How can I help my boyfriend face his serious, long-term roach problem?
September 10, 2007 8:05 AM   Subscribe

How can I help my boyfriend face his serious, long-term roach problem?

I'm not asking how to kill roaches (which has been well covered here and elsewhere); I'm asking how to help someone get past his denial and shame about a roach problem so he can do something about it.

This is a totally odd situation because this person is otherwise extremely capable, responsible and mature. He holds down a demanding tech job, accomplishes cool things outside his job, and is a stellar partner for me in human terms (not to mention in bed). But he seems to have some hangups that have made for a crazy long-term roach problem.

For example, while he certainly makes enough money to hire a professional cleaning person to give his kitchen and bathroom the deep cleaning they desperately need, he says he is really uncomfortable hiring someone to do what he should be doing. But he won't do it himself. He'll spend a weekend "cleaning" his place, but that doesn't mean scrubbing the kitchen countertops or sealing up the food sources -- it means arranging his large collections of tech stuff in different ways, or carefully designing and building new shelves to display said stuff, or something else unrelated to the roach problem.

As another example, when I'm there and we see the bugs around us (they have at least some presence in every room), he acknowledges them and seems really upset about them, but doesn't want to talk about practical solutions, or says something counterintuitive like "I don't know where they're coming from!" (this while we're sitting 15 feet from a kitchen where every surface of every countertop and appliance is decorated in layers of roach shit). If I say, "They're here because they can find food here," he's back into his loop of shame around cleaning and not wanting someone else to have to do it for him. And if I take any stab at, say, starting to clean out the fridge or washing the dishes myself, he asks me not to because it's seriously nasty in there (which is true) and he wants to do it himself.

The roach problem has been getting slowly, steadily worse for a long time. I feel like every attempt to discuss it rationally touches some strong sensitivity in him that so far I can't get past or understand.

I have my own (bug-free) apartment for him to come visit, which definitely isn't ideal because his place is MUCH quieter, is in a nicer area, has internet, and is an easier commute to his job. But sticking to only my place might be the only solution left for the moment, because I'm just not sleeping in his apartment any more until it gets much better. (I already sleep in his second bedroom when I'm at his place, because it has the fewest roaches of any of his rooms. Actually I was moved to ask this question because at his point, even this second bedroom has enough roaches that I can't sleep there without them occasionally crawling on me.)

I'm not sure where to go with this. I obviously need to communicate more clearly than I have. I have been consistently clear about my opinion that the roaches are in his apartment because they can find food there, and he's been consistently contrite, saying he "needs to clean," but it never happens. When he says he doesn't have time to clean, I bring up the idea of a pro cleaning person and he always says that's not something he can make someone else do. And he doesn't want me doing it (and neither do I, for a number of reasons -- not least because I don't want to be the dutiful girlfriend swooping in to clean up and make everything okay when it's this far past logic). What do you think?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (61 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
when you go over to his place, dress as a giant cockroach. when he wonders why, say you want to fit in with the natives.

it sounds like your boy is use to having a mom and he secretly wants you to be his mom but knows that it isn't pc (nor smart) to want someone to take care of him. He doesn't know how to clean his apartment - he knows how to take care of his stuff and display it because he has trained himself awhile ago how to do that. He doesn't know how to clean the bathroom.

And until you teach him, and show him, and help him - he's never going to figure it out.

Your guy needs a push, a shove, and someone to hold their hand. He needs you to teach him. Make a date to clean his damn place and force him to help you. If he bitches, if he complains, force him to help you. Because if he doesn't, and you ever move in together, get married or whatever, you're going to end up having to clean the kitchen, the bathroom, and everything else. If you don't want to end up doing that, teach him now.
posted by Stynxno at 8:19 AM on September 10, 2007 [5 favorites]

Oh dear! I feel awful for you. What an awkward situation!

I think what I would do in your shoes is to state it as a request. The problem with suggestions of how to fix it is that, if he already has this feeling that it's terrible and shameful, that just sort of plays upon those feelings, right? So I would say (at a non-anxious moment, like when you're in the car and he's driving):

"Honey, can I talk to you? Will you do something for me? I'm really scared of bugs. Will you please get in a pro cleaner and an exterminator?"

(Resist the temptation to justify your request by then explaining the filth and horror, etc. etc. You have to make the request as plain and non-judgmental as possible.)

If he wiggles (or agrees, but then doesn't do anything about it) that would be a good time to say: "Listen, you know I love hanging out at your apartment! But if you won't get in a cleaner and an exterminator, I can't come over here anymore. So... how about getting a cleaner? I'll totally help you find one."

And then, of course, you have to stick to your guns.

Good luck.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 8:21 AM on September 10, 2007

You said you're not going over there anymore until the roach problem is under control, so maybe that will give him the kick in the ass he needs. If not...

Show him this post and hand him a list of exterminators/cleaning people's contact information.

Or suggest he move to a place without roaches in the building (like a new construction).

To give you a little perspective, it's amazing the disgusting shit that people can become accustomed to living around. Your boyfriend's roach problem sounds twice as bad as that in my last apartment, and now that I'm roach-free I absolutely CANNOT believe what I put up with in that old place.

Once he moves or otherwise takes care of it, I have a feeling you'll both be much happier than you can even predict. Good luck!
posted by infinityjinx at 8:21 AM on September 10, 2007

Well, you can always use the nuclear option. Simply tell him you refuse to come to his place until the roach problem is cleared.

Or, you can try and setup a clean up date, where you both sit down together and clean up the apartment. Hopefully, once you do this, he'll see the effect and want to keep up the habits. This way, you can help him clean, and by clean, not rearrange his equipment and build shelves.
posted by Atreides at 8:21 AM on September 10, 2007

bah, preview is always a nice thing to do. Nthing what was said above.
posted by Atreides at 8:22 AM on September 10, 2007

I think he's overwhelmed and ashamed and needs some help.

