitchen implements are "mine.") Having a kid helped, because the mess is much less differentiated.

Our basic, unstated agreement is that whoever notices a mess cleans it up. I rarely move his projects without asking, and vice versa. We have a lot of little conversations like, "Are you still using this water glass?" "Can I move your laptop off the dinner table?" "Where does your knitting live?" But the towel thing? Yeah, I don't want to nap on that, and it's no skin off my nose to hang it up or toss it in the hamper. Later, I'll probably say, "Honey, could you try not to leave wet towels on the bed?" And he'll say, "Oh, yeah, sorry."
posted by linettasky at 1:12 PM on May 4, 2012

In your coffee table scenario I would clean up the cans and glass. The magazine and camera might be left or taken to his den depending on the situation (friends coming: into his room, family coming: probably left on the table).

I would have left the towel. (Although I would have thought a towel in the bedroom was odd, we never take towels into the bedroom.)

In general we each tidy up after ourselves or tidy up together, but if we notice someone has left a glass, soda can, etc. we'll clean that up no matter who left it.
posted by deborah at 1:57 PM on May 5, 2012

I think the key is to come up with a plan that keeps the house the way you both want it, but that also accepts that neither one of you is going to change your cleaning tenancies very much.

Example: my girlfriend is significantly neater than I am. Her threshold for when a mess bothers her enough to clean it is lower than mine. For a while after we moved in together, she would get very frustrated with me, because she felt like she was always cleaning and I never was. But, at the same time, she was insisting that we use "if you see a mess, clean it up" as our cleaning plan, and that wasn't working for me because I wasn't seeing things as messes that she was. For a while, what she really wanted was for me to recalibrate my sense of what a mess is. This isn't going to happen. She finally accepted this. So what do we do? Well, it turns out, I don't mind doing a lot of gross scrubbing and cleaning tasks that she hates. I'll pull hair out of the drain, scrub the tub, clean the toilet, whatever. She can't even be in the room while some of those things are happening. So we divided the tasks this way - she does most of the straightening up, and I do most of the cleaning. Dishes and laundry we both do, because those tasks can be scheduled, so don't rely on me recognizing that something is messy. It works for me because all of the cleaning/scrubbing tasks can be on a schedule as well, instead of responding to perceived messes.

Do we both do an equal amount of cleaning? Close enough. I have no idea if it's exactly equitable, but I think strict equality is the wrong standard to use for this
posted by Ragged Richard at 11:32 AM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

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