I also think this is what girlfriends/friends are for. Why don't you initiate the deep-cleaning that his apartment so desperately needs? Get him to help, and if he's too resistant, then do it while he's gone with a couple of friends you trust.

I once had an apartment when I was but a young lass and it was, with no exaggeration, the most filthy, disgusting place you have ever seen in your life. One day, my friends decided they could take no more, and came over and forced me into cleaning it. If I balked they said "fine, we'll do it" which shamed me sufficiently into doing lots of the work myself.

What also needs to be addressed is that often times, letting a situation get out of control like that can be an indicator for deeper-running issues, like depression.

That being said, I am mostly still a filthy slob, and without the pressure and actual "we're doing this right now" line from my husband, I would let my messiness chase me out of my house.

I'd bring over a crapload of cleaning products, clean the shit out of the house, and then talk to him about some kind of maintenance schedule for cleaning. Like, dishes must be washed before bed everynight. And then maybe, you know, laundry put away once he can handle that.

Tidiness, to a certain point, can be learned behavior.
posted by mckenney at 8:25 AM on September 10, 2007

Never underestimate intelligent people's total inability to understand how to do basic tasks. Unless you have evidence to the contrary, don't assume he even understands how to find bleach and sponges in the supermarket, or where to buy a mop, or how to scrub a worktop. I know it sounds ridiculous, but my complete lack of understanding of cookery struck my friends as ridiculous, too; I had to teach myself as if I were a two-year-old and I'm still probably only up to about seven-year-old standard.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 8:26 AM on September 10, 2007 [2 favorites]

I hate to say this, but he sounds a little sick. Really. And I guess you already know that, because the question you asked was how to get him to see something he's in denial about.

I think there's only one way to handle this - which is for you to be clear with yourself about what matters to you. That's primary.

Then, be clear with him about what you want. If that doesn't work, then you have to make a choice - live with him the way he is, or get out of the relationship.

Best of luck to you.
posted by pammo at 8:27 AM on September 10, 2007

I think it's not so uncommon for him not wanting to hire a cleaner or for you to clean. He sees it as his shame. He should clean... but he'll get around to it.. maybe next weekend ..... or the weekend after.....

What he really needs is to loathe the cockroaches so much that he takes action himself. And keeps things clean.

One idea would be to start leaving roach hotels around. Especially where you sleep. The sheer evidence is hard to deny.

Another approach is you finding a love for post-nuclear movies, featuring either a) mutated cockroaches or b) cockroaches en-masse eating the flesh off victims.
posted by gomichild at 8:30 AM on September 10, 2007

A more harsh approach may be needed. Come right out and tell him that you will not come over anymore until he does something to reduce the roach population (i.e. call an exterminator). Remind him that most of his food has probably already been pooped on by a roach. Remind him that whenever you have sex, there is a roach within 6 inches of his balls. Also, remind him that ceiling roach is watching him masturbate. Maybe that'll help him get a little pep in his step and clean up his apartment.
posted by 29 at 8:33 AM on September 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

Except that 29's approach will only exacerbate the shame and his inability to take care of it. I don't think, when someone who just can't deal with the fact that he's got an infestation needs to get something done, shaming him, guilt-tripping him, and threatening him is going to get him to do anything except pull farther back in and away.

This is the time to be helpful, not demanding.
posted by mckenney at 8:37 AM on September 10, 2007

You need to lay down the law, "clean up or be lonely." Find him a maid and an exterminator and let him know all you need is his okay to put them in place. Really, he needs to get beyond the fear of hiring a maid. If he won't clean he needs to hire someone who will. Hiring a maid to clean once every week or two is one of the best things most guys can do for their relationship. Plus, it's cheaper than counseling and you get to live in a clean apartment/house.

This is an apartment. If he has roaches the whole building is probably infested. Is there a restaurant or something in the building? To a certain extent this is also an issue that the building management must address.
posted by caddis at 8:38 AM on September 10, 2007

Two things to point out to him:

1. Roaches can crawl in your ear and lay eggs.

2. All of his fancy tech gadgetry? It's probably already infested with roaches and will have to be thrown away. If he loves his gadgets as much as I think he does, he probably doesn't relish the thought of every hollow in his television or modem or whatever filled with hives of swarming disgusting roaches. There's only one way to stop that...
posted by nasreddin at 8:39 AM on September 10, 2007 [2 favorites]

I agree with those who advocate a hard line on this. There's a difference between being messy (stuff lying around) and bugs. Roaches are FUCKING DISGUSTING. If you can see roaches, they're probably in a lot of places you haven't looked yet. You're staying in the spare bedroom of your boyfriend's place? It's gone beyond compromise.

I don't want to be the dutiful girlfriend swooping in to clean up and make everything okay when it's this far past logic

This is an excellent perspective to maintain. You MUST NOT be the one who comes and cleans his apartment. You are not his mother, nor his cleaning person. Being in a relationship means SHARING responsibilities. It may be that you more naturally gravitate toward certain tasks, but HE MUST PARTICIPATE.

Set a cleaning date, with an ultimatum. No clean = no stay, no sex.
posted by mkultra at 8:44 AM on September 10, 2007 [2 favorites]

Also, maybe you could try to defuse the shame a little. I have gone through bouts of leaving open boxes of food and dirty plates, and never faced an infestation of roaches, while cleaner friends have. As a child, we moved three times and one of the houses had crazy bugs, but the others didn't; meanwhile, our housecleaning skills stayed the same. I think it has a lot to do with the building and its environment and history.
posted by salvia at 8:49 AM on September 10, 2007 [2 favorites]

And if I take any stab at, say, starting to clean out the fridge or washing the dishes myself, he asks me not to because it's seriously nasty in there (which is true) and he wants to do it himself.

The horrible truth is that your boyfriend has a bigger problem than the roach problem - if he doesn't clean, leaves food around and all that, anywhere he goes, roaches will follow.

Refuse to visit until his apartment is cleaned. Gently but firmly tell him that he needs to find the time to hire a cleaning service.

And for the love that all's holy, don't move in with him until you've seen demonstrable evidence that he's learned to live and clean in his own home.
posted by canine epigram at 8:52 AM on September 10, 2007

For the love of all that is holy do not clean his apartment for him. He is a grown man. This is the 21st century.
posted by bluebird at 8:59 AM on September 10, 2007 [2 favorites]

Buy him a one-time professional cleaning for his birthday. He may be so amazed at the difference that he is willing to consider it as an ongoing expense. I know someone who once had her husband's car detailed as a gift and now he keeps it in good shape. And because it's a gift, it will be hard for him to say no.
posted by media_itoku at 9:02 AM on September 10, 2007

I'm pretty sure from your description that you've moved past helping him face the situation, and into dealing with the fact that he may never, or not for a long time, be capable of facing it. You sound pretty clear on the fact that it's a combination of shame, not knowing what to do, and laziness...any one of those could take a very long time to work through, and the combination of three is self-reinforcing. Even if you help him clean NOW, he's not going to magically have the habits for staying clean.

So anyway, options:

- You do the cleaning, over-ride his objections to having you do it, ignore that you don't actually want to be doing it, and accept that it'll likely be a regular task. He makes it up to you in any of the numerous ways that men and women can balance relationships (money, attention, whatever)--I don't think this is necessarily the bad thing that everyone makes it out to be, surely he already contributes more on some levels and you contribute more on others, you just have to find a way to make it all balance. On the other hand, you may hate cleaning so much that nothing he can contribute can balance this...fair enough.

- You over-ride his objections and hire a cleaning service. Accept that this is going to tick him off, and hope to work out a compromise where he leaves the house for the day and pretends that magic made his house all shiny while you deal with paying the cleaning service and arranging everything. With luck, you can (eventually?) get him to ultimately pay for it--but it may have to be in the guise of a "gift" to you that you can use for whatever purpose you want, and in this case you happen to want a clean house. He makes up for the amount of work that you do setting things up in the timeless ways that couples have always used to balance relationships.

- You dump him.

You might also want to read over some of the money/debt in relationship questions, because they deal pretty well with the same ultimate problem (significant other is afraid/ashamed/clueless/incapable of dealing with a serious issue).
posted by anaelith at 9:03 AM on September 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

I agree with everything mkultra said, and I would take it a step further - no coming over to your place either, until he gets his apartment cleaned and sprayed, just on the teeniest remotest possibility that he could transport a roach via a laptop bag or camera case or something, because those roaches in his apartment are in his dresser and his suitcases and....everywhere.

He needs to get over his shame or laziness or whatever it is so he can man up and address your need not to be crawled on by roaches while you sleep.
posted by iconomy at 9:19 AM on September 10, 2007

I think the poster should definitely worry a lot less about this (like not at all). It's really his business alone. I think there's a great chance that there are some definite differences in cleaning instincts between this pair. I'd also expect that there is a great chance of some degree of exaggeration in the poster's description of the problem.
posted by DarkForest at 9:29 AM on September 10, 2007

I had a similar experience as your boyfriend at one point when I thought that I had bedbugs (which thankfully was either inaccurate or small enough that the measures I took were sufficient) and had a hard time dealing with it. I'm generally a smart, capable guy, but in this case I just couldn't react logically to the situation. Thankfully I had a friend who helped me a ton to deal with it. The biggest problem for me was the notion that all of this effort seemed absolutely futile and so many stories on the internet talk about how impossible it is to get rid of them without getting rid of all your stuff. And then the more I wasn't able to handle it well, the more I felt guilty for the way I was acting, exacerbating the situation more. It sounds stupid, but it's a mindset that can be hard to escape from once you get into it. The things that my friend did to help were: 1) To convince me that the situation was indeed tractable and the bugs could go away. 2) To remind me that it wasn't one big thing to do, but a bunch of small things that together add up to making progress. 3) She convinced me to let her help with the cleaning/isolating, which quickly convinced me that it was possible to make the right steps. 4) She helped me come to the conclusion that getting bug infestations is just something that happens and then you fix it. There's no inherent shame or guilt to go along with it. 5) I was reminded that I wasn't just doing this for me, but also for the people who lived around me and who might visit and take home nasty things. Paralysis by guilt is one thing when it only affects me, but I certainly wouldn't want to screw over other people by my inaction. Probably the two most important things were getting over the shame and realizing that the situation could, in fact, be resolved by proper action. Best of luck!
posted by Schismatic at 9:33 AM on September 10, 2007 [2 favorites]

Also, buy a Roomba for all flat surfaces.
posted by 29 at 9:36 AM on September 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

I also agree with a lot of what's above me.

What if you just took charge of getting the initial big clean done, defending against his objections with some speech about you're not doing it for him, but for yourself? You're unhappy with the situation, and you're going to fix it. If he doesn't like that, then the next step is to simply not go to his place until the situation rectifies itself. You need to take care of you first.

Once the big clean is done, it's going to be a lot easier to keep it that way. Work with him to keep it in an acceptable situation. Even if it ends up with you being completely "in charge" of keeping the roaches at bay - relationships are give and take. For example - you're in charge of the roaches, he's in charge of taking out the garbage and lawn work. ie - sharing of the responsibilities, but you do what matters most to you (and you're better at), and he does the stuff he's better at and the stuff that matters most to him. Obviously, this is harder when you're not living together (and therefore have 2 places to maintain), but see if you can come up with a compromise - if you deal with the roaches at his place, he dusts and vacuums your place.
posted by cgg at 9:36 AM on September 10, 2007

He's let the situation slide for so long that it will actually be impossible for him, or any other ordinary civilian, to effectively clean the mess. So he doesn't start on the job, and it continues to get worse in an ever-tighter spiral down the Vortex of Despair.

There are cleaning services that specialize in this kind of job. I know; I hired one. No insects, but a depressing layer of grime in the food cabinets and on the floor. Ecch, how did I stand it? Anyway, if you want to keep coming over to his place, you might have to be the one who makes the arrangements.

"I" statements are your friend here. "I love to come over to your place and spend time here with you. But I am very uncomfortable sleeping where roaches are crawling on me. I also do not like eating food served in a kitchen where roaches have shit on every surface. Therefore, I am going to get a heavy-duty professional cleaning service to come in, followed by an exterminator. Once it's clean, we will figure out how to maintain it together." If he insists that he can't let you do that for him, then ask "Can you get it scheduled, by X date?" If not, then, "I'm sorry, I can't come over until it's cleaner here."

If he objects to outsourcing cleaning, either once or on an ongoing basis, perhaps you can appeal to rationality. He's a professional, hired for his expertise. We all (hopefully) brush and floss ourselves, but we go to a professional for cleanings as well. (Pick examples that apply to him.) Heinlein notwithstanding, specialization is a fact of modern life. As long as you pay well and treat your housecleaner with the same respect you'd give your dentist, contractor, whatever, there is absolutely nothing wrong with hiring someone to clean.

On a more philosophical note, shame is poisonous, both to him and to his relationships. If the roaches don't drive you away, eventually the shame will.
posted by expialidocious at 9:39 AM on September 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

I go beyond "harsh measures," I for the the nuclear option:

Assisting him in getting rid of the problem in any way would be dead wrong, and that includes all the suggestions above that you go ahead and call the exterminator or hire a maid, and it includes just having him come to your place instead of you going to his. If you do any of those things, you then become an enabler, and he'll be no closer to solve this problem.

You need to realize that despite reasonable and sufficient pleas, suggestions and requests on your part, he is simply not facing the problem even a little bit ("I don't know where they're coming from"). He just doesn't mind living with roaches, obviously. And the problem is getting worse, not better.

You don't have to do anything else, you've done what you should have done. Now you need to say, very plainly, that this relationship is over, and it's because of the roaches, and because you simply can't see yourself continuing in either a long-term or short-term relationship with anyone who won't deal with a roach problem. No waffling. No "...but you can come over to my place." It's over, period.

There's a two percent chance this will prod him out of his inaction, and if so, you can then decide if whatever he does to reform is acceptable. But don't count on it, because the overwhelming likelihood is that he will not deal with it. In which case, good riddance.
posted by beagle at 9:40 AM on September 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

Do not clean for him. Do not go over until the roaches are gone. You don't need to make it an ultimatum, just don't visit, he'll know why when you give him the number of a cleaning service, and ask incessantly if he called and when they are coming. But don't call for him. Don't worry about nagging him about it, he already thinks about it all of the time.

You don't want him to associate "cleaning up" with the level of clean up required right now. That's why you should get a professional involved. Teach him to clean his apartment from a more neutral position. Otherwise, he'll think it's this horrible awful task.

Yes, there is an element of shame involved but it also there is laziness involved as well. Scrubbing is less pleasant than rearranging tech stuff. Unpleasant stuff has to get done. He can learn this.

The part I worry about is that at the end of all that cleaning the "See, and now there are no more roaches!" part will probably not happen. So, he won't be rewarded for his efforts. Or, if you clean you won't prove your point. You've got an infestation on your hands. Cleaning is only the first step, but then you need to get the landlord involved in hiring an exterminator. It's going to cost money.
posted by Eringatang at 9:41 AM on September 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

1. Enlist your boyfriend in helping you to clean your apartment. Ask for his help, get him involved, give him tasks to do and be his partner in the effort. This is a prelude activity, a sort of toe in the water experience.

2. Hire a cleaner on Craigslist who will be willing to help teach your boyfriend how to clean. Screen the person in advance and set their expectations. Get them on board with having discretion and a non-judgemental attitude in front of your boyfriend.

3. Pick a weekend when neither of you have any plans. Clear the calendar if you have to. Go to Target and load up on cleaning supplies. Buy durable things that he'll be able to use for a long time to come. Get a backstock of cleansers, paper towels, rags and sponges.

4. On Saturday morning, have the cleaning person give you both a tutorial on how to clean each room properly. Be a student along with your boyfriend so he doesn't feel like an idiot. Ask questions.

5. Once you've both grasped the plan for each room, start cleaning along with the professional. Three people cleaning the kitchen together will feel surmountable.

6. Put some really great music on, loud. Make the experience as much fun as you can. My boyfriend and I generally have a clean house but contend with a lot of pet hair and dusting. When we get the blues about having to vacuum the floor for the nth time in any given week, we crank up a fun CD (Elton John's Greatest Hits!) and rock out together while getting the job done. We're also known to have some beer or mix a drink for mini-breaks. Having a little something to look forward to after finishing each big task can be a big motivator.

7. You will likely get the apartment clean in one day. On Sunday, go to Target again with your boyfriend and buy a crapload of food storage containers, saran wrap, zip-lock bags. Why not treat him to a dust buster hand vacuum?

8. On Monday, call a plumber and an exterminator. Roaches can sometimes get worse when certain weird plumbing situations occur. Rule this out or fix it, then have the exterminator come in and get things taken care of.

9. Once that's done, make a point of going over to his house, cooking meals together and sharing in the clean-up. Once he sees the behavior modeled for him a few times, it'll feel natural to him to put food away and clean properly.

As far as dealing with his attitude and feelings on the matter, be frank. You want to be with him and you want to have good times at his apartment. Roaches and other vermin can happen to anyone and it's very easy to get overwhelmed by the situation. Tell him how much you care about him and sell him on the idea that the roach problem can be dealt with in a weekend. Stay on it until he gives in.

If he won't crack, it might be time for an intervention-style approach. Therapy and support from other friends and family members could go a long ways. There's an aspect of his behavior and denial that suggests depression. If you think he's likely to go back to cohabitating with roaches after The Big Clean, I suggest you help him find a professional to talk to. The issue might be much deeper than you think.
posted by cior at 9:57 AM on September 10, 2007 [2 favorites]

To me this sounds like a WAAAAY bigger problem than "he just can't/doesn't know how to clean". Show him this: Squalor Survivors.
posted by tristeza at 10:08 AM on September 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

He doesn't know HOW to clean, like how to perform the individual steps, and may also have enough ADD to make it even worse. The hyperfocus on tiny useless tasks is the tip-off there; my husband makes himself lists of specific tasks to perform because it keeps him from combing the grass or shining the nails the pictures hang from., for all the groaning purple homeschool mommy-goddess twee that you just have to ignore, has a great deal of specific detailed information on how to get started and keep going, and there's complete acceptance and understanding there that you may be totally overwhelmed and things might be really really bad and hey, that happens to people all the time and that's cool, you can still get a handle on it.

Ultimately he's got to learn it and do it and stop the magical thinking, and nobody can make that happen but him, but that doesn't mean he can't use some help getting the necessary information.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:14 AM on September 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

Bah. You can't control anyone's behaviour but your own. If he won't do the obvious then don't go there anymore and tell him exactly why. It's kind of his business to take care of, isn't it?
posted by loiseau at 10:15 AM on September 10, 2007

He might be overwhelmed in many places and the roaches are just "too much" when compared to everything else. See if you can help him in the other areas so that he has less on his plate.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:17 AM on September 10, 2007

I was going to comment along the lines of tristeza. Is this maybe an issue with hoarding/squalor more than just lazy? Living in filth but having an otherwise put-together life sounds like mental illness to some degree. Good luck.
posted by kellyblah at 10:20 AM on September 10, 2007

This doesn't sound like a normal messy boyfriend. This is called squalor or compulsive hoarding, and it is a mental disorder.

Does this sound like your bf? Along with difficulties in throwing things away, compulsive hoarders have severe difficulties making decisions, perfectionism, and avoiding tasks. People with compulsive hoarding syndrome do not like to make mistakes. To prevent making a mistake, they will avoid or postpone making decisions. Even the smallest task, such as washing dishes or checking mail may take a long time because it has to be done "right." The net result of these high standards and the fear of making a mistake is that compulsive hoarders avoid doing many tasks, because everything becomes tedious and overwhelming.

The mess is not the issue, and whatever you do, do NOT clean his house or have it cleaned without his consent! The problem must be fixed in his head before it can be fixed in his apartment.

Good luck to you.

on preview, what tristeza said
posted by happyturtle at 10:22 AM on September 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

tristeza and happy turtle are right - it's the first thing I thought when I read that post, and that italicized line I quoted.
posted by canine epigram at 10:32 AM on September 10, 2007

Seconding not going over, and telling him why. That's the only solution, if there is one at all.

Ask yourself if you want to have a lifetime of these sorts of differences over cleaning.

Don't try to force a solution on him. That'll backfire in the end.

Finally, I think the world is just too full of people trying to "help their SO get over their shame" when they're really just trying to get their SO to do what they want.
posted by DarkForest at 10:33 AM on September 10, 2007

All due respect, DarkForest, but there seems to be an overwhelming consensus here that on balance, the poster's boyfriend seems to have a problem, and the problem isn't a pesky girlfriend.

This thread is full of great ideas. Only you know your boyfriend well enough to know what would work, but I really like the idea of getting in a cleaning person with whom you would both work. Also, I know it's hard to talk about this, but you need to try to get him to talk about it so that you can help him. People go through similar stuff all the time, trying to help SO's sort out money problems and other stuff, so it's not like this is unmapped territory. This kind of thing can happen to everyone - just for some people it's a money mess. For your SO it seems to be a literal mess.
posted by Medieval Maven at 10:54 AM on September 10, 2007

I agree with the compulsive hoarding/squalor suggestion. It sounds like his issue goes way beyond laziness. He needs a service that specializes in extraordinary messes. Another website to check out is Disaster Masters. I don't think "he just needs to do it" is good advice here. He sounds paralyzed by the problem, and outside help is probably needed.
posted by Mavri at 10:56 AM on September 10, 2007

MM, I think you misread DarkForest, as that's not what he's saying.

Unfortunately, it does sound like she's already tried to talk to him repeatedly:

The roach problem has been getting slowly, steadily worse for a long time. I feel like every attempt to discuss it rationally touches some strong sensitivity in him that so far I can't get past or understand.
posted by canine epigram at 10:57 AM on September 10, 2007

I could have written a very similar post myself; OP, if you email me at my username at gmail, I'd be glad to talk about what I learned while trying to help a loved partner who had similar challenges.

Also, happy turtle and tristeza, as others have noted, make very good points.
posted by bloggerwench at 10:57 AM on September 10, 2007

overwhelming consensus

well, I note that most of the responders here are women, and self-selected at that, so I think a balance of viewpoint might be useful.

As usual in these sorts of threads, I would love love love to hear what the other party has to say. Things might look vastly different.

I also see no evidence at all of hoarding in the poster's question. I do think that a minor form of mental misfunction might be at work here. But without more objective information from some third party, it's hard to say where it exactly resides. I do know that it can be hard to eradicate roaches in some parts of the country.
posted by DarkForest at 11:12 AM on September 10, 2007

This is way beyond not knowing how to clean. It's straight up disrespectful! I would NOT be ok with sleeping in a second bedroom at my boyfriends house because the alternative is being with him and his 5,000 bug friends. And I would certainly not be ok with the fact that this is acceptable to him. Especially if the defense is "I'm sensitive." My response would be something along the lines of "yeah, well I'm sensitive about sleeping in cockroach shit, cohorting with vile houseguests, sharing the countertop bug buffet, and being a human breeding ground for eggs." But that's just me. Call me insensitive! I would rather visit a clean cardboard box in Compton, 180 miles from my job, than live in a roach hatchery. He obviously feels differently.

And what is going on in his mind when he wakes up in the middle of the night, knows that you're not next to him, knows why, and yet still doesn't do ANYTHING about it. How long has this gone on?

It's not a matter of you being sensitive in your approach. I think sleeping in another bedroom is a pretty clear sign! You might as well be sleeping in your own apartment. Why would this subtle difference be enough to motivate him to clean up? Frankly, it sounds like he takes better care of his tech equipment than the basic human needs of the wonderful woman who loves him. You've been sleeping in a horror movie just to be with him! Why oh why is he making you live like this?!?!

If I was dating somebody and there was this disgusting thing (I can't even THINK of anything worse than cockroach infestation?) that was preventing us from being together, you can bet all holy hell and high water I'd figure out how to get rid of that shit, right QUICK!

I'm sorry if any of this sounds snarky. I am just completely FLOORED. And I think you deserve a medal because you are a fucking CHAMP.

As to what to do...look at this situation as a good example about how he approaches problems in life, and solves them. Is this the kind of partner you can rely on? There are things worse than bugs out there.
posted by iamkimiam at 12:05 PM on September 10, 2007 [3 favorites]

I think you have two options:

1. Hire a cleaner.

2. Get a new boyfriend without a roach problem.

I sympathize with your boyfriend, because I also have a tendency to ignore minor problems that grow and grow and grow until they reach the point where I am completely incapable with dealing with them. Some people are very bad at tackling the everyday annoyances of life (dishes, paying bills, etc.). Your boyfriend, despite all of his fine qualities, may be one of these people. If he's in a financial situation where it is feasible to hire someone to take care of those annoyances (cleaning, in this case), for heaven's sake, do so!
posted by emd3737 at 12:11 PM on September 10, 2007

My places have never gotten that bad, but I identify with your boy, so here's some insight from the other side and some suggestions:

Right now, it's absolutely overwhelming for him. He is ashamed of it and doesn't know what to do and the problem just keeps getting bigger and he doesn't know where or how to start. Giving him an ultimatum could help him get his butt in gear, or it could just magnify that shame and despair even more, and then he'll stop letting anyone come over.

Emphasize this when talking to him: This person is extremely capable, responsible and mature. He holds down a demanding tech job, accomplishes cool things outside his job, and is a stellar partner for me in human terms (not to mention in bed).

Things you've mentioned that he can do:
scrubbing the kitchen countertops
sealing up the food sources
cleaning the surface of countertops and appliances
clean out the fridge
washing the dishes

Each of these things is more approachable than "clean your apartment." If he knew how to approach that problem, he would. It needs to be scaled down to something he's not afraid of.

So. Since he's vetoing the cleaning services, help him break it up into short tasks (10-20 minutes). Keep this list very simple, or it will overwhelm him. Get specific. Assume he doesn't know the basic steps. For example:
- fridge: pick a shelf and throw out all the bad food and wipe the shelf with disinfectant
- wash one load of dishes
- cupboard: wash a shelf with disinfectant, throw out bad food, clean or discard food containers that are leaking
- buy pack of glass jars, fill them with [pasta/rice/flour/whatever]
- clean the shower: scrub the tiles, scrub the tub, wipe down the shower curtain
- clean the crumbs out of the toaster
- take out the garbage/recycling

Make a deal to spend 20 minutes on it together every time you come over. Set a timer. Limit it to 20 minutes. It's short enough that he won't get bogged down and long enough that he'll think "Wow, I'm already done Task X! I think I could do Task Y too before the timer goes off!" He'll be surprised what he can accomplish. Is he a list person? Make a list on the wall that he can check off at the end of the 20 minutes. Consider matching contributions: for every task he does, you'll do one too. Don't criticize the way he cleans. Save that for later when he's built confidence, and then present it as a fun tip (life hacks!), not a criticism. Emphasize that he doesn't need to tackle it all at once, but that he needs to do it and that you'll be his partner on the project.

Short manageable tasks with obvious results and steady but positive pressure to keep with it. "Today we're doing Task X, and the other tasks can wait until next time" will show a lot more results than "Do everything now or else!" As a bonus, maybe when he's half-way through the list he'll feel okay about his place and won't mind showing it to professional cleaners.
posted by heatherann at 12:19 PM on September 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

well, I note that most of the responders here are women, and self-selected at that, so I think a balance of viewpoint might be useful.

I'm a guy, and I think your interpretation of the OP is... how shall I put this... misguided.
posted by mkultra at 12:21 PM on September 10, 2007

I think your interpretation of the OP is... how shall I put this... misguided.

Perhaps, but I doubt we'll ever get enough information to know. I've been on both sides of this sort of thing and I know how the rhetoric can fly.

every surface of every countertop and appliance is decorated in layers of roach shit

Are we supposed to think this is literally true? If so, then I agree with every other responder here. I for one think this is likely an extreme (shall I say 'gross'?) exaggeration. If it's true, then why would the OP even set foot in such a place or look twice at a guy who lived like that?
posted by DarkForest at 12:36 PM on September 10, 2007

He may be overwhelmed by what he feels is now an overwhelmingly too large task. So make it so he doesn't have to tackle them, and make the stakes very high, as you have. You're not coming over until the place is clean and bug-free. He doesn't have to do the cleaning or extermination. Cleaning Agency X and Exterminator Y will make his house "normal" again.

His only concern, you can emphasize, is maintenance: not letting it get that way again.

Both you and he might like Clean Like a Man: Housekeeping for Men (and the Women Who Love Them). It's a good book.

Finally, as one other person pointed out, this may be due to a disorder. Not saying that by any means it is — just that it wouldn't hurt to keep that in the far reaches of the back of your mind.
posted by WCityMike at 12:49 PM on September 10, 2007

There's a difference between being messy and being dirty.

Your boyfriend's prized gadgets and collections may have some structure and organization, and therefore not be messy, but he may literally not understand how that is a totally separate thing from his apartment not being dirty. And so the dirty has now morphed into the disgustingly filthy, because he somehow can't "see" that axis of cleanliness, so to speak.

But that's an explanation, not an excuse.

I think you really only have two options here:

1) Hire a specialized cleaning service to do an all-day clean on a Saturday. Do NOT ask him if this is okay, do NOT listen to his same sheepish whine of shame that he doesn't want to put someone through this. The time for his bullshit is over. Eight hours later, he will have a lovely, clean apartment, one in which you can celebrate by having hot monkey-sex in his own actual bedroom instead of the spare room, or on the nice and clean kitchen counters should you so desire it. Then, you can train him -- yes, the word here is train -- to put away open food containers every time to make sure it never gets that bad again.


2) Dump him. This situation sounds absolutely revolting, and I don't just mean the actual filth, but also his unwillingness to prevent his own girlfriend (whom he presumably loves!) from being crawled on by roaches in her sleep. You do not need to keep enabling his whining, his denial, his bad habits, and yes, his sickness.

Either way, this situation will change and must change. Hire the crew, or leave him cold turkey until he hires the crew. That's it.
posted by Asparagirl at 12:58 PM on September 10, 2007

Are we supposed to think this is literally true?

No, but you have to read what is probably a bit of hyperbole in the context of what is objectively happening:

As another example, when I'm there and we see the bugs around us (they have at least some presence in every room), he acknowledges them and seems really upset about them, but doesn't want to talk about practical solutions, or says something counterintuitive like "I don't know where they're coming from!" (this while we're sitting 15 feet from a kitchen where every surface of every countertop and appliance is decorated in layers of roach shit).

The salient point is that the BF acknowledges the problem. Let go of the idea that the problem is with her.
posted by mkultra at 12:58 PM on September 10, 2007

His tolerance of roaches and roach shit signals a much graver problem than roaches. This shows the man is not capable of recognizing an emergency, or acting on it; this shows that he doesn't have the empathy to recognize that a roach-teeming apartment is massively disgusting and unhealthy to his loved ones; he doesn't care enough for you to attack the problem with vigor. He seems incapable of acting decisively in emergencies, and therefore, he is a bad prospect for commitment or life partnership. Do you really want to be with someone that you can't count on in a crisis? That's what you've got in this guy. Seriously, it doesn't matter that he is good in bed or a delightful companion; there's something pathological in his mind --- anyone who would focus on organizing tech gadgets but not attend to the layers of roach shit is not someone you want to be with. I am not sure what his illness is, but clearly he is ill and you need to DTMFA. I don't think you'll be able to change him.
posted by jayder at 1:01 PM on September 10, 2007

Is he renting? What is he going to do if the landlord decides to inspect? Have you brought this situation up?
posted by schroedinger at 1:35 PM on September 10, 2007

I can't believe no one has suggested this, but here goes:

A session or two with a therapist could help him figure out exactly why he's not cleaning, and what to do about it. If he's just not able to get to the cleaning, maybe he'll be willing to talk to someone to systematically analyze the problem -- and that's a solid first step. He could do it alone or with you there (he may prefer alone). You need to know more about the problem before solving it; here's how to do that.

Forcing him, hiring a cleaning service without his consent, giving ultimatums -- none of these is going to work in the long term, and probably not in the short term either.

I do have one practical suggestion that you might consider when the time for practical arrives: finding all the little holes where the bugs can get into the place (around pipes, etc.), and filling them with something like "Great Stuff" hardening foam. This may make the problem feel more solvable, especially if he's a systematic thinker. i.e., he's not fighting a never-ending battle, but is actually able to prevent more roaches from getting in once these are killed.

Another approach would be to move, but clean everything as it's packed, don't leave boxes in the house for more than a few minutes, clean again when unpacking, and don't take any plush furniture or mattresses with him. A fresh start. And be sure to block all the holes in the new place before moving in.
posted by amtho at 1:35 PM on September 10, 2007

I'm going to preface this by saying that I clean houses for a living. I agree with the posts that say hire a professional to do the initial scrub, BUT you need to be up-front with these places on the phone when you call for an estimate. If you're not, you're facing a possible walkout when they find out what's in store, which would be embarrassing for everyone. Also, please, for god's sake, TIP, or better yet, tell the boyfriend to tip.

An exterminator will need to be called, and just having them in once isn't going to fix it at this level of problem. They'll need to come back multiple times. Roaches do get inside electronics--I had to trash a vacuum owned by an ex-boyfriend once for that very reason. It ain't good for the electronics--you might want to remind him of that.

After the armageddon cleanup, he needs to clean on a schedule. If he spends five minutes on the dishes every night, it won't be an issue. Ditto on vacuuming once a week.

As for repackaging his food in sealed containers, go hit IKEA or the Container Store or something and spend an afternoon putting food away--that's something a cleaner isn't going to want to mess with, most likely. They specialize in cleaning, not organizing. Get a sealed garbage container while you're at it.
posted by tejolote at 3:01 PM on September 10, 2007

If he's living in an apartment building, his own habits may be only part of the problem. Roaches often nest in places where they can find warmth and adequate water, often from minor roof or plumbing leaks, and then travel to find food. Once a nest in a multi-unit building becomes large enough, the problem is difficult to contain to a single unit. His neighbors may be supplying enough food to the colonies that, no matter how "clean" his place is made, you'd still have an apparent roach problem in his unit, due to adult roaches continuing to scrounge for food. Although there is nothing wrong with cleaning and maintaining ones living quarters, to really control a long term roach problem, you have to kill the nests.

Boric acid powder is the most effective way of dealing with most species of roaches in the long term. Only very small amounts of roach powder are needed, and heavy applications are actually counterproductive, as roaches need to be able to walk through the powder to pick it up, for it to be effective. A $5 can of roach powder is enough to treat most apartments, and is safe to handle with your bare hands and no respirator. You just sprinkle a very thin layer of the stuff around the back of stoves, refrigerator, under cabinets (particularly where plumbing stubs through), around closet floors and baseboards and leave it undisturbed. The roaches carry it to their nest, and over several weeks, the problem comes under control. The bodies of adults dying in the nest actually poison juvenile roaches that feed upon them eventually, wiping out the nests. You may actually notice that roaches are getting "smaller" in a couple of weeks, as you see more juveniles and fewer adults, and as larger species, with longer development life cycles give way to German cockroaches, or other faster lifecycled species.

It's a process that will take 6 to 8 weeks in many instances to be fully effective, simply because of the way boric acid treatments work. No instant spray method will be as effective in the long term, although you may see more dead adults with contact spray poisons. But the fact you see dead adults means that the poison that has killed them hasn't been carried back to the nest, where it can kill juveniles. If you're looking for effective long term control, recognize it will take time to accomplish, as you must kill not only visible adults, but the juveniles that will subsequently hatch from already laid eggs. You need products that are pervasive and accumulative in the nests, over a period of 2 to 3 months, for this to be effective.
posted by paulsc at 3:03 PM on September 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm thirding the position that living in a large multi-unit apartment building is often more the issue than the filthiness of your boyfriends individual unit. However, who cares. Your boyfriend is a disgusting slob right now, and he needs to develop good habits right now (and again if you marry, and again if you have kids). Maybe telling him about the health issues caused by roaches would help.

Cockroaches – The feces and body parts of cockroaches are allergens and the main triggers of allergic rhinitis and asthma. Cockroach allergens likely play a significant role in causing asthma. Studies have shown that the majority of asthmatics living in urban areas test positive for allergy to cockroaches.
posted by BrotherCaine at 5:30 PM on September 10, 2007

(I gave up reading the thread a long way up, so I might repeat some points)

I am very, very thankful that I live far enough north that cockroaches aren't a problem, because I'm similar to your boyfriend. I wouldn't call myself a slob as such -- I quite appreciate cleanliness in all its forms -- but I am lazy as all get-out. Still, even I can tell when it's just too disgusting, and take appropriate action.

I think the best scenario for the two of you is for you to just go in and clean and clean and clean, despite his protests, until he feels guilty enough to help you. If you end up doing the whole thing alone, dump his ass. Permanently.

The best option for you, though, is to skip straight to step 2. Remember to tell him why.

All that said -- could it be that one or both of you is from an area where cockroaches are not at all common? I mean, could it be that you are overreacting to a perfectly run-of-the-mill roach problem, or that he simply has no idea how to prevent it since it's never been an issue? Or both?
posted by Reggie Digest at 7:51 PM on September 10, 2007

I think the issue is that: (a) he knows it's disgusting you and (b) not fixing it. Not knowing how is beside the point. He's a tech guy. Presumably he knows how to do a Google search. Even a failed attempt at some remedy would be a sign in the right direction.

I'm pretty lazy, too, but I tend to get motivated by things that may cost me something big (like the woman I love). Odd, isn't it, that he is not?
posted by ctmf at 9:00 PM on September 10, 2007

The roach problem has been getting slowly, steadily worse for a long time. I feel like every attempt to discuss it rationally touches some strong sensitivity in him that so far I can't get past or understand.

Maybe he owes a karmic debt to the roaches and for inexplicable reasons must feed them in this lifetime. ;)
(just lightening the tone)
posted by salvia at 10:31 PM on September 10, 2007

Amtho and heatherann have it. A few therapy sessions to overcome the mental impasse, then a schedule of short blocks, are the winning recipe here.

He sees the whole problem as intractable because it's gotten overwhelmingly bad. He doesn't see the point to carrying away small stones, because in his mind, the mountain will heal before he makes another trip.

He's right, of course. Cleaning the counter will just give the roaches a clean place to walk. So even if he knows the counter needs cleaning, the distaste of the work plus the futility of the result combine to keep him from bothering.

While the roaches will still walk on (and shit on) a clean counter, they won't find food on it, and there's the important bit. He needs to understand how getting on the cleaning treadmill will allow him to catch up to the roaches, earn your respect, and feel good about himself. Heatherann's 20-minute blocks sound perfect. Does he have a watch? Set an alarm for the same time each day, and when it goes off, pick an item from the list and spend 20 minutes on it.

The list is important, too. I'm unable to keep a to-do list in my head, despite a functional (perhaps overactive) memory for other types of information. I alternate between "omg omg, so much to do, and no time to do it!" and "yawn, bored, what to do? hm, nothing to do, I'll go back to sleep then". The two moods seem unaware of each other, so I started keeping a textfile on my desktop as a mediator.

Let me re-emphasize that point: Even when I know I should be doing something, I'm unable to name a task off the top of my head. I can literally be standing in the kitchen, with the dishwasher's "clean" light glowing, and I won't realize I should put the dishes away unless I read it off a list. I don't know why this is. Other times, I can add items to the list like a kid writing to Santa. The trick is to break them down into simple steps, so "clean kitchen counters" becomes "move spoiled fruit into compost can", "take out compost", "wash pots and pans", "put away groceries", and finally "wipe down counter". If he's anything like me, simply having a task tree to refer to when the do-stuff alarm sounds will be a tremendous help.

Good luck. While I've never had trouble with roaches, everything else about the question rings true. With a supportive and respectful motivator by his side, he should be able crawl out of this mental pit.
posted by Myself at 1:09 AM on September 13, 2007

God, jayder.
posted by WCityMike at 8:12 AM on September 13, 2007

If they're little they're IN EVERYTHING!! (Especially electrical shit!!)

This is no longer a case of clean the kitchen and it will all be ok.

Fuck me!! Where to start if he doesn't want to wake up before he catches leporosy or the fucking plague, then fuck him off that should be obvious. He'll be able to get over his ...pride? once there aren't tonnes of roaches stacked up in the way! I promise!

(Even the most foul people (I can imagine the hell you speak of clearly and with intricate detail) that I've met are encouraged once you - encourage them. The fact that he's stopped you on numerous occasions is really alarming, Hun. And possibly because it is a sign of something mental, and if you take it all away gently with a soothing non-judgemental of the roaches attitude THEY LET YOU TAKE THE FUCKING ROACHES!!) Never to be seen or mentioned again :)
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 11:47 PM on October 19, 2007

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